Writers at Work
Robert Caro Talks About His Art, His Methods and LBJ
by William Goldstein
The reader just finishing The Path to Power, the first book in Robert A. Caro’s projected three-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is bound to wonder: What happens next? One Oklahoma reader, unable to live with the uncertainty, phoned the author to ask, “When will volume two be published?” “When I heard the question,” Caro recalls, “I asked her: ‘Who put you up to this, my publisher?’ ”
Actually, Caro says, “The second volume is moving along well,” and he expects to complete it within two years, “It’s quite a story, taking LBJ through his so-called ‘stolen election’ to the Senate in 1948-he won by only 87 disputed votes-and the accumulation of his personal wealth. The main part, though, is about his years as Senate majority leader, and the beginning of his fight for civil rights and social legislation.” The book, which also examines LBJ’s years as vice-president, will end with his swearing-in aboard Air Force One following the assassination of President John Kennedy.
Everything I’m discovering is as interesting as I thought it would be,” Caro says, his exuberance overcoming scholarly restraint, “Seeing LBJ’s confidential memoranda and transcripts of his phone conversation is an education-amusement, admiration, horror, you feel all these things. Sometimes I just say, ‘Look what he’s doing now’ ”
The Path to Power ($9,95) is being published in paperback by Vintage this month. First issued by Knopf a year ago, the best-selling biography won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best nonfiction work of 1982. Caro’s first book, also published by Knopf and Vintage, was The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (paper $13.95), winner in 1975 of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize for the work of history, “that best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.”
Robert Caro’s office, where he arrives most mornings by 7:30 or eight to begin writing, is a small white box located in a building near the New York Public Library. Filled bookcases the height of the author (six feet or so) line one wall to the left of the entrance, while opposite the door, between two windows, is another set of crowded shelves. Underneath the right window, which like the other faces south upon an undistracting alley, is a massive elshaped desk upon which rest only a typewriter and a handwritten reminder taped to a lamp: “The only thing that matters is on this page.” Behind the desk, only a swivel away, are the gray- green steel file cabinets in which are kept Caro’s neatly typed notes on his interviews and research, a record of his conversations with Johnson aides, colleagues, friends and enemies and a crystallization of all the most revealing information he has culled from work at the “eight-story-high American pyramid” that is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin. Tex.
The library, consisting of “18,000 file boxes [many cased in red buckram and stamped in 24kt gold with the presidential seal] in a pile deep as a football field,” daunted Caro. “When I walked in there for the first time,” he says, pausing, “that was the only time I felt like giving up. But,” he continues, “it’s all so fascinating. You can discover so many of the secrets of American politics if you ‘re willing to spend the time. ”
And Caro is willing to spend the time, as his seven years of research on each of his books proves. “I’d pay someone to let me go through these boxes,” the author says. “Nine to five isn’t even enough time. The drawback is that the paperwork, taking notes and carefully looking through the files-you never know exactly what you might find-is time-consuming work, but absolutely worth what you can come across; and the other side is sometimes, just as often, the immensity overwhelms you, and you just wonder…” Caro trails off, overwhelmed, perhaps, but only for a moment. “What I’m doing now,” he resumes, is “learning about the inner working of the Senate. LBJ achieved great things at great moments in history, like the 1957 Civil Rights Act.”
Caro will be spending much of the next two years in Washington, D.C., with his wife and research assistant, Ina, because he likes to be in the place he’s writing about-to be able to run over to the Senate if necessary. “But there is a lot of traveling, too, because you have to search out elderly congressmen and senators who are back in their own states.” Caro remembers that while living in Texas much of his research time was spent “driving from one lonely ranch to the other. Often, physical endurance was the thing.” Moving down to Texas really changed people’s minds about his intent, Caro suspects. “You could see people change overnight. They lost a lot of their contempt for reporters when they saw that my wife and I were living there. ”
For Caro, writing biography is an art requiring unstinting dedication to both research and writing. “Biography and history must be literary works,” the author maintains. “If a biography is to endure, it must be as well written as fiction. Gibbon writes on the same level as Tolstoy. …That’s what you’d like to be like.” Caro recently reread War and Peace and Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. ” I don’t think of myself as a good biographer, but a good biography must be a work of art.”
Caro’s speech and manner-despite his two prize-winning biographies-express pride in his work, yet also a sincere disregard for external acclaim. He speaks of himself as objectively as he writes of others, and he sees no special merit in his methods or his work except that he attempts to reveal the truth about his subjects and that they neatly mesh with his personal need to complete a thoroughly researched and well- thought-out literate work of history.
“You have to start out with the truth,” Caro says emphatically. “Know the facts. There is no objective truth in many cases, but in a lot there are. The biographer’s job is to ascertain, wherever there are hard facts, what those are.” LBJ, Caro says, is a particularly problematic case because .’his determination to conceal the truth helped to make that what was missing in the body of literature, especially on his youth.” (Caro refrains from commenting on the accuracy or conclusions of any specific book on LBJ. ) “And not everything he concealed about himself was derogatory,” Caro says. “The fact was, to me, some of what he hid makes him a sympathetic and tragic youth, but, of course, he was so ashamed.”
