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August 24, 2003
In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History
Adam Bellow
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BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Adam Bellow, author of "In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History," when did you get this idea?

ADAM BELLOW, AUTHOR, "IN PRAISE OF NEPOTISM: A NATURAL HISTORY: I started writing this book in 1998, when I left the Free Press and I was between jobs. It was an idea that I`d had some years before at my job as an editor. It`s part of what I do to come up with ideas for books and try to get people to write them. And this is one that I hadn`t been able to sell to anybody else. And finally, a friend of mine, an editor at Doubleday, suggested that I might choose to do this subject myself. And it turned out to be a natural subject for me.

LAMB: Why?

BELLOW: Well, first of all, of course, obviously, I`m an example of -- myself of what I call the "new nepotism," and it turned out that it was a very interesting and, I think, necessary challenge to try to account for my own life experience and my -- my career in publishing in terms of the new nepotism because when you have the name of a famous writer and you go into a related business, there`s naturally a feeling that you must have benefited somehow from having that family connection.

And in my case, and I think in most cases these days, there really wasn`t any direct connection. I mean, my father didn`t pick up the phone and ask a favor, get me a job. Nevertheless, I did some into the publishing business by the recommendation of a friend of his, Irving Kristol, who referred me to Irwin Glickus (ph), then the publisher of the Free Press. And Irwin decided to take a chance on me.

LAMB: Who is Saul Bellow?

BELLOW: I often ask that question myself. Saul Bellow, my father, is a well-known novelist, grew up in Chicago, wrote about his experiences growing up in the Depression and during the `30s and `40s, won numerous book prizes, including the Nobel Prize in 1976. I went to Stockholm to be part of that and danced with the queen of Sweden. It was a very exciting experience. I was 19 years old, couldn`t get a proper shave, didn`t look so good in a tuxedo, I felt. It was a very exciting moment.

And it was at that point that the spotlight of my father`s celebrity began to include me. After all, as a child, I`d had no connection with it. But when I became a college student and then when I went out into the world, I encountered more people who had heard of my father -- also, of course, many people who hadn`t.

One of my first jobs -- in fact, my first job after college was at the "New York Daily News," a real working-class institution. I took a job there as a copy boy. I had a romantic notion of working my way up from the bottom in journalism. I didn`t become a journalist, in the end, but it was a very healthy and enlightening experience to be working in an environment where my father`s name and reputation meant nothing, conveyed no privileges. People had no interest in me, other than the fact that I stuck out because I had gone to an Ivy League school, and so I had the experience of doing, you know, sort of -- I had what I would describe as a thorough, classic hazing. I was sent around the city to do all kinds of low-status jobs, and people got a big kick out of the fact that I`d gone to Princeton and that I was working at this low-paying job.

LAMB: How many years did you live with your dad?

BELLOW: Well, my parents were divorced when I was an infant. I was about a year-and-half-old when their marriage broke up. So I was raised by my mother, who worked her whole life to support me. We had very little material support from my father. It wasn`t until I entered 6th grade that my mother prevailed on him to send me to a private school in New York City. And so the main benefit that I had directly from being my father`s son was that I got a first-class education.

LAMB: And he`s how old today?

BELLOW: He`s 88 years old.

LAMB: And you`re how old?

BELLOW: I`m 46.

LAMB: And what`s your relationship with him now?

BELLOW: Well, we`re very close, I`m pleased to say, as are my two half-brothers. My father`s been married a number of times, and I`m the middle of three sons. We also have a little sister now who`s about 3 years old. And our relationship deepened when I went to college and I began to acquire more education and cultivate more literary interests. And it was at that point that we began to have more in common.

LAMB: What does the word "nepotism" mean?

BELLOW: Well, the word "nepotism" is generally sourced to the Latin word "nepos," which means "grandson" or "nephew." But in fact, the word "nepotism" comes from the Italian of the 16th or 15th century, "nepotismo (ph)," or "nipotismo (ph)." And this word arose in the context of the politics of the Catholic church. It was during this -- during this period when the papacy became a very powerful and wealthy institution that popes coming into office typically gathered their relatives around them and very often made nephews, or illegitimate children described as nephews, into cardinals or bishops or other high church officials.

LAMB: I wrote this down from page 457 -- "Nepotism has always been obnoxious to Americans."

BELLOW: Well, I didn`t want to -- I wanted to choose a strong word. I think that`s -- I think that`s a fairly accurate description, that that hostility to nepotism clearly goes right back to the founding of this country. And you can -- you can read about it in any number of histories of the Revolution. At the time of the Revolution, the colonies were a notorious patronage dump for various royal favorites and sons and nephews of British peers that were sent over here to do jobs that local colonials would like to have done themselves. So what we had was, in the 1760s and `70s, was a generation of highly educated, ambitious colonials whose upward mobility was blocked by the prevalence of royal favorites in colonial offices. And this led to a very strong initial prejudice against any kind of hereditary position.

