Photo by Justin McCallum

Photo by Justin McCallum



Or, reasons this play is hopefully not as random as it might seem at first 

1)     Walt Whitman was obsessed with writing about the body, especially in the first half of his life (late in life, his poetry began to revolve around the soul instead).

2)     “Manly Health and Training,” the series of articles Walt wrote under the pen name Mose Velsor, betrays a fascination with exercise, diet fads, boxing, masculinity, and self help (or, at the very least, a willingness to write at length on these topics for money).

3)     Loved orators and wanted to make a living giving lectures; eventually did become famous for a lecture he delivered often about Lincoln’s assassination, though people disagree on the power of his voice (some called it feminine). Per Zachary Turpin, “In his notebooks, [Whitman] wrote reminder after reminder to himself to enrich the timbre of his voice, and expand his chest, and ‘restrain gesture,’ so that audiences would find him irresistible.”

4)     Shunned organized religion but was influenced by all religions, especially Quakerism. More to the point, in the 1840s and 50s he was swept up by trendy religious/scientific fads like Swedenborgianism (which said all things have a corresponding soul), Mesmerism (a form of hypnotic induction), Lamarckism (a positive spin on Darwinism that said certain traits could be acquired through effort and then passed down to future generations), and especially phrenology (the study of the brain and skull to assess intelligence and character, which allowed people to train to get better in certain areas).

5)     He also used language associated with Harmonialism, a movement that emphasized electricity as a sustaining life force. A Harmonic social space, to Walt’s mind, is one in which individuality and togetherness flourish simultaneously, through centrifugal and centripetal forces (the former represented by his long catalog lists of everyone and everything, and the latter coming forth in the magnetic “I” at the heart of his poetry).

6)     At the end of his life, Walt was believed by some followers to be a healer and a messiah figure; small societies formed around these ideas.

7)     Was a massive self-promoter and ravenously sought out fame (or, more charitably, popular acceptance from him his country). Though his image and name began to be commodified toward the end of his life on various products (including a Walt Whitman cigar), Whitman didn’t mind and was actually amused by it. 

8)     Walt loved loud unruly participatory audiences at theatre and said it reminded him of democracy. Participatory audiences were a feature of theatre in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In his writing, Walt wanted to erase the boundary between reader and author through direct address and a participatory style (“The reader will always have his or her part to do just as much as I have mine”).

Texts and Sources that Influenced Walt Whitman BodyJolt

Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds

“Manly Health and Training, With Off-Hand Hints Toward Their Conditions," ed. Zachary Turpin

Leaves of Grass (Bantam Classic)

Drum Taps (NYRB Poets)

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich

Visits to Soul Cycle and Pure Barre, along with various zumba, kickboxing, and yoga classes, usually using ClassPass

Visits to the NYC AIDS Memorial