Penguin Random House, 2019, 231 pages
From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: an unprecedented gathering of vivid, candid, deeply revealing recollections about his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books.
For the first time in his long career, Robert Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces. He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses; what it felt like to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ’s mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of loneliness, he found a writers’ community at the New York Public Library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Room and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books.
Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences–some previously published, some written expressly for this book–bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.
In a career spanning over fifty years, Robert Caro has written exactly two major works: The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, the architect of modern New York City, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a five-volume biography of the 36th president. Actually, right now it's only four volumes; Caro has been working on the fifth volume for almost ten years!
Those two works have been enough to make him a major and well-regarded figure in the world of historical biographies, but imagine the dedication and obsession necessary to devote your entire life and career to two men.
As Caro explains in this book, it wasn't really the figures of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson he was writing about, but power. Political power, and the forms that political power takes. The way that political power affects lives. Robert Moses was immensely powerful — literally the most powerful man in New York at one time — yet he never held elected office. Lyndon Johnson was an immensely complicated man who transformed the country in countless ways, good and bad. And Caro is the kind of obsessive writer who would move himself and his wife to the Texas Hill Country just to interview families who lived where Lyndon Johnson grew up, all for his unfinished book. He would pour through thousands of pages of receipts, poll records, manifests, bills, correspondence, to piece together clues to tell a story that no one else had pieced together, ever.
Working is a collection of Caro's essays on writing, some old and some new. He talks a lot about the writing of The Power Broker and the writing of his Johnson volumes. One suspects maybe he needed to publish something to bring in a little more money while he's still working on volume five of the LBJ years. As he tells it in his foreword, he put this book together because he is also working on a full-length memoir and autobiography, which he intends to publish after he finishes with Johnson, but as he puts it, he can "do the math": he's 85 years old. So this is something to put his thoughts out there in case he doesn't finish. (One of his "amusing" anecdotes, though it may not have been so amusing to his wife at the time, is how they literally ran out of money while he was working on The Power Broker, and he didn't even realize it until he came home one day and his wife announced that they'd just sold their house.)
I've read The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and now I definitely need to read The Power Broker. Caro is an awesome writer, and I mean that in the literal sense: I am awed by his dedication and single-minded obsession with telling a long, complicated, epic story and taking as long as it takes to fully research and write it, in every last detail, in the way he wants to write it. He talks a lot, in this book, not just about his research methods, and many interesting anecdotes about tracking down people who had stories decades old to tell him, people who at first were absolutely not going to talk to him, but also about his writing method. He's not a novelist, but Caro writes like a novelist, even making the observation at one point that historical biographies, in order to tell their story, in order to convey to the reader the sense the writer is trying to convey, in order to fit the narrative the writer intends (and histories do have a narrative, even when the writer is trying to be factual and even-handed), need to consider theme, pacing, tone, and style, just as much as novels do.
Some of the essays herein I had read before; others were just short pieces he's culled from magazine interviews. Working might be just a bit of filler in Caro's oeuvre to tide us over until he finishes with the Lyndon Johnson years, but read this and you will definitely want to dive into his massive magnum opuses.
Also by Robert Caro: My review of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
My complete list of book reviews.