My friend Todd Oppenheimer at the Writers Grotto asked me this recently. Todd and I are in a sort of mutual support group that meets every two weeks to set and compare personal writing goals. "You've been talking about this book for a while," he said, "but you always call it just 'the FSG book.' You've never said what it's about."
I had two reactions to this. My first was, "Screw you, Todd." That's the one I didn't say.
The one I said was, "That's a really good question, Todd. Thanks for asking that." Then I explained that although I was very clear on the subject matter and the central characters of my narrative, I felt I was still in the process of zeroing in on the major points I wanted to make and the specific focus of the story, and so I was still wrestling with issues of timeline, entry point, structure, voice, and point of view. As a result of this, I was still uncertain about my title—I'd gone through True Story, American Madness, and Mad Fortune on the way to The Undressing of America—and so tended to refer to it as simply "the FSG book." But now that Todd led me to think about it, I saw how that vagueness only compounded the problem of writing chapters that I could commit to well enough to send my editor, and how referring to it in terms of the publisher that was waiting for it only kept me locked in thinking of it as an unfulfilled obligation rather than a book unto itself.
So I made a resolution, right there talking to Todd, that I would settle on The Undressing of America as a working title, at least, and refer to it by that. (It helped that I'd already run it by my editor and he liked it.) That's why I chose the name of the book as the name of this blog, so that every time I came here to write about it I would be engaging with the book itself at least nominatively, instead of some new, separate entity like "It Sure Is Hard to Write a Book" or "The Agony of Being Me" or "Out of Sheer Pique." And I told Todd what I knew for sure about what the book was about. Not so fully or so neatly as this, but in essence:
In 1919, a husband and wife team named Bernarr and Mary Macfadden published a magazine that transformed American culture. It was called True Story, and although few remember it now, and cultural historians are inclined to give it a passing nod at best, it became the best-selling and most widely imitated magazine of the 1920s, upended publishers' perceptions of what the public wanted to read, shifted the relationship between media "producer" and "consumer" forever, and discovered a vast new market among young women negotiating a changing moral climate. And it accomplished more than any other enterprise to shatter the culture of Victorian concealment and usher us into a "culture of the explicit," a culture that still shapes our public discourse, in which increasingly frank confessions of our private emotional struggles become essential threads in our social fabric: guides to living, subjects for bonding, moral crucibles, self identifiers, class identifiers, entertainment, titillation, grist for outrage, commodities. True Story's immediate descendants were the tabloids, true crime stories, celebrity gossip rags, "women's issues" magazines, and the mainstreaming of soft-core pornography (and the Macfaddens published all of those in their earliest days). Its longer-term descendants include almost everything we lump under "reality media."
Bernarr and Mary Macfadden themselves had hardly any idea what they were doing. He grew up an abused, neglected, and sickly farm boy in the 19th century Ozarks who discovered body building and turned himself through sheer will and desperation (desperation to be something, to be noticed, to have power over his life, to drive away the illness that take his parents from him as a child) into a paragon of health and strength. He knocked around the carnival circuits of mid-America for years as a strongman and a professional wrestler before he went to the 1893 Chicago world's fair (the "White City" fair) and saw people making a killing on the new "fitness" fad. Over the next decade, Bernarr made a modest success of himself selling exercise gadgets, running health farms for rich hypochondriacs, opening health-food restaurants, and publishing Physical Culture, the first magazine to call attention to body building as a pursuit and a subculture and the first to demonstrate that you could sell a lot of magazines with pictures of nearly naked men and women if you did so to demonstrate exercises. He reached the second tier among health gurus, grinding out book after book on his self-generated ideas for health and happiness, rejecting traditional medicine, and getting himself on the AMA's enemies list
It wasn't the AMA that drove him to the edge of bankruptcy and forced him to flee the country. It was the censors, led by the great "social purifier" himself, Anthony Comstock, who had developed a special enmity for Macfadden. When Physical Culture ran a serialized novel dramatizing the causes and costs of venereal disease, Bernarr was convicted of peddling pornography, and when he fought back he became a cause celebre, an opponent of the early 20th Century equivalent of "abstinence only" sex education, the mad idea that is always held up by cultural conservatives that we would not have any moral or sexual problems if we just never talked about them. In the end, the President himself pardoned him, but the opponents of sexual discussions would not relent, and in 1912 Macfadden fled to England.
There, at the age of forty-five, he met and pursued and married a nineteen-year-old amateur swimming champion named Mary Williamson. He won her by staging a pageant called "Britain's Perfect Woman," promising a glorious tour of England to the winner, knowing full well that his object was to secure a young bride who would bear him heirs, a "Phyical Culture Family" to promote his program for achieving perfect health. Mary herself was a young woman of simple goals, a carpet-mill worker, a Yorkshire lass who just wanted to swim, enjoy the days, and raise a family. She was lonely, too, having been kept house-bound by illness for much of her childhood, and susceptible to a man who seemed to need her every minute, who told her how to live her life, who spoke of the crusade they would lead to restore mankind to health, who was sexually insatiable, who wanted to be her father and lover at once.
The Macfaddens had just begun to build their new life in England when the Great War came. They retreated back to America, back to poverty and trouble. Bernarr tried every trick he could to boost the sales of Physical Culture, to launch a new health farm, to invent a new exercise gadget that would make him rich. Everything backfired. Then Mary had her idea. Physical Culture published letters from Macfadden's followers in which they described their own struggles with illness and triumphant returns to health. Mary help select and edit the letters, and she knew very well that young women like herself would be most interested in those that veered into moral and marital and emotional issues as well. No other twenty-five year old, lower-middle-class woman in the world was in a position to create a new magazine, and perhaps no one else could have imagined True Story. It was an instant success. Within a few years it had turned the Macfaddens into milloinaires and inspired Bernarr to go head-to-head with William Randolph Hearst for mastery of the newsstands.
Then everything began to change. A new figure entered Bernarr's life, an amateur stage magician and crime novelist named Fulton Oursler who began to whisper things in Bernarr's ear that Mary didn't like. Bernarr came to see himself as man's salvation and diverted his resources to a man run for the presidency. And there was the terrible thing that befell the Macfaddens' baby son, thanks to Bernarr's devotion to his own odd health precepts....
By the time I'd reached that point in my quick summary of all this to Todd, he was nodding enthusiastically. "It sounds like a great story," he said. "And it sounds like just the sort of thing you'd do well, like it's right in line with your interests and your strengths." I thanked him for that. It did sound like a compelling book when I described it, and the decisions about what to include and how to present them didn't seem so daunting after all. Then Todd asked, "But what's the 'ah-ha' of the book? What is it that's going to make it stand out, that's going to get you the NPR interviews, the reviews, the attention that a book needs to get anywhere these days?"
And I thought: "Screw you, Todd."