By Jano Tantongco
In his work as a digital researcher, Zachary Turpin sifts through archives, manuscripts and notebooks, keeping his eyes peeled for certain elements on the page that may hint at a larger, as-of-yet, unseen connections to mysterious literary works.
Employing these methods, Turpin, a fifth-year PhD candidate at the University of Houston, had discovered in 2015 “Manly Health and Training,” a 1858 manifesto on robust health practices written by none other than beloved American poet Walt Whitman under the guise of “Mose Velsor.”
Continuing his dives into archival depths last year, Turpin encountered a set of Whitman’s handwritten plot notes that captured his eye.
“What was so interesting about this particular notebook is that it has some very unique character names in it, names like Wigglesworth, Jack Engle is another,” Turpin said. “The sort of names that really stand out on the page and look like precisely the sort of keywords that any researcher like myself would want to use.”
Turpin, who focuses on American literature and periodicals, searched for the name “Jack Engle” in various databases and tracked it down to a literary notice from 1852 from the New York Daily Times announcing that the “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” would appear in the following day’s New York Sunday Dispatch.
He noticed that 1852 was not quite yet in Whitman’s fiction writing period, but it was close. Also, he realized that he was previously found to be an anonymous contributor to the Dispatch.
However, while he was able to find digital copies of the Daily Times, tracking down the Dispatch would be a greater challenge.
“What I determined was that the only extant issues that might contain this novel were a single set held in the Library of Congress,” Turpin said.
And while an impromptu trip to Washington, D.C. may have made for Hollywood grandeur, Turpin couldn’t exactly take off for the East Coast, especially with the then-recent birth of his second child, Henry.
So, the enterprising researcher engaged in a months-long email correspondence full of “fairly impatient waiting” with the library to track down the Dispatch, and the potential, literary treasure trove.
Then, the library sent him a confirmation image of the newspaper. The very same character names from Whitman’s notes were there. The plots lined up. Turpin knew he made the match.
“It was quite the stunning moment,” he said. “It was truly delightful to know that it was what I had so sincerely hoped it was.”
But still, he didn’t yet know the full extent of his find. The initial literary notice stated that the manuscript was submitted in its entirety and would be published in six parts or less. But, Turpin knew that Whitman had previously embarked on several serialized novels that he left unfinished.
The 33-year-old continued to press forward and eventually found the entire work, published in six issues as the 1852 notice had faithfully promised.
Published last week for all in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review in full text, Turpin described the story as a “weird and wild adventure,” framed as a mystery and romance tale in New York City involving a love triangle with a Spanish dancer and a Quakeress; a spiral of deceit; and, of course, murder.
However, Turpin said, the beginnings of the writer’s to-be-venerated themes like quiet reflection on nature and death and renewal can also be found in the work.
It’s thought by several scholars that Whitman, who also founded The Long-Islander in Huntington in 1838, often wrote with pseudonyms to preserve his image as a poet. Published three years before his masterpiece “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, “Jack Engle” represents a first-person perspective into the “artist’s laboratory.”
“Whitman is still in a period of experimentation in which he’s pretty clearly uncertain as to what he’s going to be and in what genre he’s going to end up writing,” Turpin said.
Next up, Turpin has his sights next on “The Sleeptalker,” a Whitman novel that was discussed in his letters, but hasn’t been found, yet.
“There’s a lot of manuscript evidence to suggest Whitman wrote even more fiction and where to begin and where to go is difficult to say,” Turpin said. “I do hope that budding researchers and adventurers in Long Island, and around the country, are rolling up their sleeves and thinking about joining the hunt.”