Growing up in a family of four boys, George Colt was stunned to read about presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth and his brothers, one of whom was the nation’s most respected actor. “How could two brothers grow up in the same family and be so different?” he wondered. “Could something like that happen to my brothers and me?” It didn’t, of course, but as Colt ponders his own boyhood and the stories of brothers throughout history in his new book he finds a dizzying range of fraternal dramas.
The most pervasive is competition, whether over maternal affection, food, or fame. Among the worst was the rivalry between Battle Creek’s Kellogg brothers, which led to an extended round of legal battles over the cereal empire each helped build. Bumptious but essentially benign brotherly competition pushed the Marx brothers into outrageous, unpredictable performances from vaudeville to the Broadway stage, where they played out roles and tensions spawned in early childhood. Even devoted sibling relationships are marked by competition; the novelist Henry James and his brother William compared medical complaints so much that their “correspondence reads like a hyper-literate version of the Merck Manual.”
Paternal favoritism and birth order play their roles in how brothers see themselves and each other. Eldest sons historically inherit more, but they can face strict parental scrutiny, too, as Colt finds in a letter from John Adams to his first son, John Quincy Adams: “If you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness, and Obstinacy.” Among the book’s unstated themes is how parenting itself has changed. In describing the overt, almost ludicrous favoritism with which writer Evelyn Waugh’s father treated his older brother, Alec, Colt points out, “The notion that parents should treat their children equally is relatively new.”
The book braids chapters on the Booths, Kelloggs, Van Goghs, Marxes, and Thoreaus with Colt’s stories of his own squabbling fraternity. Colt wrote lovingly about his family in his previous book, “The Big House,” and these sections form the strongest part of this book. Their household was boisterous and boyish — “[t]he amount of intellectual energy devoted to the subject of flatulence was mind-boggling” — yet beneath the rollicking surface all four struggled.
Although Colt wished his family were like television’s Wally and Beaver Cleaver, he writes that the brothers’ relationship felt more like the Three Stooges. Experts who study sibling conflict estimate that kids between 3 and 7 get into a spat every 17 minutes; Colt quips: “That figure seems low, if my childhood is any indication.” As Colt and his brothers Harry, Ned, and Mark grew, “it seemed the only intimacy we shared was when, figuratively and sometimes literally, we had our hands around each other’s throats.”
The second son, Colt found his role early on; he was to be “the good boy, the conciliator, the equivocator, the filler of silences.” Colt is an acute observer and sensitive chronicler of male emotion; his accounts of tearful bereaved or betrayed brothers, not to mention his own raw wounds at feeling abandoned by his older brother in adolescence, are searingly poignant. “Fierce fraternal competition,” Colt notes, “is often leavened by equally fierce loyalty.” With age and experience — and a well-timed stint of family therapy — the Colt brothers grew closer. Forty years after the fights, insults, and noogies, they now seek (and take) each other’s advice, adore one another’s children, and call after every important Red Sox game.