Robert Bly, ‘Iron John’ Author and Men’s Movement Leader, Dies at 94

The Minnesota native’s 1990 bestseller kickstarted a push to reject a soft and feminized masculinity

robert bly
Image: MN Original

Robert Bly, the award-winning poet and anti-Vietnam War activist whose 1990 nonfiction bestseller “Iron John” initiated a sometimes reactionary men’s movement to reject the so-called feminization of masculinity, died Sunday at age 94.

His daughter Mary Bly confirmed his death to Minnesota’s Star Tribune.

Bly won a National Book Award for his 1967 poetry collection “The Light Around the Body.” According to the New York Times, he donated his $1,000 prize to the draft resistance and was as outspoken in opposing the Vietnam War as he was as an advocate for poetry in modern American life. (He co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War.)

But his most famous book — 1990’s “Iron John: A Book About Men” — marked a major departure from his previous work. Exploring fairy tales and myths to tease out the origins of gender roles, he made a case that American men had become too soft and needed to reconnect with their primal nature to become better fathers and leaders.

“There is a tremendous amount of belittling of men that has been going on for a long time in our culture,” he said in an interview several years after the book’s publication.

The book, which spent 62 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, led to what Bly dubbed a “mythopoetic men’s movement,” which included the author leading male-only retreats and seminars that frequently included campfire circles in which participants would don masks, bang on drums, dance and read poetry aloud.

Bly produced more than 25 collections of poetry, plus a dozen more volumes of translations. The British actor Mark Rylance starred in a 2008 Guthrie Theater production of his adaptation of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.”