Walt Whitman, Revisited: New Discoveries From the Bard of Brooklyn


On March 14, 1852, 32-year-old Walt Whitman began to publish a novel. It was likely not complete when the first installment appeared in a lost city paper called the Sunday Dispatch, one of the innumerable rags that came and went in nineteenth-century New York. Like many serialized fiction writers of the day, Whitman appeared to be making it up as he went along, on deadline as readers devoured the latest action.

Whitman did not think enough of his efforts to sign his name to them, and in later years would disavow much of his early “juvenilia,” but this was no mere scribbled paycheck for a writer on the cusp of poetic genius. The book, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, reveals a side of Whitman — that of a polished and widely read prose stylist — that has been neglected by scholars forever in thrall to the Good Gray Poet of lore.

Three years later, on July 4, 1855, he would self-publish the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman printed 795 copies with the help of three Scottish brothers in Brooklyn, and he personally sent one to every man of letters he respected. The luminary he revered most, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote back with an admiring note. It read: I greet you at the beginning of a great career. — R.W. Emerson

In fact, by 1855, and now at the age of 36, Walt Whitman was already two decades into a prolific career. He ended his formal schooling at 11 and almost immediately became a newsman — or boy — at a time when penny presses flourished and offered plenty of low-paid opportunities for ink-stained wretches. But with the exception of a few early short stories and a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, published in 1842, his considerable pre-Leaves output had been virtually lost to history.

That is until a young Whitman scholar named Zachary Turpin was digging through digital archives one morning in the basement library of the University of Houston. Turpin, 33, a doctoral candidate in English, is a Texan with a penchant for diving deep into the troves of nineteenth-century archives now digitized and democratized for any literary detective with the patience and passion to swim through oceans of lost words.

“I’m always in the rabbit hole,” Turpin says. “I always pack carrots. I come from a keyword-based methodology. I think the important thing is to think of it as play, as a game. If you were simply looking for a hot lead, that would be no fun. The pleasure of research of this kind is in everything you see and read along the way.”

At play down the rabbit hole, Turpin made his first Whitman discovery two years ago, when he came across a series of self-help-ish advice columns from the New York Atlas called “Manly Health and Training,” first published on September 12, 1858, and recently collected into a book released by ReganArts. The byline on the columns was “Mose Velsor” — a moniker Turpin recognized as one of Whitman’s go-to pen names. The series went on to encompass thirteen installments and almost 47,000 words. The advice, as it were, advocating facial hair, a meat-filled diet, and comfortable shoes, would seem to mark Whitman as the original Brooklyn hipster.

A lost classic it was not. But it hinted at much more. Throughout the 1850s, before and after his publication of Leaves, it appears Whitman was immersed in an internalized literary laboratory as his wholly original voice took shape. He was a struggling poet, but he was a proven journalist and short-story writer, and he had to continue making a buck, covering everything from baseball to crime to city politics, as well as penning reams of short fiction.

“Those stories were really resonating with a large readership,” says Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. “They were getting reprinted in ways that most short fiction wasn’t, as far away as Tasmania.”

Earlier this year, still rooting around amid the digital labyrinth, Turpin made his second discovery. In Whitman’s notebooks the scholar had noted a number of unique character names: Wigglesworth, Smytthe, Covert, and Jack Engle himself. When he found that name in a small, anonymous ad in the newly formed New York Daily Times, his antennae began to vibrate. To Turpin the ad “sounded vaguely like Whitman.” He noted that it was filled with expansive references to “life and morality and philosophy” — and it referred to a serialized work in the Sunday Dispatch.

It turned out the only existing issues of the Dispatch reside in the Library of Congress. Turpin sent in a request to see the issues in question, and spent about a month waiting to confirm his suspicions. When the images finally arrived, the characters, the plot — it all matched up to Whitman’s notebooks.

“Fortunately for me, and American literature and culture,” Turpin says, “it’s ironclad.”

