In a footnote to yesterday’s post, I called Robert Caro a genius. I first came to this conclusion this when I read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and that opinion crystalized after reading The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Caro imbues characters and places, otherwise clouded by half-remembered history, with all the life of well-crafted fiction, and his narrative is just as riveting as if he had crafted life’s events rather than faithfully recounting them. Genius.
Recently, I again came across an interview the The Paris Review published. I’d read most of this sometime in the past but somehow didn’t finish it then. I remedied that today.
The interview is fantastic and sheds a lot of light on how Caro is able to so richly embroider his biographies. In short, a lot of damn hard work. He has been working on The Years of Lyndon Johnson since 1976, and beyond a dedication of years, he commited his life to this work. For example, he moved to the Texas Hill Country for a time, because he knew he was missing something about Johnson’s youth. While the whole (long) interview is well worth your time, I want to highlight a points.
I am fascinated by how people take notes and organize knowledge, so I loved Caro’s response when asked about his outlining process.
I can’t start writing a book until I’ve thought it through and can see it whole in my mind. So before I start writing, I boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two or one—that’s when it comes into view. That process might take weeks. And then I turn those paragraphs into an outline of the whole book. That’s what you see up here on my wall now—twenty-seven typewritten pages. That’s the fifth volume. Then, with the whole book in mind, I go chapter by chapter. I sit down at the typewriter and type an outline of that chapter, let’s say if it’s a long chapter, seven pages—it’s really the chapter in brief, without any of the supporting evidence. Then, each chapter gets a notebook, which I fill with all the materials I want to use—quotations and facts pulled from all of the research I’ve done.
I would pay a lot of money for a look at that wall.
He also discussed the evolution of this outline into prose.
I write on white legal pads. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I’d say I probably have three or four. Then I go and do the same pages over on the typewriter, and then I throw them out. I go chapter by chapter. I can’t go on to another chapter until I feel this chapter is done.
Caro discussed how he ensures each part of his narrative fits well with the governing paragraphs, but it is clear he is also seeking the right, and not just convenient narrative.
You try to learn as much about the people as you can. I try never to give psychohistory. There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts. The more facts you get, the more facts you collect, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. The base of biography has to be facts.
At times reading his books seemed like he was anticipating my objections in real time. Whenever my mind started off with a, “well, what about…” he supplied additional, compelling evidence in response.
The exploration of power is at the core of both Moses and Johnson’s biographies, and I think he makes an important point about the old saw about power corrupting.
Power doesn’t always corrupt, and you can see it in the case of, for example, Al Smith1 or Sam Rayburn2. There, power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal, because when you’re climbing, you have to conceal from people what it is you’re really willing to do, what it is you want to do. But 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.
This rings so true to me, and the clarity of this statement belies the profundity of his distinction.
Caro’s work goes beyond simple biography, and I can’t recommend him highly enough. Sure, we are talking about more than 5,000 pages to read, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll be done before you know it and anxiously awaiting book five.