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Title: Manly Health and Training

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Mose Velsor]

Date: October 31, 1858

Whitman Archive ID: per.00430

Source: The New York Atlas 31 October 1858: [1]-2. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: Several pieces of bibliographic evidence establish this series as Whitman's. First, the sole advertisement for "Manly Health and Training"—a single-column notice appearing in the New York Atlas on September 12, 1858 (page 4)—matches a canceled manuscript of Whitman's. A draft advertisement for an original series on "Manly Training," the manuscript is almost identical to the final, published advertisement. (For the manuscript draft, see Whitman's Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 6 vols., ed. Edward F. Grier [New York: New York University Press, 1984], 6:2255–6 [hereafter cited as NUPM]). For the final advertisement, see Zachary Turpin's "Introduction to Walt Whitman's 'Manly Health and Training'," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 33, no. 3 [2016]: 155.) Second, other health-related manuscripts include draft versions of language appearing in "Manly Health and Training." These include both Whitman's own words, and quotations cribbed for the series from a source familiar to the poet—Fowler and Wells' Water Cure Journal (see NUPM 6:2248–54). Finally, every installment of the series is signed "Mose Velsor, of Brooklyn," a byline that in the 1840s and '50s was one of Whitman's go-to pseudonyms. The pen name appears as early as 1848, in an article Whitman wrote for the New Orleans Daily Crescent on the "b'hoys of the Bowery." By the time of "Manly Health and Training," he had already used it a number of times—as when, in 1855, he signed it to both a Life Illustrated article on "The Opera" and an unpublished manuscript about "A Visit to the Opera" (NUPM 1:391).

Contributors to digital file: Jeannette Schollaert, Zachary Turpin, and Kevin McMullen

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[Written for the New York Atlas.]

To teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body.







Considering the immense prejudices of those who give the cue, we do not so much wonder at the aversion which most of the intellectual and benevolent members of the community feel toward Prize Fighting as an "institution," and which has been called forth quite loudly and generally by the late contest between Morrissey and Heenan. At first thought, perhaps, it seems a savage and unchristian performance, for two men to go deliberately to work, to pound and batter each other, merely for the purpose of seeing who can stand the most "punishment," and do the greatest credit to his muscle, game and training. Yet (we would suggest to the reader), the question is not so abruptly decided. There are other considerations and arguments—some of them quite important. It appears, of late, as if all the indignation which might justifiably be directed towards the sins of different departments of modern life, theological, political, social, &c., were withdrawn from the rest, and turned towards the performances of the prize ring, and of those who "go in" for that amusement and branch of "science."

The vast understratum of the people, however, will continue to gratify their tastes and impulses, irrespective of the tone of polished society (so called). And it is useless to deny that, through the great masses of men who form that understratum, there is a deathless interest in these contests for physical superiority, whether expressed in a battle between two ships-of-war upon the sea, or opposing armies upon land—or, on a smaller scale, between two trained specimens of humanity in the prize ring. There is, we may also say in passing, not an argument against the combat of the prize fight, that does not equally apply to war—to all war, at least, except that for the purpose of resisting the invasion of a foreign foe.

For our own part, we believe in the necessity of those means that help to develope a hardy, robust and combative nation, and desire to see America in that list. We do not think that community able to take care of its rights, and defend them successfully against all odds, where there exist only peaceful, pious, respectable and orthodox citizens. There must be something more. What, for instance, did ancient Rome rise out of? How came she to be the commanding power of the world for so many centuries—the leader and master of all lands? Of course, from a plentiful infusion of just about such temper and audacity as congregated at Long Point, around the ropes that enclosed Morrissey and Heenan, the other day. And the subject nations which Rome conquered, one after another, in all directions, were conquered, in many signal cases, because they disdained the fierce encouragements to produce a race of men who could and would fight, not by rote merely, but for the love of fight.

Do we then, (perhaps the amazed reader asks,) openly countenance the training of men for prize-fighting? We answer, explicitly, we do,2 (of course, no one but the writer of these sketches being responsible or implicated in the opinion—it being uttered for himself alone.) It is about time to meet the floods of mawkish milk and water that are poured out upon the land, and which, if justified and put in practice, would crowd America with nothing but puny and feeble men, obedient, pious—a race, half, or perhaps wholly emasculated.

