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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A recently rediscovered Walt Whitman novel brings surprise and delight

Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston graduate student,

Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston graduate student, poses for a portrait at his home, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Houston. Turpin recently discovered a previously unknown novella by the poet Walt Whitman. Credit: AP / Jon Shapley

A new Walt Whitman novel was published recently.

That was quite a feat, even for Whitman. One of America’s greatest poets and Long Island’s gift to the literary canon, Whitman died 125 years ago.

The book, appropriately, is a mystery. But as is often the case, it’s the story behind the story that’s compelling. And in that telling is a lesson for us all.

Zachary Turpin, a grad student in Texas, is a kind of literary archaeologist. His specialty is Whitman, and he’s been searching the writer’s papers for several years for evidence of undiscovered works. Last spring, Turpin found some unusual characters’ names and plot notes scribbled by Whitman in one of his notebooks and started looking for them in digital databases of publications of the time.

Eventually, Turpin found one of the names in an 1852 New York Times ad. It announced a serialized novel called “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” to be published in The Sunday Dispatch.

After a month of badgering the Library of Congress, the only place on the planet likely to have a copy of a 165-year-old page from a pulpy penny paper like the Dispatch, Turpin received part of the first of the novel’s six installments. Whitman was not listed as the author, but it was unquestionably by him — the novel contained language that mirrored that of his epic “Leaves of Grass,” which he was writing at the same time.

That was the second time Turpin hit Whitman pay dirt. Last year, he uncovered another Whitman serial, an odd self-help manual titled “Manly Health and Training.” Now Turpin is hoping for a trifecta: He’s hunting for a novel called “The Sleeptalker,” among the most famous of Whitman’s lost works.

All of us have some Zachary Turpin in us. Because on some level, we’re all searching for something. Whether we’re looking for food, water, shelter, a mate, a better job, our roots or the meaning of life, each one of us is on the prowl. And it’s the quest itself, more so than the target, that makes us human.

The first quest I remember fixating on occurred when I was 7, when Steve Flynn and I would walk home from school and talk about how we were going to find out who really killed JFK.

As a teen, I dreamed of taking a drive through a rural landscape or hiking on a seldom-used trail, coming across a ramshackle barn or cabin, and finding in a corner deep inside an old box filled with mint-condition baseball cards.

I suspect many of us are like Turpin in that way — thrilled at the prospect of discovering something hiding in plain sight, so to speak, if we just know where and how to look.

That’s part of the lure that motivates folks to scour beaches and parks with metal detectors for treasure just beneath the surface. It drives many inveterate yard-sale shoppers, who yearn to find the gem that everyone else is overlooking. It propels the plots of books like “The DaVinci Code,” in which the secret is right there for anyone to see if only you have the key to decipher it.

Other searches are more profound, like the quest to discover one’s roots — a search literally for ourselves.

Perhaps it’s just the process of getting older, but I find myself searching now not for things, but for experiences. I remember what my former colleague Alvin Bessent said he was going to do after he retired. “Make some memories,” he said.

So I find myself holding on to the moments with my grandson a little tighter, hoping to sear those images a little deeper. I try to listen more than talk. I try to identify and savor the special moments that come every day. I yearn to do different things I won’t soon forget.

I also think I’m going to read some Whitman.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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