Walt Whitman, ‘Manly Health,’ and the Democratization of Medicine

Today’s post is by Zachary Turpin, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Houston. Back in April, The New York Times published an article announcing Mr. Turpin’s uncovering of a nearly 47,000-word journalistic series called “Manly Health and Training” written by the poet Walt Whitman under a pseudonym.  Learn more about Whitman’s health writings here in New York this coming Monday, July 18th at 6pm and join Zachary Turpin for his talk Up!: Manhood, Democratic Medicine, and Walt Whitman’s Secret Health Writings. The lecture is co-sponsored by The New York Public Library. Mr. Turpin will be joined by Dr. Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection at The New York Public Library, for a conversation about Whitman’s interests in health and poetry.  The talk is free, but please register here.  

Near the beginning of “Manly Health and Training” (1858), Walt Whitman’s covertly published health and physiology tract, the poet says the following to the young men of America:

If you are a student, be also a student of the body, a practiser of manly exercises, 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. Up in the morning early! Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble gripe upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors. Guard your manly power, your health and strength, from all hurts and violations—this is the most sacred charge you will ever have in your keeping.

Whitman’s formal schooling ended at the age of 11, but he was never an anti-intellectual (quite the opposite.) Why, then, does he position exercise—and in particular, a muscular body—as more vital to readers’ lives than math, history, law, medicine, or spirituality? Is he sincere?


Daguerreotype portrait of Walt Whitman, 1853.  Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library.

These are some of the questions I will attempt to answer in my upcoming talk at The New York Academy of Medicine (July 18th). But I will begin, here, by emphasizing that Whitman almost certainly means what he says.

In the U.S. in the mid-19th century, medicine was reaching the end of a long, slow shift in its epistemological foundations. What for centuries had been a stubbornly inductive system of assumption and a priori logic, had gradually come to rely more and more upon observation and deduction. By the time Whitman was secretly writing “Manly Health,” Americans were less likely than ever to approach their bodies as perfect creations, or illness as a mere deviation from perfection. Instead, physiologically the body had gradually been recast—based on extensive physiological observation—as an imperfect thing.

Gone was the Vitruvian man, of perfect geometric proportions:


Leonardo da Vinci.  The Proportions of the Human Body According to Vitruvius (The Vitruvian Man.)  Image in the public domain.

In his stead, grew the “sciences”—which we now generally agree are pseudosciences—of physiognomy, phrenology, and eugenics. These pursuits combined complicated measurement and categorization with the belief that, based on variations of external physiology one could deduce the internal characteristics of personality, morality, and social worth. In part, such systems may be considered reactions to increasing cultural diversity in America. It is notable that the original theorists of many such systems were white; furthermore, American physiognomists and phrenologists tended to assign the highest values to classically white-European, or “Teutonic,” features: high foreheads, “noble” brows, “patrician” noses, and so on. Such values have had a deep effect on the social mores of the US—and not a few are still floating around today, as hard-to-eradicate racist rationalizations.


Books like How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-Book of Phrenology and Physiognomy published in 1874 were popular during Whitman’s lifetime.


Frontispiece illustration in Joseph Simms’ Physiognomy Illustrated; or Nature’s Revelations of Character, published in 1891.

But beyond obsessions with racial and ethnic categorization, deductive reasoning had a further influence on American physiological discourse. It made it a democratic enterprise.

To put it plainly, if a body begins in imperfection, by definition it may be improved upon. The notion that the body is malleable—may be changed, manipulated, whittled down or built up—mirrors a longstanding American mythos of self-reliance, one that has its roots in the writings of everyone from John Smith and Jonathan Edwards, to J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not to mention, Walt Whitman himself. Such a narrative of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is still present today, and in the field of health and wellness is perhaps more powerful than ever. The popularity of extreme cardiovascular workouts, cosmetic surgery, yoga clothing lines, self-help books, and diet narratives of all types—from “paleolithic” to “blood type” to “detox” to “alkaline”—are a testament to that. (And incidentally, they all have long histories in American fad dieting—Whitman would likely recognize a number of them.)

There is a further corollary here. If the body had come to be defined by its measurement and malleability (which it was, and arguably still is), and scientific observation grew to be a more widespread, middle-class pursuit (which it had), then nearly anyone with a pen and paper could theorize, publicize, and popularize their own “answer” to physiological problems. Such answers are overwhelmingly evident in 19th-century periodical literature, which is positively overflowing with fad diets, patent medicines, calisthenic regimens, baldness cures, skin bleaches, snake oils, and self-help narratives of all types.

FinalMrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup-p1aniuvmjiubpvt7de0knl14do

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, formulated in Maine in 1849,  contained 65 milligrams of morphine per fluid ounce.  Image from our William H. Helfand Collection of Pharmaceutical Trade Cards.


Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, first produced by a Charleston druggist in 1865, claimed to cure coughs and contained an opium derivative.  Image from our William H. Helfand Collection of Pharmaceutical Trade Cards.


Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, volume 5, number 5, 1899.

Walt Whitman’s newly rediscovered self-help narrative, “Manly Health and Training,” is unique in its importance to the history of American physiological and medical thought, but it was by no means unusual for its time. In my upcoming talk at the Academy, I look forward to talking more about its discovery, its place in Whitman’s life’s work, and its implications for American literary and medical discourses.

1 thought on “Walt Whitman, ‘Manly Health,’ and the Democratization of Medicine

  1. Pingback: Medical History and the Arts! | Run For Your Life!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s