Despite about fifteen minutes of anti-aristocratic rhetoric in the 1770s and 1780s, American politics, letters, and the arts have always been characterized by nepotism. This of course has almost always meant fathers and sons, rather than mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, or fathers and daughters, and thus has served not just to perpetuate class privilege but also masculine hegemony as well. And predictably, American families that have dominated politics, letters, and the arts usually don’t get better across the generations moving forward-sometimes the second generation sees an improvement (as in the case of the Winthrops), but by the third generation, the grandsons are for the most part living off of their grandfathers’ and fathers’ names. (Think of the Mathers, or the Adamses, or the Kennedys. Or the Bushes-and consider that Senator Prescott Bush was no John Adams.)
While in the twentieth-century nepotism fell out of fashion for a while, and mechanisms like the S.A.T. and the G.I. Bill served to open up even elite colleges to the masses, it appears that the twenty-first century in America is awash in primitive blood-tie fetishism. The children of famous mid-twentieth century writers were first on the bandwagon of necrotic memoir typing (yes, I’m talking to you Christopher Dickey and Susan Cheever. Martin Amis gets a pass, not because he’s English but because he’s an even better novelist than his father was, and arguably the best novelist of the late twentieth century in the English language.) Sofia Coppola is a good director, but is she really that much better than film school grads whose last name isn’t Coppola? And what else can explain Rufus Wainwright? Don’t look now, but there are new and almost certainly unimproved Bushes, Gores, Kennedys, and Romneys sure to run for national office in the next couple decades, and what an edge on fundraising and media attention that will be over their plain Jane and common Jonathan opponents.
Historiann thinks Perry Miller got it mostly right back in 1939 and 1953 with his discussion of declension-the founding generation has the zeal (or in the cases I’m talking about, the talent, such as it is) and succeeding generations try to replicate their successes but only engage in ancestor worship. These pampered sons are not living a man’s life, but that of a boy playing dress up. The perversity of rewarding this kind of behavior can only be explained by primitive blood-worship.
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