Walt Whitman wrote a fitness book!

I actually knew this already, having seen an article about the work, originally serialized in the weekly journal the New York Atlas under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, when it was collected and republished as a PDF (Manly Health and Training) in 2016. But I hadn’t read through the whole thing until this month.

I’ve read a lot of fitness books over the years, and one thing I find interesting is how much they are all the same—including Walt Whitman’s. Of course, every fitness book has its own peculiarities—more or less focus on functional fitness, flexibility, muscle size, body fat, strength, quickness, power, control, aerobic capacity, aesthetics, etc. But the levers available to affect these things don’t really change: sleep, diet, resistance exercise, endurance training, and stretching just about cover the gamut. Aside from the details of the diet, it’s primarily a matter of selection, focus, and combining of exercises.

Walt Whitman from about the time his training book was being written and serialized. Photo by J. W. Black of Black and Batchelder / Public domain

Walt Whitman’s fitness manual offers a nice little selection of exercises, none of which would seem out-of-place in any modern fitness book:

  • Rowing: “a noble and manly exercise; it developes the whole of the body.”
  • Toe-touches: “The ordinary exercise of bending forward and touching the toes with the tips of the fingers, keeping the knees straight meanwhile, is a very good one, and may be kept on with, in moderation at a time, for years and years.”
  • Lunges: “The simple exercise of standing on one foot and lowering so as to touch the bent knee of the other leg to the ground, and then rising again on the first foot, is also a good one.”
  • Dancing: “The art of the dancing-master may also be called in play, for the development of the legs, and their graceful and supple movement.”
  • Swimming: “being relieved of all the clothes, and supported in the water, allows of bringing nearly all the muscles of the body into easy and pleasant action.”
  • Walking: “A pretty long walk may also be taken, commencing at an ordinary pace, and increasing the rapidity of the step till it takes the power of locomotion pretty well, and then keeping it up at that gait, as it can be well endured—not to the extent of fatigue, however.”

Walt Whitman wants his readers to be exemplars of manly beauty. In fact, based on how he talks about it, you have to assume that increasing the amount of manly beauty around is really the most important thing he hopes to achieve with his book—but that’s a fair thing to do, because:

As regards human beings, in an important sense, Beauty is simply health and a sound physique. We can hardly conceive of a man, at any age of life, who is in perfect health, and keeps his person clean and neatly attired, who has not some claims to this much-prized attribute.

Related to this, he is clearly keen to normalize men caring about aesthetics:

Nor is there anything to be ashamed of in the ambition of a man to have a handsome physique, a fine body, clear complexion, nimble movements, and be full of manly vigor. Ashamed of! Why, we think it ought to be one of the first lessons taught to the boy, when he begins to be taught at all. It is of quite as much importance as any grammar, geography, or arithmetic— indeed, we should say it was of unrivalled importance.

Of course, some things are desirable for more than just their aesthetic benefits:

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, &c., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.

An aside, because it touches on both dancing and aesthetics: A few years ago I read a fitness book titled something like How to Have a Dancer’s Body, which I read hoping to get some suggestions for improving strength and flexibility, only to be sadly disappointed. Its advice in those areas, after a brief treatment of stretching and posture, was that the student should find a good dance class and workout under a teacher. (Most of the book seemed to be about normalizing having an eating disorder—which, admittedly, is probably essential if you want to have the body of a prima ballerina.)

Dance’s attractiveness comes, I think, from the way it both provides actual (often astonishing) physical capability along with an aesthetic that I and many other people find attractive. Walt agreed on both counts, although seemed to take issue with the dance fashions of the times:

As originally intended, dancing was meant to give harmonious movements to the whole body, from the legs, by keeping time to music. In that sense, it was a beautiful art, and one of the noblest of gymnastic exercises. Modern arrangements have made it something quite different.

We would be glad to see some manly genius arise among the dancing teachers, who, out of such hints as we have hastily written, would assist the objects of the trainer and gymnast.

As I said, all fitness books are pretty much the same, so I am not really surprised to find things here that read exactly like something I might find in some entirely modern source of fitness advice.

For example, his rant on shoes and feet sounds exactly like what you might expect if Walt Whitman wrote some copy for Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement shoe page or Steven Sashen’s Xero Shoes.

