Coddling the Elite, Admiring Nepotism’s Ancient Pedigree

In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History , by Adam Bellow. Doubleday, 565 pages, $30.

There’s no inheriting a writing gene. When parent and child both write brilliantly it’s a fluke, or else we’d be overrun by Martin Amis types. (Maybe there is a master plan, after all.) Instead of literary dynasties, we get a parade of famous writers’ kids who try to match or outdo their progenitor, and fall short. So I was intrigued by the idea that Saul Bellow’s son was writing a book about nepotism. A great writer, heaped with honors, can pass along all kinds of advantages to his or her children-but not the talent that made the parent great. My hope was that as the beneficiary of such a poignantly incomplete legacy, Adam Bellow could give us a nuanced account of nepotistic advantage and the burdens that accompany it.

No such luck. Mr. Bellow’s In Praise of Nepotism is not just badly written but also shallow, boring and sloppy. A former editorial director of the Free Press known for publishing conservative authors, Mr. Bellow approaches his subject with all the sparkle and elegance of a burnt-out junior-high civics teacher. How did he manage to begin his book with a recap of the Presidential election of 2000-which started out as nepotism run amok and ended up as something altogether more sinister-and yet not generate even the faintest shiver of drama or tension? If his lumbering project has a purpose, it’s to legitimize the Bush dynasty by poring over nepotism’s ancient pedigree and pointing out its persistence. But curiously enough, Mr. Bellow’s book-length justification of the system that has allowed W. to triumph and the Bush family to leave so many indelible marks on our nation (“precisely the kind of nepotism of which this country needs, not less, but more”) sounds less like Bush-speak than Albert Gore Jr. on the stump, dazing us with his “oppressively earnest sobriety.”

Mr. Bellow claims that In Praise of Nepotism is “not a polemic” and “not a contrarian attempt to defend an unpopular practice.” (Really? Then why the in-your-face title?) The subtitle is “A Natural History.” That’s a dodge meant to invoke evolutionary biology, and to deflect attention from the polemical undercurrent. Nepotism, Mr. Bellow insists, is “natural.” He offers a few pages of unimpressive pseudo-scientific theorizing (all of it borrowed-”I make no claim to original scholarship”) about nepotism as evolutionary strategy. Then he banishes us to faraway lands long ago (caste in India, clans in China, Augustus Caesar, the Borgias, Napoleon, the Rothschilds). He’s pushing something like history, though actually it’s just an endless stream of anecdote-imagine Simon Schama lobotomized. Occasionally Mr. Bellow appeals to “nature.” Which makes the book a natural history-get it?

Almost 250 pages into the book, Mr. Bellow lands on Plymouth Rock, and from there he trudges forward, sketching nepotistic practice in America from the Puritan era to the late 20th century. Though he devotes a 48-page chapter to the Roosevelts and a 44-page chapter to the Kennedys, he ignores the Bushes entirely-the opening glimpse of W. locked in electoral combat with his nepo-nemesis Al was apparently just a teaser. Mr. Bellow perhaps realized that a rigorous examination of the Bush dynasty would scupper his argument, which is that nepotism has changed, and that the New Nepotism has adapted to meritocracy, that in fact it improves meritocracy (“the return of the hereditary and dynastic principle in the heart of the American elite represents a valuable corrective to the extreme tendencies of meritocracy itself”). “In short,” Mr. Bellow sums up, “nepotism works, it feels good, and it is generally the right thing to do.”

Darwin and Freud are the intellectual godfathers of this enterprise (nepotism is an “instinctual drive” that’s been “psychologically sublimated”), but Mr. Bellow seems uncomfortable with ideas in the raw, and moves on in a hurry to his litany of anecdotes about how families everywhere have always tried to get ahead. Later, when he’s in summary mode, we get sentences like this: “Under the impetus of their demanding father, the Kennedy family became a roaring turbine of sibling competition, reflecting the sublimation of erotic and aggressive drives in the socially useful pursuit of power and status.” The problem with sociobiology (and, notoriously, with Freudian theory) is that it equips the layman with jargon that helps speculation sound like scientific fact. “There seems no doubt,” Mr. Bellow writes, “that human beings were massively selected for nepotism because it was, in simple reproductive terms, a highly adaptive behavior.” But evolutionary biology doesn’t really explain anything if you’re vague, as Mr. Bellow is, about what’s “natural” and what’s “cultural” in human behavior. (Freudians, similarly, can’t afford to be vague about how exactly “sublimation” works.)

The real problem with In Praise of Nepotism is not with the head, but with the heart. Among the hundreds of examples Mr. Bellow relentlessly supplies of fathers and occasionally mothers pushing sons and occasionally daughters, there’s barely any recognizable human interaction. Though he assures us that nepotism “feels good,” he never shows us the flush of emotion that turns the family romance into a bodice-ripper. His anecdotes are hopelessly flat and colorless. Not everyone can write a dry account of the Borgias, or produce a stale summary of the Kennedy saga-but it takes an extra-special talent to begin a one-paragraph summary of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash-shortened life with the observation that he was “no high-flyer intellectually.”

I suspect that this book will have the opposite of its intended effect. Anyone who reads it all the way through is likely to be permanently disgusted with nepotism-even with the New Nepotism-and thoroughly disinclined to “get over our ambivalence about the ‘return’ of dynastic families.” If the ascendancy of George W. Bush represents an improvement on meritocracy, then give me the old-fashioned kind. And if the sons of Nobel Prize–winning novelists write this badly, it’s time for publishers to start paying more attention to unsolicited manuscripts.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.