Brothers

On His Brothers and Brothers in History

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About The Book

 G E O R G E H OW E C O L T ’ S The Big House is, as the New Yorker said, “full of surprises and contains more than seems possible: a family memoir, a brief history of the Cape, an investigation of nostalgia, a study of class, and a meditation on the privileges and burdens of the past.” Colt’s new book, Brothers, is an equally idiosyncratic and masterful blend of memoir and history featuring both the author’s three brothers and iconic brothers in history—the Booths, the Van Goghs, the Kelloggs, the Marx Brothers, and the Thoreaus.

Colt believes he would be a different man had he not grown up in a family of four brothers. He movingly recounts the adoration, envy, affection, resentment, and compassion in their shifting relationships from childhood through middle age, also rendering a volatile decade in American life: the 1960s. Some of the Colt men now have children; all have found their own paths; all now consider their brothers to be their closest friends.

In alternate chapters, Colt parallels his quest to understand how his own brothers shaped his life with an examination of the rich and complex relationships between iconic brothers in history. He explores how Edwin Booth grew up to become the greatest actor on the nineteenth-century American stage while his younger brother John grew up to assassinate a president. How Will Kellogg worked for his overbearing older brother John Harvey as a subservient yes-man for two decades until he finally broke free and launched the cereal empire that outlasted all his brother’s enterprises. How Vincent van Gogh would never have survived without the financial and emotional support of his younger brother, Theo, in a claustrophobic relationship that both defined and confined them. How Henry David Thoreau’s life was shadowed by the early death of his older brother, John, who haunted and inspired his writing. And how the Marx Brothers collaborated on the screen but competed offstage for women, money, and fame.

Illuminating and affecting, this book will be revelatory for any parent of sons, any sibling, anyone curious about how a man’s life can be molded by his brothers. Colt’s magnificent book is a testament to the abiding power of fraternal love.

Excerpt

Chapter One
The Colt Boys

If the handful of black-and-white snapshots that remain from my childhood is any indication, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up with a permanent crick in my neck from literally and figuratively looking up to my older brother. Harry was born twenty months before me, and I worshiped him with an intensity that must have been both flattering and bewildering to the worshipee. I didn’t want to be like Harry; I wanted to be Harry. I cocked my coonskin cap exactly the way he did when we played Daniel Boone; I made the same pshew-pshew sounds he did when I pulled the trigger on my silver plastic six-shooter; I punched the pocket of my baseball glove every time he punched his. When he woke me in the middle of the night one Christmas Eve and invited me downstairs to open presents while our parents slept, I followed. When he said he could help me get rid of my loose tooth, I let him tie it to the playroom doorknob and slam the door. He was my older brother and I would have agreed to anything he proposed; I would have followed him anywhere. And so, one spring evening not long before I turned six, as we lay in our matching twin beds, when Harry suggested that we run away from home, I said yes.

The following morning before dawn, I woke to find him standing next to my bed in his pajamas, clutching to his chest the gray metal strongbox in which he kept his baseball cards. I tiptoed behind him down the back stairs, through the kitchen, and into the garage. Harry opened the front door to the old blue Ford, climbed in, and shimmied over to the driver’s seat. I scrambled up next to him. We sat awhile in silence before he unlocked the strongbox and offered me some of the saltines with which he had filled it the night before. (To make room, he had left behind all but his most precious Red Sox cards.) We chewed our crackers and stared through the windshield at the closed garage door. I don’t remember what we said, or indeed whether we said anything at all. I don’t remember wondering where, if anywhere, we were going, or how far we could get in our pajamas, or what we would eat when the saltines ran out. I certainly didn’t ask my brother. Because I believed Harry could do anything, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the car had somehow started, the garage door had opened, and we’d sailed off down Village Avenue, our quiet, tree-lined street in suburban Boston, and into the sky.

