September 6, 2017
Walt Whitman’s new old stuff is good, but I liked his old new stuff way better
by Ryan Harrington
It is fall. The kids have gone back to school. MobyLives is back from hiatus. And some of the biggest authors in the world have books coming out — and are getting surprisingly critical reviews from the New York Times Book Review.
Two of those heavy-hitter authors are Mose Velsor and Anonymous. You haven’t heard of them, you say? That’s odd — because we’ve written about them here and here, respectively. Didn’t see them reviewed in the Times this weekend, you say? That’s because they sometimes go by the name Walt Whitman — archetypal Brooklyn poet and Melville House author.
The two lost Whitman projects—a novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, and the fitness guide, Manly Health and Training—came out in early 2017, and have just now received a joint review from Ted Genoways, who has written about Whitman and the Civil War, among other topics.
Both manuscripts, as we wrote in those earlier pieces, were uncovered through the clever online research of Zachary Turpin, an assistant professor of English at the University of Idaho.
The reality of the situation is that these specimens represent a young Whitman, and a Whitman setting his mind to a task very different from writing poetry for the ages à la Leaves of Grass. That is, they’re just not all that good. But as Genoways writes in his review:
This reality has led some to question whether these works should be published at all. James McWilliams, writing for The Paris Review, asked, “With American democracy under siege, do we need to scour the archives for more hidden Whitman, or should we instead figure out how to better read the Whitman we have — and teach others how to do the same?” But this is a false dichotomy. The electronic innovations that made Turpin’s discoveries possible have also given us stunning new ways of reading and sharing Whitman’s masterworks. The riveting web project Whitman, Alabama, for example, shows that Whitman’s poetry still sounds most authentic and moving when spoken by average people, some of whom may be encountering his work for the first time. WhitmanWeb, a joint project of the International Writing Program and the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Iowa, has shown the remarkable possibilities for teaching Whitman’s major works—most recently his Civil War writings—in a digital medium.
This celebration of the digital humanities is not quite as interesting as Genoways’s other point about the manuscripts Turpin has disovered: that they challenge a Romantic idea of artistic genius that looms large in the popular imagination. That is, these early works help us realize that artistic production is not just a comet across our sky. It involves practice and failure, as well as taking on more than just a few uninspired cash assignments — more a longer game, nights-and-weekends type of thing.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.