However, while the antipathy to nepotism dates back to the founding and has, I think, an ideological character, as a practical matter, nepotism flourished throughout American history. And this is the thing that I`ve found so fascinating in the course of my research. When you look at the history of American politics, business, scientific research and medical practice, the American military, the Navy, of course, the academy and literature, what you see on every side are family traditions. And this was the norm. This was the way things were done. It was, of course, possible in America for a son to go his own way and make his own path in life, choose a different course. But I think that the majority of sons did not in the 19th century. And the problem began to be acute towards the end of the 19th century, when it became apparent that American government was filled with offspring and relations of various kinds.

LAMB: You said something I have never seen in a book, that -- see if I can find the quote from it...

BELLOW: That`s quite a distinction! I`m very flattered.

LAMB: Well, I`ve never seen anybody say, You really don`t have to read -- I`ll read it. "That being the case, I should acknowledge that the book need not be read sequentially or in its entirety."

BELLOW: Well, this is really a way of appealing to the reader and explaining the fact that I wrote a much longer book than I had planned to write initially. When I first proposed this book, the idea was to write a short, punchy, journalistic, contrarian essay called "In Praise of Nepotism." The idea was to write a book somewhat like William Henry`s book "In Defense of Elitism," which was a best-seller for Doubleday, my publisher. And that`s what I set out to do.

And what happened was that I -- the first thing I discovered was that, in the first place, no one had ever written a book about nepotism. And having spent many years in academic settings, this made me feel that I had a real responsibility to write a comprehensive book.

And I went on researching and thinking about the subject. But oddly enough -- or not so oddly -- being my father`s son, I really couldn`t begin to write the book until I had found the story. And I finally did find the story, and the story is -- this is the story told in this book -- really, in the second half of the book -- which is the war on nepotism that American society has waged.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with nepotism in nature and in history up until the American Revolution. And what I find there, of course, which won`t surprise anybody, is that in other countries and throughout the world even today, nepotism is the norm. It is not just accepted but even expected, and in some cases, it`s required. In most human societies throughout history and throughout much of the world today, it is considered a man`s first and highest duty to aid his relatives. And in those other countries, the distinction that we make between the public and the private spheres is not very clearly drawn.

When you get to the U.S., what you find is, first of all, as I said before, a very strong prejudice derived from the founding against any kind of inherited privilege. And this -- this is the beginning of the war on nepotism. The war goes through several distinct phases. I describe them as a social phase, in which practices -- inheritance practices and marriage practices -- are reformed, and specifically, the practice of primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherits the family estate and the other children are required to go off, find other means of subsistence -- this is abolished within a couple of years of the Revolution, mainly at the -- at the insistence of Thomas Jefferson, who had grown up in Virginia, which was dominated by wealthy families whose power was based on their large estates.

And what Jefferson wanted to accomplish -- and he did successfully -- was to break up these estates because when you -- when you shift from primogeniture to a pattern of what`s called "partable inheritance," where the estate is divided equally among the heirs, the family estates tend to dissipate very quickly. A couple of generations, and the family is more or less back where it started from. And this was considered by Jefferson and many others of his generation to be a beneficial thing.

At the same time, marriage practices are reformed. Women acquire the right to divorce. And in the course of the 19th century, the rights of children begin to be supported by legislation. So there`s a kind of -- in this social phase of history, there`s a -- the beginning, really, of a war against patriarchal authority. The power of fathers is reduced by laws and changing social mores.

Then in the middle of the century, beginning really after the great -- the initial migrations of Irish and Germans and Italian immigrants, there begins to be a movement for political reform. And I call this the political phase of the war on nepotism. And this phase -- it mainly takes the form of an attack on political patronage, because as you know from history, when the -- when foreign immigrants came to this country, they were largely excluded from mainstream institution, and so they had to create their own.

And some of these institutions -- many of them still exist today. For example, the Irish created not just the American Catholic church, which they used as a ladder of social mobility,. but also the political urban machine, which ran on nepotism and thrived on it, on nepotism of every form, not just individual nepotism but the larger phenomenon that is described by some scholars as "ethnic nepotism," the idea being you take care of your own and -- because nobody else will do so. And this extends to finding people jobs and getting people set up in the sanitation department or the police department, the fire department.

And these ethnic traditions, by the way, persist well into the 20th century. And in fact, you -- I`m sure you will have noticed after the World Trade Center disaster, there were lists of dead firemen and cops published, and you could see the patterns still -- the ethnic pattern`s still there. These -- these patterns of father-son succession in working-class professions continue even today.

In the third phase of the war on nepotism, the legal -- the political phase really culminates in the New Deal, where the -- at which point, the -- the WASP upper class comes into discredit because they had failed to foresee and prevent the crash of `29. And during the Depression, there was a great deal of hostility towards family -- family privilege and wealth. And this gave rise ultimately to the legal phase of nepotism -- of anti-nepotism, activism which begins really in the post-World War II period. And the great landmark of this phase of the war on nepotism is the Civil Rights Act of 1965, particularly Title VII, which prohibits discrimination or favoritism based on race, religion, ethnicity or gender. And it`s at this point that I think you can say that the old nepotism receives its death blow.