* * *

It never occurred to me to ask my brother why we were running away. Ours was not the kind of home from which most people would have thought it necessary, or even advisable, to run away. We lived in a comfy old brown house equipped with a corrugated cardboard fort big enough to stand up in; enough wooden blocks to construct several castles simultaneously; a banister to speed our journey from the second floor to the first; and a bathroom in which every fixture—sink, toilet, and tub—was jet-black, a color scheme so unusual that neighborhood kids were always knocking on our door, asking to use the facilities. We had a backyard big enough for games of catch and a sprinkler to run through on hot summer days. Beyond our fence lay a world that seemed designed for a six-year-old boy: houses close together to maximize candy collection on Halloween; enough kids within shouting distance to field a baseball team; sidewalks that could get our bikes every place worth getting to, their curbs so eroded by generations of Raleighs and Schwinns that we didn’t have to dismount when crossing a street; and a huge chestnut tree that provided ammunition for fights, pretend money for card games, and the sheer pleasure of peeling off the rubbery, lime-green skin to uncover the nut within, shiny and polished as a violin.

Best of all, within a stone’s throw of our house—if Harry was doing the throwing—there were three places that made our otherwise tame neighborhood seem as thrilling as the wilderness depicted on any explorer’s map. Four houses to the east lay the Norfolk County Jail, an ivy-covered granite hulk in which, our mother told us, two prisoners with Italian names I could never remember had been imprisoned before being sent to the electric chair in 1927, an event whose macabre allure still lingered in the air as I hurried past on my way to the library thirty-five years later. (I could never understand why bad guys were always “sent” to the electric chair, which made it sound as if the post office were somehow involved and begged the all-important question of what happened after they reached their destination.) Across the street from the jail lay the graveyard, where we played freeze tag, hide-and-seek, and war, taking care not to step on the bulges in front of the lichen-embossed headstones, bulges we assumed were the bellies of the dead. A block to the south of us, the tidy lawns gave way to a morass of vines and skunk cabbage we called the swamp, an outpost of botanical anarchy that in well-manicured Dedham seemed as exotic as the Black Lagoon from which the proverbial Creature emerged, and in whose tea-colored water we’d wade in search of smaller but equally slimy creatures. These three landmarks allowed us to believe that we lived in a dangerous world, a world in which an escaped convict, a vengeful ghost, or a hideous monster might appear at any moment. I remember watching Swiss Family Robinson and being impressed that the island on which they had shipwrecked somehow encompassed mountains, waterfalls, beaches, caves, lakes, and quicksand (a wealth of natural wonders ecologically unlikely to be found in one place, I later realized). With its prison, its graveyard, and its swamp—which, I felt sure, contained at least a dollop of quicksand—our neighborhood had been no less blessed.

Even without these attractions, I wouldn’t have been inclined to run away from home. Dedham was the first place my family had lived long enough to call home. Our father was a businessman, and whenever he was promoted, we moved to a new town. (In those days, you went where the company sent you or you wouldn’t be with the company for long.) Before Dedham, we had lived in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Philadelphia—three different places in five years. We had been in Dedham for more than two years, the longest we had ever spent in one place, and I assumed we would be there forever. Dad built us a sandbox and installed a swing set. He and Mum spent Sunday afternoons on their hands and knees, putting in a brick patio. They planted a dogwood tree and a bed of pachysandra. For the first time, our family, too, seemed to be putting down roots.

Nor were our mother and father the type of parents one ran away from. Mum did all the things mothers in the fifties were supposed to do, but she did them a little differently. She made us peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches but cut them into triangles and trapezoids we reassembled like puzzle pieces before eating. She read aloud from Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss—and Oscar Wilde. She drew stick figures and animals with us, as well as squiggles we had to turn into pictures. Or she’d draw a face without letting us see it, fold the paper, then pass it to one of us, who’d draw a torso and arms. That person would fold the paper and pass it to the next brother, who would draw the legs. And so on. We’d unfold the paper to find a goofy-looking, cobbled-together character that made us howl with laughter. She sang us songs about fathers buying mockingbirds and children selling shoes to barefooted angels, as well as songs about coal miners striking, southern women done wrong by their men, calves on their way to the slaughterhouse, young lords poisoned by their lovers—songs she’d learned from the copies of Sing Out! that lay on the coffee table. When she and Dad went out to dinner parties on Friday nights, she wore muumuus she’d made from Indian-print bedspreads, hoop earrings, scarab bracelets, and scarlet lipstick that made her look like a gypsy. Mum was what the neighbors called “artistic.” She painted. She made Christmas ornaments of balsa wood. She played the accordion. She gave guitar lessons to neighborhood teenagers. Sunday-afternoon strollers heard the sounds of “Down in the Valley” and “This Little Light of Mine” wafting from our living room. After one winter snowstorm Mum came out to play with us. By lunchtime she had sculpted a buxom lady so enormous and lifelike it frightened me—surely the first snowwoman our town had ever seen.

