\

HOME    SOCIAL CRITICISM LIBRARY CATALOGUE    TABLE OF CONTENTS    NEXT CHAPTER


     

 

CHAPTER VIII

PHYSICAL CULTURE: "CAPITALIZING THE EROTIC"

    IN a large upper room of the new building at 1926 Broadway, New York City, where several hundred girls and young men are occupied with typewriters all day long, the preferred visitor may see seated at his desk in an inner office, the reputed founder of Physical Culture in America.

    I say "preferred visitor" advisedly; for like all persons who have climbed from obscurity into the limelight, Bernarr Macfadden realizes the value of exclusiveness, and denies himself to all but a favored few of the many seeking to intrude upon his time and attention. True, the growth of his publications, from one to fifteen in twenty-five years, and the size of his establishment, which now gives employment to over 1,000 persons and has an authorized capital of $10,000,000—all affords a reasonable excuse for exclusiveness.

    Quite aside from this, one finds in the Physical Culture offices, as in all large business places, a disposition on the part of underlings and lieutenants to impress outsiders with the importance of their official head by accentuating his "busy" preoccupation and his inaccessibility. The visitor who runs the gauntlet of these outer defenses, however, to obtain an interview with the chief, finds in, Mr. Macfadden a genial, courteous gentleman with much less aroma of self-inflation about him than one senses in most self-made men of notable achievements.

    There will be no question about Bernarr Macfadden's notable achievement in the minds of those who review his work fairly—no matter whether they be friendly or hostile to his purposes. Those who measure success in dollars and cents—which is unfortunately the common American way of gauging it—must be impressed with the outstanding capital lettering on the facade of the new six-story edifice near the corner of Sixty-fifth Street on Broadway which informs passersby that this is the "MACFADDEN BUILDING," and with the bronze plates on either side of the entrance carrying the legends, "Macfadden Publications, Inc." on the right, and on the left a list of the more important Macfadden magazines, with Physical Culture Magazine heading the list.

    These outward insignia of the substantial character of Bernarr Macfadden's achievement, are rendered more impressive to the American mind imbued with the American tradition of success, by contrasting them with his humble beginnings and the checkered vicissitudes of his early years.

    From the story of his life as told by himself, we learn that the man who was to give a new revelation of Physical Culture to his generation was born in a two-room cabin on the banks of the Black River near Mill Springs, Missouri, in 1868. That he was the child of small-farmer folk, and that his childhood was darkened by a drunken father and an ailing mother who died of tuberculosis when the little Bernarr was nine years old. This was his first real sorrow, as it seems he was extremely fond of his mother and grieved excessively whenever separated from her by the family troubles.

    After her death, Bernarr went to live with some relatives who kept a small hotel, and who imposed on him all the menial, disagreeable chores of the place for two years. He was next taken into the service of a young farmer, and assigned tasks far beyond his strength, which together with the badly cooked food supplied on most Southwestern farms, no doubt contributed to further undermine the rather weak constitution he was thought to have inherited from his mother. At any rate he says he was a frail, poorly nourished boy at fifteen, and when he ran away from the farmer to take refuge with his uncle and grandmother living in St. Louis, the prediction was freely made in his hearing that he would "soon go the way of his mother."

    The sedentary jobs which the city provided for him at this time did not improve his physical condition; but the practical knowledge of business details he acquired in these positions—first as office boy to a brokerage firm and then as bill-clerk in a large mercantile establishment—was to stand him in good stead when he came to manage a business of his own. It was while working his way through these devious occupations of city life, and deeply despondent over his poor health, as he tells us, that the future developer of the physical culture idea on a larger scale than had yet been known, chanced one day to visit a gymnasium. Watching the men exercising there, and the splendid physical development of some of them, awakened in him, he says, the possibilities of health-building through this method. Too poor to pay the membership fee of the organization, he picked up one of the booklets on dumb-bell exercise for free distribution, purchased a set of dumb-bells and started in to learn the drill.

