Long-unknown, originally pseudonymous novel by the canonical American poet, who incorporated some of its themes into his nascent poetic cycle, Leaves of Grass.
Using techniques of data analysis and a Nicholson Baker–esque devotion to yellowed newsprint, literary scholar Zachary Turpin—who previously uncovered Whitman’s self-help book, Manly Health and Training—here revives an 1852 serial novel by Whitman, who, he writes, published it in "similar secrecy." Whether embarrassed by it we cannot say, but Whitman’s aspirational tale of the orphan Jack Engle is solid enough, if obviously and heavily influenced by Charles Dickens and sprinkled with period didacticism: “New York is a progressive city, of vast resources; but in nothing is its energy more perceptible than in its juvenile population proper—their culture and their beginning early.” Honest and always striving, Jack is a good boy dealt a bad hand in life, helped along by the poor and struggling, by clerks and errand boys and foundlings. The story anticipates by more than a decade the rags-to-riches yarns of Horatio Alger, but unlike Alger, Whitman finds little to admire in the upper crust. The heavy in the tale is a grasping lawyer, meaningfully named Covert, who wants nothing more than to undo the legal shield a prescient client has built around his daughter, soon to be alone in the world, in order “to put certain checks on Covert’s movements, and effect, to some extent, a superior control over that cunning villain.” Lusting after the damsel's inheritance though supposedly a good Quaker, Covert is villainous indeed. Can Jack save the day? Formulaic and studded with stock figures such as the “pretty Jewess,” Whitman’s tale could not end otherwise. But is it any good? Suffice it to say that in terms of sheer storytelling power, Melville, Twain, and James need not worry about being demoted in the pantheon of 19th-century American literature.
Of great literary-historical interest, mostly because of its author and provenance but also for its treatment of contemporary social themes.