This is the first part of a short essay I posted on the blog of Collective Biographies of Women and elsewhere on August 15, 2017. See https://pages.shanti.virginia.edu/CBW_Blog/?p=441&preview=true#_ftn6 for the entirety, with additional notes and references.
In February, 2017, there was some exciting news of the kind that gratifies literary scholars everywhere. Graduate student Zachary Turpin had discovered a lost short novel that Walt Whitman serialized anonymously in New York’s Sunday Dispatch in 1852. The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, as narrated by a young clerk of that name, gives impressions of New York life as Whitman experienced it before he became revered as the Good Gray Poet. I am no Whitman scholar and have little to add to the discussion of US periodicals in the 1850s. But as I quickly devoured the news and the novel itself, I was taken with a minor character closely related to my own research: the Spanish dancer, Inez. Could this be a version of Lola Montez?
The improbable “auto-biography” of Jack Engle now attributed to Whitman claims in the preface to be a “true story” about “familiar” people; “the main incidents were of actual occurrence,” giving “the performers in this real drama, unreal names” (Whitman, Engle 3). Clearly, the “life and adventures” of the quasi-Dickensian hero differ from Whitman’s (Walt was no orphan, for example). But Whitman might have given an unreal name to the real Lola Montez, Spanish dancer, whom I have long featured in my digital project on women’s biographies, Collective Biographies of Women or CBW (Booth). The Irish-born adventuress who became the Countess of Landsfeld, who was buried in New York as Eliza Gilbert in 1861, has received many full-length and brief biographies. Whitman’s connection to this celebrity is not unknown, though little remarked. She was in New York during the production of Whitman’s novella, Jack Engle. On January 5, 1852, weeks into her first star turn in New York, she danced in Un Jour de Carneval à Seville in the role of Donna Inez (Morton 205).1 Then, after controversial appearances in Boston, Hartford, and elsewhere, she appeared at the Broadway Theatre in Lola Montez in Bavaria, a play in five acts recounting her famous alliance with King Ludwig I and the rebellions and backlash that led to the king’s abdication (“The Danseuse, the Politician, The Countess, the Revolutionist and finally the Fugitive”; Morton 218). Whitman could easily have seen her reprise of this play at the Bowery Theatre on 28 June, or could have attended one of her benefit performances that spring, as Jack attends Inez’s benefit performance in the novella. Certainly Whitman and Montez coincided when she was back in New York six years later and they frequented Pfaff’s, Whitman’s bohemian hangout after first publication of Leaves of Grass (Lehigh University).
These enterprising mid-century figures have more interesting qualities in common than coinciding in New York in certain years. Her defiant self-making is not out of keeping with his celebration of the body. Notably, during their shared New York-bohemian years, both published highly gendered self-help. Manly Health and Training, an advice book by “Mose Velsor,” was serialized in the New York Atlas in 1858, and Zachary Turpin recently discovered Whitman’s authorship (Velsor). The Arts of Beauty: or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1858) capitalized on Lola Montez as the famous author, drawing upon her series of popular lectures in New York, London, and elsewhere (Montez).
Whitman left unacknowledged his authorship of the episodic entertainment, Jack Engle. We might then allow a canonical poet to steer clear of a notorious entertainer whose vocational tag in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is “adventuress.” To follow through on my first impulse to post that “Whitman’s Inez is Lola Montez,” it would take more than the known connections in 1858; the novel, again, was churned out topically and serially in 1852. The Whitman scholars I contacted were less than convinced that Inez resembles Montez. I share their opinion that Inez can be a composite of Spanish dancers Whitman might have known in New Orleans (she was there in 1853, he in 1848) or New York, as well as some features of George Sand and others whom Whitman admired. The fictional Spanish dancer has no exalted political past and, like other characters in the novel, she derives a great deal from the conventions of romance and melodrama. But it is certain that Lola Montez was big news in New York in the early months of 1852, and there are interesting connections with Whitman’s plotline of the hero’s growing intimacy with a belle of the town.2 Though “Spanish” connotes hot-blooded, it also connotes veiled and hard to get. The portrayal of the novel’s Spanish dancer points to significant features of the well-educated, entrepreneurial celebrity. Whitman’s version also renders the performer more bourgeois and less interesting than the real thing, downplaying Montez’s kinky suggestiveness. The differences are a measure of the fictional purpose of this minor character. The hero rises from street life to office work and a brief escapade outside the law that ends happily, all the more because he was never in real danger of falling in love with Inez.
Lola Montez in a daguerreotype (color added), 1851, by Southworth & Hawes
Inez and Lola: Not Cheap
You know the type: “Spanish,” “dancer”; theaters would be places to find all sorts of accessible women. But Whitman’s Inez and the real Lola Montez might be called, in hard-boiled speak, classy dames. I intentionally hit on the sore point of typecasting, because it is almost inescapable, even in fact-based historical biography. The surprise is not the higher quality of love object implicit in the reputations of Inez and Lola, and not even that they evince manners and education, but that they are businesswomen, capitalists. In Jack Engle, the narrator is a reluctant young apprentice in Covert’s law office, where he notices a young lady client. Covert is advising her on a doubtful purchase of shares (happily, it turns out she never buys into the fake scheme). “She had the stylish, self-possessed look, which sometimes marks those who follow a theatrical life. Her face, though not beautiful, was open and pleasing, with bright black eyes, and a brown complexion. Her figure, of good height and graceful movement, was dressed in a costly pale colored silk” (27). She calls out to the pet dog, also named Jack, who jumps up and muddies her dress. Inez is annoyed, and then laughs it off—a preview of her responses to drooling men and to Jack himself. In chapter six of Jack Engle, Inez appears “really fascinating” on stage in the “short gauzy costume of a dancing girl. Her legs and feet were beautiful, and her gestures and attitudes easy and graceful” (29). These characterizing details correspond somewhat with the historical Montez. Montez was fair, with striking blue eyes, unlike Inez. She was frequently depicted in association with animals. Contemporaries range between calling Montez altogether beautiful, or merely fascinating with a face that was not beautiful. But then of course there was her figure. Accounts usually disparage Montez’s performing ability, but those who were not too scandalized avidly praised the legs and the costume. Images in newspapers always emphasize the tiny waist, ballooning bosom, and short skirts….
Kirsten Greusz suggests Inez was a common name for the Spanish-beauty type, as in antebellum novels “Inez the Beautiful, or, Love on the Rio Grande” (Harry Hazel, 1846) or Augusta Evans Wilson’s “Inez, A Tale of the Alamo” (1850). I also consulted with Ed Whitley, Ken Price, and Ed Folsom. ↩
Ed Folsom and Ken Price, in their article on Whitman for The Walt Whitman Archive, indicate Whitman’s affiliations with women activists Abby Price, Paulina Wright Davis, Sarah Tyndale, and Sara Payson Willis (Fanny Fern), as well as the “queen of Bohemia” Ada Clare. CBW includes only Fanny Fern of these women, though abolitionists and activists for women’s rights do appear in some collections listed in our bibliography. ↩