Whitman and Vegetarianism

by Evan Edwards

ScreenHunter_2365 Nov. 14 11.49Sometime in November 1944, the U.K. based Vegetarian Society splintered slightly when several members—calling themselves “Vegans”—came to believe that simply abstaining from eating animal flesh did not go far enough in alleviating the suffering of animals. Vegans, if you don’t already know, argue that if one of the pillars of the vegetarian ethos is to not contribute to the death and suffering of animals, then to continue to take milk from nursing cows, wear leather stripped from their bodies, to subject hens to miserable living conditions for eggs, and so on, is in fact not to live up to stated ideals.

Never before in the long and complex history of vegetarianism had such a distinction been made. For thousands of years, philosophers and religious figures had made ethical and health-based arguments for not making one’s body “a tomb”—as Leonardo da Vinci reportedly put it—but the exact meaning and limits of this abstention were never quite defined. Some, thinking that fish were not really ‘animals’—in many romance languages, seafood translates most literally as “fruits of the sea”—allowed for their consumption, others like Pythagoras included legumes in the list of forbidden fare for reasons unknown. But due to reason or circumstance, the Vegan Society believed that this ambiguity about what constitutes suffering and cruelty was ripe for clarification.

Perhaps, on a grand historical level, the shift from subsistence farming to mass industrial schemes that accompanied the modern era had brought the evil of these forms of animal exploitation into focus. Perhaps it was due to a heightened awareness of the unfathomable depths to which suffering could sink, brought about by these individuals’ own subjection to a war that had been raging for nearly five years in their home country, a war that had brought the London Blitz, the bombing of Dresden, a total war that summoned as from hell itself the factory-like conditions of the Nazi work-camps, which had delivered more carnage than any war in history, and which had yet to show its greatest instrument of cruelty, the atomic bomb. Perhaps it was just coincidence or fate, because in 1994, to commemorate the break, the Vegan Society declared November “World Vegan Month,” ironically during the very time when over 50 million Turkeys are getting their last plump-up before their national slaughter in America.

It is a special time of year for me. I’ve been vegan now for eight years, unwittingly and fortuitously going cold turkey (pun intended?) the day that Vegan month kicks off. I’ve never written about this choice, and speak about my own experience with it very infrequently. However, this year a lost text was found by one of the writers I admire most, Walt Whitman. I’ve written about the found text, Manly Health and Training, elsewhere, but this seems like a good time to mention one or two things about the diet Whitman advocates there.

On April 29th, the New York Times published one of the very first articles about the newly discovered text, writing that in it, Whitman sounds “more than a little paleo,” referring to the diet of the same name which advocates eating only foods that are presumed to be eaten by early humans. Later that day, Time Magazine followed suit, citing the New York Times article and writing that “Literary giant Walt Whitman was an early advocate of what today sounds like the popular paleo diet.” From there, the word attached itself to the text in the popular imagination, finding itself in articles by BoingBoing, Atlas Obscura, and, in a very qualified way, in the Huffington Post. My department head even mentioned that he heard Whitman advocated a paleo diet when I mentioned in my departmental review that I was writing on the poet. As the Huffington Post article points out, the claim is actually pretty wrong — also that the Paleo Dietisn’t really accurate — and based solely on several passages where Whitman talks effusively about the benefits of eating lean meat. “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else,” he writes. Elsewhere, he recommends that “[i]f you want to know what is best to a hearty man, who takes plenty of exercise and fresh air, and don't want any pimples on his face or body, we will answer, (perhaps very much to your astonishment,) a simple diet of rare-cooked beef, seasoned with a little salt, and accompanied with stale bread or sea-biscuit. Mutton, if lean and tender, is also commendable.” Although he does advocate eating simple food, the recommendation of “stale bread” and other grains disqualifies this diet from being “paleo.” It seems to be one of those cases where the drive for publicity on the internet turned a half-true claim into an empty truism, this time with the help of a fad diet buzzword. The fervor with which he recommends eating animal flesh, however, is very interesting.

We find passages like those quoted above peppered throughout the text, suggesting that readers power the lifestyle to which Whitman makes gestures with meat, potatoes, and other “simple, unadorned” foods. He writes that “in our view, if nine-tenths of all the various culinary preparations and combinations, vegetables, pastry, soups, stews, sweets, baked dishes, salads, things fried in grease, and all the vast array of confections, creams, pies, jellies, &c., were utterly swept aside in the habitual eating of the people, and a simple meat diet substituted in their place — we will be candid about it, and say in plain words, an almost exclusive meat diet — the result would be greatly, very greatly in favor of that noble-bodied…and superior race we have had a leaning toward.” This above passage seems to be his definitive position on the subject, but, like his near contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, Whitman also acknowledges that “in general terms, avoid what disagrees with you; for there are, to every individual case, certain rules which apply to it alone,” and that “there are even cases where a vegetarian diet applies.” He goes on to say that “such persons have an antipathy to eat meat” and that “to them, it follows that they must eat what their appetite will permit, and what agrees with them.” He acknowledges, here, that “one of the greatest mistakes made in arbitrary theories of certain things supposed to be conducive to health, is that they forget that the true theory of health is multiform, and does not consist of one or two rules alone,” and further, that no rule can apply to all people at all times.

