Walt Whitman Is Not Impressed By Your Expensive Gym Membership
Who needs Tracy Anderson? In 1858, two years before publishing his landmark third edition of Leaves of Grass, the American poet Walt Whitman wrote a series of newspaper columns under the pseudonym Mose Velsor on the subject of “Manly Health and Training.”
The articles sat in library archives until 2015, when University of Houston doctoral candidate Zachary Turpin discovered them on microfilm, and, a year later, the entire run was republished in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review at the University of Iowa. Later that year, Regan Arts published it again with illustrations in a handsome book.
People can’t seem to get enough. On April 4, Ten Speed Press will publish yet another version of Whitman’s health advice—advocating for beards, a diet of rare-cooked beef, and the “tonic and sanitary effects of cold water.” Entitled Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health & Training, it distills some of his advice into memorable aphorisms and presents itself as a bearded Brooklynite’s spin on men’s grooming guides just in time to preorder for Father’s Day.
Ed Folsom, an English professor at the University of Iowa and a co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive who worked on the Regan Arts book, said that Whitman’s advice was not unusual for his day. “Like a good deal of his journalism, Manly Health is largely drawn from other sources,” he said. “It’s possible to trace a good bit to other health treatises published in the years before Whitman’s series appeared; Whitman loosely paraphrases them (or in some cases lifts a paragraph). Whitman’s accomplishment was to bring them together and offer them to readers in a lively fashion.”
Although some of his more eccentric beliefs have been discredited—Whitman was a proponent of phrenology, the notion that the lumps on your skull were the results of various parts of the brain developing more fully than other parts—others still have the ring of truth.
Whether extoling the virtues of baseball, encouraging men to think of their health as a long-term investment, or declaring that “the years of your middle age ought to be those not only of your best performance, but of your best appearance”—40 is the new 30, in other words—here are six still-relevant tips.
Health as a Long-Term Investment
The idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure was not revolutionary in the mid-1850s, but Whitman framed it from a financial perspective. “From a money-making point of view, health is an investment that pays better than any other," he writes. And though a variety of health organizations continue to write papers about the need for investment in public health, Whitman described it succinctly humanist terms:
If you are a student, be also a student of the body ... realizing that a broad chest, a muscular pair of arms, and two sinewy legs, will be just as much credit to you, and stand you in hand through your future life, equally with your geometry, your history, your classics, your law, medicine, or divinity. Let nothing divert you from your duty to your body.
Avoid the Gym
Whitman was a big believer in the outdoors:
Places of training, and all for gymnastic exercises should be in the open air—upon the turf or sand is best. Cellars and low-roofed attics are to be condemned, especially the former.
And he encouraged the kind of bodyweight exercises that you can do anywhere:
To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for everyone—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time.
Play Baseball Instead
Whitman was especially fond of this new game: "base-ball," which had developed the first set of official rules only a decade earlier. Folsom says that Whitman referred to the sport in other writings as "the manly game," and later in life, he would become the first American writer to call it the American game, because it had what he described as "the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere."
The game of base-ball, now very generally practiced, is one of the very best of outdoor exercises; the same may be said of cricket—and in short, of all games which involve the using of the arms and legs.
Cold Baths Are Good
The professional athlete's current yen for ice-water baths as a recovery mechanism are really “just a recycling of a mid-19th century craze,” says Folsom. “Hydrotherapy is an ancient technique, but it had a massive revival in the 1840s and 1850s. Many people then thought it was crazy, but there was a good deal of “science” at the time to back up its therapeutic claims, and Whitman himself was always a believer in the restorative qualities of water immersion.” In the book, Whitman writes:
Persons habituated to a daily summer swim, or to the rapid wash with cold water over the whole body in the water, are far less liable to sudden colds, inflammatory diseases, or to the suffering of chronic complaints. The skin, one of the great inlets of disease, becomes tough and thick, and the processes of life are carried on with much more vigor.
Spend on Custom Shoes
Rather than appealing to men's vanity, Whitman gave out his footwear advice using the language of good health:
Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded. [A shoe] should be carefully selected to the shape of the foot, or, better still, made from lasts modeled to the exact shape of the wearer's feet (as all boots should be). ... Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health.
Spirits Over Soda
“A little while after his dinner, a man should drink a glass of good ale or wine [rather] than one of those mixtures called "soda," Whitman writes. But Folsom says this was quite different from Coca-Cola, which wasn't invented until 1886. Instead, it was sodium (alkali) in water, charged with carbonic acid. “When Whitman rejects one of those mixtures called ‘soda,’ he is rejecting the then-assumed health benefits of alkali mixed with water,” Folsom says. But his preference for a drink after a workout prefigured the current fad for mixing exercise and booze.
A gentle and moderate refreshment at night is admissible enough; and, indeed, if accompanied with the convivial pleasure of friends, the cheerful song, or the excitement of company, and the wholesome stimulus of surrounding good fellowship, is every way to be commended.