What then occurs, ironically enough, is that after about 20 or 30 years, a new form of nepotism begins to emerge. And the thrust of my argument is that this new American nepotism is meritocratic -- that is, it combines the two principles that Americans hold in equal esteem, the principle of merit and the principle of family tradition.

LAMB: It`s a 565-page book. You -- in your lifetime, working for Free Press and Doubleday, how many books have you personally edited?

BELLOW: I haven`t ever counted, but I -- a working editor publishes an average of, you know, 10 books a year, depending. So probably about 150 books over the years.

LAMB: What book is this for you?

BELLOW: Of my own? This is my own -- this is the only book, the first and only book I`ve written. Although actually, I did write -- I did write a book not for commercial publication but as a job for hire. It was a very interesting project. I was hired in the -- this was before I -- before I went to work in publishing, and I needed -- I needed income, and I was hired to write a history of a -- what was called a "settlement house." It was a social service institution created in the 1880s on the Lower East Side of New York called the Educational Alliance. And it was a -- it was a fascinating assignment because it was really something that allowed me to investigate a chapter of Jewish immigrant history, which is, of course, in part, the story of my life, as well.

LAMB: The reason I asked how many books you`ve edited -- and when you looked at your own book, were there things that you had learned from editing others that you said, I can`t do that, I`m going to lose the reader?

BELLOW: Well, it`s an interesting question. I think that -- the first thing I have to say, I discovered it`s a very different thing to be an author, and it`s very hard to edit yourself. After all, after four years of working on this book, I`d produced a manuscript of well in excess of 800 pages. And I was really at a loss as to how to bring it down to a manageable size, and that`s where my editor, Gerry Howard (ph), at Doubleday proved indispensable because he was able to see, where I could not, how -- in what places I was going into too great detail.

So the writing of the book took about three years. We spent the better part of a fourth year cutting it down to at least a manageable size.

LAMB: Now, you work at Doubleday.

BELLOW: I do now.

LAMB: Did you when you first got this contract?

BELLOW: No, I didn`t. And of course, it`s very unusual for an editor who is publishing a book to be working at the house where he`s being published. It isn`t -- it isn`t normally considered appropriate for a -- just say a good idea. And -- but my status is a little bit different at Doubleday. I`m not on the staff. I don`t have a staff position. I`m what`s called an editor-at-large. So while I have an office there and an assistant, I am not a full participant in the life of the house, in certain respects.

LAMB: So in some respects, you`re -- it`s a little bit of nepotism being at Doubleday and having an editor at Doubleday. And did that cause a problem, based on your own experience when you were at Free Press, when nobody -- I assume very few people at Free Press wrote a book and that you edited there.

BELLOW: Well, certainly, that didn`t happen, although Free Press, at the time that I worked there, was part of Simon & Schuster. And the model for this kind of dual career of writer and editor was -- was Michael Korda, who was a great and distinguished editor at Simon & Schuster, who also has published many books. But Michael did not publish his books with Simon & Schuster. He went elsewhere to do so.

I think that in this case, it was understood to be an anomaly, but what happened was that first I was signed up to write a book, and then there was one of those periodic managerial and staff changes at Doubleday. The old editorial team left, and the new team came in. And I had to go in and talk to them and make sure that they -- first of all, they still wanted to publish my book, because no one wants to be orphaned, is the term that is used for authors who lose their editor -- they`re orphans -- and an orphaned book often has difficulty finding its way to a successful publication.

So I really needed to establish a rapport with the new people. And I found that they were terrific, very welcoming and supportive. And not only did they affirm their interest in publishing my book -- which was already late, by the way -- but they offered me a position as an editor-at-large because they wanted to publish -- they wanted to add to their list a certain kind of non-fiction, you know, edgy political or public-affairs kind of thing that I`m known for doing.

LAMB: What -- my first reaction when I got into this book was -- I don`t know how you took on all these names, all -- there are many bios in here, many biographies. Any one of these chapters could almost be a full book. How did you -- and name some of the people that you write about. I mean, you can start with Jesus.

BELLOW: Well, yes. All of these -- the problem that I had when I sat down to write this book was that no one -- as I said before, no one had ever written a book about nepotism. And so it was necessary to derive or extract the relevant information from numerous biographical books. And what I found was -- so I sat down and I read many books about Jesus and his family, for example. There`s a good deal of controversy about this.