Dad was like our friends’ fathers, only handsomer, funnier, and more athletic. His arrival home from work was the big event of our day. (We didn’t really know what he did when he took the train into Boston each morning—it had something to do with bottled gas—but each spring we swelled with pride when he supplied the tank of helium that enabled the balloons at the school fair to fly.) The moment he came through the door and set down his briefcase, we swarmed him, clamoring to have him squeeze our nonexistent biceps (“Feel my muscle!”), vying for the airplane rides he gave us as he lay on his back and held us aloft on his stockinged feet, pleading for another knock-knock joke. Saturday mornings, we’d pile into the car for errands: the dump, the Esso station, the paper store, and what Dad called the package store—a Massachusetts euphemism that had me imagining shelves of empty brown boxes. (It never failed to surprise me when, at home, Dad would reach into the bag he’d bought there and, like a magician, pull out a frosted bottle of Gilbey’s gin and several cartons of Kents.) Fall afternoons, Harry and I sat on either side of Dad in the vast cement horseshoe of Harvard Stadium, cheering the football team I assumed Harry would play for someday. After the final gun, as the sun dipped below the stadium wall, I followed Harry onto the field, where we beseeched the players to sign our programs or give us their sweat-softened chin straps. On Sundays, we helped Dad rake leaves into a pile on the sidewalk, where he’d burn them, one of dozens of piles that smoked like signal fires along the length of Village Avenue.

Dad was a kind of Superman to us, but much cooler than the cape-and-tights-wearing one on TV. Although he couldn’t fly, he could pinch out a candle flame with his bare fingers; place a quarter on his bent elbow and, a second later, make it appear in his hand; throw a tennis ball so high we thought it would never come down. In the car, in those pre-seat-belt days, whenever we came to a red light or had to make a sudden stop, he’d reach his arm across the front seat to keep us from pitching forward. No matter how violent the potential crash, we believed his arm would keep us safe. He was always willing to give us piggyback rides, quiz us on our state capitals, take us sledding, tighten our hockey skates, lead a game of crack the whip, have a snowball fight. It seemed that everything important to Harry and me, we learned from Dad: how to ride a bike, how to skate, how to catch a ball. Each evening after work, he’d throw us popups in the backyard. No matter how many times we pleaded for “just one more,” Dad would always throw us another until, looking up for the ball, we noticed that the first star had appeared in the sky. Everything Dad owned seemed redolent of the manly, grown-up world to which Harry and I aspired: the monogrammed money clip from which he’d extract a few green bills; the silver Zippo that gave off a pungent whiff of gasoline as he flicked the thumbwheel and lit another Kent; the badger-hair brush he swirled in the foaming wooden tub of Old Spice soap as we watched him shave; the parrot-headed can opener with which he punched two triangles in the top of a can of beer; the Purple Heart he’d won in the war and kept in a cigar box; the frayed black high school letter sweater in which we buried our faces as we threw our arms around him for a hug.

