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Mr. America

Mr. America
The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon

Drawing on unique archival documents and fascinating interviews, an acclaimed sports historian delivers the first comprehensive examination of Mr. America, the iconic bodybuilding contest that honored ancient ideals while defining masculinity during the competition’s heyday in the 1950s.

Series: Terry and Jan Todd Series on Physical Culture and Sports

January 2015
Active (available)
$35.00
473 pages | 6 x 9 | 35 b&w photos |
ISBN: 
978-0-292-76082-0
Description: 

For most of the twentieth century, the “Mr. America” image epitomized muscular manhood. From humble beginnings in 1939 at a small gym in Schenectady, New York, the Mr. America Contest became the world’s premier bodybuilding event over the next thirty years. Rooted in ancient Greek virtues of health, fitness, beauty, and athleticism, it showcased some of the finest specimens of American masculinity. Interviewing nearly one hundred major figures in the physical culture movement (including twenty-five Mr. Americas) and incorporating copious printed and manuscript sources, John D. Fair has created the definitive study of this iconic phenomenon.

Revealing the ways in which the contest provided a model of functional and fit manhood, Mr. America captures the event’s path to idealism and its slow descent into obscurity. As the 1960s marked a turbulent transition in American society—from the civil rights movement to the rise of feminism and increasing acceptance of homosexuality—Mr. America changed as well. Exploring the influence of other bodily displays, such as the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contests and the Miss America Pageant, Fair focuses on commercialism, size obsession, and drugs that corrupted the competition’s original intent. Accessible and engaging, Mr. America is a compelling portrayal of the glory days of American muscle.

Contents: 

Preface

Introduction

Part 1: Precedents

1. The Greek Ideal
2. The Athletic Body

Part 2: The Golden Age

3. The First Mr. America Contests
4. The Glory Years
5. Multiple Mr. Americas
6. Winds of Change

Part 3: Decline and Fall

7. The Arnold Era
8. The Sprague Revolution
9. Professionalizing Amateurism
10. Eclipse of an Icon

Epilogue and Conclusion

Appendix: Mr./Ms. America Titlists

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Author: 

JOHN D. FAIR has authored six previous books, including Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. He is a retired history professor (Auburn University, Montgomery, and Georgia College & State University) and has competed in nearly eighty weightlifting/powerlifting meets, served on the national AAU weightlifting committee, and judged many physique competitions, including the 1973 Mr. America Contest. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin’s Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.

Excerpts: 

Introduction

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
―William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 2, scene 2

Ideal notions of man and masculinity are deeply embedded in Western civilization. The humanistic spirit conceived by the ancient Greeks and resurrected in subsequent epochs by Italian artists, French thinkers, English scientists, and American entrepreneurs was imbued with a sense of ongoing traditions and future aspirations. Similarly, the United States, in the eyes of its citizens, is likewise bound up with founding ideals that it struggles to realize. Yet as the historians Charles Bright and Michael Geyer point out, others perceive the United States not so much according to its ideals, but rather via "Americanism," a shorthand of global brands, entertainment, and military might: "McDonald's, Microsoft, pop culture, and cruise missiles." All serve as global identifiers that help define what it means to be an American. The historian John Tosh maintains that such symbols and rituals "express a complex range of cultural values" reflecting "a coherence of thought and behaviour which in the last resort . . . holds society together." Whether any such symbol can be meaningfully attached to an ideal of American manhood is the main question addressed in this study.

Some of the most vivid and enduring images of Americans during the twentieth century were the winners of the Mr. America Contest, precedents for which can be traced to as early as 1904. In that year, Bernarr Macfadden, often dubbed the "Father of Physical Culture," staged a widely heralded bodybuilding competition in New York City. From that point until its demise in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1999, the Mr. America concept reflected a desired image of modern manhood. As societal views toward the male body and physical culture evolved, however, bodybuilders had to redefine themselves in light of the clash between revered traditions and concessions to current tastes. The Mr. America Contest, which once epitomized the aspirations of tens of thousands of weight trainees, was premised on adherence to time-honored values of health, fitness, beauty, and athleticism, while Americans―and especially bodybuilders― became obsessed with appearances and engaged in training practices and lifestyles that often subverted those ideals. By the end of the century, physique competitors and promoters seemed perplexed about what constituted a perfect specimen of manhood. Reckoning with these cultural questions became the foremost concern in modern bodybuilding not only in the United States but worldwide, since the Mr. America title, at least from the 1940s to the 1970s, was, like other aspects of American culture, a global icon.

