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“Your Body Includes and Is the Meaning”: Five Hot Lifestyle Tips from Walt Whitman

While being pregnant brought on particular food cravings (doughnuts, the clichéd pickles), having a baby girl out in the world has brought on an unexpected and particular reading cravingWalt Whitman. I think it’s his expansiveness, his belief in endless possibilities, and his reveling in the bodyall bodies. A parenting magazine, which I swear I didn’t want or pay for, keeps arriving at my door with even more unwanted tips for “bouncing back” after birth, most of which involve covering up one’s actual physical self (Hang a mirror in the kitchen so you get in the habit of remembering to put on makeup again! Buy this expensive new nursing outfit that hides your “mummy tummy” and “back flab”!). If an alien based their knowledge of actual human parenting on this magazine alone, they might assume that all parents are one gender and that a crucial parenting technique is to be ashamed of one’s body now (as always). Just thinking of Whitman’s words instead of the scolds and shamers behind the glossy columns acts to ward off this narrowness. If I listen to Whitman instead, I’ll live my life “hankering, gross, mystical, nude . . . turbulent, fleshy, sensual . . . no more modest than immodest.”

Pretty hilariously, Whitman actually did write his own men’s health column at one point, titled “Manly Health and Training” under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. These writings were recently discovered by University of Houston graduate student Zachary Turpin (who also discovered a lost novel of Whitman’s) and are now collected as Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body, published earlier this year by Regan Arts. As Dan Piepenbring writes for The New Yorker:

The articles . . . brim with piquant digressions and bumptious, often contradictory advice on diet, exercise, and beauty. Whitman implores men to do things briskly: walking, showering, rubbing themselves down with dry cloths and hair gloves. He likes stale bread and fresh air . . . His doctrines adopt the familiar, puritanical posturing of many nineteenth-century self-improvement guides, dispensing bromides about discipline and preparedness.

This version of Whitman is, sadly, less at ease with his own body than Whitman the poet. Piepenbring notes:

Whereas “Leaves of Grass” celebrates a man sublimely comfortable in his own skin, “Manly Health” is more likely to warn that skin “is one of the great inlets of disease.” Whitman’s column warns against potatoes, prostitutes, overthinking, hot beverages, and between-meal snacking, to name a few of his prohibitions. As for condiments: forget about them. Real men abjure catsup.

Of course, anyone who has taken a creative writing workshop or written a literary analysis knows that the author and the “speaker” of a piece of writing aren’t necessarily one and the same (particularly when considering text created to fit a particular genre, like the advice column, and under a pseudonym). I imagine Whitman-the-poem’s-speaker to be Whitman-the-person’s best self, or aspirational self. As I want to be Whitman, it seems Whitman wanted to be Whitman. I think of Cary Grant famously saying that he pretended to be somebody long enough that he became that person, or “he became me”: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

My husband and I took a rare moment away from the baby (thanks, Grandma!) to have a drink with fellow Baltimore folks Barbara Bourland and her husband, Ian, the other evening. Bourland’s first novel, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, was just published by Hachette, and it sounds like a welcome smart and funny beach read for me right about now. It’s described as a “sharp and satirical take on the politics of women’s bodies and women’s work.” Bourland, who has written extensively for magazines as well (“women’s” and otherwise), splendidly decoded the head games of contemporary magazine advice for me, à la John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. (Pro tip: always include a number in your headline.) And of course, so much of it comes back to convincing the reader of what they lack.

Ah, well. I return to Whitman (or my favorite version of him—the Whitman of his poems), here in “Starting from Paumanok”:

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, running rivers, rocks, and sands . . .

Behold, your body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it!