ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now a story of discovery, a buried literary treasure. The great poet Walt Whitman wrote a novel in 1852 called "The Life And Adventures Of Jack Engle." That text was forgotten for more than a century until a graduate student at the University of Houston uncovered it. Zachary Turpin is that graduate student.
Congratulations on your discovery.
ZACHARY TURPIN: Oh, thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: So this began as you were looking over old notebooks from Walt Whitman, and you found to a reference to a story that had never been published. You started digging and found an item in The New York Times from 1852. What did it say?
TURPIN: That's right. It promises a rich revelation. It says, tomorrow in the Sunday Dispatch, which is an old New York newspaper, "Life And Adventures Of Jack Engle," an autobiography. And that name, Jack Engle, is what stuck with me.
SHAPIRO: Because it had been in Whitman's notes.
TURPIN: That's right.
SHAPIRO: So you had to get in touch with the Library of Congress in order to get the Sunday Dispatch in which it was published. They sent you the first page. What was it like when you received that and saw this undiscovered Walt Whitman novel?
TURPIN: It was wild. So the literary research that I do isn't as glamorous as you might think.
SHAPIRO: You're not Indiana Jones in like...
TURPIN: Not it's not...
SHAPIRO: ...Snake-filed pits?
TURPIN: Much as I appreciate the comparison, I'm not Indiana Jones (laughter). I was actually in a guest bedroom and my in-laws putting together Pack 'n Play, and I got an email and of course had to drop everything and open it. And what I'm looking for are these very unique character names that Whitman had written out - Wigglesworth, Smytthe spelled S-M-Y-T-T-H-E. And the first thing that I see on the page are those names. So it was a real shock.
SHAPIRO: I mean I can't imagine what that must have felt like.
TURPIN: It was it was surreal. It is still surreal. It's - you know, I've been holding this secret inside me, and so have quite a few people. I probably told too many people. And it's been a very, very wonderful and bizarre experience ever since.
SHAPIRO: This book, "The Life And Adventures Of Jack Engle," is now being posted online and also published in book form. We're going to tweet a link to it from the NPR ATC Twitter account. But will you just give us a snapshot of the plot? It sounds very sort of Dickensian.
TURPIN: It is Dickensian, among other things. It's also a sentimental novel. It's also a city-mystery novel. It's multifaceted. Let's put it that way. The main character's an orphan who has been adopted, and he's now grown to a young man. He's entering the study of law. And his boss essentially is this sort of scheming villain named Mr. Covert who's scheming after the inheritance of his adopted daughter, Martha. And from the very first time he meets her, Jack Engle, the titular character, feels these feelings toward Martha. He swears that he has met her before. Though, his eyes are also drawn to Inez, the Spanish dancing girl.
SHAPIRO: It is a thickly layered plot (laughter).
TURPIN: It is. He packs a lot into 22 chapters.
SHAPIRO: Do you like the book? Is it something that you would enjoy reading?
TURPIN: I'm really blown away by this book. What I can say about this book is that it's all things to all men. It's weird. It's wild. It's beautiful and hilarious. (Laughter) And it's truly phenomenal and I think something that everyone would enjoy picking up.
SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're saying it contains multitudes.
TURPIN: It contains multitudes - well said.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Whitman said later in his life that he was not proud of his early writings. At one point he said he wished to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropped in oblivion. Should we respect that wish?
TURPIN: That's a very good and pointed question. I'll say two things. Number one, are there things that you wrote in youth that you would wish quietly dropped in oblivion?
SHAPIRO: Of course (laughter).
TURPIN: I think there are for me, too. So on the one hand, I understand where he's coming from. On the other hand, Whitman's greatest wish was to be the greatest and most famous poet in America. And I think the testament to that fact is that he now has two new books coming out more than a hundred years after his death.
SHAPIRO: Well, Zachary Turpin, thanks a lot for sharing your discovery with us.
TURPIN: Many thanks. Thanks for having me on.
SHAPIRO: Zachary Turpin is a graduate student at the University of Houston. He discovered the last Walt Whitman novel "The Life And Adventures Of Jack Engle."
(SOUNDBITE OF MR. GREEN AND MALIK B SONG, "WHAT CAN I SAY")