In 1852, young Walt Whitman—a down-on-his-luck housebuilder in Brooklyn—was hard at work writing two books. One would become one of the most famous volumes of poetry in American history, a free-verse revelation beloved the world over, Leaves of Grass. The other, a novel, would be published under a pseudonym and serialized in a newspaper. A short, rollicking story of orphanhood, avarice, and adventure in New York City, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle appeared to little fanfare. Then it disappeared. No one laid eyes on it until 2016, when literary scholar Zachary Turpin, University of Houston, followed a paper trail deep into the Library of Congress, where the sole surviving copy of Jack Engle has lain waiting for generations. Now, after more than 160 years, the University of Iowa Press is honored to reprint this lost work, restoring a missing piece of American literature by one of the world’s greatest authors, written as he verged on immortality.
About the Author
Zachary Turpin is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Houston. With interests in nineteenth-century periodical culture and digital humanities, he has uncovered lost works by a number of American authors, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Emma Lazarus, Rebecca Harding Davis, Ambrose Bierce, and L. Frank Baum. He lives with his family in Houston, Texas.
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Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography
A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader will find some Familiar Characters
By Walt Whitman
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2017 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
An approved specimen of young America — the Lawyer in his office — Old age, down at the heel — entrance of Telemachus and Ulysses — a bargain closed.
Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.
"COVERT Attorney at Law"
stared into the room (it was a down-town law-office) from the door which was opened wide and fastened back, for coolness; and the real Covert, at that moment, looked up from his cloth-covered table, in an inner apartment, whose carpet, book-cases, musty smell, big chair, with leather cushions, and the panels of only one window out of three being opened, and they but partially so, announced it as thesanctum of the sovereign master there. That gentleman's garb marked him as one of the sect of Friends, or Quakers. He was a tallish man, considerably round-shouldered, with a pale, square, closely shaven face; and one who possessed any expertness as a physiognomist, could not mistake a certain sanctimonious satanic look out of the eyes. From some suspicion that he didn't appear well in that part of his countenance, Mr. Covert had a practice of casting down his visual organs. On this occasion, however, they lighted on his errand-boy.
"Yes, go to thy dinner; both can go," said he, "for I want to be alone."
And Wigglesworth, the clerk, a tobacco-scented old man — he smoked and chewed incessantly — left his high stool, in the corner where he had been slowly copying some document.
Old Wigglesworth! I must drop a word of praise and regret upon you here; for the Lord gave you a good soul, ridiculous old codger that you were.
I know few more melancholy sights than these old men present, whom you see here and there about New York; apparently without chick or child, very poor, their lips caved in upon toothless gums, dressed in seedy and greasy clothes, and ending their lives on that just debatable ground between honorable starvation and the poor house.
Old Wigglesworth had been well off once. The key to his losses, and his old age of penury, was nothing more nor less than intemperance. He did not get drunk, out and out, but he was never perfectly sober. Covert now employed him at a salary of four dollars a week.
Nathaniel, before-mentioned, was a small boy with a boundless ambition; the uttermost end and aim of which was that he might one day drive a fast horse of his own on Third avenue. In the meantime, he smoked cheap cigars, cultivated with tenderness upon his temples, his bright brown hair, in that form denominated "soap-lock," and swept out the office and ran the errands; occasionally stopping to settle a dispute by tongue or fist. For Nathaniel was brave, and had a constitutional tendency to thrust his own opinions upon other people by force if necessary.
Freed from the presence of the two, Mr. Covert sat meditating and writing alternately; until he had finished a letter, on which he evidently bestowed considerable pains. — He then folded, enveloped, sealed it, and locked it in his desk.
A tap at the door.
Two persons enter. One is a hearty middle-aged man, of what is called the working classes. The other is your humble servant, who takes all these pains in narrating his adventures, for your entertainment; his name is Jack Engle, and at the time of this introduction he is of the roystering age of twenty — stands about five feet ten, in his stocking feet — carries a pair of brown eyes and red cheeks to match, and looks mighty sharp at the girls as they go home through Nassau street from their work downtown.
"Mr. Covert, I suppose," said my companion.
"That is my name, sir. Will thee be seated?"
"My name's Foster," settling himself in a chair, and putting his hat on the table, "you got a line from me the other day, I suppose?"
"Ah, yes — yes," slowly answers the lawyer. Then looking at me, "and this is the young man, then?"
"This is the young man, sir; and we have come to see whether we can settle the thing. You see I want him to be a lawyer, which is a trade he does not much like, and would not himself have chosen. But I rather set my heart upon it; and he is a boy that gives in to me, and has agreed to study at the business for one year faithfully. And then I have agreed to let him have his own way."
"He is not thy son, I think I understood," said Covert.
"Not exactly," answered the other, "and yet so near the same as to make no difference. Now you know my mind, and as I am a man of few words, I should like to know yours."
"Well, we will try him, Mr. Foster, at any rate."
Then turning to me, "If thee will come in here to-morrow forenoon, young man, between nine and ten, I shall have more leisure for a talk; and we will then make a beginning. Although I warn thee in advance that it will depend entirely upon thyself how thee gets along. My own part will be nothing more than to point out the best road."
Which endeth the first chapter.CHAPTER 2
The worthy milkman, and how he trusted people; and the wonderful luck he had one morning in finding a precious treasure.
This chapter is necessarily retrospective of the preceding one.
Among the earliest customers of Ephraim Foster, there came one morning a little white-headed boy, neither handsome nor ugly. Ephraim kept a shop in one of the thoroughfares that cross Grand street, east of the Bowery; he sold milk, eggs, and sundry etceteras — in winter adding to his vocations, those of a purveyor of pork and sausage meat, which is a driving and a thriving trade, hereabout, in cold weather.
Fair America rivals ancient Greece in its love of pork. At the proper season, you may see, thickly set through the streets, the places for furnishing this favorite winter eating; beautiful red and white slices, mighty hams, either fresh or smoked, sides and fore-quarters — and, at intervals, a grinning head with fat cheeks and ears erect. — Still morepreferable to some, is the powerfully spiced sausage meat, or the jelly-like head-cheese.
In the preparation of the latter articles, the worthy Ephraim always did wonders; for folks had confidence in him — which is a great deal to bestow on a sausage vendor. — However, he deserved it all. He deserved more. He was one of the best fellows that ever lived. People said now and then that he would never set the North River a-fire; and yet Foster jogged along, even in his pecuniary affairs, faster and steadier than some who had the reputation of much superior cunning. He was, without thinking of it at all, constitutionally kind, liberal, and unselfish. It was in an humble way, to be sure; but none the less credit for that. — He had a knack of making mistakes against his own interest — giving the customer the odd pennies, and never gouging in weight or measure.
Then although the usual sign of "No Trust" hung up over the counter, Ephraim did trust very much — particularly if the family asking indulgence were poor, or the father or mother was sick. Although this resulted several times in bad debts that were no trifle to a man in his sort of business, it was marvellous how in the long run he didn't really lose.
One time, a year after a certain thumping bill had been utterly despaired of, and the poor journeyman cabinet maker owing it had moved to another part of the city, things grew brighter with him, and he came round one cool evening to pay up like a man and make Ephraim's wife a pretty present of a work-box. Another time when the long, long score of a poor woman, with little children, had been allowed to accumulate nearly all winter — for otherwise, they would have starved — the husband, an intemperate, shiftless character, died, and the woman was taken away by her friends. But strange to tell, who should be engaged, by and by, as cook in the house of a wealthy family three blocks off, but this very same woman — who grew fat and rosy in a good place, and not only paid the old score, long as it was, — (although Ephraim himself told her it was no matter, and might as well go, now; but the worthy cook began to grow angry then) — not only did she settle the bill, but sent her old friend a deal of profitable custom. The story of his good deeds went to the ears of the mistress, and thence into other people's; and you may depend Ephraim didn't lose anything by that. So with all his soft-heartedness the man might be said to gain nearly enough to balance the really bad accounts; for they were not always coming back, after he gave them up — those unfortunate bills.
This was the sort of personage that the little flax-headed boy was lucky enough to come to. He didn't seem to have performed any morning toilet; he was bare-headed and bare-footed; finally he was about ten years old.
"And who are you, my man?" said Ephraim, for he had never seen the youngster before, although he knew, or thought so, every mother's child for a dozen blocks around.
The tow head looked up in the shopkeeper's face and answered that his usual appellation was Jack.
"And where do you come from?" continued Ephraim.
Master Jack looked up again, but returned no reply at all. He drew in a long breath and let it out again, — that sort of half sigh that children sometimes make: still keeping his eyes at Ephraim's.
"I want some breakfast," boldly came from his lips at last.
Ephraim stopped a moment in his work of hauling out before the door his stands and milk cans; but the bit of astonishment was followed by something very much like gratified vanity. It wouldn't be every man, or woman either, that a little unfortunate, might appeal to with the style of Jack's laconic speech. It was not a style where effrontery or the callous tone of an accustomed beggar struck out. It was rather like saying — sir, I see that you have a good heart, and that it always delights you to do a charitable deed.
There was another thing. Ephraim had, ten months before, been the possessor of a little white head, not much different from Jack's, only a good deal younger. But it was its fate one melancholy evening, to be the subject of the consultation of three doctors of medicine, who attended it for five successive days. At the end of that time the little white head was whiter than ever, for it was dead. So the good fellow's heart, thenceforward, warmed toward children with a still deeper warmth than before.
Without any more ado, or any talk about it, the milkman and the child by silent consent, seemed to form a mental compact. — The new assistant took hold; and the two helped each other in all the preparations and putting to rights. Tow-head sprinkled the flagstones in front, and swept them off; he would have done the same thing to the floor inside — only the owner himself had done it already.
