July 2016 culture essay

Meet the Texas Scholar Who Unearthed Walt Whitman’s 19th Century Clickbait

A closer look at the poet’s musings on “Manly Health.”


A version of this story ran in the July 2016 issue.

In April, a University of Houston graduate student named Zachary Turpin, 32, scrolled through a reel of microfilm and found 13 previously unknown articles written by Walt Whitman, all on the topic of “Manly Health and Training.” It was as much of a Eureka! moment as any scholar, young or old, could dream of having.

July 2016 culture essay
Engraving of Walt Whitman, age 37, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, 1855.  Morgan Library & Museum

The media responded as it does nowadays: It turned the story into clickbait. The New York Times marked the occasion with a lead graph claiming that Whitman’s guidance “might not seem out of place in an infomercial today.” It then fetishized Whitman’s carnivorous habits, pointing out that his advice came off “sounding more than a little paleo” — a reference to the current dietary trend that has people eating as if they were Neanderthals (tons of meat, no grains). There were, thankfully, exceptions to this transparent food-page pandering, but most other publications followed suit, turning Turpin’s gold nugget into a vanity mirror held up to the present.

That’s a shame, because, as I learned during a recent phone conversation with Turpin, Whitman’s Manly Health articles lucidly illuminate several aspects of 19th century life. While it’s true that Whitman commonly drew parallels between the physical self and the body politic — believing that healthy bodies were required for a healthy republic — this connection hardly explains why the author of Leaves of Grass would spend so much time cranking out weekly self-helpish pieces instructing readers to do things such as avoid sitting for too long (“Up!” he instructed). He also advised readers to go running regularly, which he regarded as “an exercise held in the highest estimation,” and to not ponder anything too deeply, because our “natural fund of stimulation” is thereby “concentrated in the brain.” Even these brief excerpts make you wonder: Why was America’s most significant literary figure bothering with this stuff?

Mainly, he needed the cash, and, in a burgeoning print culture, cranking out copy for daily papers helped provide it. “The pre-eminent bard of America,” Turpin explained, “was a newspaper man first.” He kind of had to be. Iconic American writers before him — James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving — “did not have to bust their asses” to make a literary living, Turpin said, although they, too, did some newspaper work. Some were, like Renaissance painters, supported by patrons; others had family money or extensive European support. But Whitman, working in a new era, had to subsidize his poetry with journalism. In an environment that Turpin notes had become intensely competitive, he strategically chose to reach his audience through idiosyncratic musings on the male body, an object he rather adored. And, no surprise here, he excelled at the task.

Why was America’s most significant literary figure bothering with this stuff? Mainly, he needed the cash, and, in a burgeoning print culture, cranking out copy for daily papers helped provide it.

Another reasonable question about the health articles concerns expertise: By what right did Walt Whitman have any business dispensing medical advice? Previous to Whitman’s time, citizens would have trusted a select handful of nationally known authorities — the Founding Fathers and physician Benjamin Rush, for example — with the intricacies of personal health. But as Turpin told me, “the mid-19th century moved away from this to democratize medicine and the study of the body.” Whitman’s articles, in this respect, “fit into the craze toward greater empiricism,” permitting him to tell other men what was right for their bodies based on tangible experience with his own physical self. “Whitman appreciated the autonomy,” Turpin said.

He certainly did. In one article, he writes that we should be free to pursue a “manly physique … in our own rambling and discursive way.” True to form, he rambled into the hinterlands of health, all in a discursive attempt to distinguish science from pseudoscience. “He was friends with phrenologists,” said Turpin. “He even got his ‘bumps read’ and liked the results because they showed him to have a love of mankind and a vigorous sexuality. So he approved. This was science.”

Turpin, who grew up in Dripping Springs and graduated from Dripping Springs High School, speaks in the geeky-hip manner of a graduate student who has finished his comps and is mired in dissertation work. His knowledge of Whitman, as well as of the American literary landscape in general, is obviously immense, and one can only hope, with the extensive media coverage he has received, that he’ll become a more attractive job candidate in a truly brutal academic market.

But he’s also humbled by his discovery — he calls it an “unknown unknown” — because it reminds us that when we make conclusions about the past, we’re doing so with necessarily precarious assurance. The fact that Turpin — who says he was inspired to search for articles under Whitman’s known pseudonyms out of “a sense of play” — upturned the conventional wisdom so easily (and randomly) suggests that our knowledge is terribly, and perhaps terrifyingly, insecure.

Turpin’s playful curiosity may have also informed his willingness to grapple with a dinosaur technology: microfilm. Microfilm? You’re as likely to find today’s graduate students using microfilm as you are to find them taking notes with a quill. But after finding a brief reference to a series of articles by Mose Velsor in the New York Atlas, a Sunday paper read by New Yorkers that ran from the 1830s to the 1880s, Turpin learned there were only two known copies of the newspaper in existence, both on microfilm. The American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Massachusetts, agreed to send their copy via interlibrary loan, making his discovery — and subsequent word-for-word transcription — of the Manly Health articles possible. “Say it hadn’t been loanable?” Turpin said. “I don’t have the resources to go up there.

“It would,” he added, “still be lost.”