Dear Commons Community,
For those of us who are fans of Robert Caro biographies, his new book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, is a gem. In it, he gives us more than a look at his research techniques and his writing process but a glimpse into Caro the man himself. I became a fan of Caro with The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which in my mind is the best book about New York politics in the 20th century ever written. His multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is comparable with respect to Texas and Washington, D.C. I highly recommend Working… to anyone who is interested in the effort that one puts into research and writing. I will be adding it to my reading list in my graduate research methods courses.
Below is an excerpt from the New York Times Book Review.
Avid readers of Robert A. Caro may greet his new book, “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand: Another Caro book, and it’s not a biography! On the other hand: Another Caro book — and it’s not a biography?
Considering that the 83-year-old averages a book a decade, his fans might wonder whether “Working” will reset the clock that started in 2012, when the fourth book of his multivolume magnum opus, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” was published.
No need to worry, though this assemblage of personal reflections and interviews may give the true Caro completist a creeping sense of déjà vu. Much of the material was either published before or distilled from stories Caro has recounted elsewhere, and the book reads as if it were designed to divert as little of his time as possible. (Caro says he has a “full-scale memoir” planned, to be completed after the next Johnson volume, though at his age, he says, he can also “do the math.”) Small and charming at about 200 pages, a quick spritz instead of a deep dive, “Working” is like the antithesis of Caro’s labor-intensive oeuvre, making it strangely reassuring proof that he is, well, working.
The next Johnson book will be “the fifth of a projected three volumes,” he writes, declining to get into specifics (“My writing seems never to come out well if I’ve talked about it beforehand”) while promising that it will be the final installment. That means it will have to cover, among other things, the presidential election of 1964; Johnson’s Great Society programs and his continuing feud with Bobby Kennedy; the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the decision not to run for re-election in 1968; Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; and Johnson’s post-presidency life until his death in 1973.
Not to mention the escalation of the war in Vietnam, a subject about which “the L.B.J. Library is opening up new files all the time.” It sounds like biography writing as Zeno’s paradox — getting infinitesimally closer to the end without ever reaching it.
Caro, though, wouldn’t have it any other way. His research methods are deservedly legendary. He and his wife, Ina, pore through archival documents with a determination to “turn every page.” He tracks down as many people to talk to as he can, counting 522 interviews for “The Power Broker,” his landmark biography of Robert Moses, and “thousands” for the Johnson books.
But these standard techniques are just a start. He and Ina moved from their home in New York to the Texas Hill Country in 1978, living there for three years to better understand Johnson’s childhood. (To get the local women to warm to her and open up about what their lives were like before Johnson brought electricity to the region in the ’30s and ’40s, Ina taught herself how to make fig preserves.) Caro has said he wants to spend time in Vietnam to get a sense of what it felt like “to fight in the jungle.” ll of this painstaking work takes time. The writing itself comes quickly and easily — so much so that the critic R.P. Blackmur, who taught Caro at Princeton, admonished him to “stop thinking with your fingers.” The prose in Caro’s biographies is a mesmerizing combination of fine-grained, meticulous detail recounted in lush, incantatory sentences; he is, as he says repeatedly in “Working,” always trying to accumulate enough material to “show” rather than to tell — “to make readers not only see but understand and feel” the consequences of power.
Because power, Caro says, is his real subject. He doesn’t think of his books as biographies in the conventional sense. “From the very start,” he writes, “I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times.” Robert Moses was an unelected bureaucrat whose public works projects transformed the skyline and shorelines of New York City; Lyndon Johnson was a ruthless opportunist and an astonishingly effective legislator who transformed the country’s social landscape. These were men who channeled power, wielded it, embodied it.
Caro talks a lot about power in “Working.” It can corrupt, yes, but not always. “Once you get enough power, once you’re there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he’s doing it,” he says. “What power always does is reveal.”
It’s a memorable line, from an interview Caro gave to The Paris Review in 2016. It appears not only in “Working” but also in “Master of the Senate,” the third of the Johnson books, published in 2002. There are a number of anecdotes in “Working” that Caro has shared before — after all, his books are so comprehensive that it only makes sense for, say, “Means of Ascent,” the second book in the Johnson series, to include a section on how Caro tracked down Luis Salas, a former voting official who confessed to helping Johnson steal the 1948 Senate election.
The version of the Salas story that Caro includes in “Working” is presented as an example of what Caro calls “something in my nature” — “the part of me that, now that I was writing books, kept leading me, after I had gotten every question answered, to suddenly think, despite myself, of new questions that, in the instant of thinking them, I felt must be answered for my book to be complete.”
This is awfully windy — where is Prof. Blackmur when you need him? Caro makes the same point more succinctly when writing about “The Power Broker,” recalling how he was swept away by the scandalous material he was discovering and an accompanying sense of duty. “I just couldn’t write the book about the great highway builder — couldn’t outline it, even — without showing the human cost of what he had done,” he writes. “There really was no choice involved.”
For someone so interested in the power of others, Caro seems coy about his own power to shape legacies. The writer who emerges from these pages is so humble as to be self-effacing — a quality that makes his halting bids at introspection, for all their genial appeal, seem mostly denuded of the drama that normally fuels Caro’s work.
But then the stubborn willingness to keep digging, to rescue secrets from oblivion, is a form of power, too. Recalling why Moses finally relented and agreed to talk to him, Caro writes: “At last someone had come along who was going to write the book whether he cooperated or not.”