Letters to Young Men



Man is the noblest growth our realms supply,
And souls are ripened in our northern sky.

Mrs. Barbauld.

I HAVE noticed that most writers of books for young men have a good deal to say about diet and regimen, and physical culture, and all that sort of thing, those knowing the least of these important subjects invariably being the most elaborate and specific in their treatment of them. There have been some awful sins committed in this business. All the spare curses I accumulate I dedicate to those white-livered, hatchet-faced, thin blooded, scrawny reformers, who prescribe sawdust puddings and plank beds, and brief sleep, and early walks, and short commons for the rising generation. I despise them; and if there is a being who always touches the profoundest depths of my sympathy, it is a young man who has become a victim to their notions. It is a hard sight to see a young man with the pluck all taken out of him by a meagre diet — his whole nature starved, degenerated, emasculated.

I propose to apply a little common sense to this business. If I have a likely Durham steer, which I wish to have grow into the full development of his breed, I keep him on something more than a limited quantity of bog hay. I do not stir him up with a pitchfork before he has his nap out, and insist on his being driven ten miles before he has anything to eat. I do not take pains to give him the meanest bed I can find for him. I know perfectly well that that animal will not grow up strong and sound, fat and full, the pride of the farm and the gem of the stall, unless I give him an abundance of the best food, a clean and comfortable place to sleep in, and just as long naps as he sees fit to take. The horse, which in its organization more nearly approaches man than the steer, is still more sensitive to the influence of generous living. How much pluck and spirit will a horse get out of a ton of rye straw? The trath is, that a good and abundant diet is not only essential to the highest physical health and development of man, but it modifies very importantly the development and manifestation of the soul. A man cannot acquire courage by feeding on theories and milk. An Englishman cannot fight without beef in his belly; and no more can any of us.

It may be objected to this that we do not wish for a great animal development in man, I say we do. I declare that the more perfect a man can make his animal nature the better. That animal nature is the associate — home — servant — of the soul. If it be not well developed, in all its organs and in all its functions, it will neither give a generous entertainment to the spiritual thing that dwells in it, nor serve it with vigor and efficiency. If strong meat nurses your passions, let it; it does not nurse your passions any more than it nurses all the rest of you, and if you grow symmetrically where is the harm? Besides, what would you be without passions? They are the impelling forces of life. A man with no passion is as useless in the world as if he were without brains. He cannot even acquire the possession of virtue, but is obliged to content himself with innocence. If God gave passions to a man, he gave them to him for a natural, full development ; and the grandest type of man we see is that in which we find fully developed and thoroughly trained passions; and a soul which has not these among its motive forces is like a sailor out at sea, in a skiff without oars. This idea that the body is something to be contemned, that its growth and development must necessarily antagonize with the best growth and development of the soul, is essentially impious. No matter where it started — it is all wrong. A perverted and perverting passion is a fearful thing, but a passion in its place is like everything that God makes, “very good.”

I would have you properly understand this kind of talk. I counsel the use of no food that tends to the stimulation of one portion of your system more than another, but I ask you to remember that the best food is not too good for you, and that, unless you have a perverted appetite, there is very little danger of your eating too much of it. If I were to be charged with the special mission of degrading a nation, in mind and body — stunting the form, and weakening in the same proportion the mental and moral nature — there is no way in which I could so readily accomplish my object as through food. No nation can preserve its vitality, and its tendency to progress, with a diet of pork and potatoes. Nothing but the cerealia and the ruminantia will do for this — nothing but bread and muscle.

