Skip to main content

"[New York Atlas, 3 October 1858]"

image 1image 2image 3image 4image 5image 6image 7image 8cropped image 1 [Written for the New York Atlas.] To teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body.



(Continued from last week.)


Probably we shall surprise most of our readers by the answer to this question. According to the lives most of us lead, it is doubtful whether we are ever in that perfect state of health and strength that the human frame is capable of attaining, even without any special advantages—for, with most of us, of all the leading objects and aims we so eagerly pursue, bending time, energy, circumstances, every thing, to their acquisition, this matter of health, strange as it may seem, is the one which surely receives the least consistent attention.

From about the twenty-fourth to near the fiftieth or fifty-fifth year,1 the body, in a fair specimen of health and condition, remains nearly stationary. The liability to disease is less, and all the powers are in their best working order. This is the period when a man makes his mark, if at all. Activity is now at its fullest; indeed, the repression or non-action of it, in many cases, is the greatest misfortune that can happen to this stage of life. All the labor and employments of the earth are served with these years—without them there would be little or nothing to show for man, for governments, for industry, for science, for civilization, literature or art.

It is during some portion of this stretch of time, varied in different persons, that all the celebrated men of the world have achieved the works which have given them renown. Some have started early, and finished, it may be said, prematurely; this is the case with many of the poets, especially those of passionate imagery and tone, such as the English celebrities, Shelley, Byron, Keats, &c. Of first-class works, however, it is doubtful whether any have ever yet been achieved by young men. Shakespeare wrote his best productions during the period from his thirty-seventh to his forty-fifth year.

When we ask how long a man ought to be in prime condition, we, of course, mean how long, allowing a favorable state of care, habits, food, &c. With these, we deliberately say that if he have a fair natural constitution and has not ingrained his system in early life with the germs of any incurable malady, (this last is important—take notice, young men!)—he ought to be in a hgh​ range of health and strength from the age of twenty-three or four years to the age of sixty-five—a space of over forty years. We know this is not in accordance with popular convictions on the subject; but, with great respect and good nature, we are fain to call this popular opinion by its true name, popular ignorance.

Take notice! however; if, life, and its reserved fund of vitality, are dissipated during the years from fifteen to twenty-three or four—if extravagant and continued drains are made on the bodily stamina, during that period, we cannot promise any such result as that stated in the foregoing paragraph. The years from fourteen or fifteen to the age of twenty-four are the very ones, out of the whole stretch of life, when there is the most danger of breaking down the perfect tone of the body, not so much for the present, as for the future. What is done or left undone, at that period, returns again, after many years.

A word also to young men whose health has been injured by dissipation. Even then the case is hardly bad enough, except in rare instances, to discourage any one who may read these lines from adopting a serious and (if he have strength of mind sufficient) unshakable resolution to acquire vigor and good condition—albeit the years between the fifteenth and twenty-fourth do present, in their reminiscences, some of the injurious facts we have alluded to. The human frame is full, in every case, of latent power. Though wounded, buffeted, violated, time and again, it seems joyously to respond to the first return of reason and natural habitudes. Indeed, of all the amazing things about the human body, one of the most amusing is, how much it can stand, and still live on!

We dwell upon this point a little, because, of our city readers there are but few young men who, with all the recklessness of their age, have not dipped to a greater or less depth into the so called pleasures of city life; few, indeed, but on whom regular habits, drink, artificial diet, late hours, and other characteristic marks, now-a days, of having spent life in one of our great cities—and of indulgences there, still more lamentable in their effects upon the future health, stamina, and long life—have not left unmistakable remains. Fortunately, however, these young men we are speaking of are the very ones who, in general, have the greatest fund of natural vigor, and are able to throw off deleterious causes.

Such reliance do we make upon the last-mentioned item, that we feel disposed to include most of that large class of young men in our cities, who have "lived too fast," in our list of peaceful and encouraging probabilities. For them too are health and a sound tone, (at least in a great degree,) if they persevere in the right means. Let it be clearly understood, however, that indulgences of perverted appetite, and violations of the laws of health, cannot go too long, with impunity. There will come a time when the turning point is reached. Our object is so to encourage the reader to realise what superior pleasure a good and natural state of health is, over all other gratifications, that he will bring up on the right side of that point.

Yes, nature is more tolerant and bountiful than we supposed. Long injured and insulted, she yet keeps blessings in her hands, ready to be bestowed with freedom and certainty, on the first practical signs of repentance.

To return—let it be borne in mind, especially by parents, for their offsprings' sake—let it be equally borne in mind by the youth, developing himself into early manhood—that the true plan of life involves a fine and robust condition of manhood, with every faculty of body and mind in full play and high health, from the twenty third or fourth year, on to beyond the sixtieth.


Is not all this something worth a young man's while to strive for, and lay out his plans for? We do not object to his careful and persistent regard for wealth, or for the objects of his business ambition, whatever they may be—but we say that nothing ought to displace the great pursuit we speak of—manly health and vigor. Even considered with reference to a far better capability of getting wealth, or of reaching the objects of ambition, health and strength are vitally important. With them, of course, not only so much more can be done, but the strain can be borne so much longer. From a money-making point of view, therefore, health is an investment that pays better than any other.