This study endeavors to trace the history of the Mr. America concept and employ it as a benchmark for understanding the changes that occurred in bodybuilding and society during the twentieth century. Formulated by Macfadden in accordance with ancient Greek ideals, Mr. America provided a standard for U.S. masculinity through the 1950s. In its heyday, the contest was so important that several versions of it emerged, claimed by rival federations seeking to draw on the title's prestige. But it underwent a metamorphosis during the 1960s, buffeted by a host of cultural forces, including the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, commercialism, and drugs, set against the backdrop of other bodily displays―the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contests, and the Miss America Pageant. As William Manchester observed of the sixties, "The discipline that knits a society together was weakening and at some points giving way altogether."3 Thus, those bodybuilders for whom the sport represented a union of mind and body, and the primacy of function over form, were superseded by a new generation of baby boomers who were indifferent to those ideals. That destiny should play such a role in redefining the American male body carries overtones of a Greek tragedy.

This treatment of physique iconography is set within several larger perspectives of the body, the physical-culture movement, manliness, and a triad of gender, racial, and homosexual influences. Virtually all studies of the body go back to the Greeks and the origins of Western civilization, as distinct from societies with roots in India, China, or sub-Saharan Africa. Arnold Toynbee noted of the Western world's relationship to ancient Greece: "It is its child." Kenneth Dutton, in The Perfectible Body, refines this distinction by observing that while Eastern representations of the body, exemplified by the Buddha, are "turned in upon themselves, motionless and concentrating upon an interior life," the Greeks present humanity as seeking "spiritual elevation through victorious combat against the external, material world, self-mastery rather than self-abandonment to the infinite." The epitome of this is "Hercules, the 'hero of the bulging chest and contracted abdominal muscles,' . . . in search of a divinity to be attained through deeds and actions rather than by a descent into the self."

For the Cambridge don G. Lowes Dickinson (1862–1932), the human form for the Greeks represented "a training in aesthetics as much as, or more than, in physical excellence." And physical development carried moral weight: "A good body was the necessary correlative of a good soul." Dickinson considered the ancient Greeks' achievement of bodily excellence to outshine even their accomplishments in science, art, and military prowess: "That sunny and frank intelligence, bathed . . . in the open air, a gracious blossom springing from the root of physical health, that unique and perfect balance of body and soul, passion and intellect, represent . . . the highest achievement of the civilization of Greece." Dickinson's characterization was typical of the high regard that Victorians had for the Greeks, which helped underscore their claim, as inheritors of Hellenic traditions, to cultural superiority. This sentiment permeated the early decades of the twentieth century.

In 1912, the Oxford fellow R. W. Livingstone identified this idealistic view of the Greeks as a reflection more on modern than ancient society. It was chiefly the doing of the eighteenth-century German classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose "misconception" of the Greeks helped shape the intellectual life at Oxford and Cambridge.

The modern interest in Hellenism really dates from Winckelmann, and Winckelmann drew his ideas of the Greeks mainly from their art. . . . The Greeks, it appeared, were beyond all things beauty-lovers. They stripped at their sports; they gave prizes for beauty; Lais fascinated them; they spent their days in games and festivals; they studied to "observe propriety both in feature and action," so that "even a quick walk was regarded as opposed to their sense of decorum." Winckelmann had looked on the tranquil beauty of Greek art . . . till he was led almost to fancy that the serene figures of the Parthenon marbles were portraits of the ordinary Greek, and that the streets of Athens were full of well-draped statuesque men pacing reposefully through an august life. . . . The fifth-century Athenian was no more a Mid-Victorian aesthete than he was a Cobdenite Liberal.

