A grad student at the University of Houston has found a previously undiscovered work of short fiction by Walt Whitman.
The grad student, Zachary Turpin, was scouring an online database of 19th century newspapers looking for unique names found in other Whitman works. It was then that Turpin unearthed the 36,000-word, six-part novella published anonymously in a New York newspaper in 1852. The rambling full title, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; In Which The Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters, and the subtitle, A Story of New York at the Present Time, are distinct to Whitman and the literary time period.
The short work of fiction was published just three years before Whitman’s groundbreaking work Leaves of Grass, and therefore sets Jack Engle as something of a precursor. Before the discovery, it was widely considered that Whitman spend the majority of the early 1850s solely working on Leaves of Grass and publishing little else.
In an interview with NPR, Turpin said Jack Engle and Leaves of Grass are like “apples and oranges,” with some similarities but also distinct differences. “Chases across New York and romances and scheming, mustache-twisting villains are not the stuff of Leaves of Grass,” said Turpin, “but these are the stuff of Whitman’s long and storied fiction career, and career as a journalist.” When asked what he thought of the short book, Turpin said he found it phenomenal: “It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s beautiful and hilarious, and turns on a dime in ways that are both great and terrible.”
In the excerpt below, the narrator contemplates the “glorious privilege of youth” and the inevitable mortality that awaits even the most joyful young person. Per NPR, Turpin and other Whitman academics believe this passage to be indicative of the same themes and language that would form the basis of Leaves of Grass. It reads:
Truly, life is sweet to the young man.—Such bounding and swelling capacities for joy reside within him, and such ambitious yearnings. Health and unfettered spirits are his staff and mantle. He learns unthinkingly to love—that glorious privilege of youth! Out of the tiny fractions of his experience, he builds beautiful imaginings, and confidently looks for the future to realize them. And then he is so sure of those future years. …
Out there in the fashionable thoroughfare, how bustling was life, and how jauntily it wandered close along the side of those warnings of its inevitable end. How gay that throng along the walk! Light laughs come from them, and jolly talk — those groups of well-dressed young men — those merry boys returning from school — clerks going home from their labors — and many a form, too, of female grace and elegance.
Could it be that coffins, six feet below where I stood, enclosed the ashes of like young men, whose vestments, during life, had engrossed the same anxious care — and schoolboys and beautiful women; for they too were buried here, as well as the aged and infirm.
But onward rolled the broad, bright current, and troubled themselves not yet with gloomy thoughts; and that showed more philosophy in them perhaps than such sentimental meditations as any the reader has been perusing.
You can read the entire novella via the literary journal Walt Whitman Quarterly Review here. The University of Iowa Press plans to release it in book form.