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Walt Whitman’s New Health Treatise

A scholar discovers a hidden text by the great American author of ‘Song of Myself.’ But can the celebrated democrat survive the politics of 21st-century academia?

Paul Berman
May 03, 2016
Photo: George Collins C. Cox, (1851-1902), Oscar Lion Collection, NYPL
Portrait of Walt Whitman, 1887.Photo: George Collins C. Cox, (1851-1902), Oscar Lion Collection, NYPL
Photo: George Collins C. Cox, (1851-1902), Oscar Lion Collection, NYPL
Portrait of Walt Whitman, 1887.Photo: George Collins C. Cox, (1851-1902), Oscar Lion Collection, NYPL

Tablet celebrates the bicentennial of Walt Whitman‘s birth on May 31, 1819. This article originally appeared in May, 2016.


Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times has just now, on April 29, reported the discovery of a major unknown work by Walt Whitman, Manly Health and Training, written in 1858—though some people may object to calling the unknown work “major,” given that Manly Health and Training represents hack journalism of a semi-reputable and decidedly minor sort. Manly Health and Training was a 13-part series on men’s health, for a forgotten newspaper called The New York Atlas, and was plundered partly from pseudo-scientific treatises of the day and was published under a pen-name, “Mose Velsor, of Brooklyn,” and was remembered afterwards by nobody at all. The scholar who discovered it is Zachary Turpin of the University of Houston, and he has reprinted it online at the Walt Whitman Quarterly, with commentary of his own. No one who reads Manly Health and Training will take it to be Whitman’s finest achievement. But I am not sure that, with Whitman, it makes sense to distinguish between major works and minor works. His greatest creation was himself, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos,” which means that everything he wrote that speaks of himself and his language and ideas contributes to the marvelously cosmic and megalomaniacal concept and can hardly be dismissed as minor.

Manly Health and Training plainly speaks of Whitman. The pen-name would have fooled no one back in 1858. There are mad and extravagant sentences in Leaves of Grass and especially in the preface of the first edition, from 1855, which was a prose poem to the United States. And Manly Health and Training begins in the same extravagant manner. The rolling and suspenseful rhythms of the first sentence are somehow magnificent—they subject your breath to intense manipulations—even though he doesn’t say very much:


To you whose eye is arrested by the above headlines, and whom we hope to make a companion to the end of our series—to every man, rich or poor, worker or idler—to all ages of life, from the beginning to the end of it—certainly nothing comes closer home, or is, without any intermission, a topic of more controlling interest, than this we are going to present, through a few articles, some plain and we hope sensible hints toward the furtherance of—a sound and steady condition of manly health.

The messianism is visible, too, together with the impulse, which drives Leaves of Grass, to compose a new sacred text or bible for the coming democratic civilization:

Indeed, it is probable that, of three-fourths of the young and middle-aged men, not only in this city of New York, but in every portion of the United States, one of the best goods they could do for themselves would be the careful reading, once or twice every year, during the remainder of their lives, of all these paragraphs we are now writing.

The work itself is practical. Manly Health and Training advises men to get up early in the morning, take cold baths, scrub themselves, exercise, go on walks, develop muscles, cultivate manly beauty, eat moderately with emphasis on meat, avoid catching venereal disease from prostitutes, and cheer up, instead of sinking into the “blues.” The advice hits the Whitmanian note: “Let it be known that a certain degree of abandon is necessary to the processes of perfect health and a muscular tone of the system”—this, from the poet who, three years earlier in “Song of Myself,” said: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”

He proposes loftier goals. He wants to see a better race emerge, which he thinks will be possible because he imagines, in accord with the pseudoscience of the time, that acquired traits can be inherited. He wants to see the working men of America become more athletic. He wants to rescue sedentary workers from sloth. He would like to encourage a combative spirit among men, too, which he thinks will be good for the nation. Boxing has caught his eye. A national idea seems to move him throughout: It is America he is hoping to improve.

The editor, Turpin, has written a good introduction, but I dread how the wider academic world is going to respond to some of this. Among academic literary historians, a principle custom nowadays is, of course, to denounce whoever can be denounced from the American literary past for reactionary and racist ideological crimes. Whitman has received more than a bit of this, repeatedly and unjustly and outrageously. The man has been lynched. Or else the custom has been to dwell on his homosexuality, as if by modern lights homosexuality were his one respectable trait. Manly Health and Training will afford his academic enemies many opportunities in these regards. Whitman does speak of race and Teutons and of purity of blood and that sort of thing, in the style of the 1850s, which means that someone could impute 20th-century crazes to his 19th-century pseudoscience, even if principally his impulse was antiracist. Or someone could look on Whitman as a precursor to the muscle cults of fascism and Stalinism in the century to come, even if in reality he was mostly a libertarian. My own instinct has always been to regard Whitman’s 19th-century pseudoscientific ideas as poetically splendid. Electrical fluids, effluxes of the soul, alterable races, and all the rest provide him with some of the physicality of his poetry, the ooze and flow of it. Today we no longer remember what anyone meant by electrical fluids—the historian David Reynolds can explain it—but there is no reason for us to remember. It is good enough to picture how thrilling it must be for effluxes and electrical fluids, whatever they are, to pulse and throb through the human body, which is what Whitman imagined.

The nationalist concerns in Manly Health are equally certain to arouse sniggering comments from the university scholars. But I think something in the nationalism is worthy of attention. The physicality that you see in Whitman’s poetry and in the health treatise alike is a literary quality. But the physicality also figures in his political ideal. He dreamed of a new democratic civilization, which he pictured ultimately as a worldwide revolutionary democracy of labor—the vision that you can see in his vatic and ecstatic processional poem “Song of the Broad-Axe.” And this was always, in his eyes, a muscular vision. As he says, “Muscle and pluck forever!” Democracy, for him, meant vigorous people—the ordinary man and the ordinary woman (he did write about women sometimes)—no longer to be victims of ancient hierarchies and scurrilous lords but, instead, to be the grand protagonists of the new civilization. Democracy for him was not a statistical arrangement, nor was it a method for resolving arguments, nor was it a human-rights report. It was not a method for voting, though he believed in voting. Democracy was a way to live, each man and woman independently, and yet bound together. Democrats were going to have to be muscular, then—in “palmy” health, as he says. Perhaps the early Zionists conceived of their own proposed new society along similar lines. It was a matter of how your muscles feel when you stroll about in the air. Also, society counts on you to pitch in. But Whitman preceded the Zionists. Does anyone remember those ideas today? Manly Health and Training is, in any case, a treatise for the proposed new democratic civilization. It is an exercise and diet manual and safe-sex alert for the kind of person who might enjoy reading Leaves of Grass. To Turpin of the University of Houston, the discover and editor of this treatise: Salut!


To read more of Paul Berman’s essays and criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.