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Things to Know About Walt Whitman's Lost Novel

JishnuMohan

09 Aug, 2017

Every writer has what’s known as juvenilia—works created in their youth that they either disown or simply ignore once they find their footing as mature artists. Neil Gaiman wrote a biography of Duran Duran, Martin Amis wrote a book about video games—every author has to start somewhere.

Over time, those earlier works are usually forgotten, deeply buried under time, until they’re nothing more than footnotes. And when it comes to writers who have become icons of literary history, it’s easy to forget these men and women had lives before they wrote their famous works—lives that often required them to make a living, to practice their craft in public, and, in short, to publish works that weren’t quite as genius as their eventual achievements, and thus get lost and forgotten.

Of course, it’s easy to forget a work when it’s published anonymously in the first place, which is the case with the novella Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, published in The New York Sunday Dispatch in 1852 as a serial. The story came and went without so much as a single review, but a century and a half later a scholar discovered clues to the story’s author, and it turns out it was none other than Walt Whitman—yes, the same Walt Whitman known for Leaves of Grass, the evolving collection of poems, notably Song of Myself.

This discovery is surprising for several reasons, but chief among them is the apparent disconnect between the popular style and “twisty” nature of “Jack Engle” and the sensuous, alarming, and revolutionary poetry Whitman became famous for. Leaves of Grass was published after several years of silence from Whitman, and represented a dramatic shift from his earlier work. The discovery also proves that no matter how much attention you paid in school, literature can still surprise you—here are five things you should know about Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman’s notebooks have all been digitized and cataloged, and in 2016 a graduate student at the University of Houston named Zachary Turpin took some fragments found in Whitman’s notes, including several character names, and began researching them, knowing that there are many unidentified manuscripts sitting in archives all over the world (an increasing number of which are being identified and published in recent years). The names and phrases got a hit—an advertisement that appeared in The New York Times for “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.” Despite the fact that Whitman’s story notes were right there in his journals, it took more than 160 years years—and the advent of the Internet—to bring this book to light.