* * *

Perhaps because he had the same name—in our extended family he was known as Little Harry or Harry Third—my brother seemed like a pocketsize version of our father. I regarded him with hardly less awe. Like Dad, Harry was smart. He knew the twelve times table. He got all As in school. Like Dad, Harry seemed effortlessly good at sports. He could throw a spiral, pitch a fastball, ride a bike faster than anyone else I knew. In games, Harry was always the first pick, and whichever team picked him usually won. He reminded me of Chip Hilton, the straight-arrow star of the football, basketball, and baseball teams at Valley Falls High in the books by Clair Bee that he and I loved. At recess, I watched as Harry and the older boys played flag football, his plastic belt, with its twin, trailing pennants, looking like some sort of below-the-waist military honor. After school, they played Russian Shmuck, an ersatz football game presumably christened in a spasm of Cold War patriotism, in which one boy ran with the ball while everyone else tried to tackle him. I longed to be as tough as Harry. He and his friends skipped rocks in the street. They lugged shirtfuls of chestnuts to the graveyard and, crouching behind the headstones, pelted one another with the knobby brown nuts. Harry never cried when Mum dabbed Mercurochrome on his skinned knees. On Saturday mornings, looking like a lumpy knight in his helmet and shoulder pads, he went across town to the field near the Catholic church in East Dedham, where he played tackle football on a real team with real uniforms. I had read about how, in ancient times, an army sent forth its strongest warrior to challenge the enemy’s champion. If ever our neighborhood had to send forth a champion to defend us, I knew it would be Harry.

Harry would never have put himself forth for the job. Unlike Dad, who was always making people laugh, Harry was quiet, pensive, vigilant. As a baby he had rarely cried, and when he was a toddler he had been so well-behaved that the elderly woman who babysat him in El Paso said that he was “like the return of the Christ child.” In nursery school his teachers wrote to our parents, saying that while Harry was clearly a smart boy, they were concerned that he spoke so little. When I was born, according to Mum, Harry showed no signs of jealousy—nary a tweak, nary a howl-provoking pinch. As I grew, he never lorded it over me that he knew the multiplication tables or that he could hang upside down from the monkey bars. When we played cowboys and Indians, he never made me be the Indian; we were both cowboys. When I began first grade, our parents made it clear to Harry that he was to look out for his little brother. He took his charge to heart. Each morning, we’d ride our bikes the half mile to school together, Harry glancing over his shoulder to make sure I hadn’t fallen too far behind. At recess, seeing him across the playground with the older kids, I felt safe. Whenever I walked alone past the jail on my way to the library, I was tempted to run, but with Harry alongside, I dared look over at its arched, Gothic windows, hoping to see—and afraid I’d see—someone looking back at me from behind the iron bars. When he was nine, Harry was named to the Safety Patrol, the highest honor our little four-grade school could bestow. Although I missed riding to school with him—his duties demanded that he get there early—I was recompensed by the pride I felt as I saw him on High Street, the Safety Patrol’s glistening white plastic sashes crisscrossing his chest. As he waved me and my friends across the road, I knew not to say hi, knew not to distract him from his lifesaving work, but I didn’t need to: everyone knew he was my brother.

It amazed me that this godlike creature deigned to consort with a mere mortal like me. Harry let me watch as he sorted his baseball cards on our bedroom floor. He let me play with the plastic figurine of Willie Mays he’d gotten for Christmas. When he and his friends played baseball in the jailfield, a swatch of weeds that lay in the shadow of the jailhouse wall, he let me tag along. When I called “Wait up,” he waited up. If, occasionally, he went off with his friends and it was clear I wasn’t to follow, I never once heard him say, “Let’s ditch him.” When I asked him whether a watermelon would grow inside me if I swallowed a watermelon seed, he told me the truth. At night, in the room we shared above the kitchen, Harry and I whispered across the gulf between our beds. Unlike Harry, I was a garrulous fellow, so it was mostly me asking questions: “Who would you rather be, Alan Shepard or John Glenn?” “Who do you think is better, Eddie Bressoud or Pumpsie Green?” (A moot point, given that the entire Boston Red Sox lineup was prodigiously inept in the early sixties.) “Who do you like more, Tommy or Cubby? . . . Kennedy or Nixon? . . . Spanky or Alfalfa?” Harry’s reticence made everything he said all the more valuable; his opinions I took as facts; his answers became the answers I gave my friends when they asked me those same questions. I recently came across my third-grade album, which contained snapshots of my classmates and a section (titled “I LIKE”) in which I’d listed my favorite sport (Russian Shmuck), movies (scary), TV shows (Little Rascals). Under “My Pal,” I had written, in capital letters three times the size of my other answers, HARRY COLT.

