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Essay

The Last American Hero?

With the death, on Nov. 21, of poet, anti-war activist, and men’s movement activist and writer Robert Bly, the country has lost one of its few remaining heroes. Bly was 94. Though he had long suffered from dementia, he kept on writing poetry well into his 80s.

As a young anti-war activist myself in the late 1960s, I was inspired by Bly’s anti-war poetry, and by his willingness to show outright anger at the government and politicians who had allowed the criminal Vietnam War adventure to continue, as he did at a Baltimore reading I attended.

As a middle-aging economics researcher in 1991, confronted by another outrageous war (the Gulf War), and also facing the imminent death of my mother from lung cancer, I was both inspired and moved by Bly’s pivotal book about men, Iron John. Its key message, that men needed to be more in touch with all their feelings, resonated deeply with me. I recently (as a septuagenarian) re-read the book and found it just as inspiring and even more moving than ever.

Almost as soon as the book was out, people were accusing Bly of being anti-woman. I would only suggest that such an interpretation of Iron John is total rot. Throughout the book, its protagonist shows himself to be a man who cares deeply about women. Anyone who could seriously believe Iron John to be an anti-woman production either didn’t read the book, or at least not at all carefully, or is blinded to the book’s merits by his or her preconceived notions as to what masculinity should be.

With Iron John and Neil Diamond’s songs, a man in this society can go a long way.

With Iron John, Neil Diamond’s songs, and the right woman in his life, a man in this society is as close to having it made as a man could well be, assuming reasonable physical health.

With A.H. Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being, Iron John is one of two non-fiction books that provided me both practical guidance and the courage to persevere in the face of huge difficulties.

Bly’s death is obviously a huge loss. But his legacy will continue to inspire and enrich us for many, many years to come.

Nov. 25, 2021

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