A Graduate Student Just Discovered a Lost Work of Fiction by Walt Whitman

The serialized novella was first published anonymously in 1852

Walt Whitman photographed in 1854, two years after his serialized novella was first published anonymously. Library of Congress

Zachary Turpin is making a name for himself as one of America’s great Walt Whitman sleuths.

For the second time in as many years, Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, has unearthed a previously unknown Whitman manuscript. The newly discovered novella, fully titled, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Autobiography; In Which The Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters, was republished online in its entirety by the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review earlier this week. The University of Iowa Press is also publishing the novel in book form.

Originally published in 1852, the 36,000-word serial unfolded over six installments in Manhattan’s Sunday Dispatch newspaper. Whitman wrote the novella three years before "Leaves of Grass, and in a conversation with Ari Shapiro of NPR, Turpin notes that while the story bears some resemblance to "Leaves of Grass," it also contains elements that are “wildly different.”

Writing for the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler describes the story as a “quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures” featuring “a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.”

Turpin told Shapiro that he discovered the lost prose by poring through vast online databases of 19th-century newspapers for names he found in Whitman’s notebooks. One search drudged up an advertisement for an upcoming story about an orphan named Jack Engle in a paper that Whitman was known to have written for. Turpin ordered a scan from the Library of Congress, and when it arrived, he knew he had struck gold.

The first obscure Whitman find of his budding career came last year, when Turpin unveiled a manuscript by Whitman titled “Manly Health and Training,” which was published in a different New York newspaper in 1858.

While he is best remembered in history books as one of America's most-renowned poets, Whitman also worked as an educator, journalist and fiction writer. And despite his stated wishes for his early short stories to be “quietly dropp’d in oblivion,” the new manuscripts offer fascinating insights into the famous poet’s development as a writer—developments that would eventually lead to "Leaves of Grass" and entry into the country’s literary canon.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.