Whitman sampler: a discovered novel
by Tim Pfaff
Walt Whitman's own feelings about his writings prior to Leaves of Grass made me approach with trepidation, even reluctance, the recently discovered Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography, an anonymously penned, serialized novel from 1852 that likely is one of the two or three novels Whitman is thought to have written. The novel is an even more sensational find by the intrepid Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston graduate student, than his discovery last year of the pseudonymous newspaper series Manly Health and Training, which he credibly demonstrated was by Whitman. But what of Whitman's own late-life plea that his early journalism and fiction kindly be forgotten? Would Jack Engle be any good?
Then I read it in a single sitting (and then again), partly because it weighs in at a slim 36,000 words, but far more because I found it a ripping good read. The idiom was familiar from my own year-long immersion in 19th-century American fiction, but Whitman – who very likely wrote Jack Engle quickly, for urgently needed money – is so adept at the forms and formulas that the potboiler story, of an orphan transcending his roots, proves as involving, if less transcendent, than Dickens.
The constraints of serialization, and the likelihood of fast composition, yield some lurches in narrative time, backwards, forwards and sideways, but otherwise the writing is solidly professional and frequently much more. Even passages in which the reader senses Whitman is padding for length, or making pointless diversions, often have considerable impact.
Late in the novel, first-person narrator Jack ambles through a New York cemetery, riffing on the sparse words he reads on headstones, and his thoughts on the transitory nature of human life – and far more, the style itself – are startlingly like that of George Saunders' recent Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders could not have known of Whitman's novel while writing his.) Reading it is in every way hair-raising.
The story's surface sentimentality and the often-heavy coincidences of plot fall just this side of irksome, and even if the characters do tend to be awfully good or awfully bad, they're three-dimensional and have individual voices. The hitch for the modern reader is the almost casual anti-Semitism, which gratefully figures very little and is far less virulent than what was regrettably common in 19th-century writing.
Much as I loathe present-day journalistic references to Trump and Trumpism when the matter at hand is not the 45th president, there's no suppressing a sly smile when reading Whitman's accounts of Mr. Covert, the villainous lawyer and political aspirant who is the craven heart of the tale. Although the widower of a kindly Quaker, he is introduced as having a "certain sanctimonious satanic look" and bears that out in his conniving behavior. Here's Whitman:
"The two scoundrels had taken their precautions, and prepared their way, and the mechanic and his family were ruined. For a trumpery claim of damages was established, and not a dollar did Covert pay for the work. The lumber and hardware merchants levied their bills, on the carpenter's own little property, all of which it took to pay them, and every dollar of his toil-earned savings was at once swept away."
The genre Whitman mined was not just that of the orphan story, but also of the struggle of the "wealthy ten thousand" – today's 1% – against the scrabbling millions. But it's the little rascal characters in Jack Engle that do the stealing, mostly of readers' hearts. The plot's power lines shift as precariously as these things do in real life, and Whitman manages the central implausibility – the slowly emerging realization that two main characters are orphaned by the same deed of capricious tragedy – so smoothly that the reader is somehow prepared for the result that they become happily-forever-after spouses.
Lest it seem that the novel is one long saccharine toothache in the making, a cunning story within the story – a document left by the murderer of Jack's real father, and father of his bride-to-be – is a passage of such emotional directness, a contemplation of the ruin wrought by a quick temper, that you hold your breath while reading it.
Turpin's suspicion that the novel existed came from his close reading of Whitman's notebooks, in one of which the author made an outline of the story and provided character names, some of them memorable for their very eccentricity. Scanning digitized records of 19th-century newspapers, he found an ad from March 13, 1852, in The Sunday Dispatch, a New York newspaper Whitman was known to write for, promising the serialization of the novel. The sole existing copies of the whole paper were in the Library of Congress, which scanned and digitized the pages for Turpin. It's now readable free in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2251&context=wwqr, and due for publication in book form by the University of Iowa Press.
The Manly Health and Training series was a revealing Whitman curiosity, but a curiosity. Life and Adventures of Jack Engle is a real find.