Lost Whitman Novel Shows Early Traces of “Leaves Of Grass”

Hidden as an anonymous serial in a Victorian newspaper, an 1852 novel by Walt Whitman has been discovered by Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston. The story, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, was written and published three years before the release of Leaves of Grass.

The novel is a significant discovery, not only because it adds considerable material to the National Poet’s known work, but also because it reveals Whitman in transition, experimenting in form and working towards a style that would eventually define his career.

As noted by The Guardian, the novel was written as it was serialized in the Sunday Dispatch, and by the end of what is an otherwise standard potboiler, we see Whitman venturing towards the poetics that would be employed in his subsequent works.

Utilizing all the comfortable tropes of a Dickensian city mystery, the story initially hinges on an orphaned young man, Jack, pitted against a nefarious attorney plotting to steal a secret inheritance. As a whole, it doesn’t contain the intention or profundity of his later work, but in Chapter 19, wherein Jack enters a cemetery and contemplates the lives of those buried around him, the tone shifts utterly.

“Over me was the verdure, touched with brown, of trees nourished from the decay of the bodies of men.”

Opening a meditation on time, happiness, and the birth of America, Jack’s thoughts wander from the events of the plot. He encounters the tomb of a complete family — a mother and father, with several children who Jack speculates were brought home from distant lands to be buried with kin.

“Human souls are as the dove, which went forth from the ark, and wandered far, and would repose herself at last on no spot save that whence she started. To what purpose has nature given men this instinct to die where they were born? Exists there some subtle sympathy between the thousand mental and physical essences which make up a human being, and the sources where from they are derived?”

Here, Whitman ventures into the transcendentalism that would be explored more fully in Leaves of Grass, contemplating the interconnectedness of humans to each other, to nature, and to God.

While the novel is fictionally titled as an autobiography by Jack Engle, the first mention of Jack physically writing the manuscript occurs at the end of this section. One can imagine the Whitman writing these notes himself:

“While pursuing my meditations, the noon had passed, and the after-half of the day crept onward; and it was time for me to close my ramble, and move homeward. I put my pencil and the slip of paper on which I had been copying, in my pocket, and took one slow and last look around, ere I went forth again into the city, and to resume my interest in affairs that lately so crowded upon me.”

Whitman returns to the narrative, but concludes the novel rather abruptly, with the final chapter applying convenient ribbons to the lives of each character. Likely, Whitman was eager to work on Leaves of Grass, which Turpin notes was being penned simultaneously with Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.

This discovery offers a unique glimpse into the development of one of America’s most celebrated poets, and is now republished through the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. You can view the full text here.