Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Health
Author:
Sanfilip, Thomas
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

There is a distinct contrast between Whitman's idealized notions of the human body as expressed in his literary work and the actual state of his health as it evolved over the course of his life. The many revisions of Leaves of Grass did not so much parallel his decline in health as much as reinforce his original conception of the natural human being as the divine reflection of the cosmos. Over time this idea as an essential theme of his work began to take precedence over others, serving as both his conception of America's unique characteristic as a people and the archetype of his own self-created myth for the model of healthy masculinity.

Whitman attributed his heartiness to his Dutch and English ancestry, particularly that of his mother's side. Although he attributed the collapse of his health to prolonged exposure to viruses and diseases while nursing dying soldiers during the Civil War, his inherent physical capacity to rebound from strokes was remarked upon with wonder by most of his friends and doctors. This capacity only added to his self-created myth as representative of the innate physical integrity and health of the American type. Late in life he was to admit that his family showed a marked tendency to paralysis, and the history of his bouts with illness and strokes that left him a semi-invalid for the remaining second half of his life tends to bear this out.

The first signs of serious health problems began during the war, when he started suffering extended periods characterized by sore throats, unexpected weight gain, bouts of dizziness, and at one point a loss of hearing. All of these were indications of hypertension and emotional stress brought on by his work in the hospitals. As time went on he complained of periods of increasing faintness, headaches, fatigue, and sore throats. In June 1864 he returned home to Brooklyn to recover his health and remained housebound a full month before eventually regaining his strength.

In the late 1860s Whitman's health began to sink again with a return of the same symptoms, including depression and head pains; in addition, he began to break out in sudden sweats diagnosed by doctors as symptoms of "hospital malaria" and "hospital poison" they believed had been absorbed into his system during the war. He recovered again, but in January 1873 suffered his first major stroke, which left him paralyzed. Some scholars have suggested the primary cause was a troubling emotional incident occurring in 1870 that sapped his energy, although the event has never been uncovered.

Whitman agreed to electric-battery shock therapy to try to bring about some recovery to his limbs, but there was little success. Only after a number of weeks was he able to sit upright. Although emotionally set back by the death of his mother during his convalescence, his health improved again, even though his left leg remained lame. By 1885 he found it increasingly difficult to walk, and three years later suffered a second paralytic stroke, which left him a semi-invalid needing regular care for the rest of his life. In spite of his debilitating maladies Whitman continued to maintain a belief in the healing power of nature and regularly asserted its primary significance as the crux of his philosophy. 

Throughout his life Whitman was keenly aware of many types of unorthodox medical analyses and treatments, which ranged from homeopathy and hydropathy to phrenology, a science that claimed a connection between the shape of the skull and the innate characteristics of the individual. Whitman had visited the offices of the phrenologists Fowler and Wells in New York City many times, and it was they who distributed the first edition of Leaves of Grass as well as published the first review of the book; thus, his interest in all aspects related to the health of the individual clearly permeated his perception of the human experience. 

Not completely sympathetic to the standard medical approaches of his day, Whitman felt that physicians were too quick to circumvent the natural healing processes of the body in favor of applying various emetics. He believed in a more holistic approach to health, advocating fresh air, exercise, and the full emotional and physical development of the self. He was considered by his medical friends to have a better-than-average knowledge of physiology and medicine, gained primarily by extensive reading of popular medical journals of the time, observation of doctors, and hospital experience during the war. In later years he admitted that had he been seeking a profession it would have been in the medical field as a doctor.

As a consequence, the health-imbued persona of mythic proportions he projected in his work fused with new and various aspects of his self-created image as healer in each newly revised edition of the work. Harold Aspiz believes the first three editions of Leaves of Grass illustrate a merger of what he terms the "fact and invention" of Whitman's self-portrayal as the self-endowed symbol of his own magnificent body. His image as "one of the roughs" in the first edition transforms in the second into a magnetic "folk-evangelist," in the third into a "reincarnated Adam" ready to bear healthy children, and in the fourth into the "healer-camerado." With each new edition, the body of the poet is used less and less as a metaphor for the physical vitality that was integral to his philosophy. 

In addition, Aspiz shows that the editions after the Civil War reflect Whitman's marked attempt to gain a greater spiritual insight from his past.  Democratic Vistas —his last major prose work—continued to emphasize the significance of a sound body as the basis for all virtues of the individual and the nation as a whole. His final essays derive little significance from the earlier image of himself as the physical example of the healthy American type, often taking on what Aspiz terms a "wistful" longing for his past health as he declined into old age.

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Knapp, Bettina L. Walt Whitman. New York: Continuum, 1993.

Leon, Philip W. Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician. Toronto: ECW, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.