May 3, 2016
Walt Whitman, health guru
by Ryan Harrington
In what is being touted as the most exciting Walt Whitman discovery in decades, an eagle-eyed grad student has unearthed a series of articles that add up to a cohesive 47,000 word work on self-care written by the poet himself.
As if the discovery wasn’t a fine enough treat, the collection could even be interpreted as presaging some of our most dearly-held health-craze fads: the paleo-diet, the standing desk, the wearing of ridiculous shoes to maximize comfort.
As Jennifer Schuessler writes for the New York Times:
The series, with its disquisitions on bodily humors 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.
Entitled Manly Health and Training, the series appeared in The New York Atlas in weekly installments beginning in September 1858. It was written under one of Whitman’s pen names, Mose Velsor, and it reads as a specific program for cultivating the robust body and spirit that Whitman extols in Leaves of Grass and elsewhere.
While one can find in the text anticipations of today’s cutting-edge health advice, it also contains some idiosyncrasies, a strong belief in the benefits of bare-knuckle boxing, for instance. But the man did live to 72—so perhaps he was on to something?
Whitman’s health journalism reinforces the fact that, as a reporter, he was a consummate generalist. Though much of his prose remains unfound by later generations, some of his finest specimens are available from Melville House.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.