Whitman’s Secret Novel, and Other News


On the Shelf

Whitman, butterfly. Not pictured: secret serialized novel.


  • Look, we all have crappy novels that we’ve anonymously serialized in some small-time regional newspaper. (Mine is about a family of panda bears who vacation at the North Pole, where they befriend some itinerant polar bears.) We go to the grave expecting these novels never to be revealed. But now some hotshot grad student has tracked down Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, a swashbuckling mystery novel by one Walt Whitman, who published it without credit in New York’s Sunday Dispatch circa 1852. The novel, as Jennifer Schuessler writes, boasts “antic twists, goofy names, and suddenly revealed conspiracies,” but it’s at its best when its hero loses the plot and pauses for some Leaves of Grass–style musing: “Jack enters the cemetery at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, and the madcap plot grinds to a halt in favor of reveries about nature, immortality and the oneness of being that strikingly echo the imagery of Whitman’s great work. ‘Long, rank grass covered my face,’ says Jack, the first-person narrator. ‘Over me was the verdure, touched with brown, of trees nourished from the decay of the bodies of men.’ Jack wanders among those bodies of men, copying out the inscriptions of the tombstones of Alexander Hamilton, the War of 1812 hero Capt. James Lawrence (of ‘Don’t give up the ship!’ fame) and other lost lives. Then, he exits onto the streets, where ‘onward rolled the broad, bright current’—and quickly and rather indifferently wraps up his own story.”
  • Salamishah Tillet on the power and the glory of black marching bands: “In Jules Allen’s Marching Bands, a stunning collection of social documentary, portraiture, and panoramic photography, he takes us into this behind-the-scenes world of African-American marching bands all over the country. ‘Whenever a marching band would come through, it would take me to pieces,’ Allen has said. ‘In particular, Morgan State. They were just something else: the rhythm, the movement, the precision, the timing. What I call now the pulse and beat of what they were doing. It all seemed so particular to an African-American sensibility’ … In one of my favorite images, we spy a school marching band in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Flanked by a school bus and a parked car, everyone is in motion—they are either preparing for a parade or getting back on the bus. Drums are littered everywhere, even a trumpet on the ground, while one young man holds his arm up, trombone to his side, as if mentally rehearsing either his first notes or remembering his last ones. Behind him a young trombonist looks on, while to his right, a trumpeter in full costume stares. Band members walk in opposite directions, some smiling, some somber, as a mural, ‘The Black Wall Street Community,’ creates a telling backdrop.”

  • Quickly, quickly, let’s check in on a debate roiling the Shakespeare scholars of the world. Here’s Daniel Pollack-Pelzner on Gary Taylor, whose New Oxford Shakespeare is the first edition of the plays to give Christopher Marlowe a coauthor credit for Henry VI: “Taylor has been accused of hating Shakespeare, which isn’t true. He admires Shakespeare. But he thinks that our veneration of the playwright’s genius has blinded us to the brilliance of other writers, such as Marlowe and Middleton—and to the political alternatives they envisioned. ‘Shakespeare’s favorite subjects are monarchy, monogamy, and monotheism; not coincidentally, his most famous speeches and sonnets are monologues’ … Rather than include single-authored scholarly introductions (or ‘critical monologues,’ as they call them) for each play, this edition offers snippets from a range of critical responses. ‘You might think of this as tapas Shakespeare,’ the general editors’ preface suggests. This approach upsets conventions that the editors associate with Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare, they argue, ‘specializes in one-and-onliness.’ Taylor, on the other hand, believes ‘in a democracy of readers who are not being told what they have to like,’ he told me over the phone.”
  • And last, news from Iceland, where the president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, faced a firestorm of controversy after claiming that he was “fundamentally opposed” to putting pineapple on his pizza: “‘I do not have the power to make laws which forbid people to put pineapples on their pizza,’ Guðni, a former history professor at the University of Iceland, wrote. ‘I am glad I do not hold such power.’ Presidents should ‘not have unlimited power,’ he continued. ‘I would not want to hold this position if I could pass laws forbidding that which I don’t like. I would not want to live in such a country. For pizzas, I recommend seafood.’ ”