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Book Review: Mr. America

Bernarr Mcfadden

Bernarr Mcfadden

What did you have for breakfast today? What it a bowl of delicious Strengtho cereal? Probably not, and that’s because you’re not living in the days of Bernarr Mcfadden. But doesn’t it sound great? Apparently, it didn’t taste that good, but it was also created by a guy who enjoyed a bowlful of sand every now and then to clean his insides out.

Who is Bernarr Mcfadden?

Before I picked up Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet, I’d never heard of the guy.

I’m married to a lovely woman with advanced degrees in American History and Americana, but she’s never heard of Mcfadden.

I consider myself a serious student of the Iron Game and its history, but even though Mcfadden is at the center of just about everything fitness-related in America today, I’d never heard of the guy myself.

Mcfadden was a sickly child who became an eccentric entrepreneur and fitness/strength guru. He was incredibly forward-thinking for the time, the Dr. Andrew Weil of the early 20th century. He also wrote about sexual theories and railed against prudery long before Freud started making waves.

His slogan, which he apparently shouted at every chance he got, was this:

WEAKNESS IS A CRIME–DON’T BE A CRIMINAL

Some of Mcfadden’s accomplishments

  • Eating bowls of sand
  • Created Strengtho cereal
  • Publishing many, many different magazines, from Physical Culture to True Stories.
  • Founded a utopia based on his ideas about alternative diets and strength training: Physical Culture City
  • Founded what is considered the worst newspaper in American History
  • Cultivating a belief that any ill could be cured by starvation diets
  • Discovered and created the character that became Charles Atlas
  • Out-published strength contemporary Eugen Sandow (or Eugene Sandow)
  • Had millions of followers and disciples, including muckraking author of The Jungle Upton Sinclair
  • Ran for multiple political offices on platform of physical health

The list goes on and on. I can’t do it justice here.

A fun story

More than anything, Mr. America is a fun story. There was something on every page that just made me say, “What? Really? What?” Whether he was holding a bodybuilding contest to find his new wife or interrupting editorial meetings so he could wrestle someone for three hours, there was so much to laugh about and scratch my head over.

But the fact that I’d never heard of Mcfadden–and that so many of my better-learned strength peers haven’t either–is amazing to me.

As a bonus, author Mark Adams tries some of Mcfadden’s diets and protocols. The results are pretty incredible and proof that although Mcfadden has some out-there ideas, he was probably right about as many things as he was wrong.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in America, strength, fitness, alternative medicine, biographies, muscles, crazy hair, sexuality or prudery, the Comstock laws, students of political platforms, and anyone who likes a brief, fun, easy read.

I rate this book 9 bowls of Strengtho.

Here’s a link for anyone interested in the definitive story behind good old Bernarr:

Bernarr McFadden Official Site

Fascinating guy. This is a big, American story. There are some things in this book that could only happen here in the land of the loud.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • We Fly Spitfires July 17, 2009, 10:02 am

    “Eating bowls of sand”

    I’m sold.

  • Casey July 17, 2009, 3:16 pm

    Holy cow, how did you come across this book? I’m really surprised that we don’t hear more about him considering how ahead of his time some of his ideas were.

    Kind of disapointed the website you linked didn’t tell of his cure for baldness…

    • Josh Hanagarne July 17, 2009, 3:32 pm

      Casey, one of his cures for baldness was to pull your hair really hard, while you have it. By the way, I replied to your email but it kept getting returned. Would you send me another one please?