CHAPTER TWO

            GOOD BROTHER, BAD BROTHER: EDWIN AND JOHN WILKES BOOTH  

In the fall of 1864, with the Civil War well into its fourth year, the attention of most Americans was on Atlanta, where General Sherman, having captured the city, was resting his troops before their march to the sea. The attention of the New York theatrical community, however, was on the Winter Garden, where rehearsals were taking place for a special benefit performance whose proceeds would go toward erecting a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park, the vast public greensward that had opened seven years earlier. The benefit would mark the first time that the celebrated Booth brothers, sons of the late Junius Brutus Booth, would act on the same stage. As the playbill put it, in the overbaked public-relations prose of the time, “The evening will be made memorable by the appearance in the same piece of the three sons of the great Booth, JUNIUS BRUTUS, EDWIN, and JOHN WILKES, ‘filii patri digno digniores,’ Who have come forward with cheerful alacrity to do honor to the immortal bard, from whose works the genius of their father caught its inspiration, and of many of whose greatest creations he was the best and noblest illustrator the stage has ever seen.” In a twist that would pique lovers of irony in the years to come, the brothers had chosen to perform Julius Caesar.

 The playbill listed the Booth brothers in descending order of age. Had they been listed in order of renown, as was usually the practice, Edwin would have come first. At thirty, he was widely acclaimed as the greatest American actor of his day, having eclipsed the legendary Edwin Forrest, for whom he had been named. His twenty-six-year-old brother John, however, was not far behind. John’s bombastic, athletic style--it was said that he often slept covered in raw oysters to soothe the bruises earned in overzealous stage fights--was the antithesis of Edwin’s subtle, measured approach. Yet there were theater critics, especially in the South, who believed that John had surpassed his famous brother. Junius, or June, as his family called him, at forty-two the eldest Booth brother by twelve years, was the least well known, a serviceable but uninspired actor who had made his reputation as a theatrical manager in the West. (A fourth brother, Joseph, had inherited neither the Booth talent nor the inclination for the stage; he worked as a messenger boy for Wells Fargo.) Although the brothers looked remarkably similar--variations on their father’s short stature, tousled black hair, and lustrous brown eyes--they were vastly different in temperament. June, who possessed the stolid, well-fed air of a middle-aged banker, was a cautious, practical businessman rumored never to take a chance on an untried actor. Cast against type, he would play Cassius, of the “lean and hungry look”--his father’s role. Edwin was a slender introvert said to suffer stage fright everywhere but on stage. He usually played Cassius, but this time, deferring to his elder brother, took the part of Brutus, the conflicted assassin. John was the darling of the family, a dashing, impetuous bon vivant fond of poetry, poolhalls, and brothels. Although his older brothers tut-tutted over John’s excesses, they couldn’t help being charmed by his boyish enthusiasm. Both June and Edwin considered him their favorite brother. John had shaved his trademark moustache to play the demagogue Mark Antony.

Given the nomadic nature of an actor’s life, there were rarely more than two Booth brothers in the same place at the same time. Yet the brothers were loyal and affectionate, if not intimate. June had helped Edwin get his theatrical start in San Francisco; several years later, Edwin had promoted John’s career in the East, and recently, after June had made some poor real estate investments, Edwin had paid off his brother’s debts and invited him to help manage the Winter Garden. (That this would bring “The Brothers Booth,” as Edwin called them, together for the first time in many years had given him the idea for the benefit.) As always when they came to New York, June and John stayed at Edwin’s house on East 19th street, where their mother, Mary Ann, and their spinster sister, Rosalie, also lived. Yet while the playbill noted the “cheerful alacrity” with which the Booth brothers had volunteered for the benefit, there was growing tension between Edwin and John. Like many families, the Booths were divided by the war. Edwin sided with the North; John was passionately, outspokenly, for the South. Although Edwin disliked conflict of any sort, he was fed up with what he called John’s “patriotic froth,” and tried to reason with his hotheaded younger brother. (June, who shared Edwin’s pro-Union sympathies, acted as peacemaker, observing that the war was like a family quarrel in which both sides would eventually reconcile.) The more desperate the Southern cause, however, the more vitriolic John’s pronouncements. That summer, the fraternal arguments grew so heated that Edwin forbade the discussion of politics in his home. John, for his part, wrote to their sister Asia, “If it were not for mother, I would not enter Edwin’s house.”

