Here's how to get manly health

The Sept 12, 1858, issue of the New York Atlas featuring the first instalment of Walt Whitman's Manly Health And Training.
The Sept 12, 1858, issue of the New York Atlas featuring the first instalment of Walt Whitman's Manly Health And Training.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Walt Whitman.

American poet Walt Whitman wrote a series on healthy living, which included tips such as eat more meat and move more

NEW YORK • In 1858, when American poet Walt Whitman sat down to write a manifesto on healthy living, he came up with advice that might not seem out of place in an infomercial today.

"Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else," he wrote, sounding more than a little paleo.

As for the feet, he recommended that the comfortable shoes "now specially worn by baseball players" - sneakers, if you will - be "introduced for general use", and he offered warnings about the dangers of inactivity that could have been issued from a 19th-century standing desk.

"To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice," he declared. "Up!"

Whitman's words, part of a nearly 47,000-word journalistic series called Manly Health And Training, were lost for more than 150 years, buried in an obscure newspaper that survived only in a handful of libraries.

The series was uncovered last summer by a graduate student, who came across a fleeting reference to it in a digitised newspaper database and then tracked down the full text on microfilm.

Now, Whitman's self-help-guide- meets-democratic-manifesto is being published online in its entirety by a scholarly journal, in what some experts are calling the biggest new Whitman discovery in decades.

"This is really a complete new work by Whitman," said Dr David S. Reynolds, author of Walt Whitman's America and a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who was not involved with the find.

The series, with its disquisitions on bodily humours and "the great American evil - indigestion", shows Whitman's long-known immersion in the health science, or pseudoscience, of his era.

Wackier aspects aside, scholars say the series also sheds fresh light on the poet in the crucial period of the late 1850s, when he was preparing the landmark 1860 third edition of Leaves Of Grass and probably working on the poems of homoerotic love that are central to the Whitman we know today.

"These are the most interesting and mysterious years in Whitman's biography, and now we have this major journalistic series right in the middle of it," said Dr Ed Folsom, editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, the online journal that is publishing the series in its spring issue.

"One of Whitman's core beliefs was that the body was the basis of democracy," the professor of English at the University of Iowa said.

"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."

The series was discovered last summer by Mr Zachary Turpin, a graduate student in English at the University of Houston, who was browsing in digitised databases of 19th-century newspapers, entering various pseudonyms that Whitman, a prolific journalist, was known to have used.

During one search, up popped a brief reference in The New York Daily Tribune on Sept 11, 1858, to a series on manly health by Mose Velsor, one of Whitman's favourite pen names, which was about to appear in another paper, The New York Atlas.

When Mr Turpin ordered microfilm of the relevant issues of The Atlas, he was stunned to find 13 instalments.

Manly Health And Training was published in weekly instalments from September 1858, when Whitman, then 39, was licking his wounds over the flop of the first two editions of Leaves Of Grass and churning out hundreds of words a day as a journalist.

He had also begun an intense relationship with Fred Vaughan, a stage driver, and most likely begun work on the series of poems known as Calamus (later included in the 1860 Leaves Of Grass), whose evocations of homoerotic love are echoed in Manly Health, Dr Folsom said.

Manly Health, with its references to "inspiration and respiration" and the importance of "electricity through the frame", also echoes the language of earlier poems such as Song Of Myself and I Sing The Body Electric, recasting their themes in the more concrete spirit of a self- improvement manual.

"There's a kind of health-nut thing about Leaves Of Grass already," Dr Reynolds said. "This series sort of codifies it and expands on it, giving us a real regimen."

Whitman's first instalment strikes a vatic, exclamatory note: "Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm - a fascinating magic in the words?" he writes, before outlining the path to "a perfect body, a perfect blood".

That torrent of advice that follows touches on sex, war, climate, bathing, gymnastics, baseball, footwear, depression, alcohol, shaving and the perils of "too much brain action and fretting", in sometimes rambling prose that draws freely, Mr Turpin notes in an introductory essay, from Whitman's reading in publications such as Water-Cure Journal and The American Phrenological Journal.

"It's sort of an insane document," Mr Turpin said.

The most striking thing, said Dr Reynolds, is its emphasis on moderation and a holistic vision of the relationship between mental and physical health, in contrast to the radical temperance advocates, water-cure partisans and dietary reformers who sprang up across mid-19th-century America.

Whitman, who lived to 72, is really advocating "getting up early, having a walk, getting the benefit of fresh air and lots of moderate exercise", Dr Reynolds said.

"One could do worse than follow his advice," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Here's how to get manly health'. Print Edition | Subscribe