Song Of My Self-Help: Follow Walt Whitman's 'Manly Health' Tips (Or Maybe Don't) In 1858, the poet published a series of advice columns — titled "Manly Health and Training" — in which he recommends wearing a beard, taking a cold bath every morning and avoiding condiments.
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Song Of My Self-Help: Follow Walt Whitman's 'Manly Health' Tips (Or Maybe Don't)

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Song Of My Self-Help: Follow Walt Whitman's 'Manly Health' Tips (Or Maybe Don't)

Song Of My Self-Help: Follow Walt Whitman's 'Manly Health' Tips (Or Maybe Don't)

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eat lean meat, bathe regularly, wear comfortable shoes - three pieces of self-help advice from a newly published collection, not by Dr. Oz, but by Walt Whitman. The author of "Leaves Of Grass" and "O Captain! My Captain" used a pseudonym when he wrote a series of articles that were called "Manly Health And Training." And nobody knew that Whitman had written them until Zachary Turpin found them. He's a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston and joins us now from the studios of WUHF. Thanks very much being with us.

ZACHARY TURPIN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How did you ever find these?

TURPIN: OK. So I would call the literary research that I do a sickness. I like to sift through databases looking for lost pieces of work by great American authors. When it came to Whitman, the tool I had at my disposal was his pseudonyms. He had quite a few over the years. Mose Velsor is one, Velsor Brush, J.R.S. (ph), You Know Who, A Schoolteacher, so on and so forth.

SIMON: This name is Mose Eltzer (ph)?

TURPIN: Mose Velsor. So M-O-S-E is a - was a common first name among the Bowery Boys in New York.

SIMON: Yeah.

TURPIN: And Van Velsor was Whitman's mother's maiden name.

SIMON: OK.

TURPIN: And so he cobbled this together. And what this notice in the newspaper said is that this Sunday in the New York Atlas are articles by X and Y and an article on manly training by Mose Velsor.

I sent way for the microform, and when it came, I go to the appropriate week and I see there's a piece by Mose Velsor of Brooklyn. It's called "Manly Health And Training." This is exciting. It seems like it might be Whitman's. And there's an advertisement in that week of the New York Atlas that matches a handwritten manuscript that Whitman. It matches it word for word.

SIMON: Is there anything in these bromides about how to live a manly, healthful life that would lead you to believe that - oh, this has got to be the same guy who wrote "Leaves Of Grass"?

TURPIN: Yes, in that his concerns in "Leaves Of Grass" overlap with the concerns in this long piece - the idea of personal perfectibility, the idea of health, vigor, daily happiness in connection with your natural self. It makes a lot of sense.

SIMON: Well, bathing regularly is a good beginning, I guess.

TURPIN: Baiting regularly - Walt Whitman was a big fan of slapping cold water on himself in the morning. He writes about this over and over again. The importance of wearing a beard as a man - he says in "Manly Health And Training," you wouldn't shave your head, so why would you shave the whiskers of your face? He says that it would keep the New Yorker warm in the winter...

SIMON: (Laughter).

TURPIN: ...And therefore is healthy. And he was a New Yorker, born and bred.

SIMON: Where did life find Walt Whitman at this point that he was doing this for a living?

TURPIN: What's curious to me is that 1858 is one of - I wouldn't call it a lost year per se. But there's not a lot that we know about Whitman at this time. He had fallen into a fairly deep depression, probably due to the implosion of some relationship about which we know nothing. He was journalistically a success. He had worked for more than two dozen newspapers, magazines and journals by this time as writer and editor, even a typesetter. But financially, he was an utter failure.

And so you can see in his notes from the period he's considering changing his profession. Oh, maybe I could be the world's best lecturer - what we would today call rebranding himself (laughter) from a journalist into the nation's premier bard. But he's got a long way to go in 1858. He's looking for publishers. He's having a lot of difficulty.

SIMON: Zachary Turpin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Houston. Thanks so much for being with us.

TURPIN: Thank you.

SIMON: You can find an excerpt of "Manly Health And Training" now published under Walt Whitman's byline on our website at npr.org.

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