When Edward Gibbon presented the final volume of his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to King George III, the King responded, “What Mister Gibbon? Another thick, fat, damned, square book? Nothing but scribble, scribble, scribble?” Another writer of “thick, fat” books is Robert Caro, whose monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson is running to five thick volumes, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes. The fifth is not yet completed. He has described it as “the fifth volume of a three volume work.” The critic Charles McGrath said in New York Times Magazine that it took as long for Caro to write his life as it took Johnson to live it.
Even in its unfinished state it is universally regarded as the greatest biography of an American President.
His previous book,which was about Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” weighing in at 1,300 plus pages, is also a doorstop of a book, but it reads like a novel and also won a Pulitzer.
Before he has completed the last volume of the biography, however, Caro has surprised us with a slimmer book, “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing” (Simon & Schuster, 207 pp, $25). It is a collection of previously published essays and articles, as well as a portion of his Paris Review interview. As its subtitle suggests, the book is about “research, research, research,” to misquote King George. It is fascinating.
It is in some ways a precis of his life’s work, summarizing the painstaking methods of his labors. His grand theme is power as wielded by Moses and Johnson. Great power can yield great good but it can also lead to great corruption, or great misuse.
The accomplishments of Robert Moses are so great that one can barely believe them. Says Caro: “The act that unified New York created a city of five boroughs, but only one of them--the Bronx--was on the mainland of the United States, so the new city was really a city of islands. It was Robert Moses ... who tied those islands together with bridges, soldering together three Boroughs at once with the Triborough Bridge (and then tying two of them, the Bronx and Queens, even more firmly together with the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges) spanning the Narrows to Staten Island with the mighty Verrazzano, tying the distant Rockaways to the rest of the metropolis with the Marine and Cross Bay spans, uniting the West Bronx and Manhattan with the Henry Hudson. Since 1917, seven great bridges have been built to link the boroughs together, Robert Moses built all of those bridges.”
Any road that is called a “parkway” or an “expressway” was built by Robert Moses. He created or re-created every park in the city. Over a thousand apartment complexes bear his fingerprints. He was instrumental in building the UN building, Lincoln Center, and Shea Stadium.
And all of this barely a portion of what Moses had done. But it was not all good. In researching his book Caro discovered that Moses rerouted Northern State Parkway by several miles to avoid touching the property of his wealthy friend, Otto Kahn. At the same time he also wiped out an entire close-knit community of thousands of people, 54 apartment buildings, to allow for the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway. His total disregard for these people is evident when he refers to them as “animals.”
Caro has made Lyndon Johnson the focus of his writing career. He has portrayed him as a man of Shakespearean dimensions. From an unlikely background in rural Texas to the corridors of power in the Senate and on to the ultimate power of the Presidency. His research has been nothing less than heroic. So exacting were his methods that he even camped out in the dry hill country of Texas for several days to soak up the atmosphere. In order to gain the trust of Johnson’s neighbors and the people with whom he grew up, Caro and his wife Ina moved into a house in the Pedernales area and inserted themselves into the social life of the people there to gain their trust.
Incidentally, Ina has been Caro’s secretary and research assistant throughout his writing career. His appreciation for her is evident on almost every page. The book is dedicated to her.
Early in his career as a newspaperman his editor at Newsday gave him some advice on research: “Turn every page.” This he has done to extraordinary lengths. That maxim has produced some of the most brilliant biographical writing of this century and the last. And it has yielded a clear-eyed view of history and the philosophy of history.
He says: “While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And ﬁnding facts — through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing — can’t be rushed. Truth takes time..”
Historians and biographers might want to take those words to heart.
This is a wonderful book; gracefully well-written, instructive, and wise.
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One fine body…