Walt Whitman once said, “Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost.” This holds true for Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston doctoral candidate in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences’ English department. Using modern digital tools, Turpin discovered a long-forgotten, never-digitized novel written by 19th-century author Walt Whitman. The discovery is titled, "Life and Adventures of Jack Engle," and is a six-installment piece of fiction that was published anonymously as a newspaper serial in 1852.
“I'm a dedicated researcher, certainly, but modern technology gives us all two great advantages - powerful digital tools, and digital archives in which to rummage around and explore!” says Turpin.
This is not the first literary discovery for Turpin. In 2016, he made international news by discovering a long lost, 13-part, 47,000-word health treatise also authored by Whitman, titled, “Manly Health and Training.” The discovery was lauded as the most significant Whitman find in generations by Ed Folsom, editor, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and co-director, Walt Whitman Archive.
Wondering whether there was more Whitman work to be unearthed, he continued to search for additional writings by the famed author.
In this latest discovery, Turpin ordered scans of the serial from the Library of Congress. When he received the requested items, the pieces formed together the only copy of Jack Engle in existence, and it was undigitized. On the scan to Turpin’s amazement was a full novel of Whitman’s works that are nearly 165 years old.
“What’s so wonderful is the curiosity Turpin exhibited before finding these works. If Turpin had assumed, when he decided to focus on Walt Whitman, that he already had the entire body of Whitman’s work, and then we would never have known about this new trove,” says Dr. Sarah Fishman, associate dean, professor of history at the University of Houston. “I know well the thrill of coming across something completely unexpected in the archives. How fortunate that Turpin wanted to dig deeper and that the English Department supported that effort!”
This research will form the backbone of his dissertation. Turpin is now receiving calls and emails from scholars, readers, well-wishers, and media outlets all over the world.
“As a soon-to-be assistant professor of American literature, it's a thrill to see so many people talking about Walt Whitman, about this country's literary heritage, and about the many great discoveries still left to be made. For me, that's unbeatable.”
- Toni Mooney Smith