Robert Caro on How To Write a Biography

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Photo: Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Robert Caro explains in an interview for The Paris Review: “You have to write not only about the man who wields the sword, but also about the people on whom it is wielded.” What the Pulitzer Prize winner explains here is simple, you cannot solely write about the powerful without also acknowledging the powerless. This has been Caro’s main goal since switching from day-to-day journalism to writer of monumental biographies.

In his newest book, which is a quarter of what his habitual reader is accustom to, Robert Caro takes us through a journey on how to write. Working (Vintage, 2020) is arguably the most straightforward title that Caro could choose for his book. And yet, it encompasses a legendary work ethic, that throughout this short, 239-page book, it seems from another planet. When one lets him give a tour through his various adventures while researching for his biographies on Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, the figure of the writer appears to land from another era.

Caro doesn’t write on a computer, he still holds on to his typewriter, a Smith-Corona Electra. He does most of his first writings on a pad. He wakes up in the middle of the night to write some paragraphs, only to throw everything away in the morning. He barely likes to eat with friends outside the office while writing.

On one occasion, someone invited him to go to lunch. Caro, who was in the process of writing one of his Lyndon Johnson books, was ready to throw a punch at the poor mortal who dared to interrupt his work. He would eventually calm down and apologize. Moreover, it takes him from seven to eight years to research and write a biography. What is the source of all this energy? For Caro, it’s all about understanding “power”.

Robert Caro on How To Write a Biography

Not a Memoir, But Hints on How to Write

Robert Caro’s new book “is not a full-fledged memoir.” He makes that clear in the first pages. Instead, he wants to show: “how I do research in documents; how I report, either on the scene or by interviewing; how I write.” Caro was educated in Horace Mann in New York. His mother died when he barely was eleven and she made his father promise her to take him to such school. In a home with no books and with low income, Caro’s experience in Horace Mann shaped him. He wrote short stories for the school paper, The Horace Mann Record.

He later went to Princeton University to write for the school paper. It was in these first writings that Robert Caro notice something in particular:

“I always like finding out how things work and trying to explain them to people. It was a vague, inchoate feeling – I don’t think of it in terms of Why do I want to be a reporter? At Princeton, I was the paper’s sportswriter and I had a column, but I found myself writing more about the coach and bout how he coached than about how the team was actually doing. I think figuring things out and trying to explain […] was always a part of it.” 

Not just writing about the coach, but wanting to write about the circumstances that shaped the context.

The first piece of advice that would follow Robert Caro throughout his career was given to him by a professor of his, R.P. Blackmur. Caro was always finishing written assignments -short stories- for a creative writing course at the last moment. He noticed that this soft-spoken man never raised the issue that his work showed last-minute craft. Instead, he always gave Caro complimentary comments. It wasn’t until the end of the course that the professor told the future National Book Award winner: “[But] you’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.”

When Caro graduated from Princeton University, he had offers from The New York Times. But, because he had no preexisting experience, he had to start as a copy boy. He eventually would find his way to Newsday, where he did minor jobs. He later found himself doing investigative reporting. He even got nominated for a Pulitzer. It was here, that Robert Caro heard another piece of advice that would stay with him for the rest of his career. His editor in Newsday, Alan Hathway, told him one day -when digging some archives about a scandal in New York – to “turn every page.”

How Robert Caro Works

Turning every page is what Robert Caro did. He noticed that Newsday couldn’t give him the space he needed to write about the dynamic of power that shaped the city he lived in. He quit his job and decided to dedicate himself to write a biography about New York City Councilman Robert Moses.

It’s fascinating to read about the struggles of Caro as a researcher. He thought that it was going to be a two-year or three-year project. Instead, he found himself in a seven-year project. He was broke, with his wife selling their house and moving to a smaller place so that Caro didn’t have to find a job. It’s obvious how big a role Ina Caro played in his career. She suffered the hardships of being poor; educating their child while researching alongside Caro. Even when Caro told her that they were moving to Hill Country, Texas, and she struck back by saying: “Why can’t you do a biography on Napoleon?” Ira accepted the change.

The title, Working, falls a little bit short when one reads about the odyssey of Caro’s research. In the aforementioned interview with The Paris Review (which is the last chapter of the book), Caro explains the process of how he researches for a biography. He starts simple, reading books on the general history of his figures and the historical context. After that, he dedicates himself to the mainstream newspapers of the times he’s researching. After the general papers, he goes to the local newspapers, which were a big factor when he did his first volumes on LBJ in his earlier days in Texas.  Finally, he surrenders himself to the interviews, which created in Caro’s book what he calls the “sense of place.”

Caro finds himself asking the same question over and over again. He tends to ask about the body posture of his subjects: Where he was standing? What was he saying at that moment? What did he have in his hand? As Caro explains, he wants the reader to get a feeling of the moment.