Edwin and, for that matter, June, would have been apoplectic had they known that John’s support of the Confederacy was far more than mere “froth.” Indeed, even as they rehearsed the assassination scene in Julius Caesar, John was in the midst of his own elaborate plot: to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, smuggle him south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and exchange him for Rebel prisoners of war. For several months, he had been pouring his earnings as an actor into horses, rifles, knives, field glasses, handcuffs, and other supplies. (It was a busy summer even for the peripatetic John. As he worked on his plans to kidnap Lincoln, he was also dashing back and forth to western Pennsylvania to oversee his oil field investments and staying up late at night to write love letters to a 16-year-old Boston girl, all the while preparing for Julius Caesar.) In any case, the fraternal arguments, as well as John’s plotting, were temporarily suspended in August when John contracted a severe case of erysipelas, a skin infection that in the nineteenth century could be fatal. When John fainted from the pain, June carried him upstairs to bed. It would be three weeks before John, cared for by his mother and his brothers, recovered.

On the night of November 25, 1864, some two thousand people, paying up to $5 a ticket--more than six times the usual price--packed the Winter Garden, the largest audience in its fourteen-year history. “The theatre was crowded to suffocation, people standing in every available place,” Asia recalled. When the brothers made their entrance, side by side in Caesar’s train, they were greeted with an ovation that seemed to shake the building. At the end of the first act they stood in front of the curtain, bowing to the audience, to one another, and, finally, to their 62-year-old mother, who beamed down from a private box as the applause swelled, handkerchiefs waved, and shouts of “Bravo” resounded. (Asia, listening to people around her compare the brothers, heard someone exclaim, “Our Wilkes looks like a young god,” and turned to see a Southerner watching the stage intently.) Even the finicky New York critics were impressed. “Brutus was individualized with great force and distinctness,” wrote a reviewer for the Herald. “Cassius was brought out equally well--and if there was less of real personality given to Marc Antony, the fault was rather in the part than in the actor. . . . He played with a phosphorescent passion and fire, which recalled to old theatregoers the characteristics of the elder Booth.” Indeed, some were of the opinion that the youngest Booth had outshone his brothers. Asia, who respected Edwin but adored John and thus may not have been the most objective witness, observed that “Edwin was nervous; he admired Wilkes and thought that he never beheld a being so perfectly handsome. I think he trembled a little for his own laurels.”

The evening was a critical, familial, and financial success--it would raise $3500 for the statue fund–aside from an unsettling incident at the beginning of Act Two. Soon after the curtain rose on Edwin Booth, as Brutus, pacing the orchard before dawn, the audience was startled by several firemen who rushed into the Winter Garden lobby shouting “Fire!” People stood in confusion; some scrambled toward the exits. Panic threatened until Edwin walked to the footlights and in a quiet but firm voice announced that there was nothing to fear; the fire, in the hotel next door, was under control. People returned to their seats, the hubbub subsided, and the play went on.

 The following morning, over breakfast at Edwin’s, the brothers read in the Herald that the fire had been one of more than twenty set in Manhattan hotels the previous evening by Confederate saboteurs in “a vast and fiendish plot to burn the city.” June was outraged; a former member of the Committee of Vigilance, the notorious renegade group that employed kidnapping and lynching to bring frontier justice to San Francisco, he said that the arsonists should be hanged in a public square. John defended the fires as a reasonable response to the devastation General Sherman was exacting on his march through Georgia. Edwin took this moment to tell his brothers that he had cast his ballot for Lincoln in the recent election--the first time he had ever voted. John, increasingly agitated, told Edwin that he’d regret his vote when Lincoln made the United States a monarchy and had himself crowned king. Edwin told John that he was not welcome in his home if he was going to express such treasonous sentiments.

