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The History of Vegetarianism in America

A Work in Progress

Vegetarian America: A History. Karen Iacobbo and Michael Iacobbo. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004.

Karen and Michael Iacobbo have done a marvelous job at assembling the evidence for the history of vegetarianism in America. The footnotes alone make the book worth buying and reading. They cover everything from Benjamin Franklin, the Dorrelites, the Bible Christian Church, Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, and other 18th and 19th century manifestations, all the way down to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

This book is both indispensable for those interested in the subject and at the same time flawed.  It's indispensable because there really is no other book which really covers this subject.  Their coverage of the history prior to the American Civil War is strong. But overall, the book gives the strong impression of being rushed into print. I donít know who is responsible for this, though I suspect it is not the authors. It looks like the publishers didnít really bother to improve the book, because the book really falls down on things that even a publisher totally ignorant of vegetarianism should be able to do -- like proofread the book.

This in fact the first major problem with the book: it seems highly unlikely that anyone actually proofed it. There are typos and awkward sentences throughout the book. For example, we find a sentence with the phrase "(ital)" inserted -- evidently an instruction to italicize a passage. How could you read such a sentence and not see a problem? In another place, we have an incomplete sentence. There are numerous awkward constructions such as these two sentences, which follow a picture of two bikini-clad PETA activists giving out vegetarian hot dogs in front of the Rhode Island State House:

"Karina" has starred in an adult film and used her earnings to help animals. This does not please all.

Thereís no explanation of why the name "Karina" is in quotes, or who was not pleased, or why they were not pleased. These sorts of constructions occur all the time throughout the book.

Moreover, a lot of the history is just strung together as one anecdote after another; there is not much analysis here or any attempt to relate what all this is a history of. As a writer, I can say that this is typical of the kinds of things that slip into early drafts which havenít been adequately proofed. What it seems like we have is not a complete book but a draft which the publisher has hurried into print.

There is second major problem, which also strongly suggests the book was rushed. While the first half of the book seems fairly well researched, in the second half there is almost no discussion of the Seventh-day Adventists. The SDAs are mentioned, but never really discussed, in this book -- a major omission.

The Seventh-day Adventists were a major force, perhaps the major force, in American vegetarianism between about 1870 and 1970. To give you an idea of the importance of the SDAs, I did some research on the Vegetarian Society of D. C. (the oldest vegetarian organization in the U. S.). Despite the fact that the founder of the VSDC was not an SDA (and was still active in the organization up to at least 1960), prior to 1972 this group was largely run by Seventh-day Adventists. This suggests to me that the "vegetarian movement" during this period was heavily dependent on the SDAs, perhaps in fact was largely an SDA phenomenon. Iíd like to hear more about this group and their involvement in promoting vegetarianism, yet they are given short shrift in the book, basically just a few pages about Ellen White and a brief mention of Mervyn Hardinge in a different context.

And while John Harvey Kellogg is discussed at some length, what about the split between John Harvey Kellogg and the SDAs? Kellogg evidently started out as an SDA but wrote a book which Ellen White disapproved of. What was this all about? Did this impact vegetarianism, and if so, how? Thereís no mention of this at all. Inquiring minds want to know!

The impression that I get is that the authors launched out on their project, got through about the American Civil War, and then got a note from their publisher saying "give us the manuscript in a month or find another publisher." The authors then hurriedly threw together everything from the Civil War onward, basically what they could quickly uncover about Ellen White and then the period from the 1970's forward, which the authors actually lived through and therefore could pretty much do from memory.

In the final chapter, "Vegetarianism has arrived," the book breaks down completely. Much of this chapter reads like a piece of PETA propaganda, with glowing photographs of Ingrid Newkirk and Bruce Friedrich, and focuses largely on various media exploits, as if that explains everything that happened or could happen. They also incongruously discuss Pamela Rice, Sue Havala Hobbs, and Howard Lyman, as if all of these form part of one big happy family.