It was Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, a short city novel that confirms Whitman as the quintessential New Yorker. He was born on Long Island; raised in Brooklyn; and came to Manhattan as a young man of ambition. Purporting to be an autobiography, Jack Engle unfolds in the vein of a Horatio Alger story, or perhaps Charles Dickens–lite, the tale of an orphan who makes good by outwitting a crooked lawyer named Covert. The lawyer-as-villain, it seems, was personal for Whitman, whose father — a carpenter and homebuilder in Brooklyn — was the victim of a local attorney.

“Covert is based on some very real flesh-and-blood bastard that Whitman knew in childhood,” Turpin avers. “Some lawyer or real estate developer that screwed his [own] contractors, and nobody is quite sure who this person might have been. But it seems fairly clear that somebody did a real number on Whitman’s family finances. [He] never forgot it, and never forgave lawyers, either.”

“Zach’s discovery pulls Whitman right into the period where he’s writing Leaves of Grass,” Folsom says. “We’re seeing that the fiction and the poetry were mingling in ways that we never knew existed or were possible.”

It is poetic justice — in perhaps the most literal sense — that Whitman should again be making front-page news at a time when his message is needed so sorely. It is a message, after all, rooted in a radical inclusiveness: Whitman saw the democratic ideal as welcoming all cultures, judging neither religious affiliation nor sexual preference, and embracing the entirety of a country, in all its muddy contradictions.

“He wanted to be that all-inclusive poet who kind of de-binarizes everything, sexuality included,” Turpin says. “You can see him really celebrating diversity, celebrating open borders, celebrating the American in us all. Not just Americans in the United States, but what he called ‘Americans the world over.’ ”

That’s an awfully attractive message, which helps explain why one of his most famous lines, from his “Songs of Insurrection” is now the title of a new poetry anthology: Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance, published this month by Dispatches Editions. The thick compilation, coming in at 740 pages, is a call to creative arms, with 50% of its proceeds being donated to Planned Parenthood.

“America has always been split down the middle,” say Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson, who wrote the introduction. “Whitman knew it all too well, but made his poetry into the news of democracy’s becoming its better self.”

Which is true, except Whitman has always proven a tricky standard bearer for the left. As resonant as phrases like “resist much, obey little” are, Whitman’s central idea – inclusive, all-embracing democracy – has often been inconvenient for the resisters eager to champion his words as rallying cries.

“A lot of readers of Whitman get frustrated,” says Folsom, “particularly readers in the 1930s, American communists and American socialists, because he didn’t seem to speak out strongly enough against the business classes. Whitman would say ‘no, no, I’ve gotta speak for the businessman as well as for the worker. If I can’t come up with a voice that contains them both then we’ve failed. We don’t have an American voice. We don’t have a democratic voice.’”

Leaves of Grass may be the most powerful and lyrical declaration of independence ever composed by an American. But in 1852, three years before those first 795 copies went to print, Whitman found himself a successful (though frustrated) newspaper writer. That expansive all-American voice was still forming in his mind, inching closer with each sentence he published without his name attached. In Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (published in February by the University of Iowa Press), there are hints of it everywhere. Imagine the thrill that must have coursed through Zach Turpin when he read, at the end of Chapter Three, “I will leave whoever sees these paragraphs, to carry out the train of thought for himself.”

Turpin may very well have been the first person to lay eyes on these words in 165 years. His discoveries have transcended literary sleuthing. They’ve thrust Walt Whitman back into the national conversation at the exact right moment. And so what if Walt might have wanted his name kept off these forgotten scrolls? Folsom, for one, doesn’t think he’d mind so much.

“I have no doubt Whitman would love the publicity,” he says. “The idea that he’s been on the front page of the New York Times twice in the last year because of these two discoveries — it’s the first time he’s been on the front page of the Times since his own Civil War journalism appeared there in 1864. So I think old Walt would be pretty happy about this. He’d also be putting out statements saying, ‘Oh, well, I wish nobody had ever found that thing,’ you know, but he’d be happy that people were talking about him.”