Walt Whitman’s Unearthed Health Manual, “Manly Health & Training,” Urges Readers to Stand (Don’t Sit!) and Eat Plenty of Meat (1858)


The idea of “the author,” wrote Roland Barthes, “rules in man­u­als of lit­er­ary his­to­ry, in biogra­phies of writ­ers, in mag­a­zine inter­views, and even in the aware­ness of lit­er­ary men, anx­ious to unite, by their pri­vate jour­nals, their per­son and their work.” We see this anx­i­ety of author­ship in much of Walt Whit­man’s per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence. The poet, “could be sur­pris­ing­ly anx­ious about his own dis­ap­pear­ance,” writes Zachary Turpin in the intro­duc­tion to a recent­ly re-dis­cov­ered series of Whit­man essays called “Man­ly Health and Train­ing.”

Whit­man, how­ev­er, was just as often anx­ious to dis­as­so­ci­ate his per­son from his work, whether juve­nile short sto­ries or his copi­ous amount of jour­nal­ism and occa­sion­al pieces. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the New York Atlas between 1858 and 1860, “Man­ly Health and Train­ing”—“part guest edi­to­r­i­al, part self-help column”—may indeed rep­re­sent some of the work Whit­man wished would dis­ap­pear in his late-in-life attempts at “careerist revi­sion­ism.” As it hap­pens, reports The New York Times, these arti­cles did just that until Turpin, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton, found the essays last sum­mer while brows­ing arti­cles writ­ten under var­i­ous jour­nal­is­tic pseu­do­nyms Whit­man used.

The work in ques­tion appeared under the name “Mose Vel­sor,” and it’s worth ask­ing, as Barthes might, whether we should con­sid­er it by the poet­ic fig­ure we call “Whit­man” at all. Though we encounter in these occa­sion­al­ly “eye­brow-rais­ing” essays the “more-than-typ­i­cal­ly self-con­tra­dic­to­ry Whit­man,” Turpin com­ments, “these con­tra­dic­tions dis­play lit­tle of the poet­ic dialec­ti­cism of Leaves of Grass”—first pub­lished, with­out the author’s name, in 1855.

The essays are piece­meal dis­til­la­tions of “a huge range of top­ics” of gen­er­al inter­est to male read­ers of the time—in some respects, a 19th cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent of Men’s Health mag­a­zine. And yet, argues Ed Fol­som, edi­tor of The Walt Whit­man Quar­ter­lywhich has pub­lished the near­ly 47,000 word series of essays online—“One of Whitman’s core beliefs was that the body was the basis of democ­ra­cy. The series is a hymn to the male body, as well as a guide to tak­ing care of what he saw as the most vital unit of demo­c­ra­t­ic liv­ing.” These themes are man­i­fest along with the robust homo­eroti­cism of Whitman’s poet­ry:

We shall speak by and by of health as being the foun­da­tion of all real man­ly beau­ty. Per­haps, too, it has more to do than is gen­er­al­ly sup­posed, with the capac­i­ty of being agree­able as a com­pan­ion, a social vis­i­tor, always welcome—and with the divine joys of friend­ship. In these par­tic­u­lars (and they sure­ly include a good part of the best bless­ings of exis­tence), there is that sub­tle virtue in a sound body, with all its func­tions per­fect, which noth­ing else can make up for, and which will itself make up for many oth­er defi­cien­cies, as of edu­ca­tion, refine­ment, and the like.

David Reynolds, pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, con­curs: “there’s a kind of health-nut thing about ‘Leaves of Grass’ already. This series sort of cod­i­fies it and expands on it, giv­ing us a real reg­i­men.” To that end, two of “Mose Velsor”’s promi­nent top­ics are diet and exer­cise, and whether we con­sid­er “Man­ly Health and Train­ing” a prose adden­dum to Whitman’s first book or most­ly work-for-hire on a range of top­ics in his gen­er­al purview, some of the advice, like the poet­ry, can often sound par­tic­u­lar­ly mod­ern, while at the same time pre­serv­ing the quaint­ness of its age.