Probably, in civilized life, half the men have more or less deformed feet, from the tight and wretchedly made boots generally worn.

In one of the feet there are thirty-six bones, and the same number of joints, continually playing in locomotion, and needing always a free and loose action. Yet they are always squeezed into boots not modeled from them, nor allowing the play and ease they require. For the modern boot is formed on a dandified idea of beauty, as it is understood at Paris and London, and not as it is exemplified by nature.

If you want to see the feet in their natural and beautiful proportions, you must get a view of the casts of the remains of ancient sculpture, representing the human form, doubtless from the best specimens afforded by the public games and training exercises of the Greek and Roman arenas. They exhibit what the foot is when allowed to grow up, with its free, uncramped, undeformed action. There have been no artificial coverings or compressions; and we know that the gait therefrom must have been firm and elastic. We can understand how the Macedonian phalanx, or the Roman legion, performed its long day’s march. We can see the ten thousand Greeks pursuing their daily wearying course through the destroying climate of Asia, marching firmly, manfully, across the arid sand, the mountain pass, or the flinty plain. It is a truthful lesson we may learn, not for the soldier only, but for the civilian.

Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet. This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health.

Simlarly, his principle workout plan sounds exactly like a MovNat combo:

In truth, however, a man who is disposed to attend to the matter of strengthening and developing his muscular power, will be continually finding some means to further that object, and will do so in the simplest manner, as well as any. To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to push and roll over, a similar length of time, some small rock with the foot, thus developing the strength of the knees and the ankles and muscles of the calf—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists, given with a will—to place the body in position occasionally, for a moment, with all the sinews of the arms and legs strained to their utmost tension—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to stand on a hill or shore and throw stones, sometimes horizontally, sometimes perpendicularly— to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—to climb trees in the woods, or gripe the low branches with your hands and swing backward and forward—to run, or rapidly walk, or skip or leap along—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for every one—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time. Nor let the reader be afraid of these because they are simple, but form the daily habit of some of them, without making himself uneasy “how it will look” to outsiders, or what they will say.

The book especially addresses people who are in school, telling them to be “also a student of the body,” but wants to be sure that the reader knows that not only students are the intended audience:

To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. 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! Out in the morning! Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months. Early rising, early to bed, exercise, plain food, thorough and persevering continuance in gently-commenced training, the cultivation with resolute will of a cheerful temper, the society of friends and a certain number of hours spent every day in regular employment.

I am pleased to find myself so particularly represented! I’m really not a clerk, but I will claim to be a literary man, and will own up to being also a sedentary person, an idler, and arguably even a man of fortune.

There are many reasons to read a good fitness book, but very few reasons to read another after that. Walt Whitman’s fitness book isn’t really an exception. Still, if you are, like me, a connoisseur of fitness books, it’s worth including this one—for his unique prose style, for his place in American literary history, and for his perspective on manly beauty.

Jock or geek

Jackie recently expressed a concern related to my expanding interest in fitness: “We were both nerds together at Motorola, but now you seem to be turning into a jock.”

I assured her that she was mistaken, pointing out that I have no new interest in team sports, nor in spectator sports—two key markers for jocks in my mind.

But I did see how she might be concerned. I was putting a lot of time, effort, and attention into this fitness stuff. I was also writing about it and taking about it a lot. (Enough that I felt I had to move some of the writing to my Esperanto-language blog, where it would bore fewer people.)

Most recently, I’ve been looking at some Natural Movement stuff, in particular at MovNat. They have roots in the same source as parkour, but without the urban bias. They also have a broader perspective—parkour is all about getting from point A to point B, dealing with obstacles as efficiently as possible. MovNat is about rediscovering a broader range of human movement skills—not just running, jumping, climbing and balancing, but also throwing and catching and swimming and diving and fighting.

Aware of the fact that I’m in that brief phase where some new thing is all shiny and interesting, I try not to spend all my time talking about it, but I still talk about it enough to bore any ordinary person. (Jackie recently let me go in for some minutes about one of these things and then said, “You should write something about this on your Esperanto blog!”)

Yesterday, while we were out on our long walk, I was once again going on about this or that aspect of movement skills. Jackie listened patiently, then said, “I take it back. You’re not turning into a jock. You’re becoming a geek about parkour.”

We were both reassured.