    Concerning this accidental, but epochal visit to the gymnasium, Macfadden relates:

    "I determined to become a professional acrobat. I ransacked libraries, and read every book on physical culture I could lay my hands on. At eighteen I was a good athlete, and had become the champion wrestler of my locality, having practiced much with a friend who taught me the art."

    He relates further, that after winning a wrestling bout over a Chicago heavyweight, he conceived the idea of staging wrestling matches for pay—both welterweight and heavyweight—and from these he earned his first "easy money."

    An incident which occurred about this time, when he was substituting for a boy friend in a tumbler and horizontal-bar stunt at a vaudeville theater, taught Macfadden a new lesson in Physical Culture and incidentally turned him from his ambition to become a professional athlete. He sprained his foot in the act, but kept right on with the performance; and in consequence was laid up with his lame foot for some days while suffering excruciating pain. In this way he learned the need of absolute and complete rest for strained and swollen ligaments. While training to be a wrestler, also he had learned the value of the "No-Breakfast Plan" advocated by Dr. Edward Hooker Dewey, and that two full meals a day are ample to keep the body strong and fit.

    This dietetic preachment formulated by Dr. Dewey, an old-line "regular" of Meadville, Pennsylvania, never met a very enthusiastic reception from his professional brethren, but found many converts among the laity both in this country and in England where "No Breakfast Clubs" became quite popular. It was from an experience with pneumonia at the age of twenty-five, Bernarr Macfadden relates in his autobiography, that he "realized the devastating ignorance of the medical profession in the treatment of disease." He says: "Up to this time, my health horizon was bounded by exercise. No matter what my trouble, I would always try to exercise it away. But that didn't work in this attack of pneumonia. There was congestion and racking pain all through my body. Finally I determined to try fasting. I had learned something about it from sick animals on the farm, and I had read some books on the fasting cure. So I went on an absolute fast, taking nothing but water for five consecutive days, but going about my customary duties. At the end of that time, all the acute symptoms had disappeared, and I felt stronger despite the fact I had been without food for five days. My recovery was rapid and complete, whereas my friend who had pneumonia under medical treatment was desperately ill for a month, and as the Irishman said, 'faith, and he was sick for a month after he got well!' This set me thinking on new lines and I mapped out my future career."

    In short it may be said, that this Missouri farmer lad at the age of sixteen, orphaned and friendless, carrying every social handicap that poverty, humble birth, lack of education, and a weakened constitution could impose, yet from the date of his first look-in at the gymnasium saw a vision and followed it, until it seated him at the head of the flourishing establishment housed in his own building at 1926 Broadway.

    The road he traversed had not been an easy one, and there were many diversions and detours from the main line leading to the goal. They covered such pursuits as farm drudgery, tramping, stolen rides on freight-cars, driving a dray, setting type in the printing office of a local newspaper as office boy, bill clerk, dental assistant and proprietor of an ill-starred laundry-business, before he found his true vocation as a teacher and lecturer on Physical Culture. He began this work in an apartment "on a fairly prominent street in St. Louis," he says, "and it became immediately successful." Before starting on his career as a magazine editor and publisher in New York City, in 1899, Macfadden made a trip to England, as he says, "to get a change of air and a new viewpoint," and also to introduce some new gymnastic apparatus for which he acted as demonstrator and salesman. His lectures were so well received, he tells us, that he was tempted to remain in England, but was finally persuaded to return to the United States.

    The Physical Culture Magazine, the first in the order of production—as it has ever remained "easily first" in importance—of the Macfadden publications, began with the March, 1899 issue, when its founder and publisher had only desk space in an office in the Townsend Building at Twenty-fifth Street and Broadway. The magazine was issued first mainly as a trade journal to advertise the Macfadden gymnastic apparatus and physical culture courses, but was gradually enlarged to include articles on health by all natural means, and stories of human interest dealing with health problems.

