Turns out Allen Ginsberg was right when he imagined Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California "poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys." I don't mean he was right about the grocery boys, though Whitman certainly had a wandering eye. He was right about the meat. If Whitman had visited a supermarket in California, as Ginsberg imagines, he certainly would have been poking around the steaks and roasts, not the kale and fresh vegetables.
I know this because I've just finished the poet's thirteen articles on the "Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body" called "Manly Health and Training," first published in 1858 by the New York Atlas newspaper and recently discovered by an industrious English graduate student named Zachary Turpin. In one article, under the subheading "MEAT AS THE PRINCIPAL DIET FOR THE INHABITANTS OF THE NORTHERN STATES," Whitman (using his favorite pen name, Mose Velsor) writes that if men ate "an almost exclusive meat diet" they would be much more like those "noble-bodied, pure-blooded" ancient Greeks. In another, he recommends "fresh rare lean meat" for breakfast. For lunch it's "fresh meat (rare lean beef, broiled or roast)." For dinner: "some digestible dish, fruit, or cold meat."
Readers of Whitman's poetry know that physical health and beauty were important to him. He was also something of a moralist. In "Song of Myself," despite his claim to ignore "Creeds and schools," he is constantly telling us what to do and think:
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
The moralizing continues in Manly Health and Training. Whitman hopes to teach young men to be moral by first teaching them to be fit. The "first requisite" for a young man, Whitman writes, "is that he should be well and hardy; and that from such a foundation alone, he will be more apt to become good, upright, friendly, and self-respected." The columns are saturated in the utopian fervor of the time, feeding a misplaced hope that if the right external things were changed—food, education, religion—in a person's life, human nature and society could be perfected.
But it's a fun, crazy-eyed sort of utopian fervor, and Whitman regularly surprises. In addition to eating meat, Whitman recommends that men go on long walks, take cold showers, abstain from tea and alcohol (though "good ale or wine" is far better than "one of those mixtures called ‘soda'"), do calisthenics, and box—preferably bare-fisted. Bare-fisted boxing, which was illegal at the time in the United States, should be reinstated, Whitman argues, not only because it teaches men's bodies to "endure long and serious attacks," but because it teaches men to fight "not by rote merely, but for the love of the fight."
Healthy men should also wake up early, take as little medicine as possible, cut down on sex, and avoid too much "brain action." He tells readers to grow a beard (for its beauty and protection against cold) and offers an unusual remedy for depression: "If the victim of ‘the horrors' could but pluck up energy enough to strip off all his clothes and give his whole body a stinging rubdown with a flesh-brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow, he would be thoroughly cured of his depression by this alone."
The columns were clearly written for money. As Turpin notes in his introduction, it had been a hard couple of years for Whitman when 1858 rolled around. His first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, sold poorly and was panned almost universally by critics. The second edition in 1856 sold even worse. Strapped for cash, Whitman began churning out copy. In 1857 alone, Turpin remarks, Whitman wrote roughly 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for the Brooklyn Daily Times, drafted 70 new poems, and at some point began drafting the "Manly Health" columns, which ran to about 3,000 words.
Turpin speculates that the columns may also have been written in response to Whitman's own health scare in the summer of 1858, when Whitman, who was proud of his perfect condition, suffered from what he called "sunstroke," but what one scholar, Turpin writes, "attributes to high blood pressure." He was suffering from depression at the time, too.
Whatever the reason Whitman wrote the columns, he did, and they are full of pseudoscience, strange suggestions, and common sense. They are a reminder that however much a writer might transcend his time, he is also always of it.
Published under: Book reviews