The pros and cons of the digitized Whitman and his “lost” novels

WhitmanbutterflyJames McWilliams at the Paris Review:

Still, it’s hard not to feel perplexed about Walt’s reputation as technology and scholarly fortitude converge to hone in on his secret work. When I read The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, it seemed obvious why Whitman had published it anonymously. The novel is essentially a formulaic blend of period-piece tropes and Horatio Alger moralizing. In terms of a literary contribution, it adds nothing. It was the bland stuff that newspapers paid for, payments that Whitman needed to underwrite poetry that would transform poetry. (Leaves of Grass was self-published on July 4, 1855.) Whitman edited his life as if it were a poem. As much as he would have preferred to burn the work he didn’t want others to see—as did his self-censorious contemporaries Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickinson—he had to publish it and trust that newsprint would hold his secrets. For more than 150 years, it did—a good run.

Literary scholars and historians exist in part to demythologize the past; it’s our job. As much as I wish there were a decent argument to prevent Turpin and others from using technology to knock the myth off of Whitman, there’s not. But, since it’s out there now,read the unearthed Whitman novel yourself. You might find that the satisfaction of knowing the full truth about Whitman is rapidly ephemeral.

more here.