restricted access Children of the Earth: Literature, Politics and Nationhood (review)
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Reviewed by
Marc Shell. Children of the Earth: Literature, Politics and Nationhood. New York: Oxford, 1993. 353 pp. $35.00.

When push comes to shove, says Shell, this thing we call identity is all about consanguinity. Ancient tales and legends are conspicuously drawn to stories of genealogy and biological kinship. If we examine the soberer and more literal era of modernity when science takes over, "blood"—as paternity, racial mixing, or genetics—always seems to play the final arbiter of meaningful belonging.

The title of the book, then, can easily mislead. Unlike so many other books of the last decade, "nation" here implies neither a study of political states, immigration, narrative, or aesthetic traditions but the image and reality of siblinghood. Although a lot of what Shell explores in the book bears on this modern sense of the nation-state, Shell leaves those sorts of interests to the imagination, digging instead in the primordial caves of the bonds that tie. Swinging back and forth from earnest ethnographic and medical definitions of consanguinity to literary and popular cultural images of kinship (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, Hamlet's mother, the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson) the book covers an immense and wildly varied array of examples. One indication of the thoroughness with which he traces out his central idea: the endnotes take up only slightly less space than the book itself.

With the citations and the argument of almost equal length, we get the sense that the matter has been pinned down with an inescapable firmness. But I don't think this is so; I kept wanting more of a defense of the categories and of the methodology, rather than more examples. For one thing, the sheer weight of difference among the cases studied gives the argument an idiosyncratic feel, probing as they do Shell's own highly particular set of expertises, impressive though they are. In one section exploring bilingual roadsigns in Canada, Shell is quickly on to Roman vestal virgins in the next, moving then to the animal cruelty movement before musing over an epigram from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel. The performance itself is astounding and pleasurable; the illustrations alone (often culled from obscure sources) are always precisely appropriate and evocative, as in the film-still from Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast or the remarkable drawing of Mark Twain on a city street beholding a hoarding advertisement for a famous tour of Siamese twins. But if evidence can be found in such divergent places, what, one wonders, could not be used as fuel.

Marked by an impressive historical range, there is too little sense of the radically different historical understanding of siblinghood's functions in these times and places. If the warrant for the thematic and evidentiary jumping is given in the wonderful point he makes about the contradiction [End Page 201] found at the heart of belonging by "blood," the very universality of the point makes the cases themselves seem hopelessly partial and easily extendible. That point is that the logic of the blood tie, far from marking off with unarguable precision one community from another, makes us all "children of the earth" but (and here's the tension) all equally powerless to demonstrate paternity. It is easier to believe, he argues, that we are all brothers and sisters in the firm, but unsatisfying, sense of being a species than that the person I call my brother or sister is sprung from the same biological parents. Birth papers are easily faked, phenotypical resemblance is notoriously untrustworthy, and (as Hortense Spillers once remarked in a different context): "mama's baby, papa's maybe."

But there is an admirable against-the-grain quality to Shell's demon-stration that "consanguinity is ultimately unknowable and hence fictive." Cutting the props out from under arguments for the race-nation, the strategy, however, creates an unexpected methodological problem, and Shell does not worry about it enough. He switches with troublesome ease between societal customs and literary conventions, between metaphor and sharp ethnographic or genetic definitions. For example, siblinghood in one of his cases—legal proclamations by the Spanish Inquisition against the...