These figures however represent totally different approaches and organizations. A key element which the Iacobbos have missed is the tension between the animal rights activists and the traditional vegetarian groups. Historically, these groups have completely different origins -- the one in animal protection groups, the other in healthy-eating groups. There is a completely different style, self-image, and method of presentation for the two groups as well. This is evident to anyone who goes to an NAVS Summerfest and any animal rights conference -- you immediately detect the difference between the chatty and laid-back vegetarians and the energetic and proselytizing animal rights activists. Surely this is a key element of modern vegetarian history, one deserving substantial discussion.

To draw a straight line between Sylvester Graham and Ingrid Newkirk really is a complete distortion. Graham (and Kellogg, too) promoted vegetarianism mostly for health reasons, opposed alcohol, and opposed masturbation, whereas PETA promotes vegetarianism becuase of animal rights, has a sexually provocative "Iíd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign, and has put out some "Got Beer?" ads, a spoof on the "Got Milk?" slogan of the dairy industry.

PETA is considerably more controversial even among vegetarians and animal rights activists than the writers let on. There is no mention in the book of PETAís campaign, "Iíd rather go naked than wear fur." There is no mention of PETAís publicity and other support for illegal "Animal Liberation Front" type activities. PETA is a polarizing group, which whips up enthusiasm among animal rights supporters with its media campaigns, but which is widely ridiculed by nonvegetarians (and even many vegetarians). Alas, this piece of history is also part of our present, too controversial to come to terms with objectively.

And the idea that vegetarianism has "arrived" in the period from 1984 to 2004 is, quite frankly, delusional. We might be on the verge of some dramatic animal rights breakthrough, but weíve been waiting for this breakthrough for at least a decade. It would be fair to say that significant progress has been made; if I go to the grocery store, it is easier to get some vegetarian products like tofu and tempeh. But by every objective measure, vegetarianism hasnít made much of an imprint on the public.

Meat-eating has actually increased in recent years, and ideas about health have retreated. The "obesity epidemic," widely reported in the media during this period, actually got worse, despite much media attention and public wringing of hands. Polls show that the percentage of the public which is vegetarian is at best perhaps 2 or 3% of the general population, about the same number (or less) than that claimed during the 1970's and 1980's.

If the public stereotype of the vegetarian in the 1970's was the laid-back hippy munching on sprouts, the stereotype today is one of the angry and self-righteous vegan activist. It would be more accurate to say that the strident efforts to promote vegetarianism have become part of the national "culture wars" of the last few decades -- with the issue of veganism becoming a sort of minor culture war all on its own, along with the debates on abortion and homosexuality. It is always hard to assess the real impact of contemporary events, we are often too close to them and the future which might provide the context for assessing this impact is still unknown.

I donít really fault the authors here, except perhaps in their choice of a publisher. If the book had been given more time, they could have gotten more into the Seventh-day Adventists, and a more nuanced history of the movement from the 1970's forward could have emerged. They might have given due consideration to the strong influence of animal rights, but also explain what a radical departure this was from the traditional vegetarian organizations -- which are still around, and many of whose members disapprove of the way the animal rights agenda has advanced.

Given more time, they could have also developed the one very interesting historical dynamic which they do trace -- the relationship between vegetarianism and veganism. If the original meaning of vegetarianism was veganism (as they assert at one point), then how did vegetarianism become enshrined as "the abstinence from meat, fish, or fowl, with or without the addition of dairy products and eggs"? What exactly is going on here?

Clearly much of the modern "movement" wants to define vegetarianism, retroactively, as veganism. The authorsí conflation of vegetarianism with veganism looks like a way to accommodate contemporary opinion rather than objectively look at history. The definition of vegetarianism as allowing dairy products and eggs has been dominant since the 19th century both in England and America. It is dominant even today, even in groups led by vegans. Maybe originally vegetarianism really was veganism, but if so, it got lost along the way. Again, inquiring minds want to know.

The Iacobbos seemed to have assembled about half, perhaps even two-thirds, of the material needed to write the definitive account of vegetarianism in America. For reasons unknown to anyone except the authors and their publishers, they never quite finished.

Keith Akers
March 12, 2008