For the past 45 years, best selling author Robert A. Caro has set the bar quite high when it comes to writing biographies of powerful people.
And yet during that four-and-a-half decade period, Caro has concentrated his diligent, exhaustive efforts in biography towards only two powerful American figures: New York City urban developer Robert Moses, and former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
And the end result were massive volumes about these two men: The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson (which produced four volumes, with a fifth and final volume being written as of now). These books have not only earned Caro overwhelming critical acclaim and topping many best seller lists, but also two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. But if you have read any of Caro’s tomes and wondered how he accomplishes such monumental literary tasks as a master biographer, he finally answers those questions quite capably in his latest book Working.
Basically a collection of original writing, magazine articles and interviews, the book gives a cohesive look at Caro’s life and career (which began as a crusading reporter for the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday) and the tricks of the trade he uses to tell the monumental lives of these monumental figures and how they represented different types of major political power, and how they used and abused it.
Although he prefers the old school method of writing his drafts in longhand on long white pads of paper and transcribing his notes and drafts on an electric typewriter, Caro is a believer of diligent research and digging deeper than any other author who tackled the same subject. For example, he and his wife Ina, in order to delve into the world of Lyndon Johnson before he went to Washington as a junior congressman in 1937, moved into the Texas Hill Country where he was raised and spent three years there interviewing as many people as possible who knew or worked with Johnson during his formative years. Two stories stood out for me in this category; one was the interview with Luis Salas, an enforcer for George Parr, a major Texas political boss during the 40s, who knew the secret behind “Box 13”, the ballot box for political Precinct 13 that somehow helped get Johnson elected to the U.S. Senate during a tightly-contested election in 1948; the other was with Ella So Relle , a classmate from Southwest Texas Teachers College, who told Caro that Johnson’s true nature was “all there in black and white” in the pages of the college’s 1930 edition of its yearbook, in which Caro got a copy of, only to find out the pages that featured Johnson were carefully excised from that copy and many other copies of the 1930 yearbook.
And for fans of the four volumes that make up Caro’s epic biography “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”, he ends the book by offering a sort of sneak preview of the final fifth volume of the biography, which focuses on the Johnson presidency, from the 1964 election, to his vast array of Great Society social programs and legislation, to the Vietnam War, the conflict that would forever bring him down and tarnish his years in the White House. One preview, which symbolizes Caro’s habit of giving detailed historical background to an aspect of Johnson’s life and career, was how two popular songs defined the two major events of the 1960s that defined the Johnson presidency: “We Shall Overcome” (the Civil Rights movement) and “Waste Deep in Big Muddy” (the Vietnam War and the anti-war protests).
It is rare that a book on how to be a writer and writing methods can be so interesting and become a seminal work on how difficult it can be to write a nonfiction book, and Robert A. Caro’s Working is such a book. It proves that writing a biography of any major historical figure is a major task that can be interesting, frustrating and rewarding. It certainly ranks up there with other books of that nature such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Stephen King’s On Writing.
Other book reviews by Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca :