Here is a blog post about the greatest biographer that this author has ever read and which, he is quite confident (though the depth of his knowledge of the genre might be lacking), is probably the greatest biographer of all time. Robert A. Caro, a product of our great city and as iconic as our Empire State Building, has cemented his legacy as a brilliant writer through biographical works on political operators Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Through his work, Caro uses his protagonists as vehicles to traverse us across the landscape of America in the middle of its golden century, weaving insight into how power in American politics (municipal and national, respectively) really works with a writer’s sensitivity for his subjects. It is this very sensitivity that I hope to touch on in this blog post, for Caro’s prose seems to pour forth directly from his heart and, I suspect—while it certainly shines a light on the author’s subjects—it also refracts a piece of the artist himself.
Robert Caro at an event promoting his most recent book, Working
Great writing comes from personal experience, there is nothing new to this insight, but it is not always the case that one reads a work of non-fiction and feels as though the author has written himself onto the page. Perhaps this is the secret ingredient that places Caro’s work head and shoulders above those of his peers. As an Entertainment Weekly article puts it, his is “Glorious prose that suggests the world’s most diligent beat reporter channeling William Faulkner.” (Though I’d have compared him to a better author, personally—Tolstoy, perhaps, though Caro’s writing is so beautiful, so unique, that it seems inappropriate to draw comparisons). Does “glorious prose” demand a pound of flesh from he who holds the pen? When we read Caro’s work and find in it a constant theme of loneliness (for in Caro’s works we find that loneliness affects both powerful and powerless alike, from the helpless victims of Robert Moses’ eviction notices to the quiet, reserved Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and, even, the boisterous Lyndon Johnson—Johnson the life of the party, the center of gravity in any room he entered and yet we find wracked by moments of the most profound sense of isolation), when we find in his work long, moving soliloquies on this most peculiar of human conditions, are we not to believe that the author does not write from a place of intimate knowledge on the matter? And when he writes of love, too—of the epic romance between Coke Robert Stevenson and his wife, Fay (Fay, who brought out the kid in him and who, Caro writes, “Coke could never bear to be separated for any length of time”)—do such passages only convey his subject’s sentiments? When he writes of how Coke and Fay could not wait to run away together (“speeding along the 166 miles back to the world [they] had created.”), did his mind not begin to wander? Did he not think back to the many miles travelled on the road with his Ina—across those very same Hill Country roads traversed by the Stevensons—as they conducted research on his books?
Perhaps I am merely reading tea leaves. But I should like to draw special attention to a passage from Master of the Senate:
“…Senator Murray was seventy-three years old. Once a broad-chested man, bursting with vitality, his stride was now slower, even at times a bit uncertain. And while he was not senile, his mind was not what it had been, and it preferred to dwell in the past, in the days of labor’s triumphs, in the days when it had found, in Franklin Roosevelt, its great champion. Sometimes—increasingly, to one who observed closely—when Murray was dealing with current issues, with current Senate maneuvers and stratagems, the Senator seemed a little tense, a little uncertain…”
Caro must not have been all that much younger than Senator Murray when he wrote that. Is it only the Senator’s stride that is slowing? Does Mr. Caro fear his greying mind? There is more:
“Old men crave not only attention but affection… Old men want to feel that the experience which has come with their years is valuable, that their advice is valuable, that they possess a sagacity that could be obtained only through experience—a sagacity that could be of use to young men if only young men would ask.”
Perhaps it is ridiculous to think that the man who showed us how Lyndon Johnson stole his Senate seat, of how Robert Moses acquired political influence through the establishment of various public authorities—and, in doing so, showing us how power works in a liberal democracy—perhaps it would seem ridiculous that such a man might be sensitive as to whether his observations and experiences on this Earth meant something—that he mattered. Because of course Robert Caro matters and he will forever live on through his works. He will remain a standard—like Gibbon before him—upon which all future historical writing will have to pass muster in order to be considered “great works.”
Assuming I’m not reading tea leaves here, while withering mentally and physically may be a point of anxiety (especially when one writes extensively on American politics, with its phalanx of geriatrics), I would hope that Mr. Caro doesn’t let it dominate his thoughts as he writes the fifth and final volume on Lyndon Johnson. I would hope that he realizes that any concerns regarding cognitive ability are more than outweighed by the decades of experience he has writing and researching and which he has honed to that of a Grandmaster. I think Mr. Caro is too perceptive not to realize that his younger self would more than likely not have been up to the current task at hand—that, indeed, it is the wisdom “that could be obtained only through experience” that is needed in this, his greatest literary challenge, before the comfort of retirement and the writing of his memoirs.
I haven’t the slightest doubt that Mr. Caro will succeed in accomplishing this great feat; that is, the colossal task of chronicling how it was that our 36th president, against the most tremendous of odds, acquired the political power necessary to make the Great Society into a reality and how it was, too, that he came to lose that power somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. My stomach turns when, in countless interviews, the question of his mortality is so insensitively thrown in his face, as if the interviewer were asking, “What’s going to happen to my book if you die?” Mr. Caro always shows the most admirable restraint in responding to, really, what is an intrusive and quite despicable line of questioning but in Working you can see how it takes a toll:
“ … if I forget it for a few days, I am frequently reminded of it, by journalists who, in writing about me and my hopes of finishing, often express their doubts of that happening in a sarcastic phrase: ‘Do the math.’ Well, I can do that math. I am quite aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them.”
You’ll write that memoir, Mr. Caro. I’m certain of it.
One last thing. In the spring of 2019, as part of a national tour to promote his most recent book, Working, Mr. Caro appeared for an interview and a book signing event at the New York Times Building. A friend of mine graciously bought me a ticket to go see him. That spring was quite a low point in my life and I began to doubt whether I’d ever make something of myself, if I even had what it took to complete my graduate studies. I think it must have been that my anxiety at meeting my hero was written all over my face because, after signing my copy of Working, Mr. Caro looked me in the eye, extended his hand and, shaking mine, said, “Thank you, Joe.” Dumbstruck, I don’t quite recall how I responded. In any case, that handshake meant a lot to me (I don’t quite understand why it meant a lot to me but it did). Why he shook my hand and not the hands of those who preceded me, I don’t know. Perhaps his brilliant intuition saw that in that moment I really needed it. Anyway, that’s all for my blog post, if you’re interested we have a copy of his Power Broker up on the third floor.
Robert Caro, courtesy of the LBJ Library at Flickr