The New York Times Book Review on Manly Health and Training
“Turpin’s new editions don’t threaten to obscure Whitman’s genius. They highlight and deepen our understanding of one side of that equation . . . this kind of scholarship broadens our understanding of our national poet and his milieu.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
More than any other American writer, Walt Whitman seems to have presaged our present moment. He came of age in an era of unparalleled national fracture and sought desperately, although fruitlessly, to unite the country through his poems. To birth a literary equivalent of Manifest Destiny, he created a new prosody, shucked of Old World meters and rhymes, in favor of sprawling free verse built from the sturdy idiom of Manhattan’s streets, what he called “the blab of the pave.” In so doing, he also overhauled the stance and social status of our verse. Believing that “the shelves are crowded with perfumes,” he declared at the outset of “Song of Myself” that he would not be seduced by such finery and fakery. Instead, he invited the reader along on a journey of self-discovery that would be both revelatory and remaking. “I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,” he wrote. In short, Whitman can be said to have invented not only American literature but also the American author — setting the mold for generations of visionaries willing to strip bare in search of essential truths.
The pitfall for readers, of course, is in confusing an author’s persona with the author’s person. The problem is especially pronounced in Whitman’s case, because he sought to make a drama of his transformation, dividing his writing career between juvenilia published under the name “Walter Whitman” and mature works published as “Walt.” The change was made visible by dropping the fancy, dandyish attire of the formal young man, in favor of a frontispiece of the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” that depicted the author as a roughnecked, open-collared workman with one hand on his hip and his hat cocked back to reveal his sunburned face and mottled beard. He published the book without an author name on the title page, announcing himself only in the midst of his long opening poem as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” For generations of poets to follow, this established a myth to imitate. For biographers, this created a cottage industry, now more than a century old, of stripping away Whitman’s self-mythologizing, in order to better understand which parts of his persona were self-revelation and which were self-invention.
In recent years, the search has been aided by new technology. The Walt Whitman Archive, a decades’ long project to digitize all of Whitman’s manuscripts — as well as his published work in all of its variants — has been coupled with numerous independent projects digitizing newspapers for which Whitman wrote, books that he owned and read, manuscripts of other authors he knew and bureaucrats for whom he worked. What has emerged is not a single “song of myself” but a proliferation of selves, each revealed or concealed according to Whitman’s purposes and the occasion of his writing. Early in his career, he wrote in full obscurity as “the schoolmaster,” “a traveler,” “a pedestrian,” “you know who” or with no byline at all. At other times, he wrote under pseudonyms that seem to wink to his friends and future scholars — “Paumanok,” the ancestral name Whitman used for his native Long Island; “Velsor Brush,” a nom de plume composed of his grandmothers’ maiden names; “Mose Velsor,” a riff on that earlier name combined with a popular ruffian from the Bowery stage, with whom Whitman was frequently compared.
Now, thanks to the dogged electronic sleuthing of Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, we have two new, book-length works to further enrich and complicate our view of Whitman’s transformation. These discoveries are especially exciting because of the dates of their original publications. “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” was serialized in six anonymous installments in The New York Sunday Dispatch between March and April 1852. “Manly Health and Training” was first published in 13 parts under the “Mose Velsor” byline in the fall of 1858. The period between 1852 and 1858 is widely understood to be Whitman’s moment of greatest genius — a span of years in which he composed the poems that came to be known as “Song of Myself,” “There Was a Child Went Forth,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “This Compost,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Song of the Open Road” and many of the “Calamus” poems, including the original version of “Live-Oak, With Moss.” It could be reasonably argued that this was the most important outpouring of poetry in American history.
These new books are not on par with those works — not even close. “Jack Engle” is a piece of pure pulp, a city mystery that offers a twisty tour through the underbelly of 19th-century New York but makes no pretense toward lasting literary merit. “Manly Health and Training” is a kind of self-help book, steeped in the pseudoscience and quackery that Whitman embraced as less durable ways of seeking a path toward the new. Yes, we hear echoes of “Leaves of Grass” in the arresting Chapter 19 of “Jack Engle,” when the narrator pauses to contemplate the inscriptions on the headstones at Trinity Church. And, yes, there is a sly pleasure in seeing the newly bushy-cheeked Whitman declare in “Manly Health”: “The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat — for purposes of health it should always be worn.” But these works do not stand on their own; instead, they allow us to see a fuller picture of the miraculous creation of “Leaves of Grass.”
This reality has led some to question whether these works should be published at all. James McWilliams, writing for The Paris Review, asked, “With American democracy under siege, do we need to scour the archives for more hidden Whitman, or should we instead figure out how to better read the Whitman we have — and teach others how to do the same?” But this is a false dichotomy. The electronic innovations that made Turpin’s discoveries possible have also given us stunning new ways of reading and sharing Whitman’s masterworks. The riveting web project Whitman, Alabama, for example, shows that Whitman’s poetry still sounds most authentic and moving when spoken by average people, some of whom may be encountering his work for the first time. WhitmanWeb, a joint project of the International Writing Program and the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Iowa, has shown the remarkable possibilities for teaching Whitman’s major works — most recently his Civil War writings — in a digital medium.
Turpin’s editions do not take up that work, nor do they need to. Instead, they seek to reveal what we should have known all along: that there are no grand epiphanies, no sudden transformations in American literature, any more than there are in American life. Whitman did not one day set aside the hack journalism and cheap fictions of his journeyman years in favor of a brand new idiom for our American literature. He continued to live in the rowhouses of Brooklyn, drink in the cellar bars of Broadway and churn out words at a rate that would afford him enough money to self-publish more of his poetry. Emerson once told the journalist Franklin Sanborn that what had drawn him to “Leaves of Grass” and made him the book’s first champion was seeing in Whitman’s verse “a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Gita and The New York Herald.”
Turpin’s new editions don’t threaten to obscure Whitman’s genius. They highlight and deepen our understanding of one side of that equation — the side that, in popular venues, most often takes a back seat to Whitman the spiritual seeker. As such, this kind of scholarship broadens our understanding of our national poet and his milieu, but, more important, it also reminds us that “Leaves of Grass” was not the result of a single flash of revelation but rather a sustained artistic project, the work of a common man in search of a common language. Whitman’s alternate search for a true self to sing and occasional retreats behind masks of anonymity were all part of the same quest to find a shared culture and character, a single and singular way of speaking that would make from our many names — and noms de plume — a nation.
Ted Genoways is the author of the forthcoming “This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm.”