I don`t -- I don`t want to take sides. But there does seem to be a scholarly consensus that the family of Jesus was very important in the life of the early church. And in fact, after Jesus` death, the Jerusalem church was taken over by his brother, James, and his message was promulgated by his relatives. And there was a struggle for control of the Christian message between James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul, who was a convert and not a -- not a family member. And Paul wanted to universalize the message of Jesus. He wanted to bring that message to the gentiles, to the peoples of the Roman empire. And the relatives of Jesus wanted to keep his message in the family, in effect. They wanted it to be a Jewish -- a Jewish sect.

And the -- of course, the outcome was that Paul won out, and the universal church founded by Paul and Peter won out in the end. There were Jewish Christians, who adhered to the original teachings preserved by the family of Jesus for another century, at least. Eventually, however, they were -- they were outnumbered by the gentile church founded by Peter and Paul.

LAMB: Then -- and help me with the pronunciation -- the Borgias?

BELLOW: The Borgia family? Yes. What I`ve done is to go through European history and American history, and I`ve selected the stories of representative families that -- that are very well known. I didn`t want to go for obscure families because the -- what was -- I felt was more interesting was to tell -- retell the story of very well-known families from the angle, from this particular perspective of how nepotism was useful to them in their rise through European society to the heights of power.

So in the chapter devoted to European history in what I call the "golden age of nepotism," which is a period extending more or less from the Renaissance to the French revolution, I focused on the Borgia family, a family of Spanish clerics who became popes -- there were two Borgia popes within the span of a generation -- and the Bonapartes and the Rothschilds.

And the reason that I selected these three families, first of all, is because they`re very well known and I thought it would be interesting to people who are familiar with their biographies to look at them from this angle of how they used family ties and connections to rise -- to rise through European society. But I also wanted to illustrate the three main avenues of social mobility open at that time to ambitious, dynastic family founders, the church, the military and the market, because these were the only ways in a society where wealth was largely based on land, these were the only ways in which you could rise from a middling status to an aristocratic one.

LAMB: Well, then later, you go on to the Adamses and the Roosevelts and the Kennedys and some of the Bushes. Who -- all your reading -- and how -- do you have any idea how many books you had to read to get ready for this?

BELLOW: I have an excellent idea. I made use of the New York University Library because it`s close to my home in Manhattan. And I checked out from that library about 300 books, which I -- which I kept in my office and consulted. I also -- in addition to that, I either bought or read parts of another 150 books. I must have -- I must have consulted about 500 books altogether.

LAMB: When you say "consulted," does that mean you didn`t read the whole book?

BELLOW: No, you don`t have to read the whole book. It`s -- what happens is you develop a kind of -- an eye for the telling detail. What I find very interesting is that this subject has just been -- this aspect of family history has been neglected by most biographers. Nevertheless, you do find the occasional detail.

For example, Teddy Roosevelt`s career -- I find this a marvelous example. Teddy Roosevelt was the son of a very well known and respected New York philanthropist. The Roosevelts had been rich for several generations, and Teddy -- Teddy`s father, Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was a leader of the political reform movement that arose in the 1880s. He was -- he was one of these blue-blood reformers who felt that it was -- it was necessary for the aristocratic figures in American society to get back into public life because it had become a sinkhole of corruption.

And Teddy`s father was much beloved. And when he died suddenly, Teddy was left without a father. And so he turned to his uncle, Robert Barnewell (ph) Roosevelt, a very colorful figure in his own right. He usually is mentioned in the biographies of Teddy because he was so colorful. He was -- he was, for example, a bigamist. He had a second family around the corner that nobody knew about for many, many years. And after this was revealed, Teddy was the only one who would -- who would continue to speak with him.

Uncle Barnewell was instrumental in Teddy`s rise. When Teddy decided to go into politics, this was considered in bad form. It was considered bad form, bad taste by his family because an aristocratic person like Teddy Roosevelt shouldn`t have sullied his hands with the business of politics. But his uncle, Barnewell, was very prominent in the Democratic Party in New York and put him in touch with important people in New York state politics. As a result, Teddy was able to run for state assembly at the age of 23.

He was completely untried and untested. He had just gone to Harvard. And there`s a marvelous description, actually, of the debate about whether Teddy should be allowed to stand for office. And of course, the fact that he was an inexperienced and untried young man and the son of a rich family was brought up and held against him. But one of the New York papers editorialized that young Mr. Roosevelt had a hereditary claim on the confidence of the voters of New York and -- because of his father`s great services to the city and state.

And I was very struck by that. I mean, this is something that you find in a -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) pass over casually. Most people just pass over this casually in a biography, but it`s very revealing because it`s not a statement that could be made today, as you can imagine. Nobody would -- nobody -- no newspaper would say such a thing. But it does reflect a prevailing attitude, and I think it is an unspoken attitude among many Americans today.

I mean, after all, look at the numbers of Kennedys who go into politics. You know, what`s the justification for that? Family tradition. People are, of course -- have mixed feelings about the Kennedys, but the fact is, the family has done great services for the country, and American voters in general seem quite willing to give a young Kennedy the benefit of the doubt. Even John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was considered, you know, not the brightest light in the Kennedy -- in the Kennedy family, would undoubtedly have been embraced by a majority of New York voters if he had chosen to run for office.