As he bustled and brushed about, Ephraim more than once stopped, under the influence of a meditative abstraction; he probably weighed in his mind the chances of the newcomer's honesty — for he looked closely at him from time to time. What particular notions flitted through the tow-head, I now forget.
And yet I ought to know something about it, for I was myself the forsaken young vagabond, who found a friend in that pearl of a milkman. The spirit of Christ impelled you, Ephraim, whether you knew it or not. If I had been turned off with a surly answer, there might have been a body lost — or perhaps a soul; for I was sorely distressed. — Parentless and homeless — just at the turning point where familiarity with crime is developed into something worse — such was I when you took me in and ministered unto me.CHAPTER 3
Something for the special consideration of those who pay two hundred a year pew rent, and take the sacrament from vessels of silver and gold: Billjiggs, his life and death: wounds, and balm for the same.
At this time, I have only a confused and occasionally distinct recollection of my fortunes previous to the morning at the milkman's.
You have doubtless, supposing you to have lived in or ever visited New-York, seen there many a little vagabond, in dirty tatters and shirtless. They generally wander along in men's boots, picked up somewhere, whose disproportionate size makes it necessary for them to keep their feet sliding along, without lifting from the ground. The shuffling movement thus acquired sometimes sticks to them through life.
Nobody either cares, or appears to care, for these juvenile loafers. Some are the children of shame, and are cast out because they would be a perpetual memento of disgrace to their generators. Some are orphans of the poorest classes. Others run away from parental brutality; which is pretty plentiful, after all, among both high and low. Others again take to the streets for very sustenance; those who should naturally be their protectors living lives of drunkenness and improvidence.
The revelations of the Reports of the Chief of the Police, about this extensive element in what is termed the rising generation, are terrible and romantic in their naked facts, far beyond any romance of the novelist.
What I remember of my life previous to my introduction in the second chapter, was mostly located among this class. We were indeed wanderers upon the face of the earth; although our travels did not extend beyond the limits of the city, and the places within a few miles' distance. The only principle that controlled us was the instinct to live, animally; to eat, (if we could get it,) when we were hungry, and to lie down and sleep wherever weariness overtook us.
I have a very clear recollection of a most intimate crony, with whom I shared luck and adventures; and who did the same with me. He was a little older than myself. His name, he always said, was William, or Bill, Jiggs; but we all used to call him Billjiggs, for convenience.
Billjiggs was quite a magnificent fellow. When elated or very good humored, indeed, he was wont to announce himself as one of the boys you read of in the Scriptures; though which of these numerous worthies he meant, he never specified. He had red hair, — very red. It was never combed; but it was cut every few days, by the friend whohappened to be the handiest; sometimes with a scissors, sometimes with a jackknife, sharpened for the work; and once, I remember with a broad-axe. I had the honor of handling the implement myself on that occasion. Some carpenters, at work on a new house, had gone to dinner nearby, and left their tools lying loose around. Poor Billjiggs! I came very near laying his head open.
My friend would never allow me to be imposed upon by superior force or cunning; and though I was too little to add much to his weight in his own quarrels, still I sometimes managed to cast the balance in his favor, in cases where the odds were pretty nearly even. For Billjiggs was pugnacious; he entered into quarrels and fights on the smallest pretence, and sometimes received horrible drubbings.
One day, I remember, he pitched into a boy considerably bigger than himself, for some curt rejoinder to a critical remark of Billjiggs, about a certain spotted cap which the aforesaid boy chose to wear on his head. He of the spotted cap got considerably the worst of the battle, which waxed hot; when he was fain to seize a good-sized paving stone that happened to be loose in the street, and dealt Billjiggs such a blow on the side of his head that he fell flat and senseless on the ground, and the blood poured forth freely; the victor taking to his heels like a good fellow.
I mention this incident because it was the means of my first seeing an individual who years afterward, (as the reader will find in the course of the story,) played a prominent part in the affairs of my life.
Billjiggs was carried in the nearest basement, and restoratives applied to him.
An old Quaker lady, and a little girl of my own age, appeared to be the only ones at home. The old lady was very kind in her manner; and after washing Billjiggs' dirty and bloody head, and applying plasters from the neighboring druggist's, bound it up in her own large, clean, white linen handkerchief. The little girl had to fasten the knot in it, for the old lady's fingers were not nimble enough. She did so very tenderly and neatly; and she seemed to me, as I looked at her, to be a little red-cheeked angel from Heaven.
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What People are Saying About This
“In 2015, Zachary Turpin made international news by discovering a long-lost book of Whitman’s journalism called Manly Health and Training, which was rightly hailed as the most significant Whitman find in generations. Unbelievably, Turpin has outdone himself by discovering an even more important lost Whitman work, this time a novel, the only piece of fiction that we know of that was written after Whitman began working on Leaves of Grass.”