“It is a common experience to read Leaves of Grass and get hit in the gut. Its style and its form have a power – even after 160- plus years. Whitman’s mature poetry can still make you blush, confuse you, move you and motivate you,” Turpin says. “Leaves of Grass is one of the most important English-language documents in the world. It is political, social, individual and cosmic. It was a revelation. It hit me like a literary bomb. It was, to say the least, transformative.”
Turpin, who identified with Whitman’s effusive and elated style, dug deep to better understand the poet.
“Whitman didn’t just appear out of nowhere,” Turpin explains. “While he wanted people to believe he was just some guy stepping off of New York’s Broadway, a common man with this immaculately conceived poetic touchstone, in reality, Whitman was a protean writer, adept at adapting to different audiences, writing with different sounds. Most people may not know that he was a journalist for more than 20 years before Leaves of Grass and had written short stories and even a temperance novel.”
But what did appear out of nowhere was an advertisement in the New York Daily Times, which Turpin found late one night, his wife and new baby asleep next to him, as he was scanning through search results in ProQuest Historical Newspapers. In the ad, he found mention of a serialized story to be published in another paper – The Sunday Dispatch, to which Whitman was known to have been an anonymous contributor. The ad mentions “Jack Engle” as the title character, and the neurons in Turpin’s brain started firing and rushing to make connections. This name, a seemingly throw-away detail, appears somewhere else, too: in one of Whitman’s early notebooks, a handmade thing full of ideas for short stories and novellas. None were known to have ever been published.
For a month, Turpin corresponded with an image librarian from the Library of Congress in order to track down a copy of The Sunday Dispatch. Then, one Friday afternoon, as he was settling in for the weekend, he opened his email to find a message with an attachment: a digital image of the newspaper in question. As his eyes ratcheted down the page, he realized that lightning had struck twice.
It was a novel, titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.
In early 2017, Jack Engle, once serialized in obscurity, was republished by the University of Iowa Press, and it immediately found a new audience. It was even made into an audio book, narrated by actor Jon Hamm (famous for his work in Mad Men and a voice that could launch a thousand products).
Turpin is quick to point out that Jack Engle “doesn’t hold up on its own. The next great American novel is not something you just trip over. Rather, this work expands and complicates what we know about the great poet.”
The literary world agrees. The book is important – in context.
“This makes us reconsider everything we thought we knew about Whitman’s early writing career,” says Ed Folsom, one of the leading authorities on Whitman, co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, based at the University of Iowa. “For the first time, we have fiction written and published by Whitman after he had started writing the poems that would be included in his first edition of Leaves of Grass. Scholars and critics will be working on the implications of this for many years to come. We can now see that Whitman in the early 1850s was still unsure about what form his life’s work would take.”
NOT A BIT TAMED
This notion of path and career aspirations is an interesting one. Clearly, Walt Whitman struggled to find his identity and his voice in the 1850s. Was he going to be an American Charles Dickens (Jack Engle certainly echoes a Dickensian tone, style and plot framework), or perhaps he would be a 19th-century health and wellbeing guru or, maybe, he could be the first great American poet? In many ways, Turpin, like Whitman, faced the same uncertainty trying to determine the form that his life’s work would take.
From a distance, Turpin appears like your typical academic: Boy loves books. Boy goes to college to study books. Boy gets Ph.D. in books. Boy becomes a professor teaching books. It seems like a pretty predictable come-full-circle story.
But rarely does life follow such natural, sequential steps. And Turpin’s life is no exception. Like many of us, Turpin had many starts and stops in his career as he tried to figure out which path to take. While he had an inkling, even as early as high school, that he wanted to teach, he dipped his toe in many different careers: teaching middle school math and English in Austin (“I was not cut from the proper cloth to teach at the middle school level”); volunteering in New Zealand and trapping invasive species, such as rats, weasels, stoats and skinks; being a staff writer for the Book of Odds website, a statistical almanac for probability; and serving as a health and medical writer doing SEO work for Brafton, a content marketing agency in Boston.
“Let’s just say,” Turpin laughs, “I had a lot of gap years.”
Translate “gap years” to “interests,” and you have a better understanding of Turpin, who is now an assistant professor of American literature at the University of Idaho. His professors in the College’s master’s program in English recognized his wide-ranging interests and saw them as unique strengths.
“Turpin was the smartest person in the room – in a room full of very smart people,” says Mike Duvall, today’s director of the M.A. in English program and then one of Turpin’s American literature professors in fall 2006. “And like Whitman, Zach is exuberantly interested in everything. His interests are catholic – nothing is off limits to him and he does well with a lot of things.”
Chris Warnick, associate professor of English, agrees: “Zach was interested in not following the traditional path. His interests were all over the place. In fact, he did a teaching internship with me for ENGL 102, a course about composition and literature. We studied the play M. Butterfly and he brought in Weezer’s 1996 album, Pinkerton, and talked about how it was riffing off of Madame Butterfly. The students loved it. Zach also established ‘office hours’ – something fairly unusual for graduate assistants. He hung out in the Addlestone Library, where he picked a table near the computers on the first floor, in order to be available to students on their schedules. Not many people are as motivated as he is.”
In the eyes of Trish Horn Ward ’78, professor of English and then director of the master’s program, “Zach is very quiet, sort of self-deprecating, but smart as a whip. He just stood out.”