The Men's Movement 'Grandfather' Reaches Out To a Broader Audience


Robert Bly is a reluctant guru.

When his book "Iron John" - a controversial work on men - leapt onto the bestseller list in 1991, he quickly became a household name. Keying in on his silvery mane and avuncular style, the media pronounced him grandfather of the men's movement.

"The media put me in that role and then began to attack me as a self-appointed guru," Mr. Bly says.

Bly says he was astonished at the deep chord that the book struck with American men. "Iron John" stayed at the top of bestseller lists for a year and spawned dozens of other tomes on male malaise.

He was also taken aback at a torrent of criticism that his advice came at the expense of women.

There were already several "men's movements" long under way - Marxist, homosexual, profeminist, black - when poet Bly began talking publicly about "the journey many American men have taken into softness" in the early 1980s.

"But the language about men was mostly academic and sociological and restricted to universities," he recalls. "I was the first to begin working with stories and taking them to men in their communities."

Bly insists that he never intended "Iron John" to become the bible of the men's movement. "If I had, you would have found much more about issues from domestic violence to the concerns of black and profeminist men."

For use as a teaching parable, the book recounts the 19th-century Grimm fairy tale of a wild man discovered at the bottom of a pool. The story tells of a prince who sets him free, is exiled, fails several tests, and later marries a princess with the magical help of the wild man, who turns out to have been a king under enchantment.

Bly used the story to propose manhood as a quest and to suggest the need for men to nurture each other, heal father/son relationships, and promote personal growth by "initiation" into adulthood.

"[Bly] started a paradigm shift in the way men could think about themselves," says James Smithurst, former executive director of Seattle M.E.N., a networking organization for men. "He struck a note with all men but especially those who had been in the counterculture.... They were really excited that someone was standing for a positive view of men."

"Spokeswomen for gender feminism made a mistake 30 years ago in failing to make the distinction between patriarchy and masculinity," he wrote in a recent essay. "As a result, many young men, rather than being ashamed of being patriarchal, are ashamed of being men. We must be more clear."

Lauded at first for setting men on the path to self-discovery, Bly increasingly found himself being heavily criticized for overemphasizing masculinity at the expense of women.

"Feminist critics accused Bly of ... unfairly blaming mothers and wives for men's troubles and reproducing sexism by using fairy tales and rituals from patriarchal cultures," says Michael Schwalbe, associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.

Bly has responded by holding more retreats for men that include women. He has encouraged men to stand up and speak about the suffering of women in a patriarchal culture. Whenever possible, he engages critics in debate.

In an coming book, "The Sibling Society," Bly discusses how to find that clarity by navigating beyond a paternal society, calling for both men and women to face their resistance to true adulthood.

Bly remains steadfast that he has pushed the debate on gender forward and out of the rarefied world of academe. He says the men's work of the past 10 years helped prepare the way for last fall's Million Man March as well as the Promise Keepers, a Christian men's movement that has been packing stadiums full of men flocking to hear a message of responsibility to their families.

"Men have taught themselves how to be more expressive and authentic by struggling to see and articulate who and what they are," he says.

His greatest legacy?

"Rejoining fathers and sons. Men everywhere tell me they are going to do everything they can to avoid the long, hurtful separations that characterized past generations."

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