After 165 years in obscurity, Walt Whitman’s lost novel is now free to read online

Some familiar characters.
Some familiar characters.
Image: AP Photo
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Quakers on Wall Street, the ploys of a lawyer, a friendship pact with a milkman. These aren’t scenes from a 19th-century fever dream; they’re from a long-lost novella by legendary American poet Walt Whitman.

Whitman’s Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; in Which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters was first published anonymously in 1852. Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, recently found the work by searching digital archives with proper nouns from Whitman’s notes, hoping to find a story that had yet to be connected to the poet.

As of Feb. 20, the long-lost book is now available online (pdf) from the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review for anyone to read.

In it, Jack Engle, born a poor orphan in the streets of New York, narrates the 36,000-word adventure story. He helps Martha, a girl whose adopted lawyer father is attempting to embezzle her money. Like Whitman’s other fiction, it’s sentimental and moral, writes Turpin in its introduction. Honesty and generosity prevail, the good guys win, and the bad guys get their comeuppance.

The novella has a Dickensian feel, writes Turpin, and it was likely that Whitman found inspiration in the English writer’s serials of epic casts of characters. It doesn’t, however, have an obvious relationship with the poet’s seminal verse—except, perhaps, in its relationship to New York.

Write Turpin:

To Whitman, New York embodied the spirit, beauty, diversity, and flux of America. His identity as a New Yorker, and his attachment to the city as a sort of worldwide democracy in microcosm, inform Jack Engle every bit as much as they do Leaves of Grass.

The Leaves of Grass writer, who died in 1892, wasn’t known nearly as well for his prose as his poetry, but scholars have found he wrote plenty of both. Turpin is the same person who found Whitman’s long-lost manifesto on healthy living in 2015, and believes there is more Whitman out there to discover.