Tuesday, December 11, 2012

As siblings get scarcer...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, family relations, autobiographies

Sometimes I wonder if I ought to pity our son (I don't, but sometimes I wonder), an only child. I have brothers, and he has none. He has uncles and aunts, but any kids he has will not have, at least on his side of the family. At a family gathering for Christmas when he was little, our youngest girl cousin brought her boyfriend. He was an only child, and his parents were onlies also. He marveled, and said to me, "I never considered I might be missing something, having no brothers or sisters or cousins. There are 19 of you here, and everybody gets along!

I have heard it said that men with brothers become better negotiators. That doesn't seem to have handicapped our son. He is a real tiger when it comes to bargaining or manipulating or cajoling, or just negotiating. How did he get more skilled at these things than I, who grew up with brothers after the age of 3½?

Growing up with brothers does change a man, but it is sometimes hard to say just how. George Howe Colt takes a powerful stab at it in Brothers, just out from Scribner. The book is subtitled "George Howe Colt on His Brothers and Brothers in History". History, indeed; he interweaves his fraternal autobiography with mini-biographies starting with jealous Cain bumping off his brother Abel, who gets replaced by Seth (and his name means "appointed" meaning he is appointed the replacement rather explicitly). Late in the book, a reprise on Seth and the whole phenomenon of a later boy replacing a deceased older brother fills half a chapter.

In keeping with the strongest contrast among brothers, that between the firstborn and the next, Colt limns the "good boy bad boy" phenomenon using the Booth brothers, Edwin and John (Lincoln's assassin). Everybody loved Edwin Booth, the darling of the stage in pre-Civil War America. John was a good actor also, and got raves of his own, but was more the Rodney Dangerfield of his family: he got no respect compared to Edwin, to his other brother Junius, or even his father, who could bring a whole room to tears with his sonorous rendition of the Lord's Prayer. The Booth family exemplifies a gaggle of siblings who seem more different from one another than a random collection of people.

Not every pair of eldest brothers are opposites. The Wright brothers were almost like twins in many ways, completing one another's thoughts, and though they often argued and debated, they found it great fun and did so without rancor. They learned from each other. Two boys our son practically grew up with, nine and ten years his senior, were born eleven months apart, and were inseparable as youngsters. They now have challenging professions: one a surgeon, the other a federal agent. They were too old to be quasi-brothers to our son, but were more like kindly uncles. They remain close to each other, though they presently live in different states.

Then there are brothers who cannot get along, such as the Kelloggs (one being the corn flake king). They spent the last couple decades of their lives in a series of lawsuits against one another. The elder, John Harvey Kellogg, pretty much made his younger brother Will (W.K.) his footstool, until Will simply had to break away and exert his independence. Being an even better businessman than his brother, he soon got rich making breakfast cereals, which irked John no end. John's attempts to duplicate (plagiarize) his brother's products and overtake him triggered the legalities over who had the right to use the family name as a trademark, at least for starters.

George Colt was the second of four brothers, and seems to have become the best known (authors at least become known to their readers, who can number in the many thousands). Similarly, while I am the eldest of four brothers, it is #2 who is the best known, the only one of us to publish a couple of books, with more on the way. He has been interviewed on the Discovery Channel, something beyond my imagination. George and his brothers each carved out a niche for himself: the oldest, Harry, a doctor, George a writer, #3 Ned an international correspondent (who was kidnapped for a few days in Iraq), and the youngest, Mark, administering a nonprofit organization for the blind.

One reason history is so full of brotherly examples is because in former generations nearly everybody had a few. In Colonial America, having 8-12 children was the norm. I once wondered how the 72 members of Jacob's descendants (who comprised 12 families) entered Egypt and grew in only four generations to number a million or more (there were more than 600,000 males 20 and older after the Exodus). It didn't take long to determine that an average couple had to have about 20 children! That's with total inbreeding; probably lots of the second and third generation had Egyptian spouses. Whenever there has been large-scale migration, such as the Europeanization of America, many of the immigrants are younger sons who don't expect much inheritance. Once "they get theirs" they breed like crazy. I share with the author a little concern for the present generation of young mainland Chinese, most of whom are only children, by national fiat.

I wonder whether having only one brother is better or worse than having either none or having several. In most of Western society, the average number of children, at least among Caucasians, is less than two. A growing number of couples remain childless, a great many have just one child, and few have more than two. Of those with just one sibling, only a third of the males have a brother (I know, you expected it to be half, but the combinations are B+B, B+S, S+B and S+S). A research project in the making!

George and his brothers are very similar in age to my brothers and me. Like the Colts, we have grown closer as we aged. Once a fellow is secure in his own life, there is less fear of brotherly usurpation. I often read in rags like the AARP Bulletin of studies that show how so many older people are happier than when they were younger. I guess if your younger days were filled with sibling rivalry and continual battling for parental favor, you're happier once a lot of that falls by the wayside.

George Colt's insight triggered a lot more memories I don't have space to go into here (and it is unlikely you would care about them). I am sure glad that, like him, I've become better and better friends with my brothers as we work our way through middle age. I'd hate to be like W.K. Kellogg, spending huge amounts of time and money fighting a baleful brother. Brotherhood can sure be good!

No comments: