Wednesday, May 15, 2019

No. 312: Robert Caro's Magnificent Small Book

Robert A. Caro is one of my favorite authors. For his work he has received two Pulitzer Prizes and other major awards too numerous to count. His first book was his 1,246-page master work, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, published in 1974. For it he received his first Pulitzer Prize.

Robert Moses
Although I lived the first 25 years of my life in Syracuse, New York, I had only a vague knowledge of Robert Moses. When I read Caro's book many years ago, I came to understand the achievements of that unelected individual who had amassed enormous political power, and who, in exercising that power, had transformed not only New York City but also disrupted the lives of millions of people. Anyone who doubts that the acquisition of political power and the use of that power are Caro's lifetime focus need only note the titles of the last five of the seven major parts of The Power Broker: "The Rise to Power," The "Use of Power," "The Love of Power," "The Lust for Power," and "The Loss of Power."

Lyndon Johnson
Caro then turned to Lyndon Johnson, about whom he has written four volumes and is now working on the fifth and final volume. The 882-page first volume was The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, published in 1982. The 506-page second volume was The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, published in 1990. The 1,167-page third volume was The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, published in 2002, and for which he received his second Pulitzer Prize. The 752-page fourth volume was The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, published in 2012. The fourth volume ends in the summer of 1964, during the first year of Johnson's presidency, after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The fifth and final volume does not have a title or a publication date. Presumably it will cover Johnson's other "Great Society" achievements, including the 1965 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid. Presumably it will also cover the Vietnam War, Johnson's decision not to run for reelection, and his life after he left office.

Meanwhile, Caro has just come out with a magnificent 240-page book entitled Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, published in April 2019. It is a fascinating description of Caro's early life, how he got interested in Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, how his wife Ina serves as his principal helper, how they survived financially during the lean years when he was working on The Power Broker, how he does his research, how he conducts interviews, and how he writes. The book explains why he and Ina moved to the Hill Country of West Texas for three years, to get a feeling for the area where Johnson grew up, and to mingle with the people who knew Johnson and his family in the early years.

Theodore White's Views
In No. 307 (April 4, 2019), I quoted from a 1975 book entitled Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, by Theodore H. White. White died in 1986, but he remains one of my favorite authors. On the 1974 dust jacket of The Power Broker are ten strong endorsements from prominent authors and journalists. One of the endorsements was from White, who said this:
A masterpiece of American reporting. It's more than the story of a tragic figure or the exploitation of the unknown politics of our time. It's an elegantly written and enthralling work of art.
I agree with White. Caro's books are indeed works of art. Below I quote two paragraphs that appeared on page 6 of The Power Broker. They drew me in to read the entire book, and made me a Caro watcher.

The Paris Review Interview
The final section of Working is an interview with Caro entitled "The Art of Biography." It is reprinted from the Spring 2016 issue of The Paris Review. The interviewer is James Santel, whose sole function seems to have been to ask 14 brief questions and let Caro take it from there. In one of his responses, Caro quotes a portion of these two paragraphs from The Power Broker. They illustrate Caro's style and artistry:
Standing out from the map's delicate tracery of gridirons representing streets are heavy lines, lines girding the city or slashing across its expanses. These lines denote the major roads on which automobiles and trucks move, roads whose very location, moreover, does as much as any single factor to determine where and how a city's people live and work. With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.
Only one borough of New York City—the Bronx—is on the mainland of the United States, and bridges link the island boroughs that form metropolis. Since 1931, seven such bridges were built, immense structures, some of them anchored by towers as tall as seventy-story buildings, supported by cables made up of enough wire to drop a noose around the earth. Those bridges are the Triborough, the Verrazano, the Throgs Neck, the Marine, the Henry Hudson, the Cross Bay and the Bronx-Whitestone. Robert Moses built every one of those bridges.
Doing the Math
Caro watchers wonder whether Caro, now 83, will live long enough to finish the fifth and final volume on Johnson. Caro says they ask him to "do the math," and they wonder why he interrupted that effort to publish Working. He says he has done the math, there remain "several" more years of work on the fifth volume, and explains why he published Working now. Among elderly Caro watchers, there is the other math question of whether we will live long enough to read the fifth volume on Johnson.

For those who are not Caro watchers, I strongly recommend you read Working. I am confident you will find it enjoyable, and well worth the time. When you read it, you may join the ranks of Caro watchers.