There are a lot of reasons to recommend exercise—improved physical fitness, more self-confidence, and the endorphin rush of a Saturday-morning jog—but it really comes down to control. All those knee-bends and pushups provide the impression, illusory or not, that exercisers are doing their part to stave off death with every grunting exertion. Which is why there’s always room in American culture for men like Bernarr Macfadden, “physcultopathy” inventor and all-around fitness guru. Macfadden promised a foolproof way to get the most out of life, and offered himself as a living, perfectly sculpted example. In his terrific new book, Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed The Nation Through Sex, Salad, And The Ultimate Starvation Diet, Mark Adams details the rise and fall of one of the most influential and forgotten figures in the development of America’s health obsession.
In the waning days of the 19th century, quack medicine and bad diets ruled supreme. A sickly child who spent his youth being shuttled between relatives, Macfadden developed a taste for hard work and fasting, which he soon built into an empire of spas, festivals, and print media. That last reached his widest audiences; through a variety of magazines, most prominently Physical Culture and Graphic, Macfadden preached against prudery, red meat, and organized medicine, using his audience as a platform to spread his philosophy and lay the ground for a potential political career. He married four times; while he was an inspiring public figure, his standards were hard to live up to in private.
Macfadden is a fascinating figure, a self-made man who called weakness a crime and bulldozed his way through history until time and tide ended his charge. Adams does him justice, in a briskly paced, fascinating biography that manages to convey its subject’s appeal without losing sight of his limitations. In an appendix that could’ve been twice as long, Adams even describes his own experiences following Macfadden’s advice. In a way, Mr. America reads like the strangest F. Scott Fitzgerald novel never written, describing one man’s singular obsession with a dream he lacks the wit to completely understand, and while Adams lacks Fitzgerald’s poetry, he compensates with clear reporting and a light, eminently readable tone. It’s an entertaining look at the journey from meat and potatoes to veggies and soy milk.