So here it is. The final installment of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. In previous posts we counted down the top twenty and then the ten also-rans. We also discussed the Americans who missed out on the gloryÂ for either being not great enough or not weird enough.
In our final post, we will take on two individuals who missed the cut forÂ their own uniqueÂ reasons but still deserve mention when outlining the pantheon of American weirdness. And when it is all over, weâ€™ll provide a list of folks to look out for; that is, those Americans who are still with us but could potentially make the grade once they weird their way out of this life and into the next.
John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943).
Ever have a crazy uncle or neighbor who could never stop spouting the most bizarre ideas as if they were the gospel truth? Sacrilege, embarrassment, doubt, common sense, feh. Guys like that have no time for any of that sissy stuff, or for listening to anyone else for that matter. They know what they know, they want you to know that they know what they know, and they want you to knowÂ what they knowÂ too. At parties they usually end up standing by themselves in a corner, hogging all the dip.
Anyway, if loud and opinionated lost souls ever had a patron saint, it would be John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was a great man in that he singlehandedly initiated the healthy living craze that is still chugging along today. He came out of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and brought with him all the prosthelytizing passion you would expect in such an organization. In his home state of Michigan he founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a place where the sick and the not-so-sick would go to convalesce their way back to health. (The place was cleverly spoofed in the 1994 film, The Road to Wellville, by the way). Kellogg published nearly 50 books on what he called “biologic living,” and, in his heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, was one of the most influential medical authorities in the world.
Many of Kellogg’s doctrines centered around the then-radical idea that diet and exercise are central to healthy living. He was also adamantly opposed to smoking. Well, yes, such good practices are taken for granted today, but not so much in the late 19th century when many physicians promoted fatty foods and cigar smoke as being good for you. Due to this man’s energy and singular purpose, millions worldwide learned how to take steps to ensure longer and healthier lives. He was also fearless and imaginative when it came to technology. Some of his contraptions seem silly today, like his electrotherapy coil cages and light bulb baths. On the other hand, he did improve upon and popularize mechanical exercise machines, whichÂ are ubiquitous today. He was also one of the first physicians insisting upon sterile environments in which to work. Other Kellogg inventions include peanut butter, inhalers to treat nasal passages, and the electric blanket.
Kellogg was also a top notch surgeon, setting a world record in the 1890s with 165 operations in a row without a fatality. His list of well-known patients included President Taft, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison.
All this, and he helped invent the corn flake breakfast cereal with his brother Will Keith in 1895. Yes, Kellogg was a great man. But he was every bit as weird if not weirder.
First, there was his preoccupation with poop. Kellogg breathlessly studied the feces of chimpanzees and gorillas to prove the efficacy of a vegetarian diet. And he would not shut up about constipation, insisting upon a solid bowel movement after every meal. Then there was the pernicious sin of self abuse (i.e., onanism, “the silent killer of the night”) which he tirelessly campaigned against. He once claimed that masturbation had a worse effect on humanity than war, plague, and small pox, and prescribed circumcision without anesthesia to cure men and boys of it once and for all. (Yes, that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?)
HeÂ was also one of the first to claim that choking chickens caused “dimness of vision”. Hairy palms, not so much, it seems.
And for women, it was worse. To keep them from going blind, he recommended applying carbolic acid to their private parts or, even worse, clitorectomies.
Sex, of course, was hardly better in his eyes. He would constantly warn married couples against sexual “excesses”, whatever they may be. He also bragged that he never consummated his marriage with his wife. Not surprising from a guy who wrote a book on his honeymoon and then decided to adopt 40 children. Can’t say John Harvey Kellogg didn’t practice what he preached.
Other wackadoo ideas include insisting that men at his spa wear exercise diapers, placing sandbags on the underweight as they slept, and building enema machines that squirted yogurt.
So, if John Harvey Kellogg was so great AND so weird, why is he not on the list?
Well, it was close. But basically, he did most of his great work in the 19th century, and so belongs there rather than in the 20th. Kellogg certainly remained influential and active in the early 20th century, but by then he was mostly continuing all the things he had started in the 19th. He was hit hard by the Great Depression and was forced to sell his sanitarium. By this time, the medical establishment had caught up with him, and in many cases surpassed him. By clinging to his original ideas up until the end of his life, he began to seem more like a Victorian relic, and his ideas more faddishÂ than cutting edge.