Antic­i­pat­ing the Paleo craze, for exam­ple, Whit­man writes, “let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclu­sion of all else.” His diet advice is far from sys­tem­at­ic from essay to essay, yet he con­tin­u­al­ly insists upon lean meat as the foun­da­tion of every meal and refers to beef and lamb as “strength­en­ing mate­ri­als.” The “sim­plest and most nat­ur­al diet,” con­sists of eat­ing main­ly meat, Whit­man asserts as he casts asper­sions on “a veg­e­tar­i­an or water-gru­el diet.” Whit­man issues many of his dietary rec­om­men­da­tions in the ser­vice of vocal train­ing, rec­om­mend­ing that his read­ers “gain ser­vice­able hints from the ancients” in order to “give strength and clear­ness to their vocal­iza­tions.”

Aspi­rants to man­li­ness should also attend to the ancients’ habit of fre­quent­ing “gym­na­si­ums, in order to acquire mus­cu­lar ener­gy and pli­an­cy of limbs.” Many of Whitman’s train­ing reg­i­mens con­jure images from The Road to Wellville or of stereo­typ­i­cal 19th-cen­tu­ry strong men with han­dle­bar mus­tach­es and fun­ny-look­ing leo­tards. But he does intu­it the mod­ern iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a seden­tary lifestyle with ill health and pre­ma­ture death, address­ing espe­cial­ly “stu­dents, clerks, and those in seden­tary or men­tal employ­ments.” He exhorts pro­to-cubi­cal jock­eys and couch pota­toes alike: “to you, clerk, lit­er­ary man, seden­tary per­son, man of for­tune, idler, the same advice. Up!”

Whitman’s “warn­ings about the dan­gers of inac­tiv­i­ty,” writes The New York Times, “could have been issued from a 19th-cen­tu­ry stand­ing desk,” a not unlike­ly sce­nario, giv­en the many authors from the past who wrote on their feet.  But should we pic­ture Whit­man him­self issu­ing these procla­ma­tions on “Health and Train­ing”? No image of the man him­self, with cocked elbow and cocked hat, is affixed to the essays. The pseu­do­ny­mous byline may be no more than a con­ven­tion, or it may be a desire to inhab­it anoth­er per­sona, and to dis­tance the words far from those of “Walt Whit­man.”

Did Whit­man con­sid­er the essays hackwork—populist pab­u­lum of the kind strug­gling writ­ers today often crank out anony­mous­ly as “spon­sored con­tent”? The series, Turpin writes “is un-Whit­man­ian, even unpo­et­ic,” its func­tion “fun­da­men­tal­ly util­i­tar­i­an, a phys­i­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal doc­u­ment root­ed in the (pseudo)sciences of the era.” Not the sort of thing one imag­ines the high­ly self-con­scious poet would have want­ed to claim. “Dur­ing his life­time,” Whit­man “wast­ed no time remind­ing any­one of this series,” like­ly hop­ing it would be for­got­ten.

And yet, it’s inter­est­ing nonethe­less to com­pare the exag­ger­at­ed mas­culin­i­ty of “Man­ly Health and Train­ing” with much of the belit­tling per­son­al crit­i­cism Whit­man received in his life­time, rep­re­sent­ed per­fect­ly by one Thomas Went­worth Hig­gin­son. This crit­ic and harsh review­er includ­ed Whitman’s “pri­apism,” his serv­ing as a nurse dur­ing the Civ­il War rather than “going into the army,” and his “not look­ing… in real­ly good con­di­tion for ath­let­ic work” as rea­sons why the poet “nev­er seemed to me a thor­ough­ly whole­some or man­ly man.”

In addi­tion to thin­ly veiled homo­pho­bia, many of Higginson’s com­ments sug­gest­ed, write Robert Nel­son and Ken­neth Price, that “as a social group, work­ing-class men did not and could not pos­sess the qual­i­ties of true man­li­ness.” Per­haps we can read these ear­ly Whit­man edi­to­ri­als, pseu­do­ny­mous or not, as demo­c­ra­t­ic instruc­tions for using mas­cu­line health as a great social lev­el­er and means to “make up for many oth­er defi­cien­cies, as of edu­ca­tion, refine­ment, and the like.” Or per­haps “Man­ly Health and Train­ing” was just anoth­er assignment—a way to pay the bills by ped­dling pop­u­lar male wish-ful­fill­ment while the poet wait­ed for the rest of the world to catch up with his lit­er­ary genius.

via The New York Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es

Iggy Pop Reads Walt Whit­man in Col­lab­o­ra­tions With Elec­tron­ic Artists Alva Noto and Tar­wa­ter

Orson Welles Reads From America’s Great­est Poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1953)

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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