Remembering Iron John
When men were men—without irony and Banana Republic.
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.
Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories. He teaches in the English department at the College of New Jersey.