UI Press publishes newly uncovered Whitman novella
Wednesday, March 1, 2017

For the last week, the literary world has been buzzing about a previously unknown, 165-year-old Walt Whitman novella discovered by Zachary Turpin, a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. But after Turpin made the find, it was up to a cadre of scholars at the University of Iowa and the staff at the UI Press to help the graduate student share his landmark discovery with the world.

cover of life and adventures of jack engle

The novella, which was published in multiple installments without a byline in New York’s Sunday Dispatch in 1852, is called Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. Turpin cross-referenced names and a plot outline found in one of Whitman’s notebooks—digitized in the UI-sponsored online Walt Whitman Archive—with scans of the Sunday Dispatch provided by the Library of Congress to confirm his find.

As soon as he knew what he had discovered, Turpin notified Ed Folsom, respected Whitman scholar and Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the UI, of what proved to be his second major Whitman discovery.

Last April, Turpin gained national acclaim after he found a book-length series Whitman wrote for the New York Atlas called Manly Health and Training. For that discovery, Turpin essentially cold-called Folsom to seek his opinion and further confirmation that he, Turpin, had really found an unknown work of Whitman’s.

The pair collaborated to publish Manly Health in the UI-sponsored Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (WWQR), the online open-access journal of record in Whitman studies for which Folsom serves as editor.

More on Turpin’s Life and Adventures of Jack Engle discovery

Stephanie Blalock’s UI Libraries Blog: “Announcing ‘A Rich Revelation’” 

The New York Times: “In a Walt Whitman Novel, Lost for 165 Years, Clues to ‘Leaves of Grass’” 

Iowa City Press-Citizen: “Newly discovered novel shows Walt Whitman finding his way to ‘Leaves of Grass’”

Then Turpin struck gold again.

“It wasn’t until this past summer that I was able to get in touch with Ed again. I called in June and said, ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve got a lost Whitman novel on my hands here,’” Turpin says.

Folsom says that if anyone else had come to him with such a declaration, he probably wouldn’t have believed it.

“Since it was Zack, since we had gone through this process of discovery with Manly Health, and I knew the thoroughness with which he vetted his own work before sharing it with anybody, I felt nothing but exhilaration,” Folsom says. “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”

Folsom remained cautious, however, even after scans of the first installment of the novel arrived from the Library of Congress, since Whitman had published incomplete works before. However, the remaining scans sent by the Library of Congress confirmed Jack Engle had been published in full.

“It is an unprecedented discovery,” Folsom says. “We now have two brand-new, previously unknown books, including one (Jack Engle) that tells us so much that we did not know before about how Leaves of Grass was forming in Whitman’s imagination.”

Despite the overwhelming excitement, there was much work to be done before the discovery could be made public.

“The UI Press is essentially the paragon, the ultimate publisher of Whitman literature.”
—Zachary Turpin, a PhD candidate at the University of Houston

Having already had the experience of publishing Manly Health, Folsom and Turpin again enlisted the help and expertise of the UI Libraries’ Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio and Stephanie Blalock, digital humanities librarian and associate editor of the Whitman Archive. WWQR Managing Editor Stefan Schöberlein also was heavily involved in both projects.

Turpin, Schöberlein, and Blalock spent hours transcribing and re-transcribing Jack Engle, making scholarly notes as they went along, with Folsom chiming in with edits and thoughts of his own to prepare for eventual publication.

“This was a fully collaborative effort,” Turpin says.

The group already knew that it wanted to make the text of Jack Engle immediately available in WWQR, but Turpin and Folsom wanted to make sure a hard copy would be available just as quickly. That’s when UI Press was brought into the mix.

“It was the obvious choice,” Turpin said of signing on with the university’s publisher, which also sponsors the well-known Iowa Whitman Series, edited by Folsom. “The UI Press is essentially the paragon, the ultimate publisher of Whitman literature.”

Not wanting to spoil the potential for a grand unveiling of the discovery, the UI Press had to operate unconventionally in its preparations and had to work on a tight timeline to make sure the book was ready before Turpin and Folsom spoke publicly about it.

UI Press Director James McCoy and his staff were up to the challenge, however, going to great lengths to have a finished product ready before the publishing world could know about it.

“Usually we have nine months,” McCoy says of the lead time required to complete a book, from copy editing to cover art to marketing and sales. “We only had about five.”

Life and Adventures of Jack Engle was released in full in WWQR and published by UI Press on Feb. 20.

The extra work was worth it for McCoy and his team; he considers publishing this novella one of the biggest highlights of his time at UI Press.

“A lot of literary finds are pale, but this isn’t,” McCoy says of Jack Engle. “It’s poetic, well written, very reminiscent of Dickens. In terms of what Whitman went on to do later, you can see him verge into a new direction.”

While Jack Engle provides game-changing information for Whitman studies, this discovery also is another victory for the digital humanities and perhaps a sign of things to come.

“I think the possibilities that have been provided by the availability of digital periodicals makes discoveries like this even more likely,” says Blalock.

“Things like finding a name in a notebook, looking for that in a newspaper database and then, if they find something, acquiring images of the text from another repository...that sort of sequence, that connecting of the dots of the various collections is going to become something that is increasingly important in research methodology.”

Turpin hopes that his two Whitman discoveries inspire others to keep digging for more.

“I would tell people that this is something that anyone can and should do, starting right this very second,” says Turpin, noting the Whitman Archive is a good place to start. “There are huge open-access digital archives online. My methodology is to just play. The more you play, the better.”