The Road to Wellville
The year is 1907: the age of political reform, muckraking journalism, and physical culture. The once sickly, now robust Teddy Roosevelt is in the White House, talking softly but carrying a big stick, and Americans are on “the road to Wellville,” which is not a place but a condition, a state of mind, as well as the title of a pamphlet inserted into every jar of the coffee substitute patented by C. W. Post, “the man who brought Postum, Grape-Nuts and meretricious advertising to the world.” Dr. John Harvey Kellogg presides over T. Coraghessan Boyle’s latest three-ring circus of verbal clowning and narrative highwire acts. The book’s title may refer to Post’s pamphlet, but it also alludes to The Road to Oz (1909), the third of the fourteen Oz books by L. Frank Baum, like Kellogg a maker of myths.
Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes and peanut butter, is the scientist-showman-guru doing for fitness what Carl Sagan would later do for the cosmos. He has a “messianic belief in the perfectibility of the human race” by means of frugality, self- restraint, and healthy living. He has a penchant for combining, or perhaps confusing, the secular and the spiritual, “preaching dietary restraint and the simple life” to patients who are alternately his guests and his “flock” of “the elect, the chosen, the righteous.” Kellogg’s message is a thunderous Puritan negation: no meat, no intoxicants, no smoking, no sex. (He has nineteen children, all of them adopted, all of them formerly disadvantaged, and all but one successful experiments in overcoming the harmful effects of inferior genes, poor environment, and “autointoxication.”
Like most zealots, Kellogg is at once comical and despotic. This avuncular yet domineering and wholly methodical Henry Ford of health prides himself on knowing each patient’s name-as it appears on the patient’s file, last name first, first name last, followed by a brief diagnosis. Kellogg, the son of a broom maker, believes in using roughage and enemas to sweep the digestive system clean and thus rid the body of parasites (whose names are legion). Like any obsessive, Kellogg sees the world exclusively in terms of his mania. The parasites in the bowel become the social parasites cashing in on Kellogg’s work: Post, Kellogg’s brother, even his own grotesquely intractable son George, who plays Mr. Hyde to his father’s Dr. Jekyll. These and others like them are threats to the empire that this paternalistic but oddly asexual patriarch has built in the Michigan wilderness with the help of workers whom he pays with a sense of mission rather than with money. Kellogg is both reformer and robber baron; he greatly resents others doing unto him what he has already done unto others, particularly in the centennial year of 1876 when he wrested control of the Western Health Reform Institute from its Seventh-day Adventist founders and began the transformation of what had been little more than a boardinghouse into the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Visionary Adventist leader Ellen White was outraged by his takeover; one suspects that the Carnegies, Huntingtons, and Vanderbilts would have seen things differently.
The sanitarium is located geographically in Battle Creek and ideologically at the intersection of various discourses. Kellogg’s “monument to biologic living and scientific analysis” is also a “University” and “goodly temple upon a hill,” an echo of the famous New Testament phrase “a city set upon a hill.” Subjected to constant supervision and an array of ritualistic treatments that include vibrotherapy, hot gloves, sinusoidal baths, radium vapors, scientific eating, and five enemas a day, the guests-all of them rich, many of them famous—enjoy all the benefits of what Kellogg in a stroke of marketing genius calls “organized rest without ennui.”
In the thirty-first year of Kellogg’s reign, there is trouble in paradise. “The chimp was amuck, the goose dying, George being carted off to jail, the heating plant in chaos and yet another lawsuit pending”; worse yet, two patients die, one electrocuted in a sinusoidal bath, the other after failing to respond to any of Kellogg’s treatments (he regrets having ever admitted her). Kellogg’s secretary (overweight and therefore bad for the Sanitarium’s image) suffers a massive, fatal coronary while trying to keep pace with the aged but ever-energetic doctor. More generally, nature, human and otherwise, keeps intruding, resisting the doctor’s best efforts to bring it in line with his scientific theories. Outside the sanitarium’s artificially controlled sociomedical environment, nature proceeds in its raucously disordered way, while inside “biologic living went on with a vengeance.”
(The entire section is 1947 words.)