A Previously Unknown Walt Whitman Novella Was Discovered -- And It's Not Great

"Leaves of Grass" lovers, assemble!
American poet Walt Whitman in an undated image.
American poet Walt Whitman in an undated image.
UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images

Many great writers are haunted by mediocre or pulpy works of fiction from their early years, and Walt Whitman is no exception.

Thanks to his poetry, most notably his lifelong work-in-progress Leaves of Grass, Whitman is remembered as a free-spirited, innovative poet and Transcendentalist. On Monday, however, a serialized novella he published anonymously in 1852 was revealed to the public.

The story, which was originally published in six parts in a New York newspaper, was unearthed by Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston. Turpin had previously discovered a health tract by Whitman, “Manly Health and Training,” which many news outlets considered evidence that Whitman promoted a Paleo diet. (Not quite, but he did advocate eating a lot of meat, in addition to wearing athletic shoes and avoiding stress.)

The newly surfaced story, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography,” tells the story of its young hero’s exploits in New York City. The short novel is fairly classic fare for the time, starring a likable, orphaned young man making his way amongst an urban environment peopled with devious characters and seductive women. It also trades comfortably in problematic archetypes: A lawyer is crooked, a casino is run by a Jewish woman with a “hooked nose” and her flirtatious daughter, a beautiful Spanish dancer possesses a heart of gold but a disreputable profession.

Despite our idealized visions of Whitman the iconoclastic poet, it’s long been known that he harbored certain racially troubling views common at the time. Nonetheless, his stereotypical characters in “Jack Engle” are mostly drawn with some warmth and generosity, rather than disdain.

Still, as reviews of the work have pointed out, it’s not exactly good. Although it boasts lyrical passages that scholars have said are reminiscent of Leaves of Grass (first published in 1855), those gems are embedded in a clunky, standard-issue Dickensian narrative jammed with extraordinary coincidences and twists. Whitman probably agreed, later writing of several other works of juvenilia he nonetheless included in an anthology, “My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion.”

But hey, judge for yourself: You can check out the full text of the novella online.

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