LAMB: Jump to the George Bush situation for a moment. Would he be president of the United States, in your opinion, if he wasn`t the son of George Herbert Walker Bush?

BELLOW: Well, certainly not. I don`t think -- I don`t think anybody thinks that. And of course, there has been a good deal of debate about this. And coincidentally, it began to become an issue about the same time that I began to write my book. I mean, I signed my contract in 1998, and that was the year in which both George Bush and Al Gore announced their intention to run for their respective parties` nominations. And right away, the mud began to fly, and the two men were compared as scions of political families.

It was my feeling -- of course, the outcome of the election has been contested, and I`m not -- I`m not -- I`m not sure that I want to say that Americans weren`t bothered at all by the fact that George Bush had these inherited connections, but I do think it`s fair to say that they were less bothered by them than many intellectuals and journalists thought they should be.

The public at large seemed to have the same attitude towards George Bush in 2000 that the New York public had about Teddy Roosevelt when he ran for office, which is to say, you know, let`s give him -- let`s give him a chance. And I think the outcome shows that -- at any rate, whether you feel that he was elected with a popular mandate or not, it`s clear that he did much better than anybody expected that he should be, considering that he didn`t have the kind of national political experience that Al Gore had.

LAMB: Would John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, be -- would he have been elected president if it hadn`t been for his father?

BELLOW: I don`t think he would have. Because he owed his entire career -- even though he was -- I think John Quincy Adams is very like Al Gore in being a very hardworking, dutiful son, who felt obliged and really driven to prove his merit on his own terms.

But it is clear from history that John Quincy would not have become secretary of state, for example, as he did, unless his father had pulled strings during the Washington administration to get him assigned as a diplomat in Europe. Now, John Adams` father was a great stickler for merit, and he didn`t wish to be seen to be helping his son, although he was very ambitious for young John Quincy, and John Quincy wrote in his diary on many occasions that he was -- that he felt a tremendous pressure from his father -- and from his mother, let`s not leave out Abigail -- or any of the dynastic mothers, who I think are very important in the story of nepotism.

But George Washington intervened to relieve John Adams of the burden of conflict and ambivalence, and he simply became the young man`s patron. And even interceded with the father when the father became president, to, as he put it in a letter, not to withhold deserved promotion from Mr. John Adams simply because he is your son.

LAMB: Did John Quincy Adams want to be president?

BELLOW: He did, very, very much so. The Adams` always as a family believed in their destiny to be leaders and democratic statesmen. And they all felt superbly qualified to be political figures, and they all were, in certain respects. It`s a very interesting family, and it`s been well documented. It is clear that the father and son were alike in certain -- in this respect, that they were not very good as presidents. Their contributions to American politics were stronger in other areas, particularly in diplomacy.

LAMB: You write a lot about Abraham Lincoln. What relationship did he have to his father or to his family?

BELLOW: Lincoln is the great counter-example. Lincoln is always held up as the model of the self-made man, or the person who rose from humble obscurity to become president of the country, based simply on his merit and worth. And I read many biographies of Lincoln, not with the intention of debunking this myth, because it was -- it is acknowledged to be a myth, and I wouldn`t be the first one to say so. After all, Lincoln was already a very successful lawyer, railroad lawyer in Springfield before -- well before he went into politics.

And -- but I did feel that Lincoln had to be dealt with. And what I found is very interesting, which is that, first of all, Lincoln came from a family that had a record and really a long history of public service. His own father, of course, was a failure, and had migrated west like many other people looking for greater opportunities. And he bought and failed again and again with many farms. He kept moving from one state to another. Finally ended up in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois. And the relationship between Abe and his father was very strained and harsh. The father wanted Abe to stay on the farm and contribute to the family enterprise. And Abe wanted to go off on his own. So it`s a very romantic situation.

Abe finally did go off on his own. And what I argue is that Lincoln had to become adept at forming friendships and alliances with people who could help him. And he had a genius for this kind of thing. He was famous for striking up life-long friendships on a moment`s notice. And he did climb on the rungs of these relationships to a very prominent positions in the Illinois Republican Party.

One of the most important things that he did to help himself was to marry Mary Todd. Mary Todd was a person, was a woman who came from a very well-respected, wealthy Kentucky family. They were a slave-owning family. And she was related by marriage to the circle of Illinois politicians known as the Springfield gento (ph). It`s one of the underdiscussed features of American political history. All over America in the 19th century, there were these what were called gentos (ph). It`s a Spanish word, a junta, but it really describes a cabal, a group of people who have common political and business interests, and generally intermarry in order to strengthen these bonds, and in order to get ahead in -- particularly in a provincial area like Illinois, you had to have some connection to this group of people.

