Chanceless American Boys

I have been thinking about this tweet since I saw it a week ago.


(I obscured the name and face because it is imitating a real person/celebrity who I’m sure wants nothing to do with it.)

This is a trollish tweet in a stream of invective, but revealing and seemingly autobiographical. We learn so much about this fellow from one angry tweet. We can guess at his family life and academic career. Nobody with a satisfying career or healthy relationships would brood over being “manipulated and humiliated.”

In the early 1990s there was a popular book by a very well-respected poet named Robert Bly called Iron John, that was rooted in the same anxiety; not just that women were moving into leadership roles both inside and outside the home (“managerial moms”) but that there is a lack of good fathering (whether “deadbeat dad” is simply not around or is so exhausted by life that he doesn’t know how to steer his sons into a happier manhood).

Like a lot of young men of my generation, I still felt like a boy in my mid-20s and was struggling feeling like a “grown up,” without a war or adventure to season my soft life. I didn’t have a great relationship with my dad and was never “one of the guys” in male-bonding rituals. The book echoed some of my anxieties, but I didn’t think ceremonial campouts with bonfires and fairytales would help. And it’s hard to argue that the book isn’t a branch of the same tree that bore the toxic fruit above; but in the tweet the central trope of Iron John is stripped of all poetry and reduced to its essence, like a snappish wounded animal.

The entire misogynistic enterprise of “men’s rights” both repudiates Bly’s book and validates it. This is where these fatherless, emasculate-feeling boys go if not treated: to packs of other wounded boys to contrive myths about feminism, to threaten and harass women, and to become dangerous to themselves and others. I do not think the feeling of chancelessness has anything to do with the chances given to girls, but blame is always attractive to people who feel like they are failing at life.

As a writer I am interested in this theme of boys becoming men, and the presence or absence of fathers, and the different modes of manhood that a boy might follow. It is one of those themes I discovered after having written several books and now attend to more consciously.

Iron John explores this theme through mythic archetype. I’ve also been inspired by the work of William Brozo, who seems to get inspiration from Iron John but considers multiple archetypes and connects them with novels for children and teens. Brozo led me to think more consciously of the men my literary boys are becoming, and I’ve thought about it more explicitly in my last few books, beginning with The Tanglewood Terror. 

For me, feeling more like a man came not through war or ceremony, but from becoming a parent and losing one. Taking care of others, and especially taking better care of myself. I came to understand that the rootlessness of young men comes not from feminism, but from the toxicity of masculinity, which tends to steer young men away from self-care and nurturing, and toward recklessness and the conquering of weaker things.

I dare say I have stumbled across an actual goal for writing for children that isn’t purely instinctive, I would like to reach these boys before they become this kind of man.

One thought on “Chanceless American Boys

  1. Much admiration for this article, Kurtis, on many levels. The idea of being conscious about your characters will be added to my exploration and discussion of books.

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