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Digital Detectives

By Jeannie Kever

Here’s one stereotype that’s ready for the dustbin: the literary scholar, hunched over microfiche between long, lonely drives to out-of-the way auctions, perennially in search of the one that got away.

Zachary Turpin found the clue that ultimately led him to a lost novella by 19th century writer Walt Whitman with the click of a mouse.

Turpin, who completed his doctoral degree in English at the University of Houston this spring, is one of a new breed of literary detectives, working with the latest digital tools to discover papers, essays and even books that had been lost for a century or longer.

Turpin says scholars of the past are true heroes, tracking materials to the source. “The tools we have today are much more powerful. The internet, textual analytic tools, digital photography. Being able to send images of a text across the country is powerful.”

An image sent to his email inbox last year signaled that his hunch had been correct – a novella by Whitman, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography,” had been published in the New York Sunday Dispatch in 1852, the conclusion to a search that began months earlier when he entered a few phrases and character names from Whitman’s notes into a search engine. Scholars had long thought the book was never actually written, but Turpin found an ad promoting the story’s upcoming publication.

An imaging specialist with the Library of Congress, home to the only known copy of the Dispatch from 1852, scanned the opening lines and emailed the image; almost immediately, Turpin knew he was onto something.

A year earlier, he had discovered another Whitman work, a 50,000 word treatise on diet, exercise, sex and the advantages of the outdoors, again through digital digging. Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and an English professor at the University of Iowa, said the development of digital databases of 19th century periodicals is creating a golden age of discovery about early American literature.

“Digital scholar-sleuths like Zach are opening up the possibilities,” Folsom said. “These databases are growing daily, as more and more 19th century newspapers are digitized. Graduate students today know that digital archival skills are crucial.”

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