But we do not recommend the planing​ out of life by a young man, to realize this long-continued stretch of forty years of full health and strength, in order that he may make money. We recommend it for itself—its own interest, reward, and its manliness. For, say what we may of the pleasures of the world, and of what is heroic, it comes down to this—that there can be no first-rate heroism except in a sound body, and that there really can be no gratification or pleasure, however costly, however much vaunted or rare, or sought for, that is equal to the delicious feeling, all through middle-age, and even old age, of being perfectly well.

To spring up in the morning with light feelings, and the disposition to raise the voice in some cheerful song—to feel a pleasure in going forth into the open air, and in breathing it—to sit down to your food with a keen relish for it—to pass forth, in business or occupation, among men, without distrusting them, but with a friendly feeling toward all, and finding the same feeling returned to you—to be buoyant in all your limbs and movements by the curious result of perfect digestion, (a feeling as if you could almost fly, you are so light,)—to have perfect command of your arms, legs, &c., able to strike out, if occasion demand, or to walk long distances, or to endure great labor without exhaustion—to have year after year pass on and on, and still the same calm and equable state of all the organs, and of the temper and mentality—no wrenching pains of the nerves or joints—no pangs, returning again and again, through the sensitive head, or any of its parts—no blotched and disfigured complexion—no prematurely lame and halting gait—no tremulous shaking of the hand, unable to carry a glass of water to the mouth without spilling it—no film and bleared-red about the eyes, nor bad taste in the mouth, nor tainted breath from the stomach or gums—none of that dreary, sickening, unmanly lassitude, that, to so many men, fills up and curses what ought to be the best years of their lives, without good works to show for the same—but instead of such a living death, which, (to make a terrible but true confession,) so many lead, uncomfortably realizing, through their middle age, more than the distresses and bleak impressions of death, stretched out year after year, the result of early ignorance, imprudence, and want of wholesome training—instead of that, to find life one long holiday, labor a pleasure, the body a heaven, the earth a paradise, all the commonest habits ministering to delight—and to have this continued year after year, and old age even, when it arrives, bringing no change to the capacity for a high state of manly enjoyment—these are what we would put before you, reader, as a true picture, illustrating the whole drift of our remarks, the sum of all, the best answer to the heading of the two last sections of our articles, and the main object which every youth should have, in the beginning, from the time he starts out to reason and judge for himself.


One great evil of most of the superficial advice on health and its conditions is that the writers do not consider, or have no patience with, the arbitrary lines and peculiarities of modern society, especially as it operates in the cities. Granted that many of these peculiarities are bad, it only remains to do the best that is possible under them. And if the thing is approached in this spirit, it will generally be found that most of the essential results can be attained without that violent standing out from, or opposition to the rest, which is impossible without much offence, and the giving up of much that conduces to prosperity, sociability and happiness.

Of the employments followed in the State of New York by the one million of grown, or nearly grown, males, 314,000 are of farming, gardening, or other agricultural pursuits; about 200,000 are laborers on various artificial works, in cities or elsewhere, (these are mostly of foreign birth); over 23,000 are sailors; 14,000 are lawyers, doctors, or ministers; 5,000 are office-holders; and 313,000 are mechanics, or engaged as operatives in some kind of manufactures—the remainder being scattered through an immense number of small, or comparatively small, occupations.2 In general terms it may be stated that even in the United States, new and farming-country as it is, the number of those engaged in artificial pursuits is about equal to those engaged in agriculture.

How does all this affect the general health? The question is a profound one, and the conclusions in reference to it must not be jumped at too hastily. Close investigation, and the allowance of strict candor in statements, will perhaps prove that there is a good deal of popular error as to the necessary bad effects of manufacturing and other in-door employments upon individual health. We mean simply this, that a person, with anything like a decent or average physical constitution, can follow almost any of the usual avocations to be found in our cities, and still have a fine condition of health. If the latter is wanting, it is not so much the fault of the employment as of the person himself.

Because civilization, with all its banes, and the ill health of masses, as before alluded to, has still more antidotes, if the choice were to be made between a life passed in the solitary freedom of barbarous and unartificial nature, and the highly complicated, and, in many respects, morbid life of one of our modern cities, we think the preference might deliberately and safely be given to the latter, as more likely to confer not only a greater longevity, but a greater amount of average animal happiness; and singular as it may at first appear, the chances of the latter are in favor of a higher and more robust degree of health than the former. The former, with its freedom from the artificial evils, is bereft also of the means of favoring life, and improving it, which belong to the latter.

Modern society is distinguished for much that is artificial, no doubt. It is distinguished for labor-saving machinery, the mechanic arts, and for the number of human beings engaged in regular in-door employments. Of the grown men of the United States, about two millions earn their living and spend the best part of their lives in working at some trade, or in some factory, or in commerce, mining, &c. While some of these are partially conducive to health, from being more or less hardening, a vast majority are characterised by features that, under the ignorance of physiology which prevails, must be stamped as deleterious. It remains, we say, to still do the best we can under these circumstances. Nor is the case bad, as might be judged from merely pursuing the question thus far.