And Lincoln, by marrying Mary Todd, acquired a marital connection to the Springfield gento (ph). And it was the making of him. He became the leading lawyer in the state. He was put up for -- well, he`d already been to Congress -- I mean, not to Congress, but to the State Assembly, where he had performed very significant services, particularly the most important service was getting the state capitol moved from Vandalia to Springfield, where the members of the gento (ph) could exploit this move, the business that would come with it. And his reward was really to be allowed to marry into the gento (ph). Later on, these friendships and relationships were very instrumental in helping him to rise to national office.

LAMB: Well, you know, as I again went to the book, I thought, how does he get all this stuff? I mean, there`s an enormous amount of ground that you cover. Go back to your -- the way you put the book together. When you got those 300 books out of the New York public library, were you allowed to keep them at home for three years?

BELLOW: Well, you know, I`m very grateful to the New York University library and the way that...

LAMB: New York University library, not...

BELLOW: New York University library. And the way it works is that you can check out books. You have to pay for the privilege as a borrower, because I`m not attached to the university at all. But I pay them an annual fee and I`m allowed to check out books and keep them the home. And I can renew them online, so that I don`t have to -- in the first year and half, I actually had to carry the books, you know, physically back to the library and have them stamped again. Over the course of the four years that I wrote this book, the N.Y.U. library entered the 21st century, and so it became possible for me to just type in my code number and my books would be renewed.

LAMB: The reason I ask is what was a normal day like for you? How did you immerse yourself in this book? Where did you write the book? How did you go about this to keep all this straight? Because you know -- I mean the reason I`m asking is you know that any chapter on any subject can be parsed by all kinds of historians.

BELLOW: Well, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, is all I can say. I was just on fire with enthusiasm for this subject, particularly because I knew that no one had ever done this before. I was plowing virgin territory, and it was tremendously exciting. I mean, I can`t emphasize enough how exciting and thrilling it is for an author to be writing a book on a subject that no one has ever written about. And this gave me a tremendous sense of motivation and also a sense of obligation. I really felt that I had to do this in a way that really would be unimpeachable.

And this gets me into another subject, which is -- which really is the question of, what kind of a book -- how good does my book have to be in order to withstand the kind of scrutiny that it`s likely to receive? After all, I am the son of Saul Bellow, and there were bound to be comparisons drawn, you know. Children of famous people, when they go into their parents` profession, even on a parallel track as I`ve chosen to do. I mean, I`m not a novelist. I don`t want to compete with my father directly. I don`t want to be compared with him directly.

But even though I went into a non-fiction track, I knew that the standards and expectations would be higher for me than for most other people. So I labored to produce a book that could not be impeached casually. No one could really -- no one could say I hadn`t done my homework. Perhaps this was -- maybe I overdid it. It`s possible that I was a little too earnest in my efforts to build this book in a way that would withstand those kinds of comparisons. But at the same time, my experience as an editor, and I`ve published many, as I said, published many books. Some of them are still in print. Most of them are not. And what I realized over the years as an editor and publisher is that if you want your book to last, you have to build it to last. And that`s what my ambition was. I wanted to build a book that would last longer than a season or two. And I hope I`ve succeeded in doing that.

LAMB: What`s today like?

BELLOW: Well, I have to earn a living. In addition to being a writer, I do acquire and edit and publish books for Doubleday. So I had an office there, and it was filled with my research materials and also the manuscript that I worked on. And I simply go in there, I went in very early, usually there by 8:00. And I would stay until about 6:00 or 6:30. And I was often in the office on weekends. In fact, usually on weekends. And when we went for a family vacation, I had to have a little room off to the side where I could hole up and do my work. And this became a way of life for me and for my family.

LAMB: Your family consists of?

BELLOW: I`m married. And I have two daughters.

LAMB: Age?

BELLOW: Ages 16 and 11. We live in New York City, in Soho. And for the first two years, I worked at home. And I had a little office at home. But my wife had to give up her nonprofit institution that she was running. So she started working at home. And I had to use office space at Doubleday.

LAMB: So when you -- again, the techniques. Did you do it on a laptop or on your desk computer?

BELLOW: Well, I have a laptop at home, and I have a desktop computer at Doubleday. I made extensive use of online research services. You can do a great deal of research now from your computer. You don`t have to visit every collection. So I was able to pursue my threads of my interest through the books that I checked out, through the research services available online.

And then there would be interruptions. You know, I`d have a couple of hours to work, and then I`d have to set my work aside and work on somebody else`s book, or I`d have to read proposals and circulate them and get my colleagues to agree to sign the books up. And you know, I worked very hard. I mean, it was difficult, if that`s what you`re asking.

LAMB: Well, no, when did you -- did you write each of these chapters -- I mean, once you did your research, would you write a chapter and then move on and research the next one? How did you do that?

BELLOW: Well, it`s not -- it`s not entirely clear to me how I did it or what my method was. I was researching -- because I was covering the entire span of human history, and I had to -- I had to -- I`ve spent -- I have one chapter on the biology of nepotism, which I spent about a year and a half writing and rewriting.

