I Sing the Body Electric: Walt Whitman and the Body

Whitman’s Body and Aging

The iconic image of Whitman from the first printing of Leaves of Grass shows the poet with his shirt collar open and his hat cocked at a jaunty angle. This depiction reinforces the myth of Whitman, noted in one of his biographies, as a “beautiful quenchless body” full of physical and spiritual verve. But Whitman never enjoyed perfect health. His fame grew as he aged, and many of the photographs and portraits of him from this period show him with a woolly white beard. In some of his personal writings, including "How I get around at 60" (shown here), he describes his ailments and various treatments. Suffering from a stroke in 1873 that left parts of his body paralyzed, Whitman spent the rest of his life ailing and with limited mobility. Despite his ill health, he persisted writing and revising Leaves of Grass until his death.

 

June 2, ‘74
Visited Dr. Grier again today at 312 S. 12th st. Phil. For consultation.

He reiterated his theory that my sufferings, (later ones) come nearly altogether from gastric, stomachic, intestinal, non-excretory, &c. causes, causing flatulence, a very great distension of the colon, falling of passages, weight on valves crowding and pressing on organs (heart, lungs, &c) and the very great distress and pain I have been under in breast left side, and pit of stomach and thence to my head, the last month. Advised me by all means to bein the use of an injection sytinge, (Fountain No.2. tepid water for clysters) – was favorable to my using whiskey-advised [assaveda] pills. 292 – kneading the bowel [bottom of page mutilated.]

 

"I know well enough that man grows up becoming not a physical being merely, but markedly the metnal being of the earth-the esthetic and spiritual being – the benevolent and But the main thing is, in the same connection, that he is to be the seer of nature – he only can celebrate things, animals, and landscapes – His mentality is a quality to be used toward things, as his vision is used. 

If he depart from animals and things he is lost. –In other words, man is not only an animal like the others, but he alone has the quality of understanding and telling how divine a thing an animal is – what life, matter, passion, volition are He alone carries all the substances of the world, by this quality, in himself, and illustrates them."

 

14Q3 New York Ave NW
Washington City.
July 27, 1873

My dear Doctor-
I am informed by Mr. Whitman, lately a patient of mine, now on a visit to Camden, that he intends to avail himself of your counsel and treatment before returning to this city, and he requests me to let you have a short statement of the history of his case up to the present time. It may be briefly stated thus:
On the 23d of January (?February) last Mr. W.- previously in good health-was attacked with left hemiplegia presenting all the symptoms of such conditions, though none of them very marked at any time. Speech was hardly appreciably impaired, facial distortion very slight, and deviation of tongue just perceptible: left upper extremity never wholly useless: left lower showing the paretic condition more than any other part of organ. Constipation, slight at onset of attack, has required little attention subsequently.

Under the influence of ust, and such incidental treatment as was demanded from time to time, his general condition has slowly improved: locomotive power having, however, been only imperfectly regained. This principal annoyance has been a recurrent headache.

After subsidence of everything like active manifestations, I commenced, cautiously, the use of the induced current – with Griffe’s battery, - and continued it for a number of weeks, without apparent result, beyond a decided improvement in nutrition of the lower limb. When he was on the point of leaving, I suggested to him the possible benefit to be derived from the use of the continued current: and I think it is with reference to that more particularly that he wishes to consult you.

Mr. Whitman’s physical mould, his habits of life, tastes and mental constitution, are, I think the most natural I have ever encountered, and as for as those things go, he has all in his favour. Beyond this, the progress is, of course, of the stereotyped uncertainty characteristic of such cases. He has occasionally taken pot. Bromide and sod. Bromide for his headaches: for a short time took the phosphate of iron, quinia, and strychina: - occasionally, a mild laxative:- no other drugs that I recollect.
Hoping that you may be able to help Mr. Whitman in regaining the bodily independence on which his usual mental hopefulness very much depends, I am, my dear doctor, 
Very truly Yours
J.Ed. Dimkow

Dr. Matthew Grier-
Philadelphia