A ProQuest Historical Newspapers junkie, Zachary Turpin, then a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Houston, found himself obsessively exploring digital databases until all hours of the night. (“It’s kind of a sickness I have in off-hours,” he confessed to The New York Times.1) Then he tried an advanced search in the ProQuest database with keywords “Mose Velsor,” a pseudonym sometimes used by American poet Walt Whitman and…
Turpin found an ad that led to a radical discovery: Whitman’s lost newspaper column, Manly Health and Training, containing nearly 50,000 words on men’s fitness and healthy living. The exhilaration of finding an unknown series of articles by one of America’s most beloved poets will shake a researcher to his core: “Scrolling through and seeing another, and another, and another, puts a real pressure in your soul. It’s a spooky feeling to be the only person alive who knows about something,” Turpin told The Houston Chronicle.2
Then, incredibly, it happened again.
In 2016, after coming across some plot notes and character sketches among Whitman’s papers, Turpin scoured the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database and eventually discovered an 1852 ad in The New York Times announcing a serialized novella, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, that would appear in The Sunday Dispatch. Turpin traced the publication to the Library of Congress archives, and according to Newsday,3 “Whitman was not listed as the author, but it was unquestionably by him - the novel contained language that mirrored that of his epic ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which he was writing at the same time.”
We recently interviewed Turpin, now an Assistant Professor of American Literature at the University of Idaho, about his work as a sort of literary detective, his passion for 19th-century literature, what he’s working on now, and why we have an enduring love for Walt Whitman.
Sometimes, I feel like a bit of an oddball. But I don't expect to be one for long, for three reasons:
(1) "American literature" is huge. It isn't just books. It's also literary magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, tracts, playlets, poems, memoirs, cookbooks, sheet music, etc.—all those things that are being digitally archived by the millions every year. If you think about it, "American literature" is way bigger than we can imagine—which means we're only just beginning to glimpse what out literary history really is.
(2) 19th-century authors wrote a lot. I mean a lot. Authors of the 19th century (my specialty) were the first bumper crop of professional writers, for whom "writer" was their sole job. They did nothing else, and to make ends meet they often wrote non-stop, mostly for periodicals. Besides writing voluminously, many of these men and women did not keep careful track of their work. Thus, there's undoubtedly a lot left to find. If only you know where to look and have the right tools.
(3) Researchers like me now have unbelievably powerful tools at their disposal. Using digital resources like ProQuest Historical Newspapers,* anyone may now sift through millions upon millions of pages of text, all in a matter of seconds, and with the ability to sharpen their searches in all sorts of valuable ways. It's no accident that each time I discovered a literary notice that led me to a major Whitman find, I did it on ProQuest.
On the surface of it, this statement seems true enough. After all, in his mature poetry Whitman avoids classically sentimental tropes—tearful scenes, nostalgia, melodrama, and whatnot. But as with everything else he says, here we need to take him with a grain of salt. Sure, Whitman insists that he's uninfluenced by what he once called “the sickly sentimentality which is so favorite a theme with novelists and magazine writers.” Nevertheless, in both his fiction and his poetry, Whitman is deeply indebted to this “theme,” and to the many women-authored sentimental novels that developed it. It's a debt he hesitates to acknowledge, but one that I see written all over his lost novel, Jack Engle, his early poems and short stories, and even Leaves of Grass.
In my book, I explore how Whitman uses and abuses sentimentalism in Leaves in order to help the reader feel an unmediated, empathic connection to other people. He's the "poet of democracy," after all—the champion of diversity. It makes sense that he sees his job to be, in some sense, getting the reader to empathize with people they might not usually empathize with (escaped slaves, prostitutes, murderers, "onanists," etc). And sentimentalism, believe it or not, is often his way of doing so!
To an outside observer, it might seem boring. But to me, every minute is magical.
Have you ever met someone who's just so serene, warm, magnetic even, yet doesn't seem to ever play by the usual rules? Someone who is instantly your friend, always says exactly what they think, knows you better than you know yourself? That's Whitman. He just cuts right to the heart of things. To quote the man himself, "he can make every word he speaks draw blood."
That said, Whitman also deliberately cultivated a mystique—he was always playing his cards a little close to the chest. His sexuality, his literary influences, the origins of Leaves, his "Great Secret" (something he considered disclosing late in life, but never did!): there are many mysteries about him, and he seems to have liked it that way. Pretty ironic, coming from one of history's great oversharers!
Finally, I think Whitman is still captivating today because we are still getting to know him, more than a century after his death. Whitman was so multifaceted, prolific, and creative, that it may take another century or two to truly and comprehensively see him for the representative artist he was.
What a wonderful thought!
*Discover the resource Zachary Turpin used to launch his discovery of lost works by Walt Whitman. With more than 50 premier historical titles, ProQuest Historical Newspapers is the definitive newspaper digital archive empowering researchers to digitally travel back through centuries to become eyewitnesses to history. And uncover lost literary gems!