Remembering Iron John

When men were men—without irony and Banana Republic.

This past spring, in a remarkable but not unpredictable coincidence, two books on gender relations were published within weeks of one another, espousing such perfectly matched versions of the same philosophy that they could be sold as a boxed set. To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan, and Manliness, by Harvey Mansfield, use different personas—the domestic goddess demolishing liberal nostrums from the kitchen table, the dispassionate academic quoting Machiavelli and Plato—to argue that gender equality is a pernicious myth, and that our culture’s attempts to prove otherwise have produced individual unhappiness and social breakdown over the last 40 years. Flanagan and Mansfield are united in nostalgia for a kind of Douglas Sirk version of the ‘50s, without the irony, in which men provided, led, fought, and defended, and women cultivated, nurtured, healed, and willingly acquiesced to men’s desires.

Like many of my peers born in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, in the heyday of what was once called women’s liberation, I’ve grown somewhat inured to hearing that feminism is dead, that tradition is back, that equality is a fantasy, that career women and their partners can’t, as the phrase goes, have it all. Hearing it, and ignoring it, because in my own life—brought up listening to Free To Be … You And Me by a mother who worked long hours as a hospital executive, and a father who quit his job at 50 to work at home and support her career—self-determination for women was never exactly an idea up for debate. I’m a husband who shops, cooks, cleans, does laundry, and has a full-time job, so hearing Flanagan and Mansfield prattle on about how only women are hard-wired to do housework makes me want to laugh.

What’s most distressing about these books, however, isn’t that they play on ancient prejudices and dredge up empty stereotypes, but that they aren’t being met by a fusillade of other, better books—books that examine contemporary relationships and gender roles without panic, dread, or shame. This is particularly true, of course, when it comes to books about men. We’ve recently seen much debate about the hazards of boyhood (exemplified by Michael Thompson’s book Raising Cain) but little reflection on what happens afterward: that is, on what it means to grow up.

We need, in other words, more books like Iron John.

In 1990, the year Iron John was published, I was 16, and I vividly remember picking up a newspaper published by the “Mythopoetic Men’s Movement” in a health-food store and doubling over with laughter at the pictures of half-naked men embracing tree trunks and dancing around wearing leaf-crowns. Five years later, on leave from college, hanging out in Arizona, and staring into an adulthood like Nietzsche’s proverbial abyss, I came across a remaindered copy and read it cover-to-cover in two days. I was particularly struck by a chapter titled “The Road of Ashes, Descent, and Grief.” “One day,” Robert Bly writes, “a [young man] is in college, being fed and housed—often on someone else’s money—protected by brick walls men long dead have built, and the next day he is homeless, walking the streets. … People know immediately when you are falling: doormen turn their backs, waiters sneer, no one holds the subway door for you … an old shame surfaces, one walks with head down and feels it’s all inevitable.”

It was as if Bly was telling a secret about me and many of the young men I knew. We were graduating from college with extraordinary educations and few practical skills, with high expectations and few immediate prospects, and with no sense of what kind of “men” we were supposed to be. I was amazed that he could describe our predicament with such clarity and self-assurance. Moreover, as a writer, I was impressed (perhaps a little too much so, in retrospect) by Bly’s fearless reliance on poetry as a source of evidence for his conclusions—quoting Rilke and Neruda and Blake as if they understood exactly what he was talking about.

Iron John is structured around an allegorical interpretation of a German fairy tale, “Iron Hans,” in which a young prince is lured into the forest by a strange wild man, who, through a series of trials and lessons, initiates him into manhood. This story, Bly argues, represents much of what contemporary American men are missing: engaged, nurturing fathers, authoritative and responsible mentors, self-respect without shame, and, most of all, the ability to cultivate their inner resources—as Socrates said, to know themselves. Essentially, Bly says, since World War II, American men have been encouraged to live in a state of psychic numbness tailored exactly to the needs of an expanding industrial economy: “The Fifties male got to work early, labored responsibly, and admired discipline … his view of culture and America’s part in it was boyish and optimistic … but underneath the charm and bluff, there was, and there remains, much isolation, deprivation, and passivity.”

The solution—to the degree Bly proposes one—involves looking clearly at contemporary stereotypes and acknowledging the unnamed, suppressed, “unacceptable” aspects of male identity. These include an urge toward aggression, which can never be totally or successfully repressed; a need to “go into the garden,” to cultivate the psyche through study and the arts; and a desire to be initiated into adulthood by older men. Though he refers to the rituals of traditional cultures, he does not, as many have assumed, argue that contemporary men need to somehow return to nature, re-create tribal ceremonies, or otherwise fetishize what they have lost. Nor does he have any interest in restoring men to traditional positions of power; Bly is, in fact, an unrepentant supporter of the women’s movement. Fundamentally, he argues, men and women can share authority, responsibility, and leadership—if they acknowledge that their inner lives, and needs, are different. The feminist movement, in his view, needs to encourage this kind of self-understanding among men, not fear it.

Needless to say, Iron John has considerable flaws, which time has, if anything, magnified. Bly’s frame of reference is in some ways very limited: He owes a great debt to Jungian theory and post-Jungian psychologists and students of myth, like James Hillman and Joseph Campbell, but he never quite articulates Jung’s beliefs or his own departures from them; he avoids dealing with Freud and orthodox psychoanalysis almost entirely; he speaks of an “American” experience without acknowledging that his orientation is entirely Northern European, which is to say, white and overwhelmingly heterosexual. As a prose writer, he has an annoying habit of overworking his metaphors: “our soul, when it is in the kitchen, resembles some sort of crude or mixed rock.” And some readers will simply find Bly’s assumptions about the innate aspects of male and female identity unacceptably broad and presumptuous, or object, rightly, to his exaggerated, and somewhat suspect, descriptions of domineering and aggressive mothers.

The most remarkable aspect of Iron John, however, is Bly’s method: a mixture of storytelling, speculation, quotation, and polemic. Convinced of the destructiveness of much of contemporary culture, he never allows the book to become a jeremiad in the style of Robert Bork or Gore Vidal. His optimism and generosity, his deliberate naiveté and willingness to draw from untraditional sources, are, in some ways, lifted straight from the pragmatic tradition of William James and John Dewey, “On Self Reliance” and Walden, In the American Grain and The Necessary Angel, as much as “new age” classics like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chop Wood, Carry Water, or Dreaming the Dark.

What Bly is not—what makes him sound somewhat antiquated today—is an ironist. Iron John was written before Seinfeld,before David Sedaris and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and reading it today reveals how much American culture has changed over the last decade and a half. The “men’s movement” was briefly the subject of controversy among feminists and derision among conservatives, but what killed it, more than anything, was simply that it was too easy a target for satire. This may have been a necessary corrective in the short term—Bly himself, with his colorful vests and lute-strumming, was always a little ridiculous as a public figure—but along the way the seriousness of his argument was lost, and 16 years later his questions are still unanswered. Irony, and the fear of ridicule, have, in a way, made any serious discussion of men’s emotional lives impossible. This new repressiveness turns up all kinds of unexpected results: not just polemics like Flanagan’s and Mansfield’s, but “iconoclastic” arguments in favor of male stoicism, like the one Malcolm Gladwell recently made in an essay praising The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. And the result is that we still lack a basic vocabulary for, say, the experience of a stay-at-home father, or the difference (from a man’s point of view) between flirtation and harassment at work. If we don’t find a way of emulating Bly’s generosity of spirit and willingness to risk truth-telling, we’re going to remain stuck with recycled arguments and archetypes, lacking a language that applies to our own era.