There is, of late years, an excess of philanthropy, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on the other side. We believe it would be a first-rate thing in New York, and all the other cities of the United States, if the science of fighting were made a regular branch of a young man's education—and if the exhibition of contests for physical superiority were common. Some such thing appears to be necessary, to meet the morbid weakness we have alluded to; it is, indeed, with other causes, deteriorating the race, we sometimes think. It appears to have taken possession of almost all the literary classes, and of the preachers and lecturers.

Nor are we afraid of the Americans being too combative. That is a matter which will regulate itself. There are too many varieties and competitors, North, South, East and West—and the mutual attrition of each is beneficial to all the rest. This serves to keep each individual part of it in its due place and proportion, without danger of successful aggression upon the others. But especially in the commercial and older settled states, we are free to confess we are sadly in fear of the danger of seeing that "love of fight" we have alluded to, almost extinguished.

Some such suggestions as these, at least, are certainly called for to counterbalance the tone of writing and expression which lately prevails in select society, with reference to the principle of physical combats for superiority—as if there were not something inspiriting and honorable in such a contest, as in others which involve different leading talents and powers of humanity. Is there not even a high order of heroism in the willingness and capacity to endure the most terrible blows of an opponent, and stand up under them as long as the sinews of the body answer the volition of the mind? Let others say what they will, we say there is—and we say, moreover, that it is a kind of heroism which we need more of in these latitudes—or rather we need the recognition of it—for we do not doubt there is plenty of the quality itself among the common people.

No amount of cultivation, intellect, or wealth, will ever make up to a community for the lack of manly muscle, ability and pluck. History is full of examples of intellectually developed nations, but intellectual only, falling a prey to others of inferior mental calibre, but of daring and overwhelming physique. Even Rome itself, in time, for such reasons, fell a prey to outside invaders far inferior to itself.

We will now proceed to draw a few inferences from the Morrissey and Heenan fight itself:

Probably the best moral to be deduced from the late fight is, that the quality of being able to endure any quantity of blows and bruises, and hold out toughly under them, is what most tells, and gives the final account of itself in a fight.3 This is what won the victory; while, on the other hand, we should say that, beyond question, no man who has seen only twenty-two or three years, (Heenan's age,) is really fit for the grandest exhibition of his bodily powers. The common opinion that about that period of life affords the best show of strength and endurance, under favorable circumstances, is unquestionably an error, and a very great one. Five or six years more are required to give the human frame its settled strength and knit—and the friends of Heenan ought to know this fact, and inculcate it in his mind, too. If he wishes to hold out in the result, (not the beginning, mind, but the result!) he must avoid overtaxing his powers too soon. The hard oaken fibre of the frame does not come at his years—or during the earliest years anyhow.

The fight itself is, perhaps, the best illustration of what we say here, and often have said. How splendidly Heenan began it! There was, perhaps, never seen a finer show of determination, brawn, and alertness than that much-talked-of "first round," and Heenan's part in it—giving his friends undreamed-of hope, and equally discouraging to those of the opposite faction. It seemed as though there was no standing against those quick and terrible blows. But there was; and that made the very fact which was to bear away the palm from him who commenced so well. He began well, but could not hold out to the last in proportion; that spoilt all, and must ever spoil all.

The rule holds true in more cases than this of the prize fight. It runs through all that is to be said upon the subject of physical training for a man's health and vigor, and involves its most important bearings. We say, therefore, that the late fight bears a great lesson in the fierce attacks and defences of its rapid twenty-two minutes—the lesson that he wins who can "best stand grief," as the sporting fraternity quaintly phrase it.

Or, in other words, in robust training for this life, which is itself a continual fight with some form of adversary or other, the aim should be to form that solid and adamantine fibre which will endure long and serious attacks upon it, and come out unharmed from them, rather than the ability to perform sudden and brilliant feats, which often exhaust the powers in show, without doing any substantial good. We know nothing of John Morrissey, but consider ourselves obliged to him, and his theory and tactics of fighting, for a marked example of this main element of our hints upon the general physical training of American young men.

It is for such reasons, among the rest, that we dwell upon this fight—an illustration, as it is, of such practical details of diet, exercise, abstinence, &c., as our foregoing papers would suggest for general use, as far as may be—because, of course, the actual necessity of this kind of training, for fighting purposes, will never be the rule, but only the exception. Still it is to be admitted that nothing short of a prize-fight will ever bring the rules of manly health and training to that systematic perfection which they are attaining, and out of which we, among the rest, have been able to write these articles for popular use.

