“I am large, I contain multitudes,” declared Walt Whitman, quintessential American poet, in his renowned 1855 ‘Song of Myself’. Fancying himself the personification of his beloved United States, Whitman purported his collection Leaves of Grass to be something of a bible of democracy, his written embodiment of the fledgling everyman nation. And yet, if Whitman, to paraphrase the adage, was what he ate, then he and the nineteenth-century America he epitomized were little more than lean beef and the occasional stale bread, a pre-Paleo Diet people. That is, at least, if he kept to the “almost exclusive meat diet” he himself laid out in his ludicrous ‘Manly Health and Training, With Off-Hand Hints Toward Their Conditions’.
Published in 13 parts in the New York Atlas in 1858 under the pen name Mose Velsor, this rambling, 47000 word beast of a self-help guide spans everything from diet and sleep patterns to bath temperature, facial hair, dancing, and bare-knuckle boxing, all in advancement of a more perfect union, a more perfect—or as Whitman would have it, manlier—national physique. Manly Health takes the democratic optimism of Leaves of Grass and morphs it into something like a prescient American infomercial, paving the way for a fad-diet future built on pseudoscience, gym culture, and health epidemics. And like these very real facets of modern-day fitness lore, this document is both absolutely bonkers and unabashedly American.
Imagine Whitman, for a moment, a wide-eyed youth, leaving behind his Long Island upbringing for the big city, boundless confidence and ambition in tow. We know this story, of course, the stuff of Künstlerroman. An essay by a pioneer in the foremost avant-garde school — “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson — spellbinds him so as to drive him deep into his discipline, his aim dead-set on his goal. Whitman will, he decides, assume the mantle of national poet, the pen of these new and wild United States and their egalitarianism, their expansive landscapes, their renegade spirit. Perhaps he spends his days in the third-wave coffee shops of yesteryear, scrolling down some sort of Facebook behind a glowing apple. He ambles through city streets pondering, penning, etcetera, dreaming of a bright future. But he just spent a pretty penny self-publishing his chapbook, and Transcendentalist acclaim does not a paycheck write. Like many a financially strapped freelancer, Whitman writes on whatever subject for whomever will pay him—say, a self-help guide for a local Sunday paper, not a far cry from present-day Men’s Health or Men’s Fitness. Produced between the second and third editions of Leaves of Grass, Manly Health offers an oblique look into the politics and worldview that pervade Whitman’s poetry vis-à-vis his bizarre understanding of and utter fascination with health.
Specifically, he holds boundless faith in the power of the male body—he lauds men at their manliest, their brute strength symbolic of moral fiber. “Manly Health! Is there not a kind of charm—a fascinating magic in the words?” begins his second paragraph, and indeed, the guide further launches into something of a homoerotic ramble with sections like “Manly Beauty—the True Ambition” and “Could There Be an Entire Nation of Vigorous and Beautiful Men?” For Whitman, the notion of manliness transcends the corporeal or carnal; he cannot give advice without marinating it in grandiosity and collective unity, brazen pride in the so-called American race. Straightaway he announces the aim of his characteristically contradictory writing as no less than the perfection of herculean muscle, and yet by the last segment his motivation is clear: “America has mentality enough, but needs a far nobler physique…the Americans are undoubtedly the handsomest men, as a race, now upon the earth. What would they be with general sound health, and perfect physiques?” Whitman takes it upon himself as self-proclaimed national poet to postulate, melding self and society as one abstract object.
This notion — democratic decentralization of culture into the whims and wonders of individual persons—was not at all unprecedented at the time of writing, but remains revolutionary. Whitman acts as something of a tail-end to the aforementioned Transcendentalism, a mouthpiece to the new American thought birthed largely by Emerson in the few decades prior. Transcendentalism takes the Lockean empiricism that inspired the American political project—the idea that understanding comes from intuition, not tradition, and is therefore available to everyone, not just monarchy or clergy—and paints it in Kantian Romanticism within the American wilderness. Put simply, this means that any layman’s natural instincts or feelings are more valid than any tradition, and sheer human will is more powerful than any communal institution. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” says Emerson, in “Self-Reliance,” an essay which may as well be the national mantra.
He goes on: “Insist on yourself; never imitate…That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him…Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This embryo of self-determination specifically lays out an America Whitman would come to embody, one where the everyman acts as his own god, and in doing so creates a community of remarkable individuals. Still, Transcendentalists were a somewhat self-aware, pretentious sort, travelling in intellectual New England circles around the Harvard Divinity School. Whitman, on the other hand, relished his everyman background, and applied it broadly, with a wide berth. In Leaves of Grass, he asserted himself leaf to the American grass, one of many, yet through his radical conflation of I, You, and We, the voice of the many itself.