But at the same time, I was also working on other parts of the book. And actually, it wasn`t until I was about halfway through the process that the shape of the book emerged and that I began to understand, as I said, you know, it took me a while to figure out what the storyline was, because there`s a lot of material, and we don`t want to write a boring or repetitive book.

When I discovered that the story I was telling was really on the largest scale, it`s the story of the interaction between the family and the state, the difficulties -- after all, nepotism doesn`t really become -- doesn`t really emerge as a concept until the creation of the Catholic Church, which is the first in the Western history, the first large-scale bureaucratic organization. You`d had concerns about -- you had nepotism emerge as a problem to some extent in the previous millennium in the context of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy, and some of the other great bureaucracies of the ancient world, the Roman and Byzantine bureaucracies, for example.

Nepotism was considered to be a bit of a problem. But it was more or less winked at, because, frankly, the government didn`t pay bureaucrats very much. And it was expected -- a certain amount of corruption was expected. And whenever there`s corruption of that kind, nepotism is always involved. After all, you know, people in ancient china were enjoined to look after their families, and when a person became a bureaucratic official, it was expected by everybody, most of all the relatives, that he would do things to take care of them and also bring other people into the bureaucracy when there were opportunities to do so.

But it isn`t until the medieval or Renaissance period when the Catholic Church became a really powerful and important organization, that nepotism was identified as a problem, and somehow a solution had to be found.

And as you go forward in European history from that point, as national states emerge and bureaucratic institutions are created, the drama begins to heighten, because what happens is this: you have -- let me preface this by saying, people think of nepotism in America very narrowly, and this is the first thing that I really wanted to say, and it`s a thing that I find myself saying when I`m confronted with the natural indignation that Americans feel. After all, it`s outrageous for me to suggest that anything good could be said about nepotism.

But the reason it seems outrageous is simply the artifact of the narrow and arbitrary way in which we define nepotism today. We define nepotism as not just as favoring a relative over somebody else as a stranger, it`s implied that the relative is less competent. This is a reflection of American prejudice against nepotism. It`s an assumption that many people share, that your relatives are objectively going to be less qualified than a more qualified stranger.

And so what you find again and again is that you find people assuming that the majority of cases of nepotism are negative, that nepotism is a bad thing, it doesn`t work out. As one reviewer said, "nepotism earned its bad reputation."

Actually, from a study of history, I find this is completely untrue. It`s absolutely the reverse. And the greatest -- the best example of this is American business. And this is something I really want to emphasize.

When I got into this subject, I didn`t realize how extensive nepotism really is. And of course, it`s very visible in politics today. It`s very visible in Hollywood. And you can debate -- it`s legitimate to debate just how much family succession ought to go on in any of these supposedly meritocratic sectors.

But most nepotism occurs in the business world. And it is an astonishing fact, but about 95 percent of all American businesses are still family-owned or controlled. There are 24 million family businesses in this country. And they`re all being left to -- first of all, not just left, but they draw on family members for their labor and they`re generally left to family members. And I think it`s very clear, and I hope persuasive, to say that if nepotism weren`t on the whole a positive thing, the American economy would be a basket case. But of course, it isn`t. It`s a thriving engine of prosperity.

So I think you have -- so that`s the first thing I want to say about nepotism, that really it has a bad rap that it doesn`t deserve.

Now, historically when you look at nepotism from a historical point of view, what I find is another interesting thing, which is that nepotism has been practiced differently at different times in different cultural contexts, and it`s an evolving thing. And it evolves in relation specifically to the growth of state institutions in the market, of course. And the beneficiary of -- beneficiaries of nepotism have largely been the upper class and the lower classes and the immigrant classes, because at both these levels of society, nepotism has been practiced freely and openly for hundreds and hundreds of years.

It`s the middle class that has the prejudice against nepotism. And the reason for that, and my -- my argument, is that the middle class rose to prosperity through these institutions that were created in the early modern period, through the army, the state, the marketplace. And these are institutional settings in which merit and efficiency are necessary and are rewarded, generally.

And this is the case now in America. We have -- we still have today an upper class variety of nepotism, where you have very large extended families, you know, who have like -- the Bushes and the Kennedys who have compounds, family compounds in remote places where nobody`s allowed to go. And they help one another. They invest with one another. They do business together. They socialize together by preference. And they make careful marriages, as well.

But also at the lower class level, among working class and immigrant communities, nepotism is still the way things are done. And again, you know, one of the prejudices that people have about nepotism is that it`s all about class privilege, that somehow, you know, nepotism is considered to be a disease of the rich and that the only people who practice it are wealthy people who are allowed to buy privileges for their children.

But the truth is quite the opposite, that -- that nepotism is the traditional way in which working class people and particularly immigrant communities have pulled together and helped one another.

And middle class people in this country have by and large conveniently forgotten that their position in the middle class as doctors or lawyers or engineers or what have you is generally owed to two or three generations of ethnic nepotism.

