Zachary Turpin leans forward, as if admitting to a secret: He wasn’t always a Walt Whitman guy.
That started almost halfway through his Ph.D. studies at the University of Houston as he read the first edition of Whitman’s best-known work, “Leaves of Grass.”
The scope of the poetry, the beauty of the language, well, Turpin was hooked. And over the course of the next few years, his admiration merged with the digital frontier of literary research to expand what we know about the 19th century poet and author.
Turpin, who completes his doctoral degree in English this spring, made international headlines in February with the announcement that he had discovered a previously unknown novella by Whitman, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography.” A year earlier, he was credited with finding another Whitman work—a sprawling 50,000-word essay on diet, exercise, sex and the advantages of the outdoors.
Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, which published both works, said the rediscovered novella is vital to Whitman scholarship, upending the belief that he dropped fiction in the late 1840s to focus on poetry and “Leaves of Grass.”
“In this newly discovered novel, I think we can see Whitman discovering why he was going to have to give up ‘plots’ and turn to a very different kind of narration,” said Folsom, who is also an English professor at the University of Iowa. “We can feel the point at which Whitman gives up plots and embraces the ongoing flow of life … (and) turns his attention to his radical new form of poetry.”
With the announcement of the new book, media began calling. Eager readers downloaded the novella from the Quarterly Review website more than 24,000 times within the first few days.
“It’s been wild,” Turpin said.
But for a few moments—he told his wife, Markie McBrayer, who is completing her Ph.D. in political science at UH, almost immediately—he was the only person in the world to know about this new book by Whitman.
It may seem so in the retelling, but the discovery didn’t happen overnight.
Turpin, an “Americanist” specializing in mid-19th century American literature, has become a digital literary detective, using modern tools to scour online databases for clues to Whitman’s writings. Working from a laptop, often from the kitchen table or bedroom of an apartment just south of the UH campus that he and McBrayer share with their two children, he had a lot of what he calls “pleasant and instructive failures.”
He kept at it. And in May 2016, he entered a few terms from one of Whitman’s notebooks, in which he had outlined a novel about an orphan named Jack Engle.
Most scholars assumed the novel had never been written. Instead, Turpin hit pay dirt—a small ad in the March 13, 1852 edition of the New York Daily Times promised “A RICH REVELATION,” a story starting the following Sunday in the New York Dispatch. Whitman wasn’t mentioned, but Jack Engle was.
Turpin knew Whitman had written for the Dispatch. And he was off on the next leg of the journey, eventually locating what was apparently the only existing copy of the Dispatch dating to the spring of 1852 in the Library of Congress.
A month later, his email pinged.
He scanned the PDF of the novella’s opening, searching for names from Whitman’s notes: Engle. Covert. Wigglesworth. Smytthe. All there.
“It was surreal,” he said. “While the circumstances weren’t glamorous, the feeling was once in a lifetime, the feeling that you are the only person who knows you found a lost novel by one of the great American writers.”
The discovery remained a closely guarded secret—McBrayer knew, helping to transcribe the 36,000 word novella, along with Folsom, a few other Whitman scholars and members of the English department at UH. Wyman Herendeen, then chair of the department, immediately offered departmental funds to cover the $1,200 cost for copies of the full work.
In the ensuing months, Turpin wrote an introduction for the novella and revamped his dissertation, which he already had shifted to focus on Whitman.
“Changing a dissertation topic at the last minute isn’t the most comfortable thing,” he said. Still, it felt inevitable.
Whitman left a prodigious paper trail, and new notes, letters and newspaper articles turn up occasionally. But Folsom said Turpin’s two discoveries are different, not only book-length but published just before and just after the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” was published in 1855.
“They help us fill in that magical time of Whitman’s life when he was inventing an entirely new kind of poetry,” he said.
The spring has been busy for Turpin, who will join the faculty of the University of Idaho this fall, but he has tried to also take time to savor both the thrill of the discovery and the ensuing buzz.
“What’s been great is to see so many people enthusiastic about poetry, Walt Whitman, literature,” Turpin said. “As a teacher, to see thousands of people reading this and discussing it is great.”
And while Whitman wanted to distance himself from his early work, eager to appear as a poet who sprang fully formed with the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” Turpin thinks he would be fine with the re-emergence of Jack Engle.
“His grandest wish, the thing above all, is that he would be the most famous American poet. And to see what’s happening now, I think he’d be delighted.”