Searching for Zach Turpin's Story

When Zachary Turpin first discovered a lost work by Walt Whitman, it was inspiring. Finding a second was unprecedented. This latest Anne Sexton discovery cements Turpin's brand of literary excavation as a full-blown metier.

Most of the press is quick to tout the needle-in-a-haystack aspect of his work. However, Turpin's relentlessness belies this air of serendipity. When I had the opportunity to sit down with him, I dug deeper into his process to tell this side of the story.

Modes of Thinking

I met with Turpin to shoot a digital feature for the University of Houston’s 2017 Research Magazine. We ended up with something very different from the print article that ran.

I started out by asking what compelled him to pursue this type of research. Turpin offered an illuminating response to this:

Before I joined the doctoral program at U of H, I worked a couple of odd jobs outside of academia and one of them was in this field called SEO, which is search engine optimization. It gives you an odd sense of the importance of keywords and key phrasings. It's hard to put into words, but it makes you think in that mode. You're sort of dropped into that groove all the time.

No other article I had read managed to connect the dots between this SEO marketing work and what would become Turpin’s scholarly M.O. We quickly connected over the topic, and I was happy to open up a venue to talk about this.

Failing Over and Over Again

 Video still featuring pages from Walt Whitman’s notes containing character names and plot points for “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.”

Video still featuring pages from Walt Whitman’s notes containing character names and plot points for “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.”

It’s important to put these flashes of discovery into context. Turpin admits the bulk of his work is "trying and failing over and over again to locate certain things, many of which I don't really even know are there."

He lives his professional life in the great unknown: the ever-expanding digital archive of everything. Keywords are essential in carving a path through mountains of under explored (often unexplored) digitized documents. For the video, I retrace Turpin’s steps in order to capture the different "layers" — as he calls them— of his process.

Of course I already knew what I was looking for, but this brought me closer to the sense of play and almost constant failure at the heart of his work.

 Video still featuring the New York Times ad that announced “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” which Turpin reconciled with keywords and phrases from Whitman’s notes.

Video still featuring the New York Times ad that announced “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” which Turpin reconciled with keywords and phrases from Whitman’s notes.

Digitally Human

It is encouraging to paint a picture of someone's academic trajectory as the natural extension of work in another field. The digital humanities, as it walks hand-in-hand with advances in technology, occupies a messy territory between commercial and academic enterprises. As such, Turpin's story opens up a host of broad questions with evolving answers. I’m preoccupied with a couple.

Can we find trajectories that work in the opposite direction?

That is, are the humanities being brought to bear on industry problems? The few-and-far between nature of the academic job market means that students will naturally find themselves weaving through professional territory that lies beyond their field of study. This could and should lead to more reflective and responsible approaches to search engine marketing and a more empathetic and ethical approach to content marketing in general. The distinct endeavors of optimizing commercial content for keyword searches and hunting through archives for lost literary treasures are intrinsically connected to one another by our attachment to words and the way human nature is wrapped up in language.

Humanism itself is inherently technological, though perhaps technological fields need more humanistic agents to remind them. And perhaps the humanists will understand this more clearly when the “digital” becomes the mainstream, and that modifying adjective sloughs off.

Can we pursue research like Turpin’s by substituting keywords with other data?

I have something a bit more esoteric and personal in mind. We know that computers are good at recognizing words and sounds, but the written musical language— musical notation— remains an impenetrably complex means of communication.

First, it is information-dense. Furthermore, it reads both semantically and hierarchically and every which way. Since even the most advanced notation software and systems are notoriously limited in capabilities and unwieldy to use, the prospect of searching manuscripts, anthologies, and other loose publications for the kinds of connections Turpin can make becomes a vaguer prospect altogether when applied to music research. Words are easy and essential in this regard. It is interesting, though, to ponder what might be considered a musical “keyword”: a melody? a phrase? a motive? an interval? a chord?

Food for thought, I suppose.

Turpin wants to see “archives turned inside out digitally” and has been quick to join the front lines in this battle between our existing scope of knowledge and the digital archive of everything. In whatever ways the digital humanities will come to alter the landscape of literary scholarship, we continue to turn ourselves inside out as we become more digitally human. Developing a sensitive approach to sorting through these layers of history is our only hope to rise above the fray.