    Within a year from the issuance of the first number of Physical Culture, it was able to move into an office of its own containing several desks, and at the end of the third year it supported a suite of three offices with fifty employees. In a short time the circulation increased from 5,000 to 40,000, and at the end of the fourth year it had grown to 100,000. Other magazines were added to convey the Macfadden health message under various titles, such as Brain Power, True Story, Movie Weekly, and others, until the list now comprises twelve magazines and three daily newspapers under the general heading—"Macfadden Publications." For a number of years they occupied two floors of the office building at 19 West Fortieth Street before moving into their present spacious quarters in 1922.

    The earlier numbers of Physical Culture Magazine carried cover designs sufficiently drab to satisfy the most exacting or Puritanic taste and in its conventionally clothed illustrations there was no hint of the lurid pictorial sections which later gave offence, not only to prudes and the vestal-virgin minds in the medical profession, but to others less prejudiced, who felt nevertheless that it was possible to depict physical culture and vigorous health stunts without recourse to the extremes of contortion and daring poses affected by the Macfadden magazines.

    Whether the commercial value of these bizarre illustrations was vindicated by the increased sales—or for some other reason, certain it was that Physical Culture Magazine grew mightily in popular favor under the able leadership of Carl Easton Williams, its editor from 1916 to 1923, who told me in 1922 that it was "the best paying periodical in New York." During Mr. Williams' incumbency, the contributors embraced such names as Havelock Ellis and George Bernard Shaw in England, and in America a few of the more noteworthy were Albert Edward Wiggam, author of "The New Decalogue of Science," Thomas L. Masson, editor of Life, Alfred W. McCann, Julian Hawthorne, Fred C. Kelly, Homer Croy, Senator Capper and others too numerous for mention.

    There is no gainsaying the fact, that along with these and other able writers whose articles have appeared in Physical Culture, there have been many inferior contributors, and its pages have been marred by literary crudities not found in periodicals of equal popularity and power No denying the fact also, that in company with much information on health that is instructive and invaluable, there has been some of questionable value, and that a sense of discrimination is needed to separate the spurious from the true. But where do we find unmixed good in any sphere? There are not many walks of life where one can safely dispense with the discriminatory sense, are there?

    Let it be conceded that Bernarr Macfadden has used the sex appeal in the pictorial features of his magazines to put across his philosophy of health and his message to the sick world; and that in doing this he has freely "capitalized the erotic," as his medical censors charge. His defenders and apologists may well retort, "What of it?" "Capitalizing the erotic" is so universally practiced by novelists, dramatists, poets, musicians, dancers and what not, that one might almost ask: "Aren't we all?" and call on the innocent to cast the first stone. The author of "The Medical Follies," in conscious rectitude, is ready with his. After referring to Mr. Macfadden as a "false prophet of health" (p. 172), Dr. Fishbein says:

    "If he were content purely with preaching the gospel of simple diet and adequate exercise, one could have no fault to find with him except that he utilizes the erotic appeal in his teachings." (Italics mine.)

    And not content, apparently, with casting his own stone at the apostle of physical culture, the creator of "Medical Follies" borrows one from the editor of the Detroit Saturday Night, who in discussing the Macfadden periodicals had remarked:

    "The important thing to note is that in every one of these stories, the suggestion is of something relative to sex—in fact, these two magazines reek of sex!"

    After hurling this borrowed missile at the Macfadden brand of sex appeal, Censor Fishbein sends after it another scandalized broadside of his own make:

    "It needs no reading of the Macfadden publications to convince any sound observer that the appeal of all of them is sexual and erotic. The covers, invariably in the gaudiest of colors, are devoted to pictures of women in various stages of nudity, always sufficient, however, to avoid conflict with the postal authorities," etc.

