The Claustrophobic Paranoia of Walt Whitman’s Lost Novel

Via The New Yorker – Late one night last May, Zachary Turpin, a graduate student in the English department at the University of Houston, sat in bed next to his sleeping wife and daughter, hunting for lost works by Walt Whitman on his laptop. Turpin has spent untold hours poring over journals, letters, and other ephemera in the Walt Whitman Archive, noticing the poet’s distinctive phrases and cadences; that night, he was searching through old newspapers, hoping to find echoes of that prose. In an 1852 issue of the New York Daily Times (the newspaper dropped the word “daily” in 1857), he found a small advertisement for a novel that was to be serialized, anonymously, in another publication, the Sunday Dispatch. The novel was called “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.” Whitman had used the name Jack Engle in his journals. The ad’s grandiose copy also felt Whitmanian: it promised “an Auto-Biography, in which will be handled the Philosophy, Philanthropy, Pauperism, Law, Crime, Love, Matrimony, Morals, &c., which are characteristic of this great City at the present time.” Turpin wrote to the Library of Congress to request a scan of the newspaper in which the novel first appeared. “As it turns out, Jack Engle is the real thing,” he writes, in the introduction to the novel, which has just been republished by the University of Iowa Press. Whitman wrote the book while he was working as a contractor—he built houses—and writing “Leaves of Grass,” which he published in 1855. Only a single original copy has survived, in the six consecutive numbers of the Sunday Dispatch housed in the Library of Congress.

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