February 22, 2017
A recently discovered anonymous novel is attributed to Walt Whitman
by Ryan Harrington
We know the great Walt Whitman as a poet, diarist, Brooklyn-liver and amateur bare-knuckle boxer. But we don’t always think of him as having been a novelist. Indeed, he didn’t think of himself much in those terms, saying, in 1882, of his own early novelistic attempts “My serious wish, were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion.”
Now, according to Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times, an entirely unknown Whitman novel has emerged from the archives. The novel, the Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, was published anonymously as a serial in 1852. It details the adventures of an orphan trying to get by in a wicked New York City, run by greed and corruption. An advertisement for the serial comes to this sort of tepid conclusion: “read it and you will find some familiar cases and characters, with explanations necessary to properly understand what it is all about.”
Ed Folsom, the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, is a bit bolder, saying that to read the lost novel is “like seeing the workshop of a great writer.” Schuessler says:
And then there’s Chapter 19, which Mr. Folsom called “a magical moment.” Here, Jack enters the cemetery at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, and the madcap plot grinds to a halt in favor of reveries about nature, immortality and the oneness of being that strikingly echo the imagery of Whitman’s great work.
“Long, rank grass covered my face,” says Jack, the first-person narrator. “Over me was the verdure, touched with brown, of trees nourished from the decay of the bodies of men.”
The manuscript was discovered by Zachary Turpin (who, good on him, also discovered the “Manly Health and Training” self-help project in which Whitman talks about the health benefits of bare-knuckle boxing). Turpin entered some seemingly random keywords from Whitman’s notebooks looking for their connection to the author’s oeuvre, and discovered the advertisement pictured with this post.
Another Whitman novel—The Sleeptalker––is known at least to have existed at some point, but has never been discovered. Here’s hoping for Turpin’s eventual triple crown.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.