I wish I could take you to one of those institutions which will be found in nearly every State, where the outcast and pauper children are gathered for shelter, care, and culture. They come from the gutters, where they have lived on garbage and cold potatoes. Their eyes are red around the edges and very weak, their muscles are flabby, their skin is lifeless in color and in fact. Their minds are as dull as the minds of brutes, and their faces give the impression almost of idiotic stupidity. In six months, wheat and corn bread give them a new body, and a new soul; and it would be difficult to find a brighter set of faces than fill those crowded halls and illuminate the noisy playgrounds. Therefore, I say to you, young men, however falsely you may deal with your back, be honest with your stomach. Feed well — as well as you can afford to feed. Sleep well. If Benjamin Franklin ever originated the maxim, “six hours of sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” he ought uniformly to have practised by the rule of the last number. Young man, if you are a student, or engaged in any severe mental occupation, sleep just as long as you can sleep soundly. Lying in bed from laziness is another thing entirely. Sleep is a thing that bells have no more business to interfere with, than with prayers and sermons, God is re-creating us. We are as unconscious as we were before we were born; and while he holds us there, feeding anew the springs of life, and infusing fresh fire into our brains, and preparing us for the work of another day, the pillow is as sacred as a sanctuary. If any fanatic has made you believe that it is good for you to be violently wakened from your sleep at an early hour, and to go out into the damp, raw air, morning after morning, with your fast unbroken, and your body unfortified by the stimulus of food, forget him and his counsels, and take the full measure of your rest. When you get your breakfast down, take your exercise if you have time, or wait until a later hour in the day. Just as much labor can be accomplished in ten hours as in fourteen, with more efficiency and less fatigue, when rest and bodily exercise are properly taken.

But physical culture — what is that? A very important thing, I assure you. Some of you get this in your employments, and are growing up with manly frames and strong arms, But there are others who are coming up delicately, with spindling shanks, and narrow shoulders, and flat chests, and weak arms — great babies, with soft hands and soft muscles, and not enough of physical prowess to undertake to carry a disputed point with the cook in the kitchen. How a woman ever makes up her mind to love such a man as this is a mystery to me. A feminine man is a masculine monster, and no woman with unperverted instincts can love and marry him. A true woman loves a pair of good strong arms, fastened to a pair of broad shoulders, for they can defend her, provide for her, and — but I wander from my subject.

Physical culture perfects a very important portion of the work which good feeding begins. The best material supplied to the mouth, assimilated by the process of digestion, and carried by the blood to the muscles and all the other structures of the body, is essential ; but these organs, when constructed and supplied, need not only thorough training for the development of power and the acquisition of facility, but for the preservation of their harmony and health. God sets all the little children playing for this. He lays the necessity of play upon them, and those restless little fellows that are always sliding, or skating, or wrestling, or running, are all inspired by a divine impulse. Those little brothers of yours who drive you half insane by their noise, who will not sit upon your knee a minute without some fresh twist of their bodies, are discharging their primary Christian duties.

A new world, tossed into space by the Creative Hand, informed with its laws of motion, and set spinning on its axis and careering around its orbit, never stops. It is only the boy who gets lazy as he grows older. God puts him in motion at first, and teaches him to use every physical power he possesses, and he does it faithfully at first. Children who sit still do not live. The mission of play does not cease with childhood. When labor is not capable of doing for you what play has done and when you have no regular task for your bodily powers, you are to play still. Walking and riding, boxing and fencing, playing ball, pitching quoits, rowing and bowling — all these are as legitimate to the man as the simpler sports are to the boy, and are in a degree essential to his happiness and usefulness.

I should be unjust to the age were I to omit the mention of a special point of “physical culture” which has been long neglected. You find as you come into man’s estate, that hair has a tendency to grow upon your face. It is the mark by which God meant that men and women should be distinguished from each other in the crowd. That hair was placed there in infinite wisdom, but your fathers have been cutting it off from their chins in small crops for thirty to fifty years, thus impugning Nature’s policy, wasting precious time, drawing a great deal of good blood, creating a great deal of bad, and trying to erase from their faces the difference which was intended to be maintained between them and those of women. If you are a man, and have a beard, wear it. You know it was made to wear. It is enough to make a man with a decent complement of information and a common degree of sensibility (and a hand some beard) deny his kind, to see these smooth-faced men around the streets, and actually showing them selves in female society! Let us have one generation of beards.

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