The picture of Johnson’s boyhood that emerged from Caro’s Path to Power was controversial, as he expected. “But I just wanted someone to say to my face that what I wrote wasn’t true. And, of course, no one did.” A dramatic moment of confrontation came last May when he accepted an invitation to speak at the Travis County (Texas) Bar Association in Austin, Johnson’s home town. He had been warned to expect “very hostile” questions from an overflow audience. “I looked up and was surprised to see, at a table among all these lawyers, a group of old men whom I had interviewed years before, who had grown up with Johnson. When the hostile question came-why did people tell you things they didn’t tell others?-several of these men got up to say that here was a guy (me) who had asked questions no one had asked before. I feel that’s true.” As quoted in the Austin Lawyers Journal, one of the men later said about Caro. “When you’d tell him something, he’d march you right over there to verify it; he wouldn’t just take your word for it. He was a man after the truth.”
“To write a good biography,” Caro says, “you have to think your way through it.” In conversation, he often uses “you” instead of “I,” explaining his methods so their worth takes the form of an objective truth he believes in without having to take credit for. He says more than once that “I’m not saying my way is the best.” But he is persuasive: his rational approach to biography is attractively simple in organization, but also demanding and rigorous in execution.
Caro outlines the whole book before he begins writing. (That way, as he says, he knows the end before it is written; no doubt this preparation helps provide the sense that somehow his biography has a plot.) Once this outline of events is completed, he expands each chapter by writing a more detailed outline. These outlines consist of transition sentences noting what he will cover; later, he inserts cross-references to his files indicating which interview or document he must consult, which anecdote or quote he wants to use. “First you fill it in in handwriting, and then you sit there for weeks going through the files, putting in the best anecdotes,” he says.
These chapter outlines, which Caro throws away as he finally writes them up, are kept in black loose-leaf notebooks, which make further insertions (or deletions) easy. On them, typed sentences are spaced upon a page, and red grease pencil marks indicate with a letter and a number the page number in a file Caro needs. “I” means interview (although important figures have their own file letters); “OH” stands for Oral History; “JF,” Johnson File, and so on, too many for memory. The abbreviations are spelled out on the inside cover of the notebook.
“I get defensive about spending so much time outlining,” Caro says, “but I don’t want to stop while I’m writing, so I have to know where everything is. It’s hard for me to keep in the mood of the chapter I’m writing if I have to keep searching for files.” For Caro, “The creative process occurs through the outline, because I make myself think through the whole book by making the outline.”
While Caro says, “I don’t work as hard as everybody says I do,” his schedule reveals the truth. He starts early when he’s writing, coming to the office every morning from his new home on Central Park West (he recently moved from his longtime home in Riverdale) and takes no days off until he has completed a section of whatever length “requiring one mood.” It can be either two or three days, or as long as it takes to finish several chapters; the longest stretch he went was writing one of the finals chapters of Volume One- the Pappy O’Daniel senate campaign in 1941. “I worked 63 straight days on that.” As he gets more and more involved in the part he is writing, Caro works longer and longer hours. “I jump up at 4:30 or five (in the morning!) because I can’t wait to get at it.” He takes few vacations while deeply involved in work, but he did take this last summer off.
Research is getting easier, Caro says, because in addition to the fact that Johnson’s adult life was lived in public service, “many people are coming forward with stories now, and there are few days when the mail doesn’t bring an absolutely fascinating letter.” (He adds that since the first book appeared to acclaim. “some of the people who denounced me the loudest want to know when I’m going to interview them again!”) Writing, however, is not easier. “I still do many drafts in pen or pencil before moving to the typewriter. I just wonder, everyone seems to be using word processors but,” Caro stops. The ease of the word processor, he feels, is just not compatible with the way he works. He is more thoughtful about what he writes when it takes a while to get it down, he says.
Caro, whose books both have the word “power” in their title, is fascinated by the concept of power and its use-on a local level by Moses, by, Johnson on a local and then national level. “There is an inadequate under standing in America of how power works. Political power affects your life every day: if you drive on Long Island, you are driving that way because of Moses. If you are a young black American getting an education, you are learning because of LBJ. Or if you were a young man drafted off to Vietnam, that,too, is because of Lyndon Johnson.”
And the power of the historian? “The power of the historian is the power of the truth, a very basic thing,” Caro responds immediately. “You have the hope that you can bring out exactly how things were done; that’s why I concentrate so much on mechanics. How did Moses get power? How did Johnson get power? The power of the historian, ” he reiterates, “is the power of the truth.”
Copyright 1983 by Publishers Weekly. Reprinted with permission.