As It Happens

Walt Whitman's health tips for men: eat meat, grow a beard, preserve your seed

A re-discovered self-help guide for "manly" health written by Walt Whitman is not poetry. But it does provide new insights into the great American writer and his times.
Walt Whitman (The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, University of Iowa)

"Manly Health and Training" is not the most poetic title. But that's the name of the newest re-published work from American poet Walt Whitman.

The 47,000-word series was written by Whitman under a pseudonym and originally published in The New York Atlas in 1858. It advised men to eat meat almost exclusively, to grow a beard to keep their necks warm and to preserve their semen for reproduction.

The cover of The New York Atlas, September 12, 1858 (University of Iowa archive)

Now it's been rediscovered and re-published by an online journal called The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Ed Folsom is the editor. He tells As It Happens host Carol Off that Whitman believed the body — and the importance of caring for it — was the basis of democracy.

Walt Whitman posing nude, circa 1880 (Thomas Eakins, The Walt Whitman Archive)

"Making sure that you got a lot of good air into the lungs, so that you could speak loudly and clearly. Keeping the head clear, so that you can think well. Keeping the legs strong, so that you can stride into the public square with dignity and determination," Folsom explains about Whitman's advice.

Folsom points out that Whitman wrote the series in the same time period when he was writing the poems that would become his masterpiece, "Leaves of Grass." He adds many people now see those poems as "the very beginnings of the articulation of what we now call gay identity."

Ed Folsom, editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (University of Iowa)

Folsom says "Manly Health and Training" reads "like a love song to the male body."

On the issue of sex, Folsom admits Whitman sounds fairly conservative in the guide. The poet warns men to avoid masturbation and prostitution, so as to not waste their sperm.

"Whitman's advice is, 'Don't overdo it.' And, that in the same way women have a limited number of eggs in their bodies, men have a limited number of seeds. And that any release of male seeds, especially early in life, was simply wasting the possibility of stronger future generations."