The larger-than-life story of Bernarr Macfadden, a bodybuilder who turned his obsession with muscles, celebrity, and confession into a publishing empire that transformed global media.
In True Story, Shanon Fitzpatrick tells the unlikely story of an orphan from the Ozarks who became one of history’s most powerful media moguls. Born in 1868 in Mill Spring, Missouri, Bernarr Macfadden turned to bodybuilding to transform himself from a sickly “boy” into a creature of masculine perfection. He then channeled his passion into the magazine Physical Culture, capitalizing on the wider turn-of-the-century mania for fitness. Macfadden Publications soon become a pioneer in mass media, helping to inaugurate our sensational, confessional, and body-obsessed global marketplace.
With publications like True Story, a magazine purportedly written and edited by its own readers, as well as scores of romance, crime, and fan magazines, Macfadden specialized in titles that targeted women, immigrants, and the working class. Although derided as pulp by critics of the time, Macfadden’s publications were not merely profitable. They were also influential. They championed reader engagement and interactivity long before these were buzzwords in the media industry, breaking down barriers between producers and consumers of culture. At the same time, Macfadden Publications inspired key elements of modern media strategy by privileging rapid production of new content and equally rapid disintegration and reconfiguration of properties in the face of shifting market conditions.
No less than the kings of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Macfadden was a crucial player in shaping American consumer culture and selling it to the world at large. Though the Macfadden media empire is overlooked today, its legacies are everywhere, from true-crime journalism to celebrity gossip rags and fifteen-minute abs.
Richly detailed and well-argued…Fitzpatrick has mined a fresh seam in the quarry of American periodical history, and by setting it in a new, global, context, she reveals a moment in the formation of a global media culture.
A stimulating rewriting of the history of Macfadden’s media pulp empire…Makes a compelling argument about what factors shaped the interactive, confessional, and dynamic culture that makes up the U.S. mass media landscape we live in at present.
Fitzpatrick’s book at once recuperates the forgotten origins of physical culture and contextualizes it within the media culture that it traveled, adding crucial texture to our understanding of media that explicitly tailored itself to nonelite readerships.
A lively, engrossing, and often funny history of Bernarr Macfadden and the publishing empire he built. Fitzpatrick tells the story of his journey from hungry orphan weakling to famous bodybuilder, patriarch, promoter of ‘physical culture,’ and publishing magnate. Though long overlooked as a purveyor of low-class, ephemeral pulp, Macfadden achieved unsurpassed newsstand sales, connected with leaders such as FDR, Mussolini, and the Pope, and represented American culture to millions of readers around the world. Fitzpatrick’s work provides insights into strongmen—understood both literally and figuratively—and their popular appeal, and readers today will see the unmistakable legacy of his media in the Trump era and beyond.
Absolutely original. Fitzpatrick deftly travels from the Victorian world of the mid-nineteenth century to the doorstep of our time to tell Macfadden’s story. Her book brims with insights into the changing, everyday understandings of bodies, sex, material status, and the individual’s place in a social world people found too vast to perceive and difficult to comprehend. Fitzpatrick shows how Macfadden’s work, from celebrating celebrity bodies to enlisting readers to create the content to be sold back to them, laid the foundations for today’s media world.
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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