Winckelmann had a significant impact, not only on the development of classical liberalism but also on nineteenth-century romantic writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gotthold Lessing, and Johann Gottfried von Herder. His view, according to Livingstone, "coloured the glasses through which Europe looked at Greece for many generations." Livingstone's own version of respect for the Greeks focused on the body's importance in their conception of man. The body was predominant "in the abiding passion for personal beauty and physical strength; in the idealization of the athlete; in the sculpture that developed its ideals as it watched in the gymnasia the naked human form." For Plato, physical beauty was "the natural expression of the beauty of the soul." That it was an invented tradition and that Winckelmann drew his inspiration from the Greeks via Roman copies made the passion for Hellenic civilization no less real or acceptable, even in the highest academic circles.

Greek ideals were most vividly expressed, and most readily passed on to posterity, through art. "The great result of the working of the spirit of humanism in Greek art was the representation of the Gods in human form," wrote Percy Gardner, the Oxford Professor of Classical Archaeology, in 1921. From the rediscovery of Greek and Roman works of sculpture there emerged, after the Christian era, three neoclassical epochs. The first was the Italian Renaissance, which eventually "degenerated into the mannerism and extravagance of Bernini." The second period originated with Winckelmann, whose visit to Italy in 1755 brought about a return to "simplicity, to self-restraint, to ideality" in European art. The third Greek revival occurred in the nineteenth century, Gardner contends, when the sculptures of the Parthenon were brought to London, allowing critics to observe their infinite superiority to Roman copies and Hellenistic adaptations. From a late twentieth-century perspective, John Boardman, Gardner's successor, recognized the "Greek cult" as a contrivance, reflecting "the popular and uncritical attitude of a hundred years ago to anything classical." Yet he adheres to classical conceptions of the body: "Man was the measure of all things to the Greeks, and the artist's aim was to portray him at his idealized best, indistinguishable from the gods whom he conceived in man's likeness. The heroic nudity of the gods, warriors and mortals shown by artists was a natural expression of the Greeks' open admiration for the perfectly developed male body." But it was always the male body. "What Greek art celebrates, with remarkable singleness, is masculinity," observes Margaret Walters in her study The Nude Male (1978). "It is the male body that is observed in such close and loving detail." In fact, women are depicted "less beautiful than the men." The ancient Greek conception of masculinity was thus available as a role model, via Germany and Victorian Britain, at a critical juncture in the formation of the Mr. America concept at the outset of the twentieth century.

Complementing Winckelmann's idealization of the Greeks was the glorification of German culture after his death in 1768. According to E. M. Butler, "Winckelmann's Greece was the essential factor in the development of German poetry" from the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. "It was the Renaissance all over again." He exhorted his countrymen to strive for the classical ideal: "The only way for us to become great . . . is to imitate the ancients." This impulse coincided with a larger national regeneration movement in which physical fitness figured prominently. It was evident in the Philanthropinum, a training center founded in Dessau by J. B. Basedow in 1774. According to Horst Ueberhorst, Basedow and his educators "saw a model worthy of emulation in the Greeks and their 'Gymnastics.'" His Dessau pentathlon was intended to resemble competitions in the ancient Olympics. Also the educated German elite, while borrowing from the French Enlightenment, "derived their artistic and human models from Greek Antiquity."

That was reflected in the creative achievements of German writers and thinkers whose works led to development of a strong sense of cultural self-assurance. This cultural assurance conjoined with political stirrings and developments (plans for national education, reforms in Prussia, the war of liberation, and the patriotic student movement) in the years that followed to produce intensified consciousness of state and nation.

Realization of these nationalist ideals converged with the burgeoning physical-culture movement overseen by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, often called the "Father of Gymnastics." After Napoleon's conquest of the German states, Jahn's physical regeneration ideas complemented the Prussian military reforms instigated by August von Gneisenau and Gerhard Johann von Scharnhorst as well as the romantic awakening fostered by Johann von Herder's concept of the Volksgeist ("spirit of the people" or "national character"). In 1811, Jahn founded the first Turnplatz (open-air gymnasium) near Berlin to prepare young men for the war of liberation. He not only taught gymnastics and calisthenics but also initiated the use of horizontal and parallel bars as apparatuses and sponsored sports festivals. Jahn's love for Germany and purity of the Volk contributed to a nationalist tradition that eventually led to Germany's unification.

