5 Things to Know About Walt Whitman's Lost Novel

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman.

Every writer has what’s known as juvenilia—works created in their youth that they either disown or simply ignore once they find their footing as mature artists. Neil Gaiman wrote a biography of Duran Duran, Martin Amis wrote a book about video games—every author has to start somewhere.

Over time, those earlier works are usually forgotten, deeply buried under time, until they’re nothing more than footnotes. And when it comes to writers who have become icons of literary history, it’s easy to forget these men and women had lives before they wrote their famous works—lives that often required them to make a living, to practice their craft in public, and, in short, to publish works that weren’t quite as genius as their eventual achievements, and thus get lost and forgotten.

Of course, it’s easy to forget a work when it’s published anonymously in the first place, which is the case with the novella Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, published in The New York Sunday Dispatch in 1852 as a serial. The story came and went without so much as a single review, but a century and a half later a scholar discovered clues to the story’s author, and it turns out it was none other than Walt Whitman—yes, the same Walt Whitman known for Leaves of Grass, the evolving collection of poems, notably Song of Myself.

This discovery is surprising for several reasons, but chief among them is the apparent disconnect between the popular style and “twisty” nature of “Jack Engle” and the sensuous, alarming, and revolutionary poetry Whitman became famous for. Leaves of Grass was published after several years of silence from Whitman, and represented a dramatic shift from his earlier work. The discovery also proves that no matter how much attention you paid in school, literature can still surprise you—here are five things you should know about Walt Whitman’s juvenilia.

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Whitman Didn’t Want You to Read It

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.

Whitman famously disowned much of his early work after the breakthrough that saw him pen what became the first edition of Leaves of Grass. After some early works were published, Whitman worked as a carpenter for several years in the early 1850s, during which time he worked on the poems that became that seminal publication—including the famous Song of Myself. These poems, with their omniscient, wandering “I” that contained many and reveled in physical sensation got Whitman fired from his job and earned him notoriety from a shocked public.

Whitman wanted to erase everything that came before, saying later in life “My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion.” Those “crude and boyish pieces” certainly included “Jack Engle,” which Whitman likely assumed would remain anonymous forever.

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But It was Hiding in Plain Sight

Advertisement for Jack Engle in New York Times
Advertisement for Jack Engle in New York Times.

Walt Whitman’s notebooks have all been digitized and cataloged, and in 2016 a graduate student at the University of Houston named Zachary Turpin took some fragments found in Whitman’s notes, including several character names, and began researching them, knowing that there are many unidentified manuscripts sitting in archives all over the world (an increasing number of which are being identified and published in recent years). The names and phrases got a hit—an advertisement that appeared in The New York Times for “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.” Despite the fact that Whitman’s story notes were right there in his journals, it took more than 160 years years—and the advent of the Internet—to bring this book to light.

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Signs of Leaves

Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, by Walt Whitman
Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, by Walt Whitman.

The book was written just a few years before Leaves of Grass, and the writing style is very different. It’s much more of the time, conventional prose that told a style of story that was popular at the time. Yet scholars who have examined the book have identified sections that show how Whitman was finding his way to a style and sensibility that would vault him into the literary stratosphere.

Many point to Chapter 19 of “Jack Engle” as a key moment; up to that point the story is a very conventional serial for the mid-19th century, a story concerned with what we would today classify with class warfare between the 1% and the 99%, filled with breakneck plot twists and minute examinations of New York City subcultures and Wall Street. But in Chapter 19 Jack, the title character, walks into a church cemetery and the tone changes, turning lyrical and contemplative in ways that seem obvious echoes of the work Whitman would soon reveal to the world.

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It Wasn’t Edited Very Well

Something that’s not unusual for newspaper serialized fiction (which was also the mode Charles Dickens most commonly operated in) is the rushed way it gets typeset and published, and “Jack Engle” is no exception. Proving that even literary giants have typos, the originally-published version of the novella is absolutely riddled with typos.

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It’s Not the First Lost Whitman Work

Manly Health and Training, by Walt Whitman
Manly Health and Training, by Walt Whitman.

Turpin has now discovered two lost Whitman works, because he also dug up an odd, novel-length series of newspaper articles by Whitman—also written under a pseudonym—about good health for the modern 19th-century man. Collected under the title Manly Health and Training, it’s a weird and wild tour through Whitman’s amateur ideas about lifestyle and diet, including the belief that meat should be a huge part of your diet and that sneakers (though the word didn’t exist yet) should be worn at all times.

Hope for Us All

Walt Whitman remains one of the most influential American poets in history. For any struggling writer, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle should be a welcome reminder that even geniuses struggle to find their way.