was Walt Whitman “politically corrected”?


As noted in a recent New York Times article

“In a Walt Whitman Novel, Lost for 165 Years, Clues to ‘Leaves of Grass

By Jennifer Schuessler

The New York Times, February 20, 2017


Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, has recently discovered — which is to say found and published — the manuscript of a “lost” Walt Whitman novel.

The novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, was published anonymously by Whitman as a serial in a newspaper, The New York Atlas, in 1858. The novel has been published online by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. I have read it already. It’s a good read.

While I was reading the novel and subsequently, I had the following exchange of emails with Mr. Turpin, whom I have had the good fortune to since meet.

See emails below.


— Roger W. Smith

    June 2017



Roger Smith to Zachary Turpin

March 13, 2017

Dear Mr. Turpin,

I am currently reading “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.” What a find!

A real reading pleasure for a Whitman lover such as myself.

On the third line of page 53, I noted the words, in quoted dialogue: ‘the world to some’

Shouldn’t it be the world to come?


Zachary Turpin to Roger Smith

March 13, 2017

Roger — Many thanks for your email! It should indeed be “the world to come”—good eye.

Call it a coincidence, but a friend and fellow Whitmanian just emailed me to say the same thing, shortly after you. Great minds. Anyway, I’ll forward this along to the University of Iowa Press, since I know they’ll want to hear about it.

Thank you for your kind message.


Roger Smith to Zachary Turpin

May 30, 2017

Dear Zack,

Hello. I consider it my good fortune to have met you briefly at the American Literature Association conference on Thursday.

I am still wondering about a couple of words on page 95 of “Jack Engle”: “… the reader must supply it from his or her imagination.”

It’s bothering me — perhaps it shouldn’t. But, I keep wondering, is that what Whitman really wrote? Seems very uncommon for a nineteenth century writer, even one such as Whitman who could be considered to have been ahead of his time on many (but not all) issues, to have used “him or her.” But, then it’s entirely possible that he did. Or, did a zealous copyeditor change “his” to “his or her”?


Zachary Turpin to Roger Smith

May 30, 2017


Yep, I hear you, it seems uncommon—but then Whitman was anything but common for his era. His egalitarianism extended to men and women right from the very first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855):

To pass among them . . to touch any one . . .. to rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment … what is this then?

And again:

Each has his or her place in the procession.

Three more instances appear in the 1856 edition:

Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth,…..

They bring none to his or her terminus, or to be content and full,….

Of authors and editors I do not know how many there are in The States, but there are thousands, each one building his or her step to the stairs by which giants shall mount.

And so on. There are many others. 1881:

Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of realism, spiritualism, and of the aesthetic or intellectual,….

Or in 1892, in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”:

The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine.

And that’s just in his poetry! His journalism, reminiscences, interviews, and fiction contain more.

So, I think one of two things may be at issue here. Either (1) this construction came about earlier than it may seem to have, or (2) when it comes to even the smallest gender-equality issues, like pronouns, Whitman was still more conscientious and forward-thinking than his contemporaries. Or both, of course!

In any case, I bet you could write a very interesting piece on the “his or her” construction in 19th-century American writings, especially in its relation to democratic poetics.


Roger Smith to Zachary Turpin

May 30, 2017



You’ve convinced me.



Roger Smith to Zachary Turpin

June 3, 2017


I told you I would get back to you again.

I am finally getting around to it.

I want to thank you again for you reply, which was very informative and so thorough. Much appreciated.

I now see that Whitman was way ahead of his time when it came to “gender inclusive” grammatical constructions. A very cumbersome way to put it. Sorry.

I guess I should have known better when it comes to the poet who wrote:

Think of womanhood, and you to be a woman;
The creation is womanhood;
Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
Have I not told how the universe has nothing better
than the best womanhood?

I guess what one might say that, for someone completely original and also possessing intuitive genius, as was true of Whitman, grammatical norms don’t necessarily account for that much. He was capable of inventing his own “grammar” when it suited him.


'Life and Adventures of Jack Engle' - cover.jpg

Leave a Reply