Following in the Parents’ Footsteps

I just read a fun steampunk-ish novel, Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway (2012). It’s set in the present day, but takes place in a London that is just as ancient and weird as one would hope. A morose young man who is an expert clock maker comes upon an astonishing mechanical creation that appears to be a super-weapon left over from WW II. He’s pursued by affable and sinister agents of an obscure branch of MI6, and master craftsmen who are followers of John Ruskin, and aided by spry 90-year-old lady who was a serious agent during the War. She thinks to herself “It’s so odd to be a supervillain, and at her age too. She has to admit privately that she may be mad.”

Nick Harkaway is the pen name for Nicholas Cornwall. He’s the son of David Cornwall, who is better known as John le Carré. The novel does feature a colorful and domineering father, but the son does come into his own by the end. Harkaway has written several other funny and fantastical novels, something no one would accuse le Carré of doing. But that raises the question – how often are authors actually the children of well-known authors?

In other fields this happens all the time. In the sciences there are seven parent-child winners of the Nobel Prize:

  • Pierre and Marie Curie (1903 Physics, 1911 Chemistry) and their daughter Irene Curie (1935 Physics) and son-in-law Frederick (1935 Physics). The Curie family has won six Nobels altogether (including one for Peace), a record that will not soon be broken.
  • William and his son Lawrence Bragg (1915 Physics)
  • Niels Bohr (1922 Physics) and his son Aage Bohr (1975 Physics)
  • Hans von Euler-Chelpin (1929 Chemistry) and son Ulf von Euler (Medicine 1970)
  • Arthur Kornberg (1959 Medicine) and son Roger Kornberg (2006 Chemistry)
  • Manne Siegbahn (1924 Physics) and son Kai Siegbahn (1981, Physics)
  • JJ Thomson (1906 Physics) and son George Paget Thomson (1937 Physics)

Given that there are only 625 science Laureates altogether, this is way above random chance.

This also happens all the time in music. The most famous example is the Bach family, which includes not just one of the greatest of all time, Johann Sebastian, but over 50 other composers and performers of note spread over 200 years. In recent times there are the Carter-Cashs, with Johnny and June, and 13 others. It’s also common in theater, with five generations of Barrymores (and Drew has kids too!), and four generations of Redgraves and Kinskis. It happened in my own family too – my father and uncle were both doctors, and three of my siblings are in medicine.

Yet I had trouble finding examples in literature. I tried to be systematic about this by searching Wiki for “son of author” and “daughter of author”, but got few hits that I recognized:

  • Stephen and Tabitha King, parents of Joe Hill and Owen King. Joe writes novels even more disturbing that his dad’s so there’s some rivalry there.
  • Elmore Leonard, the great hard-boiled author, is the father of Peter Leonard, who also writes crime novels but started out in advertising
  • Stephan Pollan wrote lots of financial advice books, and his son Michael Pollan writes consistently interesting books on food and our relationship with plants and nature.
  • Mordecai Richler, who wrote comic novels of life in Montreal, was the father of novelist Emma Richler and essayist Noah Richler. Emma’s books are often about wild and active families, of which she would have first-hand knowledge. Noah writes on Canadian literature and intellectual life in general.

There were a few other hits, but they wrote in other languages and so were unfamiliar, at least to me.

There are far more authors than Nobelists, so the hit rate for authors is pretty low. I wonder if it has to do with the nature of the field. Writing is a particularly solitary occupation, while science and music and acting are all social. The children would absorb a lot of what their parents did just by being around them. Aage Bohr, for instance, worked with his father since he was a teenager. For writers, dad or mom just go off into a room for most of the day, and are abstracted the rest of the time. The Richlers would be the exception that proves the rule, with the whole family being engaged and outgoing. Maybe also with parents as famous as le Carré or the Kings, the kids could get into writing too.

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1 Response to Following in the Parents’ Footsteps

  1. Amy Bruckman says:

    Good observations! There’s a classic ed tech paper on “cognitive apprenticeship” where Anderson et. al. discuss the fact that apprentices learn by observing, and the challenge for cognitive work is making it visible. I think they’d agree with your assessment that the issue is that the parent goes off into a room to write and the kid doesn’t observe the details. And chatting about details of fiction writing doesn’t seem natural to me. Whereas for me as someone who studies human-computer interaction, it’s easy for me to make dinner table conversation about it: you won’t believe the bad idea for a mobile app I saw today! My kids have picked up a lot.

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