Sunday, November 3, 2013

Robert Caro was born in 1935, and had a very good career as a political journalist. In 1967, he won a fellowship to Harvard University. Afterward, Caro began work on The Power Broker, a biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses. His roots in political journalism left Caro amazed that someone like Moses could sway the entire New York State Legislature to do his bidding, even though most New Yorkers opposed what Moses wanted. The Power Broker was a bestseller. Caro won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the Francis Parkman Prize (awarded by the Society of American Historians), and the book was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Caro immediately signed a contract to write a biography of President Lyndon Johnson. The first volume, The Path to Power, was released in 1982. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Washington Monthly Best Political Book Award, and the H.L. Mencken Prize. The second volume, Means of Ascent was published in 1990. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Washington Monthly Best Political Book Award. The third volume, Master of the Senate, took 12 long years to write. Caro won a second Pulitzer Prize for Biography, a National Book Award, a Carl Sandburg Award, a John Steinbeck Award, and a Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The fourth volume, The Passage of Power, was published on May 1, 2012. Caro says that he wrote the fourth volume (which deals with the period 1958 to 1964) together with the final volume (which covers 1964 to 1969), and that the final volume should appear in two to three years.

Why mention this? Because there was a long article about Robert Caro in the New York Times Magazine in April 2012 which you can read online.

I was fascinated by this section:
One reason Caro's books are so long is that he does keep burrowing through the files, and he keeps finding out things he hadn't anticipated. Before beginning the first volume, he thought he could wrap up Johnson's early life in a couple of chapters, until he talked to some of Johnson's college classmates and found out about his lying, conniving side, which no one had previously described. That volume also includes a mini­biography of Sam Rayburn, Johnson's mentor in Congress, and a brilliantly evocative section about how electrification changed the lives of people in the Hill Country...

Caro thought that the 1948 Senate election would take up a single chapter or so in his Senate volume. Instead, it takes up most of a book of its own, what is now Volume 2. Johnson advocates used to say that "no one will ever know" whether that election was stolen. Caro knows, because he uncovered a handwritten memoir by Luis Salas, an election boss and party henchman, giving the details of how he falsified the records. The Senate book, Volume 3, begins with a 100-page history of the Senate, starting with Calhoun and Webster, because Caro felt that to understand the Senate you needed to see it in its great period. It includes minibiographies of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Russell Jr., the longtime Senate leader of the South, and ends with a detailed, almost vote-by-vote account of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first few weeks of the Johnson presidency, which take up so much of the new book, were originally imagined as just a chapter in what would be the final volume, and the new book also includes much more about the Kennedys than Caro anticipated. He goes into great detail, for example, about the feud between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, and the visits Bobby made to Johnson's hotel room in Los Angeles after the Democratic convention in 1960, trying to talk Johnson into withdrawing from the vice-presidential nomination.

The installments keep ballooning, in other words, developing subplots and stories-within-the-story, in a way that reflects Caro's own process of discovery.
I'm sure it sounds arrogant to compare myself to Robert Caro, but I keep seeing my own writing in that. I research things, and discover new things. Background and context are incredibly important to me. Diversions into history, into biography, into economics, into geography -- that's the meat and potatoes of history, not the filler.

I'm struck, though, by just how lucky Robert Caro was. Lucky to be born heterosexual, so that he could marry young and have the support of a spouse who agreed to support him financially so that he could write and do nothing but write.

I was born unlucky. Born too early, so that the first three decades of my life were spent running from homophobes with baseball bats who thought it would be cool to "beat up the fag." Unlucky in that I've never found someone in my adult life who wanted to spend even a six months or a year with me, much less a lifetime. Unlucky that I cannot marry, and cannot enjoy the financial benefits of spousal support.

I often think about what I would do if all my oil wells came in or I won the lottery, so I could live a life of leisure like Robert Caro and just research, write, go places, look up original documents, talk to people who where there...

But so long as I'm wishing, I may as well wish for a lover with a big one and world peace.

I won't get any of what I wish for.

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