Doctoral candidate’s research reveals understated side of Walt Whitman

Zachary Turpin uncovers lost articles detailing author’s insights on health, science, manhood

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is regarded as one of the greatest American poets. Much has been written about the man and his work, but a Department of English graduate student recently uncovered articles that shed fresh light on this important literary figure.

Doctoral student Zachary Turpin discovered a series of articles that ran in the New York Atlas newspaper in 1858. The series, titled “Manly Health and Training,” was originally published under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. These works explore the poet’s views on diverse topics including health, exercise, diet, digestion, sex, socialization, physical beauty, manly comradeship, race, eugenics, war, climate, bathing, prizefighting, gymnastics, footwear, facial hair, longevity, depression, alcohol and prostitution.

These newly discovered articles are published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and already have received much attention from the literary world and the media.

As a whole, the “Manly Health and Training” articles comprise a book-length text that offers many insights into Whitman and his poetry, written during a period in his life that is not well documented, said Turpin, who is a fourth-year English literature Ph.D. candidate.

“This fills a major gap in what we know about Whitman’s thoughts during this period,” he said. “This was a time in which he was experiencing financial and personal adversity. His poetry wasn’t selling well at this point. He was in a jam. These articles reveal aspects of him, before he goes on to success, that many people are unaware of.”

Some of the topics explored in these articles are present within his poetry. His celebration of the body, for example, is a theme within his classic poetry collection “Leaves of Grass.” Other topics in these articles, Turpin said, are more controversial by today’s standards. Among the most surprising discoveries is Whitman’s advocacy of prizefighting.

“He basically says that a fighting nation needs fighting men,” Turpin said. “And this from someone who would go on to be a nurse in the Civil War and be disillusioned by fighting and bloodshed.”

Turpin discovered these articles while searching digital databases for missing nineteenth-century 19th century texts. While conducting a search for Whitman’s pen name “Mose Velsor,” Turpin identified an ad promoting an upcoming series on manly training in the New York Atlas. Using the University’s library, he obtained microfilm with issues of the Atlas that contained these articles.

Turpin’s research interests are primarily in 19th century American literature. Many authors during this period, including Whitman, worked as journalists while also penning prose, fiction and poetry.

“Most of these writers had to work at a furious pace. They had to really crank out work,” Turpin said. “The reason I am so invested in recovering their work is because so much is out there. Whitman is a perfect example. He wrote at an unbelievable pace. You wouldn’t believe all of the material he produced until it’s laid out in front of you.”

The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review is published by the University of Iowa and is available online. The latest edition, with the articles discovered by Turpin, can be read here

- by Mike Emery