Jahn's legacy was felt in America. After 1815, his nationalistic exercise clubs, called turnvereins, continued to fire the spirit (and bodies) of exponents of radical political change. In the wake of unsuccessful revolutions in 1848, German immigrants took them abroad. The Cincinnati Central Turners (1848) was the first of many such societies in American cities. "The significance of the German emphasis on the building of individual strength and on physical development," claims Dutton, "can hardly be overestimated." Especially after Greek independence in 1829, devotion to physical training coincided in America, as in Europe, with a profound respect for the ancients. For the educator Catharine Beecher (1800–1878), the ancient Greeks, "the wisest and most powerful of all nations," exemplified health and exhibited "the most perfect forms of human beauty." Harvey Green, a historian of physical culture, recognizes that the "muscular ideal" for Americans, famously represented in Horatio Greenough's toga-clad statue of George Washington (1847), "was perhaps as much a paean to a rediscovery of that particular type of human form as it was to Greek democratic politics." Later, the Greek ideal was glorified in classical motifs at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, melded into the physique tableaux of Eugen Sandow, and brought to life in 1896 by a wealthy young Frenchman, Pierre, baron de Coubertin, who combined the passion of Western societies for Greek antiquity with the pursuit of bodily perfection by founding the modern Olympics in Athens.16 Michael Budd concludes that the Victorian conception of the body, or the "sculpture machine," sought to "highlight classical ideas and imagery as popular ideals, to promote an historically based masculine ethos, rather than create an entirely new one." This quest to investigate how modern meaning is derived from antiquity has coalesced broadly into the academic field of inquiry known as classical reception studies.18 What matters is not so much whether the Greeks had exceptional bodies or how perfectly ancient artists conceived them, but the extent to which the Victorians and their successors were inspired by Greek iconography to shape their own cultural ideals.

Much of the impetus for physical improvement around 1900, however, stemmed less from satisfaction with the course of Western civilization than from deep-seated insecurities spawned by industrialism, urbanization, big business, socialism, and social Darwinism. Green perceives this pervasive anxiety as a "profound social and cultural crisis" in the making for decades. It coincided with a disorder called neurasthenia, defined by Barbara Will as "a peculiarly American condition of 'nerve deficiency' or 'nerve weakness'" afflicting those who exhausted their "'nerve energy' through tiring, reckless, or sexually profligate behavior." Although generally viewed as a crisis of masculinity, neurasthenia counted Emily Dickinson among its well-known victims, along with Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams. This theme is developed in Michael Kimmel's work on self-made men who faced racial, gender, and ethnic challenges in the workplace. To combat the feminization of American culture, men took refuge in their bodies.

One could replace the inner experience of manhood―a sense of manly confidence radiating outward from the virtuous self into a sturdy and muscular frame that had taken shape from years of hard physical labor―and transform it into a set of physical characteristics obtainable by persistent effort in the gymnasium. The ideal of the Self-Made Man gradually assumed increasingly physical connotations so that by the 1870s the idea of 'inner strength' was replaced by a doctrine of physicality and the body. By the turn of the century . . . he was making over his physique to appear powerful physically, perhaps to replace the lost real power he imagined that he―or at least his father or grandfather―once felt. If the body revealed the virtues of the man, then working on the body could demonstrate the appearance of the possession of the very virtues that one was no longer certain one possessed.

This obsession with the body was fueled by a health and athletics craze that allowed men to test their manhood in the "crucible of competition." So important did the body become in defining masculinity that "the body did not contain the man; it was the man." Interestingly, Kimmel's observation of fin de siècle America has been echoed by other scholars as relevant to a corresponding crisis in masculinity a century later. "One of the few attributes left, one of the few grounds on which women can never match men, is muscularity," argue the authors of The Adonis Complex (2000).

