"A Story of New York at the Present Time": The Historico-Literary Contexts of Jack Engle

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It seems natural to suspect foul play when the first thing one reads in a text is a double affirmation of its truthfulness. Consequently, in the admittedly short reception history of Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (1852)—an anonymously published novella by Walt Whitman that was rediscovered in the spring of 2017—the fictionality of the text is taken for granted. Of course, the novella is not “autobiographical” to the extent it suggests, as even a cursory reader of Whitman knows. But what about its claims to represent “New York at the Present Time” or its tantalizing promise that we “will find some familiar characters” within? Readers are promised “actual occurrence[s]” and “real drama” barely veiled behind the author’s “toggery” (262). The story offers itself as ripped from the headlines (a Law & Order for the mid-1800s, so to speak), disguising its source material just barely enough to avoid legal trouble. Still, at first glance, we get none of that. Is this, then, just another marketing ploy by Whitman or his publisher—or are we perhaps missing the point? This essay will interrogate this issue by, for a moment at least, taking Jack Engle’s self-conscious assertion at face value and tracing the threefold claim to validity that prefaced each installment of the story: its self-classification as “autobiography,” its suggestion of contemporaneity (“at the Present Time”), and its promise of characters “familiar” to its readership.


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