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A Grad Student Has Discovered a Long-Lost Walt Whitman Novel

The book was published under a pseudonym in the early 1850s and then forgotten for over a century.
February 21, 2017, 4:42pm
Scan from 'A Life of Walt Whitman' by Henry Bryan Binns via Wikicommons

A doctoral student at University of Houston has unearthed a long-lost novel by Walt Whitman that the poet published under a pseudonym in the early 1850s, the New York Times reports.

The grad student, Zachary Turpin, discovered a clue leading to the 36,000-word book when he came across an advertisement in a newspaper from 1852 that promoted the serialized novel. The book was called Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, and Turpin recognized the plot and character names from Whitman's other notes and scraps from the time period.

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Like a literary Indiana Jones or whoever Tom Hanks plays in Da Vinci Code, Turpin tracked down the newspaper that serialized the book, found a copy archived at the Library of Congress, and hit gold.

"Something about it just seemed right," Turpin said. "The name Jack Engle. The year. The newspaper [to which we know Whitman had contributed before]… I couldn't believe that, for a few minutes, I was the only person on Earth who knew about this book."

The novel is not a forgotten masterpiece, by any means—it's a corkscrewing, Dickensian story about an orphan in the big city that failed to make any kind of splash on first publication—but it gives fascinating insight into Whitman's evolution as a writer.

"It's like seeing the workshop of a great writer," Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, told the Times. "We're discovering the process of Whitman's own discovery."

Turpin found Life and Adventures of Jack Engle last summer, but it is now available to read for free online at the Whitman Quarterly Review site.