    But not sufficient, it seems, to avoid conflict with the medical authorities, whose modest calling naturally makes them more sensitive to such things than mere postal clerks accustomed to the seamy side of life. I really don't know what we can do about the sex appeal, seeing that God—or whoever is responsible for turning it loose in the world—had allowed it to gain considerable leeway even before Bernarr Macfadden emerged from the Missouri wilds with the nefarious purpose of utilizing it in health propaganda. Perhaps the gynæcologists—who are said to be not so squeamish as some of their medical brethren—can devise some means of protecting the virgin minds of Editor Fishbein and that Saturday Night editor in Detroit, from the demoralizing influence of the Physical Culture cover designs!

    Now all this scandalized mouthing in medical circles over the abuse of the sex appeal in the Macfadden health journals, is pure buncombe to those who can see the real colored gentlemen in the Medico-Macfadden woodpile. They know that Physical Culture's real offending is in its efforts to show the laity how to be independent of doctors; and to the extent that its teachings are followed, doctors' offices are emptied of patients and doctors' revenues are shortened. The war between Macfadden and the medical profession is an economic war, pure and simple, natural, logical, and inevitable. The author of "Medical Follies" gives proof of this in saying (p. 174):

    "However, we are concerned here not so much with the exceedingly low scale to which the Macfadden literature is pitched, as with the false campaign of health which his periodicals promote."

    There is no denying the fact that the Physical Culture health preachments are diametrically opposed to medical health preachments, and it depends entirely on your angle of vision as to which you may think is the "false" and which the true. In the first issue of Physical Culture, Bernarr Macfadden said: "The only way to fight disease is by increasing the vitality. You have to make your body so strong and so full of the forces of life, that the symptoms will disappear." He also taught the self-reparative power of the body, that given a fair chance in illness the body cures itself; that illness comes only as the result of broken hygienic law; remove the cause, reform your bad habits, and Nature will automatically effect a cure.

    All this, of course, is in direct conflict with the medical preachments that disease comes "on the wings of the morning"—or the microbe, a hostile entity invading and attacking the body from without; or if your M.D. be of a religious turn, he may tell you your malady is a visitation of Divine Providence, which the doctor may be "the humble instrument in the hand of God" in turning away; but in any event, the turning away can be effected only through the administration of drugs, vaccines and serums, or the surgeon's knife, by "a reputable physician." Whenever any audacious faith-healer has arisen to say—as many have done from time to time—that if the Lord had sent these ailments, He should be able to take them away—and without any assistance from the doctors, such audacious pronouncement is looked upon with as much disfavor by the God-fearing practitioners as by the materialists. God—the accredited author of the malady—is supposed to be as dependent on drugs, serums and operations for banishing it as the doctors themselves. Macfadden had punctured the "divine-visitation" theory of disease also in that first issue of his Physical Culture Magazine with his famous pronouncement: "Physical weakness is personal guilt. We are shamed by our ailments. Health is the natural, normal state of the human organism, and disease comes only as the result of our own hygienic sins."

    To preach or to teach personal responsibility either for disease or for health, was an offence not to be lightly forgiven by a profession which gets its living from a system which is built on the exact antithesis of that. A system which discourages laymen from taking any thought about their own bodies—as something risky, not to say impious; a system which rings through all its varied publicity agencies—"health" boards, "health" columns, life-insurance companies, life-extension institutes and what not—the continuous refrain: Flee as a bird to your Medical Mountain. Get yourself examined and diagnosed (50 per cent accurate) ; then hie thee to "a reputable physician," and cast all your care upon him. Only trust him; he'll fix you up. The most cursory reading of public health literature and the lay press, will confirm this as no exaggeration.

    By every ingenious and specious device, the public mind is subtly indoctrinated with the idea that health and medical treatment are synonymous; that only the medically-trained are competent to give advice or instruction about health or disease; and by arming itself with the police power of the state, the medical hierarchy is in position to make it very uncomfortable for any presumptuous challenger of its sovereignty in the therapeutic field. And no one can say it has ever slighted its opportunities in this respect.

