On a hot July morning in 2015, doctoral student Zachary Turpin was scrolling through reams of microfilm in a library basement at the University of Houston when he made an incredible find: a 13-part treatise on male health and wellness that was written in 1858 by Walt Whitman, under the pen name “Mose Velsor,” three years after the publication of the first edition of the poet’s seminal work, “Leaves of Grass.” The find, the most significant entry into Huntington-born Whitman’s corpus in decades, is now published in one volume titled “Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body” (Regan Arts, 215 pp., $25.95).
How did you come to make this discovery?
Archival research began almost as a hobby, something I would do for fun, or when I couldn’t sleep. I had been looking for odds and ends by a number of American authors — Alcott, Melville, L. Frank Baum. Whitman was a prolific pen name user, so I found a list of his pseudonyms and went to work, but I was never expecting to discover something this significant.
Did Whitman write for many other periodicals in this serialized manner?
Yes. Many other 19th century authors cut their teeth writing for periodicals, and Whitman is maybe the foremost. He quit school when he was 11 years old to become a printer’s devil, which is the person who brings type to typesetters. Thereafter he was a newspaper man for many years. He founded several newspapers, wrote for several dozen. So daily columns, editorials — he wrote many serialized larger works, including a temperance novel, dozens of short stories and travelogues — “Letters from a Traveling Bachelor” — that were published in many parts.
The advice presented here does seem relatively rational, if a bit ascetic. How advisable would you say this regimen actually is?
When he recommends wearing baseball shoes, which are light and made of canvas, he’s essentially saying to take care of your feet, which is obviously very rational from a modern perspective. When he says things like eat a diet that’s almost entirely composed of meat, that’s a bit different. To someone reading the book after the discovery of vitamins, it sounds like something that would give you scurvy.
I was thinking gout. All that mutton.
I think you’re right. But much of the advice is very sensible. He says to get up early, splash yourself with cold water and eat a hearty breakfast. Get out there and exercise. Take your daily occupation as an opportunity to be active. Don’t stay out too late. As someone who has two kids, I really liked that one.
I liked his idea of loud declamation of poetry as exercise.
Yes — that’s pure Whitman right there.
Is there anything from Whitman’s life that suggests an interest in these matters of vigor?
Whitman, along with many other male writers and thinkers of the time, was really into the idea of physiological perfection and purity, and that manliness nearly equated to Americanness. You can see in the treatise, this idea that the American should big and robust, like the land itself, like the redwoods. He also was interested in pseudoscience, things like phrenology and physiognomy, and though he kept this mostly to private remarks, the ideas of eugenics and the perfection of the American race. There were a lot of ideas swirling around in the 19th century about health and the body, to the point where you could create you own system of health.
How would you rate this treatise as a piece of literature? Although it’s probably unfair to impose that term, it does seem to have a certain recognizable style.
It’s a fair question. This is a person who, to his credit, set the bar very high when it came to literary style. It may not come anywhere close to “Leaves of Grass,” necessarily, but I think there are many moments of real poetry and energy and humor in this thing.
Have you been tempted to adopt this regimen yourself?
If I had the time ... what’s a good way to put this? Someone at an online periodical tried it for a week, and he did not like it.
Seems like you’d be cold all the time — the cold baths, the open windows . . .
The cold was rough, and the diet wore on him. Someday, I’d be interested to try it. Although I’d probably need a partner. That might be amusing. Or at least bracing.