Nor in the various manufactures and trades is there anything which may not, in almost all cases, be partially or wholly obviated, and the health retained under them, year after year, by proper prudence and forethought. A man, for instance, engaged in some work that gave him too little exercise in the open air, should accustom himself, when not at work, to make up for that by out-door activity in some form or other—walking, or in some manly game. And this should not be occasional, but steady. Men whose occupation is partially active, but requires them to breathe close air, (as in many factories,) might retrieve the matter greatly by having well-ventilated bed rooms. This is an important matter, to which we have elsewhere devoted a special paragraph. The reader must make for himself the application of these hints to his own case.


During childhood and youth much of the after-life receives its stamp and impression, for good or evil—especially the condition and power of growth of all the important functions and organs of the body. For American children it would be a great improvement if the food were more simple and digestible, instead of the hearty and seasoned dishes that are generally partaken alike by small and large. Another thing with regard to boys in the United States is, that they far too soon commence all the indulgences of men, especially tobacco, drink, &c. While the system is being formed, and before the body has attained its growth and solidity, these ought to be forbidden indulgences.

From the age of fourteen to twenty-one or two is a most important period, in the consideration of the health and vigor of a man with reference to the whole subsequent period of his life. Few youths consider the momentous results of all that is done, or left undone, during this part of their career. Parents, guardians, relatives, friends, are equally negligent. Otherwise, we should certainly see a far greater amount of influence directed toward this important class of persons, and their well-being.

We call upon those youths who read this to ponder, with all the strength and comprehension of their minds, upon what we are here trying to impress upon them—for they surely include some of the most important considerations that can be put before any human being, and come home directly to the experience of each one. Let every youth understand that it is mainly in his power, by what he does or leaves undone, during the years we have mentioned to become a sound, healthy and handsome man, and remain so for many years, in full possession of his faculties and strength; or, failing in what leads to that result, to lay the sure substrata of an early decay of vigor, a loss of all buoyancy of spirit, a broken and useless middle-age, and if not a premature death, an old age more miserable than death.


We would here place before our readers, especially the youth, the thought that nothing is more worthy their ambition, and will surely repay the effort and resolution to follow them, than a steady pursuit of the regulations, laws, self-denials, and daily habitudes that lead to the sound condition and beautiful appearance of the body, the manly form—this wondrous and beautiful structure that never wearies the mind in contemplating its inward and outward mysteries, and in which, after all is said on other subjects, concentrates the whole interest of life, happiness, affection, dignity, and glory—around which, indeed, all history, all persons, and indeed all literature revolve, and find their sum and aggregate.

Reader! What is your ambition? We cannot, of course, tell; but one ambition, at any rate, you ought to have, and probably, while reading what we write, if never before, it will arise before you, more or less distinctly—and that is the desire and determination to put your body in a healthy and sweet-blooded condition—to be a man, hearty, active, muscular, handsome—yes, handsome—for it is not for nothing that all through the human race there is the universal desire that the body should not only be well, but look well. We would not give much for that man, young, middle-aged, or old, who was not touched by the feeling of pride or regret in his good or ill appearance. To one who has no such feeling, the electricity is gone out of that man; there is little hope for him. 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 grammer​ , geography, or arithmetic—indeed, we should say it was of unrivaled importance. Only let it be the ambition that realizes a masculine and robust style of beauty, not the beauty of parlor elegance, of too much refinement, or of the mere fop.

There is a little popular delusion on this subject which we would like to do our part toward dispelling. It is generally considered, or rather pretended to be considered, that personal beauty is something not proper for the attention of men, but must be left for the other sex. At the same time the instinct to take a pride in manly looks, as it can never be eradicated, is always more or less operative; and it is this that, taking nature for our guide, and always using the light of good sense and manly robustness of judgment, we would act upon. We say, encourage American youth to develope and increase their physical beauty. How, then, can this be done? Much of it is to be looked for through a diffusion of more general information upon the subtle play of causes and effects, that make or unmake the health of the body. These often date back to early life, to causes that operate during the period from the thirteenth or fourteenth to the twenty-third or twenty-fourth year; and very many of our remarks, though applying to all ages, will specially apply to the period we have just named.

We repeat it, both for a prevalent application, and for the use of you, reader, who may be attracted to our well-meant paragraphs, be not afraid or ashamed definitely to make your physical beauty, of form, face and movement, a main point of interest you have here in life, at all of its periods, and in whatever position of wealth or education you may be. It is a germ, implanted by nature, that you should make grow. And out of it will come a prolific growth of good results, besides itself. It is a main part of that reception of friendship, admiration and good will which all desire, and which can always make life sweet.


1. Conveniently, Whitman's age at the time of writing "Manly Health and Training"—thirty-nine years—falls dead-center in his estimate of the range of a man's prime years. [back]

2. Whitman derives these figures from the 1850 US Census, probably via the Census of the State of New York, for 1855 (Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1857). [back]

Back to top