The poet’s advice for men about health and well-being – 160 years on

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training
128 pages, hardcover, ill.
Emeryville, CA: Ten Speed Press 2017
ISBN 978-0-399-57948-6

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) is best known for his classic Leaves of Grass, first self-published in 1855 and then continuously revised and expanded as long as he lived.  A poet, essayist and journalist, in 1858 he published a series of columns in the New York Atlas, a weekly paper published from 1858 until 1881. P.T. Barnum and Bret Harte were among the other contributors.  The first industrial revolution neared its end and the Civil War was on the horizon.  James Buchanan was in the White House and John Brown was gathering supporters for his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, designed to set off a massive slave rebellion to end the peculiar institution.  Lincoln’s Cooper Union address which propelled him to national prominence and helped secure the Republican nomination for the presidency is still two years in the future.  The Cult of Domesticity inculcated the idea that the woman maintained the home provided for her by her man’s labor.  An underlying aspect of American society at this time is the continual advance of labor saving devices.  Still very much a pedestrian society, one in which much of the labor force engaged in work requiring strenuous exercise, more and more men began to earn their living behind a desk.

Though Americans were, by today’s standards, far from sedentary, Walt Whitman, writing under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, saw the need to use his column to implore his fellow American men to abandon their bad habits, to overcome illness, and in so doing “attain to the perfection of his bodily powers…” (4).  In this society, which subscribed to the Cult of True Womanhood, the only nod to women was in the column on dancing, which develops “flexibility and strength of the hips, knees, muscles of the calf, ankles and feet” (55).

Divided into seven sections, Whitman provided suggestions for all aspects of a man’s life.  Like professional trainers today he recommended a mix of strength training and cardiovascular exercise.  Baseball, rowing, swimming and boxing were all good exercises designed to keep men healthy and supple.  Two points of interest should be noted here.  First, since the columns appeared in 1858 and 1859, before the Civil War, at this time baseball was still a local, somewhat unorganized game.  Second, the book is profusely illustrated with wonderful, appropriate sketches by Matthew Allen.   The exception is the illustration for the last section, “Miscellany,” which featured a bearded man riding a safety bicycle.  Unfortunately the safety bicycle is still a generation in the future and Pierre Lallement is still ten years from coming to the United States with his velocipede.

Whitman clearly understands the place and importance of exercise to the healthy life.  The healthy life, as his columns indicate, went far beyond physical exercise.  The healthy man needed to watch what he ate and to eat three meals of moderate proportions, avoiding snacks.  Despite the increasing interest in abstinence from alcoholic beverages, he saw no harm in consuming them in moderation.  He offered suggestions on dress and grooming.  He would be appalled by today’s men who shave not only their faces but their heads as well! “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” (62).  He favored dressing for comfort over style, and taking care to dress appropriately for the weather in good, clean attire from the head to the feet.  Because exercise is likely to produce sweat, it is important for the man to bathe regularly, changing into fresh clothing.

In general, healthy men have little need for medical care, though “occasionally, the advice of an intelligent and conscientious physician may be necessary” (112).  Given the state of medicine in the decades before the germ theory, this was especially important advice.  Anyone could and many did, hang out a shingle and offer advice and nostrums guaranteed to cure everything from cancer to hair loss.  Whitman saw the best medicine to be good food, plenty of rest and fresh air, and exercising both the mind and the body. The healthy man will have plenty of stamina to follow “a steady and agreeable occupation [which] is one of the most potent adjuncts and favorers of health and long life” (114). Throughout, Whitman reminds the reader that physical exercise strengthens not only the body, but the mind and the spirit as well.  It staves off illness and infirmity even in old age.  The vigorous man need not suffer from infirmity or depression.  Whitman clearly embraced Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which emphasized symmetry, proportion and harmony.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Heath & Training is handsomely printed and bound, including a ribbon marker.  It is solid practical advice for men (and women), as useful today as it was one hundred-sixty years ago.

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