This makes Manly Health all the more ridiculous. Where Emerson’s writing and Leaves of Grass are broad, far-reaching, and abstract, Manly Health is unbelievably specific, as if Whitman took his ideas of self-determination and, in a blatant display of Transcendentalism’s misgivings, decided what others should do with their bodies:
“If you want to know what is best to a hearty man, who takes plenty of exercise and fresh air, and don’t want any pimples on his face or body, we will answer, (perhaps very much to your astonishment,) a simple diet of rare-cooked beef, seasoned with a little salt, and accompanied with stale bread or sea-biscuit. Mutton, if lean and tender, is also commendable. Pork should not be eaten. Butter, pepper, catsup, oil, and most of the ‘dressings,’ must also be eschewed. Lobster and chicken salad, cabbage, cucumbers, and even potatoes, are to be turned away from. Salted meats are not to be partaken of either. (…) If nine-tenths of all the various culinary preparations and combinations, vegetables, pastry, soups, stews, sweets, baked dishes, salads, things fried in grease, and all the vast array of confections, creams, pies, jellies, &c., were utterly swept aside from the habitual eating of the people, and a simple meat diet substituted in their place—we will be candid about it, and say in plain words, an almost exclusive meat diet—the result would be greatly, very greatly, in favor of that noble-bodied, pure-blooded, and superior race we have had a leaning toward, in these articles of ours.”
And now fast-forward to Dr. Oz, or at least to the same sort of certain and perceivably flawless health advice peddled daily in the States. This is the stuff of familiar present-day dinner table conversation, the kind we all love to hate—the Paleo Dieter’s rose-colored nostalgia, the vegan’s tirade on ethics and factory farms, the confusingly widespread vilification of all things gluten; Whitman delivers a version of it with exemplary confidence and candor.
In an essay for n+1, Mark Greif writes “the magazine Health featured an advertisement for its website: ‘Trying to figure out what fish or vegetable is safe to eat this week?’ It wasn’t a joke…it concerned a weekly shift in knowledge. The idea of food ‘news’ announces the end of thousands of years in which there couldn’t be such a thing as ‘news’ in food.” So it is with Whitman, whose food “news” represents not any conventional wisdom but the all-American value of breaking completely with the past and asserting the dominance of some intuitive new way, no matter how untried or patently false. His advice takes on the Transcendentalist break with tradition, adopting intuition and unprofessional instinct and funneling it into practical advice. Thus his pseudoscience is a political statement, the pronouncement of a mythos that today reigns supreme in an America where weight-loss game shows and perpetually shifting dietary “rules” go hand-in-hand with hot dog-eating contests and obesity epidemics. Individualist America, at least as far as health and diet are concerned, is at once narcissistic and schizophrenic.
Herein lies the absurdity: the same Whitman, American everyman, simultaneously champions self-help and community betterment—he wants to build a perfect group of men by controlling individual action. His utopian logic conflates self and society in exactly the same way as his poetry, all but guaranteeing the self-absorbed bodily focus of today’s food “news.” Greif continues: “health has nothing to contribute to solidarity and democracy. It always leads individuals back to themselves.” And here, it seems, Whitman is a rung on the ladder between Transcendental self-reliance and the pop culture of self-help, a noble abstraction bastardized into a continually shifting prescription for human perfection.
Still, Manly Health is more than just dietary advice. Whitman goes on to extol the benefits of bare-knuckle boxing despite its illegality “to develop [sic] a hardy, robust, and combative nation,” never mind that the bloody Civil War began all of three years later. He insists that healthy men wake before dawn, take icy baths throughout the year, spend a notable chunk of the day exercising, and go to bed at precisely ten p.m. He praises dancing as a means to flexibility in the joints and beards as necessary sanitary protection, details the type of socks men should wear in each season, derides stylish European shoes in favor of athletic sneakers. This, by the way, is his laymen’s intuition at work, gloriously groundless. The instruction goes on and on, longwinded and overconfident, to describe cures for indigestion, dyspepsia, pimples, bloating—symptoms, Whitman suggests, of complete moral decline.
And through all of this, he inevitably contradicts himself as if he were indeed “multitudes” together writing a health column. Within a few paragraphs of some specific advice, Whitman counters himself. On his meat-heavy diet: “Nearly all of the early philosophers and saints appear to have been men who observed this [vegetarian] diet; and, it must also be said, nearly all of them obtained a very advanced period of life.” Similarly, he suggests that, as an alternative, a diet of oatmeal gruel is perfect for an American manly man. Never mind, apparently, all that meat-talk. After insisting that nearly no indulgences be taken, that a diet be rigid or inelastic, he explains that moderation is, in fact, the key to a healthly physique, probably his best actual advice. Nothing more American in health guidance, it seems, than asserting the absolute power of one method based on little more than intuition and personal experience, and yet expecting it to be panacea for every ailment. Manly health—or collective confusion as to what exactly it is and how to get it—seems to be an American pastime. Perhaps, like certain other aspects of American society, it’s best left to the professionals.