That afternoon, the brothers parted. Edwin and June headed to the Winter Garden, where Edwin would perform the first of what became the legendary hundred night-run as Hamlet that would establish him as the country’s greatest Shakespearean actor. John returned to Washington, where he took a room in the National Hotel and began to recruit more Rebel sympathizers for his plot to kidnap the president. Although the brothers had agreed on a second benefit performance of Julius Caesar, scheduled for April 22, 1865, circumstances would conspire to keep that event from taking place.

                                                                           ***

 

Like many children, I was fascinated by the War Between the States. For my ninth birthday, my parents gave me The Golden Book of the Civil War, which I spent much of the next year poring over, its maps of the major battles illustrated with platoons of tiny, meticulously-painted soldiers positioned with historical accuracy on olive-green fields. For Christmas I was given a plastic replica of a Civil War cannon whose tennis-ball-sized ordnance I fired at Ned’s legs. That spring, when we visited our grandparents in Virginia, I spent several weeks of saved allowance on a Union forage cap that I wore as Ned and I reenacted the Civil War in the fields behind our grandparents’ house, whose bricks were pocked with real bullet holes made by real Union rifles. Ned, of course, played Johnny Reb to my Billy Yank, for while I secretly admired the South’s audacity and was intoxicated by the romantic scent of defeat that even in the 1960s seemed to linger in the sultry air, I was too much the good boy to be anything other than a Union man.

I was fascinated by the Civil War for the same reasons boys are fascinated by any war--my interest in this case no doubt deepened by my interest in the Civil Rights struggle unfolding on our television set exactly one hundred years later--but I found something especially intriguing in a conflict so frequently described as pitting “brother against brother” at a time when my own life could have been summarized by the same words. That the phrase was meant not only figuratively but literally seemed incredible to me; despite my fraternal skirmishes, I found it shocking (and titillating) that brothers from the same family had fought on opposite sides of the war, in some cases in the same battle. The war’s association with brothers was reinforced when I read my parents’ coffee-table volume about Lincoln and learned that his assassin, the perpetrator of the most reviled act in American history, had an older brother who had become America’s most admired actor. How could two brothers grow up in the same family and end up so differently? Could something like that happen to my brothers and me?

 

History is full of brothers so different that it seems impossible they could have the same parents--beginning, of course, with Cain and Abel. A brief sampling through the ages might include the Arouets (Armand was a sanctimonious, evangelical Catholic, whereas younger brother François--better known by his penname, Voltaire--was a witty, irreverent satirist and a savage critic of the Catholic Church); the Robespierres (Maximilien became the rigid, merciless overlord of the Reign of Terror, known to supporters as “the Incorruptible,” whereas younger brother Augustin became a self-indulgent lover of luxury known to friends as “Bon Bon”); the Melvilles (Gansevoort became a dutiful, responsible lawyer, whereas younger brother Herman became a world traveler and iconoclastic writer known to his family as “the runaway brother”); the Carters (sober and pious Jimmy became president, whereas younger brother Billy played the court jester and drunken buffoon); the Newtons (Walter became a street hustler, Melvin a professor of sociology, and youngest brother Huey--torn between fraternal poles--a book-loving, poetry-quoting, street-fighting, home-burgling co-founder of the Black Panther Party.) Brothers can end up on opposite sides of a war, like James Campbell, a South Carolina clerk who joined the Confederate militia, and his younger brother Alexander, a New York City stonecutter who enlisted in the Union infantry. (Without knowing it at the time, the brothers, who corresponded affectionately throughout the war, fought against each other at the battle of Secessionville in 1862.) Brothers may end up on opposite sides of a moral issue, like John Brown, the cynical, hard-drinking Rhode Island profiteer who became one of the country’s wealthiest slave traders while his idealistic, abstemious younger brother Moses became a leading Quaker abolitionist. Brothers not infrequently end up on opposite sides of the law, like Whitey Bulger, the most powerful Massachusetts gangster of the late-twentieth century, and his younger brother Billy, the most powerful Massachusetts politician of that same era.

