Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Whitman Meets Dickens

Georgia college professor J. Aaron Sanders thought he was working with an improbable scenario when he concocted his first “Walt Whitman Mystery,” 2016’s Speakers of the Dead (Plume). But it turns out that renowned poet and journalist Whitman (1819-1892) was actually interested in crime-related fiction. As The New York Times reports, a novel originally serialized—with no author credit—in the New York Sunday Dispatch newspaper during the spring of 1852, was found in 2016 by a University of Houston (Texas) graduate student named Zachary Turpin, and properly attributed to Whitman.
The 36,000-word “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered last summer by a graduate student, is being republished online on Monday by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.

“This is Whitman’s take on the city mystery novel, a popular genre of the day that pitted the ‘upper 10 thousand’—what we would call the 1 percent—against the lower million,” said David S. Reynolds, a Whitman expert at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“City mysteries”—in which, according to Wikipedia, “characters explore the secret underworlds of cities and reveal corruption and exploitation, depicting violence and deviant sexuality”—won many readers in Europe and the United States during the 19th century. Examples of the genre include George Lippard’s The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1845) and Eugène Sue’s giant The Mysteries of Paris (1842), which was republished by Penguin Classics in 2015.

The University of Iowa Press Web site explains that scholar Turpin came across the “sole surviving copy” of Jack Engle while he was following a paper trail “deep into the Library of Congress.” He told the Times that this tale is “‘rollicking, interesting, beautiful, beautiful and bizarre,’ with antic twists, goofy names and suddenly revealed conspiracies that recall ‘a pre-modern Thomas Pynchon’ or even, he ventured, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.’”

Carrying the full title Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in Which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters, UI Press’ 180-page release of Whitman’s yarn features an introduction by Turpin. Amazon lists both hardcover and paperback editions as being available.

READ MORE:Grad Student Discovers a Lost Novel Written by Walt Whitman,” by Glen Weldon (National Public Radio).

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