One of the most enduring (if not most entertaining) games that Walt Whitman scholars like to play begins with a single question: Where did Leaves of Grass come from? Before Whitman released the first edition of his now-iconic book of poetry in 1855, he had published only a handful of rather conventional poems in local newspapers, which makes it seem as if the groundbreaking free-verse form in Leaves of Grass appeared virtually out of nowhere. Ralph Waldo Emerson was first to play the game of pondering the origin of poems such as “Song of Myself” when he wrote a letter to Whitman mere weeks after the initial publication of Leaves of Grass in the summer of 1855. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote, “which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.” Whitman published an open-letter reply to Emerson the following year that conveniently neglected to identify a foreground of any sort that would account for what Emerson had called “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
While Whitman may have ignored Emerson’s query regarding the origins of Leaves of Grass, it has not stopped scholars from trying to identify the elusive long foreground of his poems. Most of these scholars, however, are less concerned with finding a single, definitive piece of evidence that accounts for the genesis of Leaves of Grass than they are with cataloging the various cultural materials that could have influenced in one way or another the poet who famously said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Recently, University of Houston PhD Candidate Zachary Turpin discovered a long-lost 1852 novella by Whitman that has scholars and journalists eager to play a new round of “Where did Leaves of Grass come from?” The novella, titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, is a game-changing document that University of Iowa scholar Ed Folsom identifies as “the only piece of Whitman fiction that we know of that was written after Whitman began working on Leaves of Grass.” Jennifer Schuessler, writing in the New York Times, notes in particular a moment where “the madcap plot [of Jack Engle] grinds to a halt in favor of reveries about nature, immortality and the oneness of being that strikingly echo the imagery of Whitman’s great work [Leaves of Grass].” Folsom calls this swerve from narrative plot to poetic musing, “discovering the process of Whitman’s own discovery,” as the poet appears to have hit the limits of fictional prose and commenced experimenting with what was to become his idiosyncratic, free-verse poetic language.
Setting aside for a moment what Jack Engle may or may not have to tell us about the birth of Leaves of Grass is another “process of discovery” that merits our attention: the process by which Turpin himself discovered the 165-year-old text. When I had lunch with Zack last fall in Philadelphia, he told me how the journey towards discovering Jack Engle began with puzzling over some unfamiliar names in Whitman’s notebooks—names that ended up belonging to the characters in Jack Engle—and then using those names as search terms to comb through electronic databases of digitized newspapers until he found an issue of The Sunday Dispatch where an installment of Whitman’s long-lost novella had first been published. When Zack told me that he had employed some online search tricks that he had learned from his previous life working for an Internet company, it brought to mind one of the ideas that I had recently written about for a special issue of the academic journal American Literary History on scholarly research in digital archives. Specifically, Zack’s clever use of search techniques to shake up the documents in the archive in such a way that the material he was looking for rose to the surface reminded me of what Lauren Klein, a web developer-turned-English professor, has said about using techniques derived from data visualization to “stir the archive” of digitized texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Digital archives are immensely valuable resources for scholars attempting to reconstruct our cultural past, but the information in these archives is often obfuscated simply by virtue of the volume of materials they contain. Scholars such as Professor Klein have invited us to use a variety of digital analysis tools—from data mining to network visualization—as a way to “stir up” the contents of an archive in hopes that some valuable new document will come into view. I had taken Professor Klein’s invitation and, with the help of my colleague Rob Weidman, found a bar song that had been written in the late 1850s that identified Whitman as a philosopher, rather than a poet. My sense is that this song says more about the people reading Whitman’s poetry in the 1850s than it does about the poetry itself, but maybe with this lead an enterprising scholar could stir the right archive and find a long-lost philosophical tract written by Whitman that would start up the next round of “Where did Leaves of Grass come from?”
Featured image credit: “Books” by Syd Wachs. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.