Photo: Library of Congress
Walt Whitman holding a butterfly.
I love reading about the early writings of famous authors. For example, the Brontë children worked on stories about a kingdom they invented called Angria and another kingdom called Gondal, in which the hero was based on the Duke of Wellington.
Sometimes authors do not want anyone to know about their unpolished work, though. Jane Austen convinced her sister to burn letters and other writings after her death. And Walt Whitman wrote an anonymous potboiler that was kept under wraps until a grad student with a knack for finding lost work discovered it last summer.
Rachel Leah writes at Salon, “A new Walt Whitman novel is now available for purchase, 125 years after the author’s death. Previously, the text had only been published anonymously in a six-part series in a New York City newspaper in 1852.
“But last summer the novel was rediscovered by a graduate student deep within the Library of Congress. This is the second Whitman novel that the literary scholar Zachary Turpin has unearthed. …
“Turpin previously uncovered a lengthy newspaper series on fitness and healthy living that Whitman had published under a pseudonym in 1858, CBS reported.
“The novel titled ‘The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle’ was published online on Feb. 20 in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, and soon will be in book form, courtesy of the University of Iowa Press. …
“Perhaps most remarkable is the novel’s relevant subject matter.
“According to Whitman expert David S. Reynolds, ‘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,’ he told The New York Times.” Hmmm.
I’m always sorry — not only for the sake of researchers, but for those of us who like literary biographies — that early writings are lost. And now that no one uses a typewriter or writes by hand anymore, we are also losing the thought process that was once revealed in cross-outs and scribbled corrections. We have yet to plumb the full cost of that loss.