Finding Art, Life, and Excitement (and Walt Whitman!) Along the Way: An Interview with Zachary Turpin

 I met Zachary Turpin during my first week at NYU in August 2001. We became good friends and, eventually, roommates in a crappy Upper East Side apartment. Turpin is currently a doctoral student in English at the University of Houston. He recently gained notoriety for discovering a 47,000-word article series titled “Manly Health and Training” by Mose Velsor, aka Walt Whitman.

 A mutual friend described you as the “Indiana Jones of the English World.” 

I wish I were the Indiana Jones of the English world! I’ve got no whip, no fedora, and no former Bond for a father. Plus, I do much of my initial research from my kitchen. No, there are plenty of other literature scholars who deserve much more to be called Indiana Jones, because they have some seriously wild adventures in the service of the field. All those folks who dig through physical archives, family papers, attics, and trunks, in search of lost work. Hell, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, a scholar at UConn, sails three-masters to learn more about the little maritime details in Melville’s fiction! — Anyway, if I were an Indiana Jones, what would I be doing? Probably searching for Ambrose Bierce’s body in Mexico, or trying to determine what happened to Yda Hillis Addis (a Mexican folklorist who vanished in 1902), or rooting through archives looking for any trace of Herman Melville’s supposedly lost manuscript, “Isle of the Cross.” …Well, I am doing that last one.

What led you to this groundbreaking archival research in the first place?

Curiosity and ignorance. A few years ago, I experienced a burst of bibliographic energy and spent the better part of the summer looking for unknown works by understudied writers, like Louisa May Alcott, Emma Lazarus, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and so on. These are all 19th century writers; it’s the century I love most, and it also happens to be the era in which periodical culture and professional authorship exploded in the US. Anyway, I started purely out of curiosity, without knowing that there was anything to find. (Stephen Ramsay calls this “the hermeneutics of screwing around.”) What I was shocked to find is that nearly any 19thC writer you can think of has neglected—or outright undiscovered!—periodical publications out there, waiting for the curious cat to come along. Virtually no author is an exception to this rule.

 Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice from “Manly Health and Training?” 

Walt_Whitman,_steel_engraving,_July_1854

Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

I have two. For its beauty, I love this passage from Part IV, subsection “The Sure Reward.” It’s one long, ecstatic sentence, and I think it perfectly captures Whitman’s delight in simply being alive:

To spring up in the morning with light feelings, and the disposition to raise the voice in some cheerful song—to feel a pleasure in going forth into the open air, and in breathing it—to sit down to your food with a keen relish for it—to pass forth, in business or occupation, among men, without distrusting them, but with a friendly feeling toward all, and finding the same feeling returned to you—to be buoyant in all your limbs and movements by the curious result of perfect digestion, (a feeling as if you could almost fly, you are so light,)—to have perfect command of your arms, legs, &c., able to strike out, if occasion demand, or to walk long distances, or to endure great labor without exhaustion—to have year after year pass on and on, and still the same calm and equable state of all the organs, and of the temper and mentality—no wrenching pains of the nerves or joints—no pangs, returning again and again, through the sensitive head, or any of its parts—no blotched and disfigured complexion—no prematurely lame and halting gait—no tremulous shaking of the hand, unable to carry a glass of water to the mouth without spilling it—no film and bleared-red about the eyes, nor bad taste in the mouth, nor tainted breath from the stomach or gums—none of that dreary, sickening, unmanly lassitude, that, to so many men, fills up and curses what ought to be the best years of their lives, without good works to show for the same—but instead of such a living death, which, (to make a terrible but true confession,) so many lead, uncomfortably realizing, through their middle age, more than the distresses and bleak impressions of death, stretched out year after year, the result of early ignorance, imprudence, and want of wholesome training—instead of that, to find life one long holiday, labor a pleasure, the body a heaven, the earth a paradise, all the commonest habits ministering to delight—and to have this continued year after year, and old age even, when it arrives, bringing no change to the capacity for a high state of manly enjoyment—these are what we would put before you, reader, as a true picture, illustrating the whole drift of our remarks, the sum of all, the best answer to the heading of the two last sections of our articles, and the main object which every youth should have, in the beginning, from the time he starts out to reason and judge for himself.

My other favorite is his mention of “baseball shoes,” simply because of the reeling vertigo you get when you realize that Walt Whitman is recommending wearing sneakers or tennis shoes—in 1858! See Part X, under “The Care of the Feet”:

Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded. In favorable weather, the shoe now specially worn by the base-ball players would be a very good improvement to be introduced for general use. It should be carefully selected to the shape of the foot, or, better still, made from lasts modeled to the exact shape of the wearer’s feet, (as all boots should be.)

Are you going to be involved with the republishing of this series? Are you going to use any of this for your dissertation? 

So far, I’ve been quite involved! Besides transcribing the full series with my (sainted) wife’s help, I worked closely with Whitman scholars Ed Folsom and Stefan Schöberlein to ensure that the text was accurate and error-free, even down to its punctuation and spacing. And now, “Manly Health” is freely available online. But yes, looking forward, we are currently in talks with a publication house about perhaps releasing a print version, too. — As for my dissertation, “Manly Health” may factor in, but for now I’d prefer to step back and hear what other scholars and readers have to say about it.

When I knew you at NYU, I thought you would write a novel some day, and you totally scoffed at me. Any plans post-dissertation? 

For novel-writing? Oh no. No, no, no. Some scholars make excellent novelists and poets—Charles Olson, one of the great Melville scholars, comes to mind—but I doubt I’m one of them. But as for textual research and recovery, I have lots of plans. I juggle lots of projects, and a few of my current items of interest are based on some seriously hot leads. I’ll keep you posted…

 It’s so fun to read about an exciting development in the humanities. It seems like English majors get a lot of grief. Do you have any advice for undergraduates who might be thinking about majoring in English? 

English is the perfect major. Many students come to college knowing almost nothing about themselves, except that they love to read, they love art and life and excitement. When that’s all one knows about oneself, it’s little wonder that so many students (rightly) choose to major in English. Some of them may eventually experience realizations about their truer calling, and differentiate off into childhood education or art history or psychology or philosophy, but many more will stay in the field and happily read themselves into a stupor, finding art and life and excitement along the way. As William Deresiewicz says, the liberal arts are an education for the soul.

MD ZT

Zachary Turpin and Madeleine Delpha on Halloween in 2004

Any favorite college memories you want to share? 

There are so many! Our walks around NYC, looking for trouble and fat-free frozen yogurt; every day of living in Goddard Hall freshman year (but especially the day we saw Joshua Jackson); a hike all the way the way down Manhattan that got me very sunburned; going to art galleries and to Central Park; working at the Strand Bookstore for a year; &c &c &c. — I’d say my soul received a thorough education. Didn’t yours?

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