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."