Among the many plotlines chased by the media before and after the Super Bowl this past February was the news that quarterback Peyton Manning, of the Denver Broncos, didn’t arrange tickets for his own family and friends. That job was given to his younger brother and fellow quarterback Eli, whose New York Giants had lost their first six games on the way to a 7-9 record. Call it brotherly loyalty with just a touch of rub-your-nose-in-it malice. The previous year’s Super Bowl had an even more gripping family drama, as two siblings faced off as head coaches, with John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens triumphing over his little brother Jim and the San Francisco 49ers across the field.
As George Howe Colt notes in Brothers, since before the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been obsessed with filial relationships. One doesn’t read far into the Bible before Cain and Abel engage in a competition ending in fratricide. The same is true in the legends of other cultures: Hector dies covering for Paris’s misdeeds in the Iliad; Beowulf’s unkindest cut toward Unferth in Anglo-Saxon lore is that “you killed your own kith and kin”; even in the closest thing Americans have to a national epic, the Godfather Trilogy, none of Michael Corleone’s misdeeds ever haunt him more than his own most unbrotherly response to Fredo’s betrayal.
In Brothers, Colt approaches this universal theme of brotherly love and competition from two different directions. He plumbs the depths of his own relationships with his three brothers through wistful and sometimes openly sentimental remembrances, but also tackles their struggles and less charming memories. Alongside, he explores in intimate detail the relationship between other famous brothers throughout history, focusing primarily on five family dramas; the Marx brothers; fellow actors John Wilkes Booth and his pro-Union brother Edwin; the van Gogh siblings; ill-fated John Thoreau and his brother Henry; and the hilariously feuding Kelloggs of cereal fame. Along the way, we are reminded of many other famous brothers in history, including the Waughs, the Kennedys, the Darwins and the DiMaggios of baseball lore.
Colt’s own stories will be partly familiar to fans of his award-winning 2004 family memoir, The Big House. Ironically, however, it is in the second approach that Colt’s book truly shines. Recollections of one’s childhood can feel saccharine or overly sentimentalized (or, in our contemporary milieu, mined for exaggerated emotional traumas), and Colt’s account of his life with brothers is no exception. While their lives are interesting and often touching, there is a touch of the sepia tone in these memories that feels a bit overdone. As they enter adulthood and try to retain and build on their childhood relationships, their lives become more gripping.
But in Colt’s tales of famous brothers in history there is no end of fascinating anecdotes or telling details that augur future successes and failures. The Booth brothers alone deserve a book: John Wilkes Booth is perhaps the most notorious figure in American history, and yet, Colt tells us, not even the most well-known Booth of his time. That honor went to his brother and great theatrical rival Edwin, a renowned Shakespearean actor who once led the younger “Johnny” onto stage after a shared performance and asked the crowd, “I think he has done well. Don’t you?” Their differing views on the Civil War formed the least of their quarrels, and John’s own prodigious artistic talents were forever compared to those of his more dignified brother. It is chilling to remember that John Wilkes murdered Abraham Lincoln in, of all places, the theatre.
The less murderous but equally sad tale of the brothers Thoreau is just as well researched and told. Henry came home from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house one day at the age of 24 to find John, the saintly older brother he idolized, dying of “lockjaw” (tetanus). Two weeks later, Henry experienced lockjaw himself, for reasons entirely psychosomatic—today, psychologists would attribute it to “survivor guilt.” According to Emerson, Henry Thoreau never made another friend in his life, but instead immersed himself in nature. In fact, he first retreated to his famous cabin at Walden Pond to write an account of a voyage he had taken with his brother six years before. “Without John’s death,” Colt writes, “Henry might never have become Thoreau.”
Colt’s other tales are less maudlin, but also indicative of his central thesis, that the sibling relationship is one of the most formative in any life. Anyone who grew up sharing a room with brothers, of course, can attest to the evolutionary advantage it gives you; you’re blessed with role models and antagonists from the start. As Colt notes, some experts have estimated that young siblings have a fight every 17 minutes, a figure he calls “low, if my childhood is any indication.” I know a prominent American Jesuit who once likened his experience of sharing a room with older brothers to Johnny Cash’s proverbial “Boy Named Sue”: “Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean/ My fists got hard and my wits got keen.” And I shall not lie, it was a childhood boon to me when my own older brother got braces, because one shot to the mouth drew first blood in every fight after. Payback, dear readers, for the 11 stitches I earned when he dropped me while attempting to feed me to the neighbors’ terrifying dog. Sic semper tyrannis! We’ve gotten over it.
All this talk of brothers, of course, no doubt raises the necessity of Colt writing a sequel, for many of us might have another question for the author: “Brothers, sure, they’ll play their part, but what might you tell the poor fellow who grew up with sisters?”