Thursday, Nov. 7, 1996
Read last night an essay on the possible significance of birth order. All three of the Nobel Prize-winning discoverers of DNA were firstborns. Firstborns tend to be more assertive than laterborns, and also more conservative. Laterborns turn out to be more innovative, more willing to take risks. Not that these speculations are reliably productive: Kepler and Newton were firstborns, and Darwin was the fifth of six children. As for siblings, the older commonly dominates the younger, and the younger, in secret response, in the end outdoes the older in ambition.
To my mind, one of the most amazing–and most poignant–evocations of the relationship between an older and younger brother (omitting Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau) is that famous photograph of William and Henry James in middle age. In their 20s, William, two years older than Henry, had charged ahead, studying medicine at Harvard and joining a natural-history expedition to the Amazon to examine fish fossils, while Henry complained of a backache and lay in bed reading Balzac. By the time of the photo–taken during William’s visit from America–Henry is living abroad, and both are extraordinarily distinguished, William as a scientist and pioneer in the psychology of religion, and Henry as a literary master. Henry is already thickened at the waist, and has signs of an expanding magisterial jowl. William is a bit thinner and taller. Both are fraternally balding, dressed formally in coats and vests, with walking sticks at the ready.
What is remarkable about this picture is what we nowadays would call its “body language.” William stands erect, confident; he knows his worth. Henry, the Master, the great writer admired by Turgenev and Conrad, leans his head to the side, like a little boy, knowing his lesser place, subservient to his big brother.
“Only” children–my daughter is one, and so are two close friends who are novelists–are generally classified among firstborns. I suppose, logically, there is nowhere else to place them. But in temperament, they seem more like laterborns. If the long history of primogeniture favors the firstborn, then folklore and fairy tale choose the youngest, often the youngest of three. The two oldest have all the advantages storytelling can bestow. But the youngest–overtly docile, inconspicuous, easily overlooked, written off as predictably commonplace–turns out to be the pluckiest, hence the luckiest. It is from the lips of the youngest that diamonds fall when she speaks. It is the youngest who captures the golden goose. It is the youngest who inherits the kingdom. What is it, in only children and the laterborn, that makes them so quietly, privately, ambitiously fierce?
We do know that when William’s visit ended and he finally went home (to add to his own eminence), Henry James lifted up his head again, and sat down to write another masterwork.