Americans know Walt Whitman as one of the country's greatest poets, but during his lifetime, he was mostly known as a newspaper man. As a freelance journalist, Whitman wrote under a variety of pen names, cranking out as many pieces as possible to make ends meet. (Sound familiar?) One such piece was a 13-part column called Manly Health and Training in the New York Atlas, written under the name Mose Velsor. Like today's self-help gurus made famous through Oprah interviews, Whitman guided guys on how to be the manliest men they could be. He advocated waking up early and recommended a carnivore diet quite similar to the popular paleo trend, along with a bunch of other advice. Most of all, he prioritized hot, buff bodies. (Whitman was gay after all.)
University of Houston doctorate student Zachary Turpin discovered the text last year. Next week, Regan Arts publishes the book in a beautiful, illustrated edition, complete with an introduction by Turpin. (It's available for pre-order here.) This week, Turpin sat down with Broadly to discuss how he discovered the articles, why Whitman loved newspapers, and the homosexual elements of the poet's idea of masculinity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Broadly: How did you come across the newspaper column?
Zachary Turpin: A statistician would call it stochastic. It was really quite random. I'm a literary researcher among other things, and that means that I have the freedom to screw around at my leisure. So something that I've been doing in the past few years is fiddling around with the primary works of 19th century American authors. Everyone you can think of: Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Rebecca Harding Davis, Emily Dickinson—you name it. Since most of these people wrote for periodicals (Emily Dickinson is probably the only exception), I was increasingly under the idea that maybe there was more work out there left to be found. It was primarily just me sailing over and over and over again until I hit on something successful, and the success in this case from using Walt Whitman's pen name.
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Did he use a pen name just for money?
Just for the money is a little harsh, but to be pretty blunt, the reason most of these authors wrote for periodicals, at least some in the 19th century, is that being an author then was not the same as in Washington Irving's day or Jane Austen's day. It was becoming the hard-bitten journalistic profession that you may be familiar with at VICE. They had to do a lot of work and at times crank it out fast. Whitman was the uber journalist author. He quit school at age 11 to work in newspapers, to be what's called the printer's devil. Up until the moment Leaves of Grass came out he thought of himself as a journalist and editor first.
Did he enjoy the work?
He always identified as a "newspaper man." (That's what he called it.) He loved the feel of type setting and choosing the paper. He loved the political back and forth. The newspapers back then were vicious. He really loved journalism. He liked to crank out a lot of work, and he could really manage his public image using other names, one of them being the one he published this piece under.
How do these essays perceive of masculinity?
For him masculinity is obviously this physical thing. He talks a lot about brawn, handsomeness. He uses the word manly over and over again. It's got that sort of base physical essentialism. Beyond that you can see that he sort of sees health as a manly thing. He sees health generally, so bodily health, and by extension political health, the health of the nation and then the health of the cosmos, is being a manly thing: brawny and big and American and connected to Redwood trees.
Is there a homosexual aspect to his conception of masculinity?
I think the better question is, "If Whitman hadn't written this, would we think it had this homosexual element?" I think probably to an extent. Today we call it homosocial elements, in the way that football players slap each other's asses. Knowing it came from Whitman personally, I think there's a homosexual element to the book for sure.
Does his version of masculinity have similarities to today's?
One of the reasons Manly Health and Training is so valuable is you see how old some of the health and wellness trends that we have today really are. I'm talking everything: baldness cures, tanning, exercise, muscle building, and odd things like colonics and herbal medicine. When you see people doing the insanity workout or P90X, a lot of that relishes the same Whitmanian thing—getting out there and working hard and building up your muscles.
The book is very similar to today's self-help books. Is this an inherently America genre?
In America particularly, and in periodicals of the 19th century, you see [self-help] splashed all over the pages, and you see it today unevaded. Being an American is in part about having the freedom to define yourself, but there's a big gaping question mark on there: "Who am I? How am I supposed to be happy and healthy and figure out who I am?" I think self-help culture really speaks to that. You can see that Manly Health is partly about staying fit and trim and getting good exercise and living long, but it's also about figuring out who you are and how to take care of that person.
Based on your research for the publication of this book, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about Whitman?
Whitman was, besides Benjamin Franklin, the ultimate expert at image management. He's the OG PR guy for himself. He was very good at managing his public persona and that persona grew to be the rough bearded poet who is just loafing and just sort of had sex with men and women and celebrates the universe.
His earliest persona was this kind of dandy schoolmaster that was teaching school in Long Island, walking around with a cane and mutton chops, and then for 20 straight years he was this hard bitten journalist going from newspaper to newspaper cranking out copy. Eventually, he becomes a poet, and he also has all these pseudo-scientific and physiological ideas that [he's] throwing out there. Whitman was this multifaceted artist, only one side whom we tend to think about today. I think this book really brings out those sides.