Iron John In The Gilded Age


All fraternal initiates swore themselves to secrecy on pain of allowing brethren to “thrust my tongue through with a red-hot iron” or words to that effect. Fearsome oaths notwithstanding, the orders were remarkably lax. Some, fearing that another would steal an affecting ritual, copyrighted their “secret” work. Everyone recognized that meaningful secrets could not be kept among a million members. Secrecy was chiefly symbolic, a means of strengthening the bond among men by underscoring the exclusion of women. Indeed, no offense was more serious than to tell one’s wife the “concerns of the order.” Women, for their part, resented the large sums spent on dues and paraphernalia and chafed at their husbands’ absence on the frequent lodge nights. In the 185Os the Odd Fellows, seeking to “lessen and ultimately destroy the prejudice of the fairer sex,” created a women’s auxiliary called the Degree of Rebekah. Still, women were to have no part in men’s initiations. “The simple truth is this,” one official explained in 1867: “Woman is not entitled to and seeks not a place among us.”

Bly’s mythopoets initially took a more moderate stand. Because some men’s groups met in family rooms or booked events in public facilities, women came and went pretty much as they wished. But it soon became apparent that even their fleeting presence somehow interfered with the proceedings. “Don’t have a woman near the meeting space,” men’s organizers warned. The need for secrecy and exclusion was driven home after one exuberant group invited the media to a weekend mancamp. Bly telegrammed a warning: The mythopoetic movement was still in its “infancy,” and its rituals would be ridiculed by the public. But by then a small army of freelance journalists had already filled their notebooks with arch accounts of what they had seen. “A luscious hologram of multilayered idiocy,” Joe Queenan of GQ wrote. Now most men’s groups exclude women and outsiders. Many swear participants to secrecy—one reason less has been heard of them in recent months.

If women were consnicuous bv their ab- sence, “fathers” were omnipresent—in both fraternal and men’s groups. The central drama of fraternal rituals derived from the hostility of “elderly” officers—patriarchs with flowing white beards or sachems leaning upon walking sticks—toward the callow initiates— “squaws,” “pages,” “children.” Tension between surrogate father and son rose to a climax. Suddenly, usually on completion of the initiatory journey, the officer embraced the in-itiate. Father and son had become brothers.

Bly’s goal is similar. Young men today do not know what it means to be a man because their fathers—"enfeebled, dejected, paltry"—failed to teach them. Bly’s hairy Wildman serves as a surrogate for the clean-shaven (or absent) male cipher of the modern family. Some men’s groups place an empty “Spirit Chair” at the front of the room, a mute reminder (and perhaps indictment) of the missing fathers.

The charge that men’s rituals are a reaction against the advancement of women is probably not far from wrong.

Rituals such as these, abstracted from a “sacred” context and a community of shared sentiment, seem so artificial as to verge on fraud. (Some wags during the nineteenth century said that the orders had been invented by novelty companies; today critics propose that men’s group organizers have a stake in drum companies). Many find it hard not to agree with Lance Morrow of Time , who called the men’s move- ment a “depthless happening in the goofy circus of America,” language reminiscent of the nineteenthcentury criticisms of the lodges.

But though contrived, the rituals—then and now —are not without effect. Mancamp participants are commonly convulsed with sobs. A reporter for Esquire , while sniggering at what he described as a “Three Stooges skit,” was taken aback by the “murderously authentic” moans and weeping around him. In 1877 the Voice of Masonry observed that fraternal initiates became “so wrought upon and their feelings so excited that they shed tears.” The National Christian Association, founded in 1867 to rid the nation of the orders, acknowledged the mysterious power of the rituals and identified Satan as their source. Members took degree after degree “as a charmed frog goes into a snake’s mouth.”

To what, indeed, can we attribute the enduring attraction of men’s rituals? Bly, whose views matter if only because he predicted the movement his book inspired, responds that all men possess an intuitive attraction to the requisite rituals of manhood, which are “still very much alive in our genetic structure.” But until scientists find a peptide chain curled along the Y chromosome that impels men to caper in mudholes or don outlandish headgear, his argument will persuade few who are not already wedded to Jung’s notion that some ideas are factory-installed in the brain. Moreover, Bly’s belief that men are predisposed to such rituals fails to explain why American men had to invent them in the first place or why so many of their great-grandchildren scorned their vaunted rites.