LAMB: Can you remember when you were conscious of your father as a writer? And then can you remember where you decided I`m going to be a writer?

BELLOW: Oh, sure. I was very young. And that`s really all I knew about my father, really, because I didn`t live with him when I was 5, 6, 7 years old. I wanted to know -- everybody else had a daddy, and I wanted -- you know, they would come to school and they would say what their fathers did. I really didn`t know what my father did. And I had asked my mother. And she said, your father`s a writer.

Well, I didn`t really know what that meant. But it -- over time, of course, I became more aware of it. I think very early on, I decided that I wanted to be a writer. And I think it`s very common for children of accomplished parents to make that choice, because what I find in reading the accounts that various successors today give of their motives for going into the family business is that they want to be close to their parents. Very often, as you know, successful and accomplished people are often distant and absent and distracted and preoccupied. And so the children really have a psychological need to get their parents` attention, and they often choose to do this by following in their footsteps.

LAMB: By the way, Saul Bellow wrote, what are some of the big names of the novels he wrote?

BELLOW: Well, his first really famous novel was "The Adventures of Augie March," which was published I believe in 1953, before I was born. "Henderson the Rain King," "Herzog" are some of his other better known books, and most recently his last novel was called "The Ravelstein," which was a portrait of the late Alan Bloom, who was a friend of his.

LAMB: Now, have you ever had anybody analyze the way you write and the way he writes?

BELLOW: Well, no, I have not, but I -- it may happen. I`m conscious of certain echoes of my father`s prose style. And not just his prose style, but his way of speaking.

LAMB: Give us an example.

BELLOW: Well, he has a way of -- well, first of all, I guess what you`re really asking me is how much like my father am I?

LAMB: Or the opposite of that, how much different are you?

BELLOW: Well, I think you`d have to ask my wife in a way to -- the answer to that question. I mean, one difference between us is that I`ve been married for 16 or 17 years, and my father has had five marriages. So there`s clearly a difference there. And in fact, both of my brothers are committed monogamists, whereas our father was known for having liaisons and girlfriends and so forth.

LAMB: I`m really actually talking about the writing part of it, though. I mean, you know...

BELLOW: I know, I`m dodging this a little bit. I`m not sure how to answer your question. I think there`s a certain type of tonality and -- I mean, look at it this way. My father came from a immigrant -- impoverished immigrant environment, multilingual. He grew up in his home speaking Yiddish and Russian and English, and some French because the family lived in Montreal. And this developed -- these sources allowed him -- out of these sources he developed a very distinctive voice. It`s ironic. It`s sort of, you know, Jewish. But also highfalutin. It`s very intellectual. So it`s the kind of marriage of high and low that you find in his prose. It gives so much energy to his writing. I -- also, the wit is -- he`s famous. He`s very, very funny, both on the page and in person.

And I grew up in an environment where literacy, literary education and wit, certain kind of earthy puncturing, penetrating wit were very valued. So I learned to use language in a way from him that I think I wouldn`t have learned from anybody else.

LAMB: Of all the characters you wrote about in the book, is there anybody that you got interested in enough that you might expand on it later? Or if you don`t do that, who was your favorite character?

BELLOW: Well, I think my favorite character in this book is the father of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who has been I think unfairly reviled. And his bad reputation begins with Napoleon himself. And as I write in the book, the section devoted to the Bonaparte family is really about Napoleon`s father, because Napoleon is considered to be the great self-made man of the modern era, you know, the example of a young, fatherless young man who isn`t even really French, comes from Corsica, rises through the French military to the heights of political power, brings his brothers and sisters along with him, of course, and takes care of them.

But he always -- Napoleon always subscribed his success pretty much to his own genius and ability. And what I found when I looked into the story of the Bonaparte family is that Napoleon`s father, Carlo Bonaparte, was really underestimated by his own children, I think in a sad and ungrateful way. This is a story of a man who really devoted his entire life to getting his children into the system of French nobility.

LAMB: Just have a moment left, but I have to ask you about this cover. Whose idea was it? And for those that you can`t tell here, that`s a raised silver spoon.

BELLOW: Well, I was not part of this discussion. You know, authors are not invited to participate in jacket meetings. So I don`t know exactly whose idea it was. But I do know there was some difficulty figuring out how to illustrate this book. And somebody -- I think it was Bill Thomas, the editorial director at Doubleday, said, well, something -- this is really about inherited privilege, and isn`t it commonly said that, you know, people with inherited privileges are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. And everybody seemed to think that was a wonderful idea. And the resulting jacket, I think, is one of the most beautiful, striking and elegant jackets I`ve ever seen in publishing.

LAMB: That`s our time. And this is again what the cover looks like. And our guest has been Adam Bellow. The name of this book is "In Praise of Nepotism." Thank you very much.

BELLOW: Thank you, Brian.


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Book image In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History

Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385493886
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