Bellow deserves high, if not full, marks for a never boring, often informative, somewhat cliché-cluttered antidote to Andre Gide's anathema "Familles, je vous haïs" (Families, I hate you). There is heart, generosity and — slightly rueful? — filial affection here: Kinship vindicated, the earnest son and the prodigal father find common ground in print. Frederic Raphael
George Orwell once wrote, "To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others." This logic is at the heart of Bellow's conception of nepotism, which he means to rescue from the near-universal scorn it suffers today. Son of Nobel-winning novelist Saul, former head of the Free Press and now an editor-at-large at Doubleday, Bellow seeks to redefine nepotism not as a "deplorable lack of public spirit" but as the very "bedrock of social existence" a natural, healthy concern for family and, by extension, those ethnically or otherwise similar to ourselves. This is no brittle screed, as the title might imply, but rather a impressively full-blooded and wide-ranging work of scholarship, demonstrating that the individualistic U.S. is quite exceptional in its rejection of nepotism. Bellow assimilates biology, theology and gargantuan chunks of human history with brio, never losing the thread of his argument or the attention of his audience. Since nepotism is about power, the book has an unavoidable top-down orientation, as it is almost exclusively about the ruling class throughout history, from Borgia and Bonaparte to our own Adams, Roosevelt and Kennedy clans. Since nepotism is synonymous with familial interest, it is hardly surprising that Bellow is able to find ample evidence of its existence throughout history even in "egalitarian" America. At times he casts such a wide net that he risks blurring nepotism with the entirety of human history. However, his analysis of the flexibility and complexity of nepotism's forms is utterly enthralling and stimulating. (July 15) Forecast: Given Bellow's reputation and connections, this will receive major review and media coverage (though his assertion that the U.S. needs more nepotism will rankle many); it will be excerpted in the July/Aug. issue of The Atlantic. It is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club. 50,000 first printing Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
There's a big push behind this book by the former editorial director of the Free Press, who argues that all the favoritism we show to brothers, nieces, and second cousins has a real value and is based in evolution. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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 inpolitics (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. First serial to the Atlantic Monthly; Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club selection
“Nepotism is widely condemned yet even more widely practiced. Adam Bellow shows why this is so, and he makes a fascinating and well-researched argument that this is not necessarily a bad thing.”
-Walter Isaacson, author of Kissinger: A Life and former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time
“Some features of human nature, like aggression and adultery, get a consistently bad press but remain stubbornly persistent. Nepotism, likewise, is universally condemned but seems just as ineradicable. Adam Bellow explains to us why we are so addicted to what we so deplore, and does so in plain English with convincing scholarship. He brings together biology and history in a way that is intelligible to the general reader and challenging to the discipline-bound professional. Nepotism has never looked so good.”
-Robin Fox, professor of anthropology, Rutgers University, and author of Kinship and Marriage and Encounter With Anthropology
“I read In Praise of Nepotism straight through in about a day and a half. It is a most engaging text, exceedingly well written, concise, lucid, with marvelous descriptions and characterizations. It is also the first time I have read such an angle on history. Adam Bellow is almost alone in relating the family to politics, to power and affairs of state. This is the book’s originality, and it makes for a fresh contribution to the study of history.”
- John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History, Graduate Center, The City University of New York
“Nepotism, like sex, is a powerful human motive that many people are too squeamish to examine. Adam Bellow has made an important contribution to our understanding of the human condition with this sparkling and eye-opening natural history of an underappreciated but eternally fascinating topic.”
- Steven Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor, MIT, and author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works
“Adam Bellow is like the best teacher you ever had. You are awed by his range and erudition, and you are carried along by the page-turning drama he makes of ideas and history. To see nepotism as a natural human impulse, a force in the advancement of civilization, and an enemy and friend of democracy and free markets was all a revelation. And Bellow's description of a benevolent and inclusive nepotism is a strikingly original idea that will make this book a landmark.”
— Shelby Steele