In this, we find him struggling to reconcile his desire to prescribe a universal rule for health with his belief in the particularity and divinity of the individual. We even may find here a situation in which Whitman tempers his own personal beliefs on a subject in a rare moment of humility. This is a recurring criticism of Whitman, i.e. that he asserts his own individuality as representative of all humanity, or at least of all Americans, and therefore is less democratic and multiform than he would like. When he writes that he is also “the hounded slave,” we want to step back and say, “like hell you are, you white man living in the North!” But this is a topic that is treated better and at greater length elsewhere in literature on Whitman.

While he makes an attempt, from time to time, to suggest that his opinion isn’t the last word on topics of diet, and while we see his democratic impulse overtaking from time to time the authoritarian impulse in his theories of the human body, he cannot escape criticism when we come to the section on vegetarianism in Manly Health and Training. He writes that “the vegetable diet,” as he calls it, “has come down [from the most ancient times] under the most venerable authority.” That “Newton, the astronomer, it is well known, in his profound and intricate discoveries…lived on vegetable food, and drank water only,” and that “Boyle…by the simplicity and regularity of living, abstaining from animal food, and also by drinking nothing but water, preserved his useful life far beyond all expectation.” He tells the story of a “Spanish convent of monks,” the head of which “had always lived upon vegetable food, and whose drink had been water only.” This man “was one who in any spot would attract attention” and whose “complexion and his eye had a clearness that no one can conceive who is not familiar with the aspect of those who have practised a long and rigid abstinence from animal food.” Whitman admits that this diet “gives a lustre, a spiritual intelligence to the countenance, that has something saint-like and divine.” We should note here that this “manly beauty” and “attractiveness” is for Whitman the end and purpose of this system of health and dieting. We should also note that this continual reference to “drinking water only” reminds us of a passage in “I Sing the Body Electric,” where Whitman describes “a man…[a] common farmer” who had “a wonderful vigor and calmness and beauty of person,” who “was six feet tall” and “over eighty years old” whose “blood showed like scarlet through the clear brown skin of his face,” and who “drank water only.” Whitman’s obsession with this man in the poem, and the akinness his description bears to the Spanish monk — and to all the vegetarians he describes — would suggest that all the talk about eating “meat, to the exclusion of all else,” would be misguided, and that perhaps the ideal man, for Whitman, could be a vegetarian just as well as a carnivore.

After describing the spiritual elevation that accompanies the vegetable diet, however, Whitman doubles back and writes that “we have seen New England and New York vegetarians, gaunt, hard, melancholy, and unhappy looking persons, that looked like anything else than a recommendation of [vegetarianism] — for that is the proof, after all.” This contradicts entirely what Whitman had just said. So why the sudden paradox?

We might make sense of this apparent forgetting of the claims made about the spiritualism of vegetarianism if we think a moment about the time in which these articles are being written. It was during this time that Whitman met Henty David Thoreau for the first (and perhaps only) time. Whitman had read Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, and had certainly come across the chapter in Thoreau’s text titled “Higher Laws.” In this chapter, Thoreau argues that in “lower,” “younger,” and more “primitive” situations, “there is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the ‘best men,’” but that “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” Thoreau ambivalently endorses a vegetarian diet, suggesting that vegetarianism accompanies a more refined attunement to the “higher laws” one finds inscribed in the human soul. This is Thoreau’s “transcendentalism” on full display. In Nature, “wild,” or “primitive” societies, humans may eat meat, but when attuned to the voice of conscience, these desires waste away, and we see the earth in a new light. Thoreau’s ambivalence consists, however, in the fact that he cannot decide what is better, this attunement to “higher laws,” or the “wildness” that is “the preservation of the world,” as he says in his greatest essay, “Walking.”

Whitman, who met Thoreau in 1856 and who had read Walden before this point, had an ambivalent attitude toward the hermit of Walden pond throughout his life. While he admired Thoreau’s “wildness,” his “lawlessness — his dissent — his going his own absolute road let hell blaze all it chooses,” he hated that Thoreau had “a disdain for men (for Tom, Dick and Harry)” and his inability to “appreciate the average life.” Perhaps Whitman found in Thoreau’s high-falutin vegetarianism, and his association of vegetarianism with “higher laws,” this same disdain for the diet of “average” men in America. This is always a criticism leveled at vegetarians, that in choosing this particular mode of eating, that a judgment is being passed on those who eat meat.

Whitman’s appreciation for the spiritual aspects of vegetarianism, then, seem to be simply offset by his passion for what he perceives to be the “wildness” of eating meat. He agrees with and reacts to Thoreau’s own association with the spiritual virtues of vegetarianism in favor of a robust, non-rarified attention to the body, rather than the soul. We find in this switch from praising vegetarianism to immediately finding it absurd and harmful an image of Whitman trying to reconcile his claim to be “the poet of the body” with his claim to be “the poet of the soul.” In this seemingly mundane passage about vegetarianism, we find the conflict Whitman feels within him between competing claims made by his own philosophy and that of the Transcendentalists, the split between the body and the soul, nature and culture, etc. As Whitman gets older, we find less of an emphasis on meat-eating, but also more attention paid to the spiritual aspects of existence. Perhaps this correlation needs to be more thoroughly explored in the future.