American poet Walt Whitman. | AP Photo/Files |

Who knew? Walt Whitman was the Richard Simmons of his day

SHARE Who knew? Walt Whitman was the Richard Simmons of his day
SHARE Who knew? Walt Whitman was the Richard Simmons of his day

Exercise guru Richard Simmons has gone away but could the great American poet Walt Whitman replace him?

Consider, for example, this cheery Simmons-like exhortation (Whitman was a 19th-century poet much given to Simmons-like exhortation) in a long-lost and just published manifesto by Whitman called “Manly Health & Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body.”

“To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler…UP! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit!”

Or as Simmons would say: Get up and move!

It turns out Whitman was just as obsessed with the state of his body as we are. He died in 1892 at age 72 but he’s been lately revived with “Manly,” a collection of newspaper articles he published in a New York paper in 1858 and only recently discovered in a digital database under one of his pseudonyms.


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With tips for men on diet and exercise, grooming and dress, food and drink, dancing and sports, and the link between mental and moral health, Whitman’s health opus totals nearly 47,000 words, published in February by Regan Arts. It offers new insight into Whitman’s poetic preoccupation with his body, expressed in “I Sing the Body Electric” from his masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass.” It also offers new clues to scholars about Whitman’s thinking during a crucial but little-known period in his life.


Now Ten Speed Press is bringing out a mini, boiled-down version, “Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health & Training,” aimed at 21st-century millennials accustomed to reading bite-sized online listicles instead of books. This version, released earlier this month, features about 75 excerpts, is just 122 pages, and is meant as a goofy gift for those who like working out and lyrical poetry.

Some of it will raise eyebrows: “A man that exhausts himself continually among women, is not fit to be, and cannot be, the father of sound and manly children.” This declaration would seem to confirm the now-standard scholarly view that Whitman preferred the company of men: He is presumed to have been gay, although it wouldn’t have been called that at the time.

Kenneth Price, a professor of English and expert on Walt Whitman at the University of Nebraska, says “Manly” reflects Whitman’s poetic celebration of the body in “Leaves,” which would set him apart as an artist and change the way American poetry was written.

“His view that the body was of crucial importance is different from that of most people of the time, who would have said the mind, heart or soul were most important. And it was where he would make his mark as a poet,” Price says. “His sense that mind and body are integrated and if you neglect the body you damage the mind — that’s something he’s committed to.”

Oddly enough, Whitman’s words, though they were written 150 years ago, could pass for the content found these days in men’s magazines, online or on TV:

On where to train: Not in a gym. “Places of training, and all for gymnastic exercises should be in the open air — upon the turf or sand is best. Cellars and low-roofed attics are to be condemned, especially the former.”

On the best exercise: There’s one thing that beats baseball, swimming, rowing, boxing or even dancing. “Walking, or some form of it, is nature’s great exercise — so far ahead of all others as to make them of no account in comparison.”

On fashion versus health: No contest. “No man can serve the two masters, of frivolous fashion and the attainment of robust health and physique, at the same time.”

On cold baths: Regular bathing is desirable; the colder the better. “The tonic and sanitary effects of cold water are too precious to be foregone. You cannot have a manly soundness, unless the pores of the skin are kept open, and the encouragement given to…perspiration, which in a live man is thrown off in great quantities, and the free egress of which is of the utmost importance.”

On beards: Hirsute Whitman was a fan. “The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat — for the purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be.”

On feet: Pick the right socks and shoes. “The feet, too, must be kept well clothed with thin socks in summer, and woolen in winter — and washed daily.”

On food: Vegetarians be gone. “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.” Also: “Chew the food well, and do not eat fast.”

On alcohol: Not bad in judicious quantities: “We would rather, a little while after his dinner, a man should drink a glass of good ale or wine than one of those mixtures called ‘soda,’ or even a strong cup of hot coffee.”

On good character and good health: They’re linked. “The first requisite to a young man is that he should be well and hardy; and that from such a foundation alone, he will be more apt to become good, upright, friendly, and self-respected.”

On wealth and health: They’re linked. “From a money-making point of view… health is an investment that pays better than any other.”

On curing “the blues”: No pills necessary, just a brisk body rubdown followed by “a long and brisk walk in the open air, expanding the chest and inhaling plentiful supplies of the health-giving element — ten to one but he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.”

Maria Puente, USA TODAY

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