In evaluating twentieth-century male body icons, comparisons with female body images play an important role, and the Miss America Contest shares many of the characteristics of the Mr. America Contest in celebrating an American gender ideal. The media has tended to treat them as parallel types representing what is most wholesome, healthy, and talented in American youth, with an emphasis on physical and personal appeal. As a leading gender historian observes, for "both men and women appearance is a primary mark of identification, a signal of what they consider themselves to be." An examination of these contests, however, reveals that there were significant differences between the male and female versions. While the men's contest, until the late 1960s, stressed character, health, education, and athletic ability, the female version, through World War II, was mainly a beauty contest. They nearly converged in the 1950s, but by the 1980s each seemed to adopt the other's judging criteria. This divergence was due to the impact of two cultural forces―the civil rights and women's movements―on perceptions of ideal manhood and womanhood in the mid-twentieth century. Theretofore, blacks had been excluded from considerations of classic masculinity, and exemplary women were those who had been marginalized to largely decorative or auxiliary roles. By successfully challenging a value system based on white male hegemony, African Americans and women were able to advance their agendas, but developed contrasting, almost contradictory discourses while doing so.

Race and gender, curiously, constitute a relatively recent area of investigation relating to the Mr. America and Miss America competitions. George Mosse, in his classic study on the creation of modern masculinity, insists that "men cannot be seen in isolation; women are always present in men's own self-image." The Mr. America Contest, despite its visibility as a masculine ritual, has attracted virtually no scholarly treatments. Two British authors, David Webster and Alan Radley, mention it only within the context of their surveys of bodybuilding and physical culture; Rick Wayne, in his polemical Muscle Wars, uses the contest as a basis for accusations of racism. The Miss America pageant suffers from the opposite condition, a surfeit of serious scrutiny. The studies, however, exhibit a certain sameness of approach, reiterating the same chronology of events, anecdotes, highlights, crises, and scandals. Probably the best overview is Ann-Marie Bivans's Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown. Live from Atlantic City: A History of the Miss America Pageant, by A. R. Riverol, is more scholarly but far from definitive. The best-known account is There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America, by the sportswriter Frank Deford. Lois Banner, in American Beauty, succeeds best in integrating the Miss America pageant with changing ideals of fashion and beauty for women, and even for men. The only feminist account, by Sarah Banet-Weiser, perceives the annual event as a "display of the female body as a matter of being," in which women are "judged, objectified, and fragmented" under the gaze and "power of the panoptical male." The pageant, she contends, perpetuates the notion that "women's natural 'asset' continues to be primarily located in and through the body, whereas men's natural assets include talent, intellect, and entrepreneurial ambition." Such strident statements resemble Wayne's protests that the Mr. America Contest, overseen by a clique of white elders, unfairly marginalized black competitors. Unlike Banet-Weiser, however, he contends that the judging criteria, which considered attributes besides physique, favored white contestants and overlooked the superior physical assets of blacks. These gender and racial critiques provide an opportunity to examine the place of the body in American iconography.

While women and nonwhites are normally viewed as external to the Greek ideal, it would be difficult to gainsay the association of homosexuality with the ancients and the image of modern bodybuilding. The Greeks, notes the classical historian Charles Hupperts, uniquely viewed sexuality as an outgrowth of the ubiquitous display of both The Nude Male body and images that "emphasized and glorified the beauty of the male form." Sexual gratification was not considered either dirty or acceptable only in marriage. Encouraged by the gymnasia or the symposia (hours-long banquets accompanied by copious amounts of wine and conversation), sex was often a public affair and was omnipresent in the thoughts, activities, and conversations of men.

Athenians viewed the love of a man for a girl or woman as something not altogether different from love for a boy or a man. These were two forms of sexual desire (eros), either of which could be more appropriate for particular individuals at certain junctures in their life. Few Greeks took the view that the man who loved a boy had a different nature from the heterosexual man. In the course of an Athenian's life, both forms of sexuality could appear together or in succession. The Greek language had not established separate terms for "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality," and so the question of sexual identity was not a pressing concern. There is no mention in the evidence of any discrimination or of a subculture, and there is no sense of "coming out."

