“It was wild,” remarked Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, when asked last month by Ari Shapiro on NPR’s All Things Considered about his discovery of Walt Whitman’s anonymously published serial novel Life and Adventures of Jack Engle in 1852 editions of The Sunday Dispatch newspaper.
While “wild” and “discovery” are not words people typically associate with conducting research in archives, libraries, and museums, maybe they are more relevant than we might at first think. Turpin points out in his introduction to the University Of Iowa Press’ first edition print, as part of their Iowa Whitman Series, that like Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, “plenty of American authors have left books in the dark” (xiv), which leaves me to wonder what other great works are hidden and tucked away in archives that we are yet to discover. This sense of uncertainty of what items and treasures may lie in our collections still waiting to discovered, make archives, libraries, and museums, a tad wild. — And what’s not to like about that?
It seems there is especially great potential in combing the vast collections of the past’s newspapers, which reflects what Whitman lamented in his private writings, that the content of a newspaper is “something to be dismissed as soon as the next day’s paper appears” (ix). With Whitman’s lamentation in mind, as each edition of a newspaper comes out (some even multiple times a day), it further buries all the newspaper content that came before it. Metaphorically, like an archaeologist sifting through dirt and artifacts at a rich dig site, a similar type of sifting has to be done to our large stores of the past’s newspapers to find significant relics that shed understanding and add new significance to humanity’s places, cultures, and past. At the same time, with the overwhelming, in fact almost impossibly ever-increasing amounts of content published at any given time on the internet, it leaves one to wonder what treasures will be lost in our era’s newspaper equivalent. To make Whitman’s lament correspond with our times, it would have to read: internet content is something to be dismissed oftentimes only minutes after it appears.
While Whitman scholars and fans are marveling over the form and content of his lost early novel, it is an even greater marvel (especially to library information professionals) that a copy of each of the six early editions of The Sunday Dispatch that contain the novel still even exist, as it is an “exceedingly rare newspaper” (xix) that has not been microfilmed or digitized and is barely (if at all archived) in library collections (xix). It just goes to show how difficult figuring out what to archive, microfilm, and/or digitize can be. In many cases, especially with newspapers, the thing that makes them significant could be hidden in plain site, as this anonymous serial novel was.
I think it is also worth noting that this discovery was made due to a scholar deeply knowledgeable on the specific subject’s interactions with many various archives. Turpin explains that he uses the online Walt Whitman Archive, “filled with draft writings and page images and manuscript catalogs” (xix) to linger “over the odds and ends, the scraps with no obvious connection to anything” (xx), and then “compound[s] dates, join[s] key words, follow[s] trails, and sift[s] through old papers” until “eventually something stands out as peculiar” (xx). In this case, he found the name “Jack Engle” in one of Whitman’s notebooks filled with plot ideas and characters. When Turpin happened to be looking through some very early editions of the New York Daily Times,
he happened to stumble across a small ad from an 1852 newspaper promoting a serial novel, which in the title contained the name “Jack Engle” and described the story in a way that he felt sounded like Whitman. But it was not just the character name that make this work sound compelling. Turpin explains: “there is something more about this little ad, something harder to put my finger on. Its overblown copy and absurdly comprehensive list of contents, its references to New York City, even the promise that the story has to be experienced to be understood – all this sounds like Whitman” (xxi).
Finally Turpin was able to track down what is considered the only existing copies of The Sunday Dispatch with the lost story in the Library of Congress, where if it were “not for that dedicated institution and the efforts of generations of literary executors, manuscript collections, archivists, and scholars the book might have been lost forever.” (xix).
Posted by: Josh LaMore LIS 653-1
Welden, G. (2017). Grad Student Discovers Novel Written By Walt Whitman. National Public Radio: All Things Considered, February 21, 2017. Retrieved from
Turpin, Z. (2017). Introduction. Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.