Walt Whit­man novel, lost for 165 years, holds clues to Leaves of Grass

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - JEN­NIFER SCHUESSLER

Read­ers who picked up The New York Times on March 13, 1852, might have seen a small ad­ver­tise­ment on Page 3 for a se­rial tale set to be­gin the next day in a ri­val news­pa­per.

The story, which was never re­viewed or reprinted, ap­pears to have sunk like a stone.

But now comes an­other rich rev­e­la­tion: The anony­mously pub­lished tale was noth­ing less than a com­plete novel by Walt Whit­man.

The 36,000-word “Life and Ad­ven­tures of Jack En­gle,” which was dis­cov­ered last sum­mer by a grad­u­ate stu­dent, was be­ing re­pub­lished on­line Mon­day by The Walt Whit­man Quar­terly Re­view and in book form by the Univer­sity of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dick­en­sian tale of an or­phan’s ad­ven­tures, it fea­tures a vil­lain­ous lawyer, vir­tu­ous Quak­ers, glad-hand­ing politi­cians, a sul­try Span­ish dancer and more than a few un­likely plot twists and jar­ring nar­ra­tive shifts.

“This is Whit­man’s take on the city mys­tery novel, a pop­u­lar genre of the day that pit­ted the ‘up­per 10 thou­sand’ — what we would call the 1 per cent — against the lower mil­lion,” said David S. Reynolds, a Whit­man ex­pert at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Univer­sity of New York.

But it also, Reynolds and other schol­ars who have seen it say, of­fers clues to an­other mys­tery: how a worka­day jour­nal­ist and mostly con­ven­tional poet trans­formed him­self into the au­thor of the sen­su­ous, philo­soph­i­cal, wildly ex­per­i­men­tal and al­to­gether un­clas­si­fi­able free verse of “Leaves of Grass.”

That trans­for­ma­tion was one that Whit­man him­self wished to ob­scure.

That doesn’t faze Zachary Turpin, the grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton who found “Jack En­gle.”

Turpin called it “rol­lick­ing, in­ter­est­ing, beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful and bizarre,” with an­tic twists, goofy names and sud­denly re­vealed con­spir­a­cies that re­call “a pre-mod­ern Thomas Pyn­chon” or even, he ven­tured, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

This may sound a long way from “Leaves of Grass.” But Jack En­gle and the other raff­ish young male char­ac­ters, Reynolds said, are rem­i­nis­cent of the man-of-the-streets per­sona he cre­ated with “Leaves of Grass.”

And then there’s Chap­ter 19, which Ed Fol­som, ed­i­tor of The Walt Whit­man Quar­terly Re­view called “a mag­i­cal mo­ment.” Here, Jack en­ters the ceme­tery at Trin­ity Church in Lower Man­hat­tan, and the mad­cap plot grinds to a halt in favour of rever­ies about na­ture, im­mor­tal­ity and the one­ness of be­ing that strik­ingly echo the im­agery of Whit­man’s great work.

A se­rial story ap­pear­ing in the New York Times in the 1850s has re­cently been at­trib­uted to Walt Whit­man.


Grad­u­ate stu­dent Zachary Turpin dis­cov­ered “Life and Ad­ven­tures of Jack En­gle,” pub­lished anony­mously.

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