He died in 1943 at the age of 91. This wasÂ 9 years short of his goal but still proof that there might be something to this healthy living schtick after all.
Ezra Pound (1885-1972).
Despite being undeniably great andÂ undeniably weird, Ezra Pound was quite frankly too notorious to be celebrated as a great American weirdo. Pound was always at least a little weird. It was only by middle age, when he embraced fascism and became a rabid anti-Semite, did things begin to descend beyond weirdness. By the time he was an old man, he spent 11 years in an insane asylum and didn’t particularly want to leave.
No serious effort to prove Pound’s greatness as a poet and literary figure will be made here because any effort here will not do the man justice. So instead, you’ll have hits greatest hits, so to speak. Pound was one of the leading lights of 20th Century poetry. Upon arrival in England in 1908 he took it upon himself to revolutionize the world of letters. He co-founded literary movements (most notably Imagism and Vorticism), edited literary magazines, and tirelessly championed great writers such as T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Frost, and James Joyce when they were all still unknowns.
Loyal and dogged, Pound went to great lengths to ensure that the works of these and other writers saw print. He was also a brilliant editor, placing his famous red pen all over “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other great works of Western literature.
It is said that Ernest Hemingway taught Pound how to box while Pound taught Hemingway how to write. Hemingway was the better pupil it seems, noting that Pound “habitually leads with his chin and has the general grace of a crayfish.” Given Pound’s later insanity, these words were prophetic in more ways than one.
Inspired as much by classical Chinese and Japanese poetry as by anything in the Western canon, Pound’s own work placed clarity and precision above all. His most famous works include Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), and his massive 120-section epic, The Cantos, which he labored over for more than 50 years. Pound was also an influential essayist and a successful yet highly controversial translator of foreign and ancient literature.
In his prime, Pound’s contemporaries recognized his genius, but also knew him as a bit of a showboater and spaz. Pink coats, green trousers, sombreros, hand-painted ties. Ezra Pound knew how to make a splash in more ways than one. T.S. Eliot once said that Pound’s manic behavior gave the impression of someone trying to explain to a deaf person that the house is on fire. Pound even challenged a prominent critic to a duel because the man dared to call for a return to the simplicity of William Wordsworth.
By the mid-1930s however a sad note crept in. Pound became increasingly erratic, paranoid, and, well, weird. Pound’s daughter described her father during this time as “visibly fighting a wasp nest in his brain”. In essence he embraced an economic doctrine called Social Credit which among other things condemns turning money into a commodity that can be bought and sold. From here he descended into vicious anti-Semitism and began publicly supporting fascist regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. He lived in Rome during the war and was a vehement propagandist for the Axis, writing hundreds of letters, articles, and speeches, and spouting vile diatribes over Italian radio. After the war, he referred to Hitler as a martyr.
From 1947 to 1958 Pound was institutionalized. During this time, he was reclusive and refused treatment. His friends noticed how he would constantly fidget and twitch and could never stay on a single topic for long. When his fascist supporters visited him, he insisted they call him “Grampaw.” He never really apologized for his anti-Semitism nor for his words and actions during the war. Despite this, he still kept a quirky sense of humor. Shortly after his release from the mental hospital, Pound quipped, “No wonder my head hurts; all Europe fell on it.”
Many say that by cheerleading so stridently for the Nazis, Ezra Pound was no better than the murderers and lunatics I have decided to keep off this list. I agree with this argument. But given Pound’s tremendous and varied contributions to English literature and the fact that his wartime speeches were so loony and incoherent, he at least deserves an explanation as to why he should never be included in the 20 Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century.
People to keep an eye on:
Kenneth Anger (1927- ). Influential underground filmmaker. Gay counterculture icon. Pagan. Thelemite. Occult figure.
Kary Mullis (1944- ). Nobel prize winning biochemist. Dropped a lot of acid. Believes HIV does not cause AIDS. Believes in astrology. Surfer dude. Speaks to glowing green raccoons.
Dennis Rodman (1961- ). NBA All star. Greatest rebounder in basketball history. Cross-dresser. Body-piercer. Childrens book author. Personal friend of Kim Jong Un, the personal dictatorÂ of North Korea.
Thank you for reading!