HOUSTON -- Zachary Turpin was propped up in bed with his laptop in May, his wife and newborn son sleeping beside him, when he made a discovery that stands to rock the literary world.
There on his screen, he saw a small ad in an 1852 newspaper. The ad promised “A Rich Revelation:” A six-installment piece of fiction called “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” was coming soon to the Sunday Dispatch, a three-penny weekly published in Manhattan.
The Houston Chronicle reports the short novel, like the newspaper that published it, was all but lost to the ages. But the author, Turpin believed, was Walt Whitman, one of America’s best-known and most beloved poets.
Now, Turpin, a 33-year-old doctoral candidate in English at the University of Houston, has found the novel itself -- a discovery that upends what previously was believed about the 19th-century poet’s early career. Published anonymously as a serial in 1852, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” reveals much about Whitman’s early life and work that the poet later tried to hide.
You might recognize Turpin’s name: Last spring, he unearthed a book-length newspaper series on fitness and healthy living that Whitman published under a pseudonym in 1858.
That discovery was important, but Turpin’s latest “is going to change everything we thought we knew about Whitman’s writing career,” said Ed Folsom, a University of Iowa English professor and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, which is publishing “Jack Engle” on its website today.
The novel also is being published in book form by the University of Iowa Press.
Any discovery of new work by Whitman is a major find, said Stephen Enniss, director of the Harry Ransom Center, a massive arts and humanities archive at the University of Texas at Austin.
“He is, along with Emily Dickinson, our major 19th-century American poet -- and arguably, one of our first modern poets,” Enniss said.
Whitman’s most famous work, “Leaves of Grass,” offers a distinct voice to the American canon -- expansive poems that spill freely across the page, overflowing with rich and earthy images and a democratic, inclusive spirit.
But Whitman was in his mid-30s when he published “Leaves of Grass.” By then, he’d had a long career in journalism and had published a novel, several short stories and novellas.
For decades, scholars wrote off Whitman’s early fiction as mediocre. And until now, Folsom said, scholars assumed that Whitman’s last piece of fiction was published in 1848, which meant a seven-year gap between his fiction-writing days and the publication of “Leaves of Grass.”
“It’s always been easy to kind of assume that Whitman, at some point, just said, ‘Well, that’s it for fiction; it’s just not going anywhere for me,’” Folsom said. That assumption, he said “has allowed us to miss the ways in which the fiction led into the poetry.”
Thanks to Turpin’s find, Folsom said, we now know that Whitman was still writing and publishing fiction even as he worked on the poems that would immortalize him as America’s bard.
“What we are beginning to realize with this novel, now, is that the fiction and poetry are mingling in ways we never before knew.”
“Jack Engle,” the story of an orphan’s adventures, can be classified as sentimentalism, Turpin said. The serial appeared “unsigned, practically unheralded and riddled with typographical errors” - and then, he said, “it sank like a stone.” The story received little response. It was never reprinted or reviewed. And Whitman never mentioned it again.
Then last year, in one of Whitman’s notebooks, Turpin found a detailed plot outline for the story.
Previous scholars had concluded it was probably just an outline that never amounted to anything, but Turpin wanted to see for himself. He started searching digital databases for some of the character names Whitman had listed.
That’s when he found a match -- the newspaper ad for a story called “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.”
“There’s nothing (in the ad) that says Whitman,” Turpin said, but the character name matched and the timeline was plausible. Immediately, he started searching for a library that had archived the Sunday Dispatch.
Online, Turpin discovered that the only remaining copies of those issues are at the Library of Congress. He requested an image of the story’s first installment.
Weeks later, the library emailed him the story’s first page. Turpin knew that if he saw more of the character names Whitman named in his outline -- “Covert,” ‘’Wigglesworth,” ‘’Smytthe” -- he’d have a confirmation.
“I open it up and my eyes are furiously scanning,” he recalled. “The first names I see are ‘Jack Engle.’ ‘Martha.’ ‘Wigglesworth.’ It was quite a good moment.”
Because of their size and age, it cost about $1,200 to have the newspaper pages scanned and digitized.
Wyman Herendeen, a UH English professor who was chairman of the department at the time, immediately paid the cost from the department’s discretionary fund.
“I do a lot of original archival research,” Herendeen said. “I know the excitement. I know the thrill of a seeming discovery that oftentimes proves to be misleading.” But Turpin is “a very cautious scholar,” he said, and “there were enough pieces of the puzzle that certainly made it sound convincing.”
Bits and pieces of Whitman’s work have emerged over the years, but works like “Jack Engle” are well hidden.
Whitman wrote much of his journalism and fiction anonymously or under pseudonyms, and later, when he’d established himself as a poet, he wrote that his “serious wish” was to have “all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion.”
But Turpin believes Whitman would be proud to see his fiction being republished today.
“Whitman deeply desired publicity,” he said. “That his work gets so much attention now, and that scholars like myself will snatch after any scrap that he wrote, I think would probably please him.”
Turpin is “one of the most talented of a whole new generation of scholars,” Folsom said -- scholars who will create “a golden age of discovery” as they dig through digital databases and uncover material that hasn’t been seen for decades, even centuries.
Digitized archives -- including the Walt Whitman Archive -- are “democratizing” research, Herendeen said, taking materials tucked away in basements and on microfilm and making them accessible to scholars everywhere.
Whitman’s archive is widely scattered, Enniss said, and in the past, a researcher like Turpin would have to visit multiple libraries to find these materials and piece the clues together. Digitization makes the job easier, “but one still has to know what one is looking for.”
Searching digital archives is “sort of like an adrenaline sport,” Turpin said, especially when it turns up material no one’s ever seen.
He knows there may be more work to discover, from Whitman and others, and he can’t stop searching now.
“It sort of makes me feel like the first 49er, pulling up a (gold) nugget and telegraphing home: ‘Come now, come right now.’ “