The Great Highway of Manly Health
"the great highway of manly health, on which all may travel, and must travel"
- Walt Whitman, Manly Health and Training
The year is 1858. The setting is the largest, dirtiest, busiest, and most invigorating city in America. In a now defunct New York City newspaper a series of articles emerges, as essential a guidepost to the men of the era as the Statue in the harbor or the lanterns in the Old North Church, 73 years and 200 miles away.
The author of the series Manly Health and Training was anonymous, at least for a period of time, though later it became known that it was the esteemed poet Walt Whitman. Whitman not only lived the advice he gave, but would need every bit of it before the series was over, as the Civil War would break out and he would spend much of it tending to men so obliterated through the butchery of that conflict that many hardly reflected the visage of man.
And yet, manliness is not something, once achieved, that can ever be obliterated. It is not bestowed by the whims of fortune, neither is it taken away. It is about essence. As Whitman stated in this work, the highway of manly health is not optional. One must travel on it. It is up to us how well and how far we traverse the country through which it leads.
American pragmatist philosopher William James was born in New York City in 1842. He was 16 years old when Manly Health began appearing in print. In 1897, on the precipice of a bold new century, he wrote The Will to Believe. In it he explored the “forced option” referenced above by Whitman. We all are embarked. He ends that essay with this quote from Fitzjames Stephen: “We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? 'Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.”