It’s not every day that a long lost, forgotten work of a celebrated author is discovered after being hidden in the archives of old newspapers. Recently, however, University of Houston doctoral candidate Zachary Turpin has made an incredible discovery.
A 36,000-word, anonymously published work of short fiction was published in 1852 for a New York newspaper. Titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; In Which The Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters, the newly discovered work was published in six parts and has now been attributed to American poet Walt Whitman.
The finding of this novella was published and announced on Feb. 20 when it was published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, with the University of Iowa Press releasing it in the form of a book.
The amazing discovery was made in 2015 when Turpin found Whitman’s work while conducting research on multiple online databases of 19th century newspapers. He was specifically searching for newspapers that contained popular names found in Whitman’s notebooks.
Turpin was unintentionally looking for the literary treasure when the work popped up on his computer. The work was originally set to run in The Sunday Dispatch, a newspaper formerly based in New York that Whitman was known to have contributed to. Growing more curious, Turpin requested a scan of the first page from the Library of Congress, which held the only known copy of that day’s Dispatch.
He was stunned to receive an email clarifying his curiosity a month later.
“I was at my in-laws,’ setting up a Pack ’n Play, when the email arrived,” he said in an article from The New York Times. “From that day until now, I’ve had this simmering inside me.”
Oddly enough, this is not the first time that Turpin has made such a brilliant discovery. In the past, he found a series of articles by Whitman that offered tips for a healthy and vigorous lifestyle, which were featured in another newspaper.
For such an incredible discovery, it’s amazing to look at how this new finding fits into the timeline and the quality of Whitman’s other works.
Jack Engle was written three years before Whitman published Leaves of Grass, the work that placed him in the American literary canon, according to an article published on the National Public Radio website. Prior to the reveal of this novella, it was believed that Whitman spent the early 1850s entirely on Leaves of Grass, publishing nothing of great importance. Now, thanks to Turpin, we know better.
Additionally, it’s apparent as to why Jack Engle took this long to be attributed to the great American poet.
“It’s not a great novel, though it’s not a bad read either,” David Reynolds, author of Walt Whitman’s America, said.
Turpin, on that other hand, disagrees with Reynolds.
"I'm really blown away by this book,” Turpin told NPR. “It's all things to all men. It's weird, it's wild, it's beautiful and hilarious, and turns on a dime in ways that are both great and terrible. It's truly phenomenal, and I think something that everyone will enjoy picking up."
Despite the disputed quality of Whitman’s 1852 work, it’s certain that this is an unbelievable find for Whitman literature fans. Such an artifact gives us brand new insights into the mind of this legendary author, and, according to Turpin, gives any reader much to think about.