Daddy’s got the cash and the connections—so why worry about competing on your own merits?
Americans have long mistrusted the family-based dynastic power that has fueled many an aristocracy across time and space, writes Doubleday editor-at-large Bellow—himself the son of novelist Saul, and with much of the old man’s skill with a pen. So have modern Europeans, whose recent history can be read as “a protracted dialogue between the forces of nepotistic solidarity and the growing emphasis on individualism, merit, and efficiency.” The ambition of families regularly thwarts democratic institutions, and many a nation and company have come a cropper at the hands of a leader’s less talented offspring. But, Bellow insists, this need not be the case, and nepotism need not be a synonym for “favoritism for the undeserving.” Arguing that the very phenomenon of nepotism has deep-seated origins in the process of natural selection and the Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest—it is, after all, the perfect expression for the notion of the “selfish gene”—Bellow combs the history books for examples of family that have done well and done good, the Pericleses and Adamses and Roosevelts of the world. (Well, the Roosevelts are perhaps not the best case in point, Bellow adds, for FDR took a modern, hands-off approach to fatherhood, serving as a “fond but largely passive absentee” whose children emerged as “spoiled opportunists who didn’t hesitate to sell their family name to the highest bidder.”) Bellow’s research is vigorous, his writing entertaining and informative, and if his narrative goes on too long by half, it is largely because of his Homeric cataloguing of dynasties successful and otherwise in politics (the Bushes), Hollywood (the Bridges), literature (the McPhees and Cheevers), and other fields of endeavor. His argument that families—and societies—get out of their descendants what they put into them seems particularly inarguable in light of good evidence such as the case of Richard Williams, who set out to produce a tennis dynasty with his daughters Serena and Venus, to the lasting delight of fans.
For would-be dynasts, and a pleasure to read, even if it won’t lessen the suspicions of the anti-aristocrats among us.