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Ridiculous History: Want to Be a Manlier Man? Use These Tips From Walt Whitman


An engraving of Walt Whitman that appeared in several editions of "Leaves of Grass." Hulton Archive/Getty Images
An engraving of Walt Whitman that appeared in several editions of "Leaves of Grass." Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Walt Whitman is considered one of America's greatest poets, a master of free verse who captured 19th-century America's raw hopes for democracy and human equality before and after the Civil War. But in 1858, three years after first publishing "Leaves of Grass," Whitman's first and most famous book of poetry, he was still a little-known artist piecing together a living as a journalist in New York City.

Whitman scholars have always known that the poet strung together jobs a printer, schoolteacher, reporter and editor, but even seasoned literary historians were floored by the 2016 discovery by a University of Houston graduate student that Whitman also moonlighted for a stint as a men's health columnist.

The 13-part column, called "Manly Health and Training," appeared in The New York Atlas under the pen name Mose Velsor. Forgotten for more than 150 years, the nearly 50,000-word self-help treatise was republished in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review last November and is now the subject of two new illustrated books.

Young men sprinting through the Maze at a YMCA gymnasium in London, 1887.
Young men sprinting through the Maze at a YMCA gymnasium in London, 1887.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Whitman's tips, designed to sustain manly vigor and carve out a "nobler physique," include the following nuggets of pseudo-scientific wisdom:

What to Eat

Paleo fans will be heartened by Whitman's advice to consume "a simple diet of rare-cooked beef, seasoned with a little salt, and accompanied with stale bread or sea-biscuit." The poet rejected pretty much all vegetables, condiments, sauces and sweets and advocated an "almost exclusive meat diet."

Whether to Shave

Absolutely not. "The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat — for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be."

How to Start the Day

Rise before dawn and dunk yourself in an invigorating cold bath. "[...] A rapid wash of the whole body in cold water" really gets the blood moving, but don't forget to exfoliate. Use "coarse towels to rub dry with; after which ...  the flesh-brush [scrub brush], or anything handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over."

On Dancing

Rather than just dancing for fun, Whitman says a rigorous boogie-down is "a great help to develop the flexibility and strength of the hips, knees, muscles of the calf, ankles, and feet ... There is no reason why, in a good gymnasium, the art of dancing should not also be included."

At first glance, it seems downright weird that a pillar of American poetry was, at 39 years old, dishing out diet and footwear advice (ditch the boots for custom-made "base-ball" shoes), but not to Ed Folsom. An English professor at the University of Iowa, Folsom is editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive.

In an email, Folsom says he was thrilled by the rediscovery of the "Manly Health" columns and sees them as illuminating a "mystery period" in Whitman's life. This was two years before the landmark third edition of "Leaves of Grass" was published, the first to contain the famous "Calamus" poems, perhaps the first "articulation of gay identity and the first creation of a diction of male-male love," Folsom says.

"He was writing those poems at just the time he was writing 'Manly Health,' which is, after all, a kind of hymn to the male body," says Folsom. "It's a guide to the upkeep, preservation, and development of a healthy male physique."

In his debut column, Whitman writes that health is the "foundation of all real manly beauty" and that "all other goods of existence would hardly be goods, in comparison with a perfect body... all running over with animation and ardor, all marked by herculean strength, suppleness, a clear complexion... a laughing voice, a merry song morn and night, a sparkling eye, and an ever-happy soul!"

Beyond Whitman's appreciation for the buff and virile male form, the writer also saw the strength and health of the human body as a direct reflection of the condition of the body politic, says Fowler.  

"Whitman believed that democracy began with the body — it's the one thing we all share in common (we all experience the world through a body) — and so we are all responsible for the best upkeep of the body we have been given."

It's easy to snicker at Whitman's Victorian-era health reasoning — "A man that exhausts himself continually among women is not fit to be, and cannot be, the father of sound and manly children," for example — but it's more interesting to see his prose as an echo of his exuberant and unflinchingly physical poetry.

Folsom cites Whitman's repetition of the phrase "inspiration and respiration," first when talking about the importance of sleeping at least seven hours each night in a big bedroom with open windows, and second when explaining the benefits of "loudly reciting and declaiming in the open air."

The same phrase appears in "Song of Myself," perhaps the most famous poem in "Leaves of Grass": "My respiration and inspiration/the beating of my heart/the passing of blood and air through my lungs."

"Poetry, Whitman reminds us, is written not just with the head, the brain, but with the lungs, the heart, the hands, the feet, the genitals," says Folsom. "Poetry emerges from the whole body, and from the whole body's experience of inhaling experience and exhaling our response to that experience."



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