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Walt Whitman’s Vital Tips for Maintaining Youth


A fascinating discovery adds an edge to Whitman’s already powerful poetry.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
[…] and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
- Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is one of the most famous poets of the late 19th century United States. His Leaves of Grass is an undisputed classic of world literature, and “Song to Myself” remains a treatise on the cultivation of the modern self. In part, visionary, in part neurotic and always advanced, Whitman defied all the classifications of his time. More than a century later he is still talked about. A few weeks ago, it was discovered that Whitman had written a newspaper column in 1858, and signed it with the pseudonym, “Mose Velsor.” Under the heading “Manly Health and Training” the column ran 13 editions and to almost 50,000 words. Whitman stands not only as the father of modern poetry, but perhaps also as the grandfather of the literature of fitness and self-improvement.

The discovery was made possible thanks to Zachary Turpin, at the University of Houston. Turpin studied Whitman’s pseudonyms and found microfilms of the series of articles in the New York Tribune. In Turpin’s view, the series can be read as “an essay on male beauty, a chauvinistic screed, a sports memoir, a eugenics manifesto, a description of New York daily life, an anecdotal history of longevity, or a pseudoscientific tract,” and warns that it can be “eyebrow-raising.” “Readers should prepare to encounter a more-than-typically self-contradictory Whitman; his primary claims tilt from visionary to reactionary, commonsensical to nonsensical, egalitarian to racist, pacific to bloodthirsty – and back again,”

Articles can be read in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, where we can find tips like these:

Guard your manly power, your health and strength, from all hurts and violations,” urges Whitman in one article. “This is the most sacred charge you will ever have in your keeping. 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!

The poet also expounds his “deeply felt conviction, the result of much observation in New York, Brooklyn, and other cities, that the only true and profitable way of reaching the morals of the young is through making them first healthy, clean-blooded and vigorous specimens of men.”

Rowing, he advises:

…is a noble and manly exercise; it develops the whole of the body. To many, the hunter’s excursion, with dog and gun, will prove salutary. The fishing jaunt the same. ‘Hurling’ is also a noble game, and calculated, if made popular, to help with the rest in producing a noble race of men.

There is no doubt, as things now are, among the young men of modern civilised life, in cities, that a healthy manly virility seems to be almost lost – seems to have given place to a morbid, almost insane, pursuit of women, especially of the lowest ranges of them, for the mere repetition of the sensual pleasure.

A man that exhausts himself continually among women is not fit to be, and cannot be, the father of sound and manly children,” he advises. “They will be puny and scrofulous – a torment to themselves and to those who have the charge of them.

In a note that could be read as nutritional and fascist (without being decidedly either), he gives some tips on food. And Whitman advocates excluding almost everything but meat from the diet.

In our view, 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 favour of that noble-bodied, pure-blooded and superior race we have had a leaning toward, in these articles of ours.

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