Best known for his poetic genius and fantastic beard, it turns out that Walt Whitman was also among America’s first menswear advice columnists. Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, has recently discovered Whitman’s collection of self-help articles, Manly Health and Training, With Offhand Hints Toward Their Conditions. Whitman published the articles in 1858 as a running column in The New York Atlas, under the name Mose Velsor, a well-known Whitman pseudonym from his time as a hack journalist. Whitman’s journals contain notes for these articles, but Whitman scholars had thought that he had never written them. Turpin found them by searching a library database for “Mose Velsor” and then following another newspaper’s reference to the collected articles.
To think this exposition of manful wisdom was almost left in the dustbin of history. It reads like passages of Leaves of Grass mixed with dubious advice on exercise and sports, diet, clothes, grooming, and sex. Choice headlines include: “MANLY BEAUTY—THE TRUE AMBITION,” “MEDICINES—DO THEY DO ANY GOOD?” and “CAN WE THEN HAVE AS FINE A RACE OF MEN IN MODERN ARTIFICIAL LIFE, AS IN RUDER AGES?” These topics may sound familiar; pick up a copy of GQ, or scroll through the clickbait of Men’s Health and you’ll find almost identical articles, just written in less exultant prose. “Manly health!” Whitman writes. “Is there not a kind of charm—a fascinating magic in the words?”
The modern American man, just as the specimen of Whitman’s time, contains multitudes. In fact, with the advent of fast food and microwaveable mini-corn dogs, the American man contains more multitudes than ever. But with Mr. Walt Whitman as our guide, perhaps we can finally “get that beach-bod” we’ve seen advertised, and rediscover the charms of manly health.
This is the core of Manly Health. Whitman may have been writing in the days before Crossfit Bowflex, and P90X, but his attitudes are eerily similar to today’s appeals to inflated masculinity. However, Whitman is more realistic about the time it takes to achieve these results—no seven minute workout here. The Whitman exercise regimen takes two hours a day, for two years.
Look at the brawny muscles attached to the arms of that young man, who, for nearly two years past, has devoted on an average two hours out of the twenty-four to rowing in a boat, swinging the dumb-bells, or exercising with the Indian club. Look at the spread of his manly chest, on which also are flakes of muscle which rival those of the ox or horse.—(Start not, delicate reader! the comparison is one to be envied.) Two years ago that same young man was puny, hollow-breasted, walking home at evening with a languid gait, and eating his meals with less than half an appetite. Training, and the simplest amount of perseverance, have altogether made a new being of him.
Whitman’s suggestion of custom footwear is oddly prescient, given the current menswear obsession with bespoke shoes. (Although his promotion of socks will disappoint many a J. Crew stylist.) And for those of us with habitually chilly feet, Whitman has the answer: a cold water footbath.
Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet. This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health. The feet, too, must be kept well clothed with thin socks in summer, and woolen in winter—and washed daily. We may mention that one of the best remedies for cold feet which many people are troubled with in the winter, is bathing them frequently in cold water. If this does not succeed, add a little exercise.
One of Whitman’s obsessions in Manly Health and Training is the way modern life degrades the body. He hates scarves and mufflers, believing them to coddle rather than fortify the throat, “resulting in morbidly sensitive skin.” For throat ailments, he also blames: “Feeble and scrofulous parentage, precocious youthful indulgences and passions, a too various and too artificial diet, distilled liquors, syphilitic taint, sedentary employments, continual breathing of stale air, the use of drugs and medicines, &c., &c.” This sounds like a rather grim situation for the gullet, but Whitman has a natural solution.
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. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, &c., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
For Students, Clerks, and Those in Sedentary or Mental Employments
In 1858, “mental employments” were a only a small portion of jobs in the US, but now this advice seems to apply to almost everybody in the developed world—there are very few oxcart drivers in Brooklyn these days. To keep active, Whitman suggests rowing, running, boxing, and a new sport just sweeping the nation: baseball. But for men unused to exercise, he prescribes starting with a morning walk.
…To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning! If in the city, even there you will find ample sources of amusement and interest in its myriad varieties of character and occupation—in the scenes of its awakening and adjusting itself to its daily labors—in the crowds around its ferries, and all through its main thoroughfares, and at its great depots and markets. Do not be discouraged soon. Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months.
So there you have it. To realize Whitman’s picture of manly health, lift weights, buy better-fitting shoes, leave your throat uncovered, and take a brisk walk in the morning. Avoid stale air, distilled liquors, and syphilis, and don’t be too hasty in your judgement—as Whitman notes, you’ve got to give this training regimen a few months to work before you abandon it. Let’s see how you idlers look come Labor Day.
Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This post first appeared on the No Man blog in June 2016.