Set in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the winter of 1907, The Road to Wellville explores the phenomenon of the rise of breakfast cereals and how the national rage for them made and lost fortunes.
John Harvey Kellogg, a scientist and showman who is both an early diet devotee and the inventor of cornflakes, runs a spa where the cream of American society and business comes to regain their health and lose weight. In the winter of 1907, his clients include Will Lightbody, an alcoholic who has been prescribed alcoholic tonics, and his wife, a firm adherent of the spa’s philosophy, who surreptitiously regularly slips an opium-based cure into his evening coffee. Over the course of the book, Will must save his marriage and fight his addiction, despite the hindrance of well-wishers.
At the same time, wealth seekers—including Charlie Ossining and his partner Goodloe H. Bender, who plan to sell the same product as Kellogg, but with a different name, “Per-Fo” (perfect food)—make their way to Battle Creek to attempt to con their way into the boom of the breakfast business. Despite the fact that Charlie is more victim than con artist, he is arrested, escapes, and eventually becomes the president of the “Per-To” (perfect tonic) Company four years later.
Kellogg (the child of a broom maker who accordingly believes that roughage “sweeps out” the system) does not just touch on diet but preaches on child rearing as well, using his forty-two adopted children as case studies. He has adopted the scores of orphans in order to transform them into testimonies of the sanatorium’s healthy lifestyle. One of these children, nineteen-year-old George Kellogg, rebels and rejects Kellogg’s lifestyle, extorting money by threatening to reveal his parentage and wallowing in dissipation. Showcasing the physical and spiritual corruption that Kellogg’s regimen tries to arrest, George firmly rejects the identity Kellogg seeks to force on him and colludes with Ossining and Bender in an unsuccessful attempt to blackmail Kellogg.
Eventually as the details of the ritualized lifestyle of the sanatorium—five daily enemas, inspirational meetings, laughing exercises, a diet of vegetables and whole grains, sinusoidal baths, radium vapors, vibrotherapy, and forswearing coffee, among other practices—emerge, demonstrating that the sanatorium is as excessive as the lifestyles it attempts to address and that moderation, common sense, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and accepting human frailties emerge as a cure that seems more likely to succeed. In this farcical novel, Boyle’s comic genius emerges, animating characters that are realistic and as ridiculous as human beings can be. Over and over, pompousness is deflated and pretension shown for what it is: In the end, Kellogg is attacked by the chimpanzee and wolf that he has raised as vegetarians.
The Road to Wellville satirizes the American obsession with health and fitness through a lampoon of the physical culture movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1907, John Harvey Kellogg, “inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter, not to mention caramel-coffee, Bromose, Nuttolene, and some seventy-five other gastrically-correct foods,” plays health guru to an international clientele affluent enough to lodge at his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. While there, his patients forswear meat for vegetables and whole grains, submit themselves to a daily regimen of enemas and exercise, and attend inspirational meetings that cast a religious aura over their treatments and inculcate the proper attitude for living a healthier and longer life.
Kellogg’s operation attracts not only the rich and famous but also average Americans such as Will and Eleanor Lightbody. Eleanor is a true believer of the Kellogg method, a self-described...
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