    "My life has at no time been a bed of roses," says Bernarr Macfadden in his autobiography; and we may add that his medical foes have seen to it—in so far as in them lay—that every rose he essayed to pluck by the wayside of his arduous climb should be plentifully supplied with thorns. The measure of his success in putting the people wise to the fallacies of allopathic procedure, may be partially gauged by the bitterness of the attacks directed against him and his publications. He is accounted so important among the "Follies," that Director Fishbein has devoted two chapters to ridiculing "The Bare Torso King" and the "Big Muscle Boys"—titles borrowed, we are given to understand, from the Saturday Night wit in Detroit to play up the Macfadden activities.

    The gravamen of the Fishbein indictment, aside from the charge of "promoting unchastity," is, that:

    "the Macfadden periodicals are devoted largely to an attack on scientific medicine, and to discrediting not only the modern treatment of disease, but also the campaigns for the prevention of disease carried on by scientific medicine. . . . Bernarr Macfadden aligns himself with the borderline cultists that oppose scientific medicine and devote themselves to the promotion of some single conception of disease causation and treatment. . . . One finds him actively promoting the interests of the manipulative cults, Chriopractic and Osteopathy; of the Abramsites, with their fantastic electronic conception; of the Naturopathic cult, with its bare foot walking in the morning dew, colon flushing and vegetable diet; of the Anti-vaccinationists and Anti-vivisectionists; of the fanatical groups that feel that their personal beliefs are more important than the good of the community, etc."

    This seems to be a true bill of indictment in every particular, save the charge of "actively promoting the interests of the Abrams cult." This Macfadden has never done; and beyond printing two non-committal articles on the subject which I wrote for Physical Culture in November, 1922 and June, 1923, and one in July, 1924, from the apparently much disillusioned Upton Sinclair—instead of "the completely deluded" protagonist referred to by Fishbein—Mr. Macfadden has taken no part in the Abrams discussion nor espoused either side of the controversy. I make this statement, not as any reflection upon the Abrams therapy, but merely by way of keeping the record straight, which in Historian Fishbein's hands is prone to slip awry.

    The charge that Macfadden has sought to discredit what Fishbein is pleased to term "the scientific method of preventive medicine," is freely admitted, and acclaimed as his finest work. In providing a medium for the public to hear the opposition side of such "scientific" barbarities as vaccination, vivisection, and serum-poisoning; and in exposing the sordid connection between public-health officials and the vaccine-serum trade, Bernarr Macfadden has rendered his greatest service to the people of this country; and in my humble judgment, this alone should confer on him the title of public benefactor had he been parading actual, instead of pictorial, nudity in the market-places!

    In opening his columns to the victims of allopathic malpractice to tell their tragic stories, and in giving to an ignorant, deluded public occasional glimpses into the seamy side of hospital life, Macfadden has been a public educator of great value. Those who read in Physical Culture a man's story of "How Vaccination Killed My Two Sisters," illustrated by another who had just lost his only little daughter in the same way; who read a physician's tale of quick death by vaccination of a beautiful six-year-old child at whose autopsy he had assisted; those who read in the Macfadden publications of the maiming, crippling, severe illness and death from Schick-testing and toxin-antitoxin gone mad—things receiving scant notice if any in the daily press—will not so easily be stampeded into wholesale vaccinations and epidemics' a la carte at the behests of venal health boards.

    And these are the things which have won for Bernarr Macfadden the enmity of the medico-bund, and not the erotic suggestiveness of his pictorial illustrations which so shocked Dr. Fishbein. Capitalizing the erotic, at its worst, is not nearly so bad as capitalizing fear, and this has been the chief stock-in-trade of the medical profession from time immemorial. The erotic instinct, however much it may be degraded and perverted through human weakness or bestiality, in its primary intention must have come from God; whereas fear, first, last, and all the time is of, by, and from the Devil. It is the most destructive, the most devastating emotion of the human soul; yet without its appeal, so-called "scientific" medicine would never have gotten very far.