Just in the way as the institution of the horse-race,4 and nothing less than that, brings the breed of the horse up to a far, very far, higher pitch of physical perfection than could be attained by any other means known or possible upon earth—just exactly in the same way, (after all the talk, pro and con, has been expended about it,) it remains to be distinctly confessed that nothing short of these fierce manly contests, in ancient and modern times, has led to the mightiest and most perfect development of the masculine frame, and proved what are the real rules consonant with its soundest physiology.

Therefore, in opposition to the views expressed by the editors of the American newspapers, (the Atlas, we believe, among the rest,)5 we say a stern word or two, not in defence of these fights only, but in deliberate advocacy of them. We are writing just as fast as our pen can gallop over the paper—no doubt skip many of the points we should like to make, on our side of the arguments, if we had time to stop and arrange the said arguments in imposing array. At present we only throw out our views, as the Tartar shoots his arrow, passing along at full speed.6 But in some way, on some future occasion, we intend to resume this subject, and present our views with more preparation and effect.

By the way, the same papers that have such indignant editorials about the fight are the very ones in which we have noticed, of late, quite a good many articles bewailing the physical degeneracy of the race of men in America—statements that we are getting to have, in our cities, and on all sides, too many inferior and feeble men. Why, it is for the very reason, among the rest, that the tone of those who assume to lead in public education, public opinion, the press, &c., sounds continually in the key it does, that there is indeed too much of this same degeneracy. As we have before remarked in these off-hand sketches, the spirit of American schools, authors, &c., tends to continually develope the intellect and refinement of taste of the people, at the expense of all their bodily stoutness, muscle, and their indifference to little elegancies, niceties, and parlor and college models. We would have this met and reversed. Not that we have any objection to the colleges and the parlors—they are, of course, well enough; but they do not afford that broad and earth-deep understratum that is necessary for a nation with a resistless physique. Something a little more coarse and rank is necessary. Let the tone of public taste, instead of refusing any connivance with the vast undertow of popular sympathy with these muscular combats, and all that appertains to them, be turned to elevate and improve the said combats, and make them, it may be, far better than they are, retaining, however, the same fierce energy and combative science. We are not afraid to say, once again, that at this present writing, we are decidedly in favor of some such course as this.

As to the point of physical degeneracy here in the United States, we do not, upon the whole, make much account of it. The nation is passing through several important physiological processes and combinations. To a great degree, it is yet getting acclimated—especially in the West, and on the Pacific coast, which latter is destined to have a huge influence on the future physique of America. In its dry, wholesome, life-giving and life-preserving atmosphere, the human form, it may be, is destined to attain its grandest proportions, clearness, and longevity. We allude to California and Oregon, and indeed the immense inland stretch from Kansas down through Utah and Arizonia, to the borders of Mexico. Here the air is dry and antiseptic—everything grows to a size, strength and expanse, unknown in the Northern and Eastern States. Nature is on a large scale; and here, in time to come, will be found a wonderful race of men.

Before dismissing the subject of the late fight, we would once more specially call the attention of the reader to the astonishing power of the trained human body to endure and make light of, those indescribably strong and bloody attacks, blows, and bruises, which would be certain death to half a dozen men such as we usually see walking the streets of New York and Brooklyn. What a marvellous power this is, which enables the human body to pass off, as if in sport, such a fearful battering and pounding. We may, we say, learn a valuable lesson here, and apply it to the warding off of disease, and in the usages of every day life.

In the same train of thought, we would remark that the "sporting men" of our American cities afford quite a study, in connection with the subject of manly training. There are among them some of the finest specimens of physique, in the world. Indeed, generally they are a handsome race of men. You will see among them a number who are quite advanced in years, yet in a good state of preservation. They are generally distinguished by a certain smartness in their attire, quick movements, and by a bold, sharp, and determined expression of the countenance.

It is astonishing how much "fast life" many of these fellows go through, and come out quite unharmed. Often, we have thought, they set at defiance the ordinary rules of health and medicine, and baffle what are supposed to be the surest canons of the laws of longevity—coming out quite unscathed, and going on their ordinary course, hearty and good-looking, as if nothing had happened. But it is to be noticed, at the same time, that such specimens are of callous temperament, reckless, without any of the attributes of the finer feelings, and not disposed to stand about trifles, either of conscience or any thing else.