In the Roman world, and then in the Christian era, this free-spirited attitude ended, but the body retained its erotic focus. Indeed, notes Kenneth Dutton, "one of the most important legacies of Greek artistic representation, along with that of the 'idealised' male body (the object of admiration), is that of the 'beautiful' male body (the acceptable object of sublimated erotic attention)." Notwithstanding the differences between bodybuilding display and erotic display, "it is doubtful that the element of sublimated sexual interest can ever be divorced from the appreciation of muscular development." Whether the efforts of bodybuilders have been directed toward impressing females or other males is an oft-debated question, but Thomas Waugh's description of bodybuilding as "a channel and incarnation―and at the same time a camouflage―of the sexualized male body" suggests a continuing homoerotic presence. That homoeroticism should focus on the image of America's most perfectly developed male is a natural assumption and worthy of note. Is it more than coincidence that Johann Winckelmann was gay?

While changes in the social roles of women, blacks, and homosexuals have greatly affected bodybuilding and the Mr. America Contest, it is equally important to recognize developments within the iron game. The most important was the addition of ergogenic aids to the bodybuilder's training regimen. The introduction of protein dietary supplements in the early 1950s by the Chicago nutritionist Irvin Johnson, and their subsequent commercialization by Bob Hoffman, Peary Rader, and Joe Weider, provided a real boost to bodybuilders and the health food industry. The increased use of dietary supplements internalized thinking about physical culture and paved the way for steroids. Isolated by Charles Kochakian in 1935, anabolic-androgenic steroids were used to aid the recuperation of wounded soldiers in the 1940s and by Russian weightlifters in the 1950s. John Ziegler, a Maryland physician, pioneered their use on American lifters, first in York, Pennsylvania, in the early 1960s. They then spread to virtually all sports and all forms of physical activity. Greek ideals of health, symmetry, beauty, and function quickly gave way to a new standard according to which size and muscularity seemed to be all that mattered. Steroids revolutionized bodybuilding.

Closely associated with this phenomenon were the commercialization of the sport and the erosion of amateurism. Although the amateur ideal had Greek roots, it became part of the ethos of British sports in the nineteenth century through the philhellenism that prevailed among Victorian elites. It was symbolized by the "gentleman amateur," whose competitive endeavors led not to commercial gain but to enrichment of the mind, body, and spirit. "Natural grace and talent," according to Richard Holt, were its manifestations. "Gentlemen were not supposed to toil and sweat for laurels." Thus, leisurely pursuits, stressing all-around talents and fair play and eschewing any incentives associated with the industrial-capitalist world, were important attributes of amateurism. In his social history of British sports, Dennis Brailsford identifies the public schools, which were in fact private schools catering to the upper middle class and the aristocracy, as primary transmitters of these values, producing men who could foster prosperity at home and administer the world's largest empire. Through sports, the schools sought to mold character by instilling "manliness, strength, loyalty, discipline and powers of leadership." The division between amateurs and professionals was more than a rejection of the notion of financial gain―"it was an assertion of the immutability of the class system." Indeed the so-called Corinthian (strictly amateur) code excluded not only professional athletes but anyone earning a living from manual labor. One of the strongest adherents of amateurism was Britain's weightlifting patriarch, W. A. Pullum, who admired the Greek genius for its "balanced moderation in all things," most evident in architecture and statues. "Symmetry, proportion, and therefore true artistic beauty, these are the dominant features of these creations." Oscar Heidenstam, the "Father of British Bodybuilding," was no less committed to Greek proportions and amateur ideals. He favored the traditional slender, functional physique, and was disappointed when bulk and size became the "be-all and end-all" for young bodybuilders. Amateurism was also an abiding principle of the Olympic movement. Its American component, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), founded in 1889, nurtured this concept through the Mr. America Contest for much of the twentieth century.

While commercialism had a long tradition in the iron game, extending from Eugen Sandow through Bernarr Macfadden and Bob Hoffman, it was Joe Weider who most changed the face of bodybuilding through his moneymaking pursuits. Southern California, with its muscle beach tradition and association with Hollywood, was already in the vanguard of the physical-culture movement when Weider moved his operations from Union City, New Jersey, to Woodland Hills in 1972. Originally from Montreal, Weider built a magazine and fitness-product empire, and in 1947, with his brother Ben, founded the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), which conducted physique contests worldwide. Eventually, their professional Mr. Olympia Contest, launched in 1965, superseded the AAU's Mr. America Contest in prestige, owing chiefly to the impact of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Effectively showcased by the Weiders, the "Austrian Oak" won an unprecedented fourteen world titles, including seven Mr. Olympias. What catapulted Schwarzenegger to fame, however, was his movie career, first in bodybuilding roles in Stay Hungry (1976) and Pumping Iron (1977), then in blockbuster thrillers such as Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Terminator (1984). With an engaging personality, astute business sense, and a wife from one of the nation's first families, the muscular Austrian with a thick accent projected a bold American image, not unlike that conveyed by the McDonald's fast-food chain.

