Ben Markovits

Climb trees and grow a beard

In 1858, he seems to advocate a good night’s sleep, outdoor exercise, careful grooming - and clean cotton socks in summer

Climb trees and grow a beard
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Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training

Walt Whitman

Boxtree, pp. 123, £

A few years after Walt Whitman brought out the first edition of Leaves of Grass (it didn’t do well), he wrote a column on ‘Manly Health and Training’ for the New York Atlas. His pieces were published under a pseudonym, Mose Velsor, and have only recently been connected to Whitman by a graduate student at the University of Houston, who discovered them on microfilm. (Unless this whole thing is a joke — it’s a little hard to tell.) Boxtree has cherrypicked from over 47,000 words of manly advice to produce a cod-retro book along the lines of the Ladybird Book of the Hangover or the Ladybird Book of the Midlife Crisis or the Ladybird Book of the Hipster. In fact, the Manly Health guide is a bit like all of them.

It comes in a handsome blue hardback, small enough (as Whitman wanted the original Leaves of Grass to be) to fit in your pocket as you take it outside, into the open air. There are illustrations, too, by Matthew Allen — pretty sketches of men boxing or rowing or lifting weights, in workmanlike denim and boots or something that seems to resemble striped pyjamas. The poet’s advice is split into useful categories like ‘The Value of Training’ or ‘Grooming & Dress’. This is the kind of thing he has to say: ‘No amount of cultivation, intellect or wealth will ever make up to a community for the lack of manly muscle, ability and pluck.’ His advice is more or less what you’d expect it to be: get up early, wash in a lot of cold water, climb trees, grow beards.

Somehow the effect is both hail-fellow and mealy-mouthed:

Usually the breakfast, for a hearty man, might consist in a plate of fresh rare lean meat, without fat or gravy, a slice or chunk of bread, and, if desired, a cup of tea, which must be left till the last. If there be boiled potatoes, and one of them is desired, it may be permitted.

Partly this is down to presentation: if you make something look like a Ladybird Book, it will soon start to sound like one. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that much of the silliness is Walt’s and would look right at home, say, on Goop — Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, where she offers to tell you how to ‘Get Any Guy Hooked on Clean Skincare’ or promises that ‘Your Cooking Rut Ends Here’. For example, which of the two, Paltrow or Whitman, do you think this pearl comes from?

The clothing of the feet is of importance . . . clean cotton socks in summer, and woollen in winter, carefully selected as to the size. These are little things, but on such little things much depends . . .

Or this:

A night of less sleep can affect the flow of good thoughts and their ability to shine through.

Or this:

Let nothing divert you from your duty to your body.

Of course, writers have to make a living like anybody else, but the book also reminded me of my first encounter with Whitman, as an elementary school kid, when we read or sang or played on the recorder some version of ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. I think our teacher was trying to show us that all children are beautiful, or that our bodies are beautiful, something like that, and we tried not to laugh. Or maybe we tried very hard to laugh, I don’t remember.

Dan Piepenbring, in his excellent review in the New Yorker, talks about the health anxiety underlying the Manly Health guide, and which the poems are free of. ‘And yet one can occasionally make out the life-affirming, democratic Everyman who wanders through Whitman’s poetry.’ The trouble is, it also works the other way round. Undoubtedly great as Leaves of Grass is (and it’s meant a lot to me at different times), you can hear some of the Manly Health guide in it, too — the tone of voice of somebody trying to sell you something.

Benjamin Markovits turned to writing after a (short- lived) career in basketball.