Iron John in the Gilded Age: Behind the Yelps and Toms-Toms of the Current Men's Movement Stretches an Immense Fraternal Tradition in Which American Men Once Spent as Much on Initiation Rites as Their Government Did on Defense

By Carnes, Mark | American Heritage, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Iron John in the Gilded Age: Behind the Yelps and Toms-Toms of the Current Men's Movement Stretches an Immense Fraternal Tradition in Which American Men Once Spent as Much on Initiation Rites as Their Government Did on Defense


Carnes, Mark, American Heritage


"The Almighty dollar," Washington Irving wrote, was the "great object of Universal devotion" among Americans. Tocqueville described moneymaking as the "prevailing passion." And though the object of their craving sometimes changed, Tocqueville noticed that the emotional intensity persisted. This was why tightfisted Yankee merchants would break down in penitential tears and convert to Christ why sober Ohio farmers would abandon their homesteads and join utopian communes. Because Americans were so bound up in the struggle to get ahead, Tocqueville concluded, they rushed "unrestrained beyond the range of common sense" when cut loose. Thus did a materialistic nation beget so many "strange sects," each striking out on such "extraordinary paths to eternal happiness."

Yet even Tocqueville might have flinched at the spectacle of thousands of adult men, most of them well-to-do and college-educated, chanting before bonfires and pounding on drums, growling and cavorting in imitation of foxes and bears, plunging naked into baptismal mudholes, and smudging their faces with ashes - all of them following a path blazed by the poet Robert Bly in the final decade of the twentieth century.

What set them in motion was Bly's 1990 Iron John: A Book About Men. Manhood had seldom been of much interest to general readers, and the book's odd amalgam of romantic poetry, esoteric philosophy, and popular psychology, all bolted to a little-known myth by the Grimm brothers, seemed unlikely to appeal to the masses. But Iron John clambered onto the best-seller list and remained there for more than a year.

The book's success confirmed its central premise: that American men who had renounced the Vietnam War and embraced feminism now fear they have become too soft. Having drifted far from traditional manhood, they need help finding their way back. Such men are drawn to Iron John - a Wildman who led boys from the suffocating confines of childhood into the liberating expanses of manhood. Bly believes the story outlines the initiatory process by which boys become men in most societies. Though deprived of such guidance, American men need not despair, for the requisite rituals are too deeply embedded in the human psyche to be forever lost, or so Bly maintains.

Some of Bly's readers, calling themselves mythopoets, resolved to exhume those rituals and breathe into them new life. They scoured the works of Joseph Campbell and Mary Stewart for mythological or historical examples of men's rituals that could be "adapted" for modern usage. Other Bly enthusiasts published magazines and placed ads in newspapers to attract like-minded men to share the experience. Still others - some one hundred thousand strong - sought to identify with their hoary male forebears by attending weekend "mancamps" in the woods (or in suitably bucolic convention centers). Soon the mythopoetic army overran the tiny outposts of "pro-feminist" academics and men's-rights activists, each of which until then had claimed the men's movement as its own.

But as Bly's boys tried to create and perform initiatory rituals dating back to the Bronze Age, they overlooked a less remote source: the Gilded Age of nineteenth-century America, when literally millions of men - members of the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and hundreds of similar societies - each week performed elaborate initiatory rituals.

The oldest and most imitated of the fraternal orders was Freemasonry. Founded in late-seventeenth-century England as a stonemasons' guild, the group evolved into a drinking and eating club for tradesmen, merchants, and some noblemen. Its special cachet was secrecy. Members used hand signals and passwords to identify one another; soon they devised a legend about Hiram Abiff, the master mason of Solomon's Temple who was assassinated by rivals and "raised" back to life. Eventually new members underwent a simple initiation, during which they learned the secret signals and heard Abiff's story. …

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