But these are common things that some historians might do when researching for a book. Caro’s methods go a bit further. He moved to Lyndon B. Johnson’s childhood town; he wanted to feel what was like to struggle in Hill Country. He also wanted to really get to know the people that formed this small place. He dug up hidden manuscripts that showed how JBJ stole an election. He identified classmates of Johnson that show his ferocious personality. This went on in a distant state, far from Caro’s home in New York.

The same happened while researching on Robert Moses. The findings of the business dealings and numerous projects of Moses in New York was half the work. In fact, Caro had half a book if he only concentrated his study on Moses. But, as he notes in Working, he wanted to write about the powerless. Those who were evicted from their apartments, so that Moses could have his grandeur highways built in New York City. He met the first families that were forced out from their homes, with fake eviction papers. He also met with low-income families that now lived there, mainly blacks and Puerto Ricans, whose main feeling about their state of poverty was loneliness.

His Search About Power

Ultimately, Caro’s main interest lies in one thing, how power shapes politics. In one of his chapters, he recalls: “No journalist or historian seemed to see authorities as sources of political power in and of themselves.” Caro’s intrigued with Robert Moses was because he saw firsthand how power changed the minds and opinions of many official when he (Caro) was researching the construction of a highway that seemed to be a bad idea.  One day it was a bad idea, but another day, it was a brilliant one. This led Caro to a realization:

“[But] Robert Moses had never been elected to anything. And yet, Robert Moses had held power for forty-four years, between 1924 and 1968, through the administrations of five major and six governors, and, in the fields in which he chose to exercise it, his power was so enormous that no mayor or governor contested it.” 

How did that power shape New York City? The product of that question was Caro’s first book, The Power Broker (Knopf, 1974); a biography of how Moses’ power changed the city forever.

LBJ was another case in which Caro became absorbed. While The Power Broker was just one book (although a big one, over 1,300 pages), his study on the former President of the United States became more expansive and in-depth. Caro grappled with the notion of political power, which became apparent with LBJ’s ability in the senate. Johnson’s case was an interesting one, with 20 years straight of support to the southern senators that didn’t want to move the needle on the Civil Rights issue. This, of course, would later change, and Caro is still struggling to write the fifth volume of such episodes, in which Johnson becomes the President and an expansive Civil Rights act gets passed; leaving behind the old, southern creed for segregation and voting suppression.

Caro wondered how Johnson ascended to such a means of power. He noticed that when Johnson arrived in Congress, he wasn’t taken or perceived as a big player. Instead, he was partially ignored by colleagues. But, as Caro later finds out, some Congressmen started to take seriously the young Congressman from Texas.  While investigating this particular shift, an aide of FDR told Caro that the reason for this change of allegiance was because of: “Money kid, money”. That the reason was money became clear to Caro, but the aide then threw another dead-end to his already long research: “But you’re never going to be able to write about that… you’re never going to find anything written [by Lyndon Johnson].” 

It is Caro’s relentless pursuit that lands him in Texas, looking into the papers of one of Johnson’s biggest patron, Brown & Root. Herman Brown was already dead when Caro finds that they gave money to Johnson so that he could distribute it to Congressmen in need of raising money for their elections. George Brown finally yielded to an interview with Caro, which cleared the reasons and technicalities of their alliance. In fact, Caro did find some of LBJ’s handwriting, detailing how much money he would give to some Congressmen and which ones would receive nothing (those that didn’t get into the donation cycle were marked by Johnson as “None-Out”). Not, strangely enough, these machinations would end up written down in Robert Caro’s first volume of four LBJ biographies, The Path to Power (1982, Knopf).

The Future for Robert Caro

In 2020, the state of Robert Caro’s future seems uncertain. A strike of consciousness about his mortality hits the reader at the end of the introduction of Working:

“And finally, one more question answer: why am I publishing this book now, why don’t I just include this material in the full-length memoir I’m hoping to write? Why am I publishing these random recollections toward a memoir, while I’m still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography, when I haven’t finished it, while I’m still – at the age of eighty-three – several years from finishing it?

“The answer I’m afraid, quite obvious, and if I forget it for a few days, I am frequently reminded of it, by journalists who, in writing about me and my hopes of finishing it, often express their doubts of that happening in a sarcastic phrase: ‘Do the math.’ Well, I can do that math. I am quite aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve to anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.” [Emphasis by Caro]

Indeed, even with his age and the magnitude of his books, Robert Caro still has much to offer. Even though he gave us this slim book as an apology for a memoir, one thinks that there’s still a lot of knowledge to be discovered. Moreover, the last volume of biographies about Lyndon Johnson is the most complex one. Featuring Johnson’s climax in the White House; passing medicate, medicare and headstart; while escalating the Vietnam War and not running again in 1968. Caro in 2018 told The New York Book Review that it would take him from two to ten years to finish the fifth volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. That’s a tragic panorama, that leaves the reader to do the math and to cling more to what might be Robert Caro’s only attempt at a memoir.

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Working

by Robert A. Caro 

Vintage, Paperback, pp. 240 

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