    We may say with truth, the medical system has been built on fear and credulity. Through fear of probable death, many a poor creature has been driven to meet certain death on the operating table. But the operating surgeon never goes 50-50 in the risk. He must be paid in full whether the patient dies or lives, and in case of survival the operator is rewarded both with money and gratitude. Even though so crippled in bodily functioning that eventually he finds himself back on that operating table, the poor deluded medical slave is so relieved at being delivered from the probable death the doctor has conjured up for him, that he freely gives the surgeon credit for "saving his life!"

    After an operation is performed, it can never be demonstrated, of course, what would have happened if it hadn't been performed; but there is good reason for believing that the great majority of those who go about saying "the doctor saved me from death" at such and such a time, were only saved from the death which the doctor himself had created in the affrighted imaginations of the patient and relatives.

    The official bulletin of the Life Extension (for doctors) Institute, one of the interlocking directorates of the medical trust, carried as a frontispiece of one of its issues a grinning wolf's head, labeled with all the most terrifying diseases—Bright's disease, Diabetes, Cancer, Arterio-Sclerosis, Fatigue-Apoplexy, and all the rest—from which a panic-stricken citizen was fleeing hatless, presumably into the arms of the medical profession. Now I ask the dispassionate reader to contrast this scare-head advertisement for organized medicine, with two of Physical Culture's nudest models, and try to calculate the effect of each—and the relative cost.

    The point I am emphasizing is, that the profits from the utilization of fear in the medical game are much greater than the profits from utilizing the sex appeal in the publishing game, and the effect on the exploited public much more disastrous. The enthralled observer of a Macfadden cover-design is mulcted at most in the sum of 25 cents—the price of the magazine; while the frightened sick individual may be despoiled of both a vital organ and all available spare cash. For it is unhappily true, as Bernard Shaw says, that "the more appalling the mutilation the more the mutilator is paid."

    In recent years Bernarr Macfadden's health philosophy has received the endorsement of certain individual M.D.'s of very high rank. As late as November, 1925, Richard C. Cabot said: "Probably 90 per cent of illnesses will recover in spite of improper medical treatment, or no treatment at all." A few months ago, a great English surgeon, Sir Arbuthnot Lane, visiting in this country, echoed Macfadden's outstanding preachment with a slightly different phraseology:

    "We are indicted by our ailments; what we have done is reflected in what we have. We should be proud of health and ashamed of sickness. No ill man should escape blame unless he can show that he is the victim of society rather than himself, etc."

    In the summer of 1925, this distinguished surgeon, in company with a few of his medical colleagues and a number of important and prominent laymen, organized the "New Health Society," whose program of health seeking—in so far as it has been given out—is modeled much more along the lines of Physical Culture teachings than along those of Harley Street in London or of the A.M.A. in Chicago.

    One does not need to be a Macfadden fan, nor to approve all the Macfadden publications, nor every feature in any of them, to see that this man has done a great work for suffering humanity, and to render cordial tribute to the energy, the pluck, and the intelligence that have gone into the making of his publications. Thousands of ailing ones have gotten help and comfort from the pages of Physical Culture, who were unable to get it from medical sources. In fact, thousands who had been broken on the medical machines, were restored to health by following the simple precepts of Nature Cure and hygienic living taught by the writers for Physical Culture Magazine.

    This work cannot be discounted nor its luster dimmed by the petty carping of the Fishbeins and the Saturday Nighters in Detroit. We may allow every honest criticism that can justly be directed against Mr. Macfadden or his publications; against any objectionable advertising, or any of the rest of it; and there will still remain a large balance on the credit side of the ledger to Bernarr Macfadden and his work.

     

HOME    SOCIAL CRITICISM LIBRARY CATALOGUE    TABLE OF CONTENTS    NEXT CHAPTER