Brawny Books: David Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent.


A number of readers have reached out in the past month asking for book recommendations on the history of physical culture. As someone who has spent several years researching the topic, I’ve read my fair share of good, and not so good, books. Thankfully today’s book, the first of our ‘Brawny Books’ book club, falls in the good category.

To emphasise why David Chapman’s Sandow the Magnificent is, well, magnificent, it is important to contextualise the time around its publication. When Chapman first published Sandow the Magnificent in 1994, the field of physical culture as an academic pursuit was still in its infancy. Iron Game History, the online journal published by Jan and Terry Todd, had only been around for four years, while only a handful of historians had actually addressed the subject.

As the ‘world’s most perfectly developed specimen’, Sandow had been written about before, most notably by David Webster, but no in-depth research existed. Chapman’s book changed all of this, and in doing so, helped create a foundational work for those following in his wake.

Beginning with Sandow’s early life, Chapman meticulously detailed the good, bad and ugly of the strongman’s career. Drawing on extensive archival research, as well as his own enviable private collection, Chapman gave an insight into Sandow the person as well as the persona.

Whereas previous writings on Sandow tended to focus exclusively on his strongman feats, Chapman shed light on Sandow’s marriage, his friendships, and his shrewd business acumen. In all of this Chapman was unafraid of delving into the less praiseworthy elements of Sandow’s rise to fame.

My favoured example of this came during Chapman’s discussion of Sandow’s ill-advised wrestling match against a lion during his tour of the United States in 1894. In the past, those writing on Sandow’s lion fight tended to side with the strongman’s account – that he defeated the fearsome lion during a trial bout thereby rendering the lion terrified in the actual match.

It was a great story but highly suspect. A far more plausible account, one which included an elder, heavily sedated lion, was instead found in Chapman’s account. It’s a small example but one which emblematic of Chapman’s heavy digging into the past.

So why should you read this book?

For those interested in learning more about the first modern bodybuilding star, and the development of the fitness industry itself, Chapman’s book is an invaluable read. Well written, which is not a given with historical books, Chapman embraces the weird and wonderful of early physical culture and, in doing so, demonstrates just how far Sandow’s star rose during the first half of the twentieth century.

The book is available to purchase here.

In the coming weeks we’ll be continuing our book club. As always … Happy Reading!

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