Zachary Turpin, of the University of Houston, just rediscovered a novel by Walt Whitman that was long thought lost. The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle is a Dickensian novel set in the Victorian New York of mid-19th century.
By dint of detective work, Turpin matched character names in the anonymous novel—serialized in 1852 in the Sunday Dispatch, of Manhattan—with notes Whitman had jotted in his notebook.
There is a poignant, personal aspect to the book that has a corrupt lawyer as its central character. The writer’s own father had been swindled by a dishonest attorney.
But there are two other, perhaps more relevant aspects to the newly found discovery. One is the manners in which it will challenge the prevailing views on how Whitman’s literature evolved. In other words, the migration from prose to poetry, insufficiently known until today. While “rollicking,” the style is still hesitant, in a flux. Yet he wrote the book as he was working on his masterpiece, the epic poem Leaves of Grass. So it shows the literary genius as a fledgling creature.
Finally, what enhances the discovery is the timing. These are epochal times in America. It may be revelatory to read what the prophet in the making of American letters was seeing in the horizon for his homeland.