Physical culture thus had become a big business by the 1980s, and the Mr. America Contest, seeking to remain true to its amateur origins, became an anachronism. Its demise coincided with declining certainty about what it meant to be an American, a concept that had reached its zenith in the early twentieth century. Americanism is defined variously, as adherence to the traditions and ideals of the United States or as the political principles characterizing the country. According to the historians Michael Kazin and Joseph McCartin, it embodies individualism, social mobility, religious freedom, antiauthoritarianism, and "the remarkable self-confidence of most Americans, particularly white ones, that they live in a nation blessed by God that has a right, even a duty to help other nations become more like the United States." Scholarship since the 1960s, however, has decentered American history from that of other nations and eroded cultural essentialism. Indeed, J. H. Elliott warns that "the besetting sin of the national historian is exceptionalism." And Janice Radway, in her 1998 presidential address to the American Studies Association, dismissed the "notion of a bounded national territory and a concomitant national identity" and questioned whether the organization should "perpetuate a specifically 'American' studies" any longer. Within this cultural environment, the existence of the Mr. America title, whose existence implies meaning and identity to the word American, was fatally jeopardized.

A final factor that undercut the moral justification for the Mr. America Contest was a debate over the origins of Western civilization that emerged in the 1980s. A small group of scholars contended that Greek civilization had been created not so much by white Indo-Europeans (the so-called Aryan model) as by African (Egyptian) and Asiatic peoples of color. These ideas were developed by the Cornell professor Martin Bernal in Black Athena, which caused scholars to rethink racial and cultural paradigms. "The rise of the extreme Aryan Model," argues Bernal, "was clearly related to the triumph of European imperialism and the emergence of modern racial anti-Semitism. . . . Almost every educated European of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw Greece as the quintessence of Europe and the Aryan race." Fundamental to transmitting the Aryan model was the German romanticism promulgated by the likes of Winckelmann, Herder, Goethe, Lessing, and Jahn. According to Bernal, "German Romanticism was the mainspring of the Aryan Model and 'Classics' as we know it today." Nor did Victorian Britons play a small role in constructing the framework of racial purity bequeathed to the United States. As Frank Turner notes, "Until after World War I a knowledge of Greek was required for admission to both Oxford and Cambridge." This influence was largely attributable to Winckelmann's ideas about the culture of the ancient Greeks and the conception of beauty conveyed by their sculptors.

The relation of Bernal's ideas to Mr. America, though seemingly tangential, are symptomatic of the postmodern erosion of American idealism. But the new paradigm was by no means sweeping. Most scholars took exception to the Afrocentric implications of Bernal's work, and Americans' perception of the country's Western heritage remained largely conservative and positive. While Bernal and other intellectuals on the left were undermining the erstwhile bases for American culture, Ronald Reagan (Reaganism) and Margaret Thatcher (Thatcherism) were reasserting traditional values and becoming iconic figures on the right. As Reagan repeatedly asserted: "With His [God's] message and with our conviction and commitment, we can still move mountains. We can work to reach our dreams and to make America a shining city on a hill." The rise and fall of the Mr. America title and contest indicates both the persistence and pitfalls of this cultural consciousness.

 

Reviews: 

“Fair’s book is deftly written and superbly researched. I have little doubt that this volume will remain one of the best sources for both the story of American bodybuilding and the “tragic history” of its most famous contest.”
Journal of Sport History

“Mr. America has the potential to be a paradigm-changer . . . bound to become the new text of record on its subject. Gender scholars with interest in masculinities, readers with an interest in popular cultural changes, and those ambitious in the field of bodybuilding and weightlifting can all find plenty of connections within this new work.”
Charles Kupfer, Associate Professor of American Studies and History, Penn State Harrisburg