How can siblings, who share so much genetically and environmentally, be so different? Are they, underneath, so different after all? When I suggested that Whitey and Billy Bulger constituted a contemporary version of Cain and Abel, a biographer of theirs, pointing out that both men were megalomaniacs who ruthlessly abused their power, quickly corrected me: “Cain and Cain,” he said.

About The Author

Photograph by Ellen M. Augarten

George Howe Colt is the bestselling author of The Big House, which was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Brothers; November of the Soul; and The Game. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, the writer Anne Fadiman.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (November 27, 2012)
  • Length: 480 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451697667

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Raves and Reviews

A masterful blend of history and memoir…”

– San Francisco Chronicle

“A great book—brilliantly conceived, daringly organized, endlessly fascinating...”

– Steve Weinberg, The Dallas Morning News

“Part memoir, part exhaustively researched biography of famous brothers and how they drove each other, loved each other, fought, drove each other crazy, and supported each other through craziness…Insightful and harrowing and funny and stacked with stories.”

– Maile Meloy, The New Yorker

“Anyone who’s had the pleasure of reading Colt’s previous, National Book Award-nominated work, The Big House, will know his delicate, detailed, ironically self-mocking way with prose, and his lucid, affectionate fair-mindedness. . .Colt has done a prodigious job of research and synthesis, and his skill at storytelling is such that each of them is transformed into something fresh, dramatic, and emotionally piercing.”

– Phillip Lopate, The New York Times Book Review

Colt writes movingly and insightfully about how the mercurial fraternal relationships can so quickly move from loving idolatry to hands-around-the-throat…This is one fine book, both wildly entertaining and utterly thought-provoking.”

– Richard C. Morais, Barron's

“Vivid and psychologically revealing…”

– Edward Morris, Bookpage

“Detailed considerations…of well-known brothers and cameo references to many others, famous and not so, help Colt in his quest to explain the mystery of how siblings can be so different from one another.”

– Madeleine Blais, The Chicago Tribune

Colt elegantly captures the complicated dynamics between brothers that both bind and define them, as well as the evolving relationships between his own brothers as they move into middle age.”

– Parade

“Colt is an acute observer and sensitive chronicler of male emotion…Searingly poignant.”

– Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Colt’s fine writing, extensive research, and thoughtful analysis make Brothers a meaty, pleasurable read.”

– Deb Baker, The Concord Monitor

“The brotherly counterpoint between fierce rivalry and stalwart affection is teased out in this absorbing meditation on family dynamics…No one writers better than Colt about families and the strange alchemy that binds them, and the way siblings make each other what they are even as they become distinct, even estranged, personalities.”

– Publishers Weekly

“An enjoyable read for members of small and large broods alike…”

– Allison Block, Booklist

“The second of four brothers, [Colt] perceptively explores his fraught relationship with them—the competitiveness and conflicts, the yearning for a closeness that would not come until several decades had passed—in the context of an often wistful memoir of an…American family in the 1950s and ‘60s.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“As soon as I started reading Brothers, I found myself talking about it to everyone I saw. You will want to give it to people in your life. George Howe Colt is a master at balancing the personal and the universal, and the book makes a powerful case for sibling rivalry—and love—as a driving force not just in individual lives but in the world.”

– Maile Meloy, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Liars and Saints

“A master craftsman of literary nonfiction, George Howe Colt brilliantly conjoins history and memoir, insight and humor—not to mention Cain and Abel, Groucho and Harpo. Every page of this book is a pleasure.”

– Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

"A captivating blend of historical anecdote, personal revelation, and psychological insight, this lively and imaginative book will serve up a great deal of wisdom (and just as much fun) to anyone who has ever been a brother or had a brother. In fact, maybe all you have to do to derive pleasure and nourishment from Colt's book is simply to have once met a brother—it’s that appealing."

– Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

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