Walt Whitman circa 1880.
Apic—Getty Images
By Nate Hopper
February 2, 2017
Hopper is Ideas Editor for TIME.

In 1858, Walt Whitman saw an America that was gorging itself on information and condiments, roiled by political tensions and, just as bad, physically weak. This drove him, three years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass, to write a newspaper serial titled Manly Health and Training, which had been lost but now is found and will soon be republished.

The manual proves that little has changed in the ever rebranded fitness industry. But Whitman, as punchy and commanding as a SoulCycle instructor, was selling more than a lifestyle. He was selling an ethos, albeit one with the eugenic undertones that plague his legacy. Whitman wrote from and for the North on the eve of the Civil War, seeking a “nation of fighting men” with not only magnetism but also morals. “History is full of examples of intellectually developed nations … falling a [sic] prey to others of inferior mental caliber, but of daring and overwhelming physique.” It raises the question: What good is an age of information if you cannot defend it with brawn?

Write to Nate Hopper at nate.hopper@time.com.

This appears in the February 13, 2017 issue of TIME.

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