We have sometimes even thought, while standing among a large crowd of these sporting men, in some Broadway drinking saloon, or some such place, and quietly observing their actions and looks, that they presented about the best collection of specimens of hardy and developed physique we had anywhere seen. Their movements remind one of a fine animal. They have that clear, audacious, self-confident expression of the eye, and of the face generally, which marks some of the animals in a wild state. Notice the attitudes of them as they stand, or lean; the extended arm holding the glass of liquor, and raising it to the lips; the hat tipped down in front over the eyebrow; the "gallus" style generally.7 Or, see two of them square off at each other in a joking way; the limber vibration of the upper part of the body upon the waist; one foot planted forward; the movements of the arms, and the poise of the neck.

So much for the "sporting men," for they afford us a study, with the rest. And, indeed, in casting our eyes around, we feel disposed to take all the "muscle," indiscriminately, under our favor, and speak a good word for it—to counterbalance the disfavor which is so generally shown toward it.

Of course the young reader, or any reader, will have sense enough to understand that we do not pick out the life of a "sport" from all the rest, and offer it to him as a pure model for him to follow, to the rejection of the others. We express no opinion, and give no advice about it. We simply call attention to the singularly perfect physique of these men, in contradistinction to those shambling professional and genteel persons, clerks, lawyers, pious students, correct youths and middle-aged men, and the like—pale, feeble, timid, quiet, dyspeptic, and uninteresting generally, either for the company of man or woman. And as to real viciousness, let no one suppose that it is confined to any one class of the community, or is any more to be found in those who "lead a gay life," than in those who keep demure faces, and are supposed to be lawful and orthodox—that is to say, the latter, in most cases, add hypocrisy to the natural sins of man, and to the private indulgence in the same.



1. Whitman is referring to a bare-knuckle prize fight, held in Ontario, Canada, between John Morrissey (1831–1878), a gang member, Tammany Hall man, and future member of the US House of Representatives, and fellow New Yorker John C. Heenan (1834–1873), a bare-knuckle boxer and future husband (briefly) of actress/poet Adah Isaacs Menken. For Whitman's editorials on prize fighting in general, and the Morrissey-Heenan match specifically, see "Pugilism and Pugilists" (August 23, 1858) and "The Prize Fight" (October 22, 1858) in the Brooklyn Daily Times, reprinted in I Sit and Look Out, ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), 105–106. [back]

2. For more on this sentiment as reflected in Whitman's poetry, see an anonymous review of Leaves of Grass in Southern Field and Fireside (June 9, 1860): " Walt Whitman is the poet of prizefighters, the minstrel of muscle; his is the song of sinews, the burthen of brawn, and he thinks naturally enough that the age and generation which could delight in the Mill of the Champions, must applaud the apotheosis of brute strength. Among the Heenan-ities of the day, his verse may find admirers . . ." [back]

3. Compare a passage from Whitman's notebooks, possibly draft language for this installment of "Manly Health and Training": "The moral of the late fight—endurance is the main thing —not a splurge at first." This passage is transcribed in Whitman's Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (hereafter cited as NUPM), 6 vols., ed. Edward F. Grier (New York: New York University Press, 1984) 6: 2259. [back]

4. Compare a passage in Whitman's notebooks: "There will be in America as great specimens of men, as fine horses, as in any other part of the world" (NUPM, 6: 2259). This statement appears to be part of a letter to an editor Whitman began drafting in response to a negative public reaction, in print, to this installment of "Manly Health and Training," though it is unclear whether he ever completed or sent it. [back]

5. The founding editors of the Atlas were Anson Herrick and John F. Ropes, who had also founded the New York Aurora, for which Whitman was briefly editor and lead writer, and the Washingtonian, to which Whitman contributed the first two chapters of an abortive novel, "The Madman." At the time of this installment's publication, the editors of the Atlas were Herrick and A. G. Seaman. [back]

6. Many Tartar (or Mongol) horsemen were mounted archers, circa the thirteenth century. [back]

7. New York slang for a dashing or showy manner of dress ("Gallus" is a variant of "gallows"). [back]


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