Power Dark, Power Bright: Robert A. Caro, Robert Moses, and Lyndon B. Johnson
Nelson, Michael, The Virginia Quarterly Review
The story of Robert A. Caro and his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, has entered the realm of authorial legend. The elements of the tale are familiar, at least among journalists and writers: how Caro left an investigative reporting job at Newsday to spend a year writing a book about Moses that would help him understand and explain "political power and how it shapes our lives." How one year turned into seven, forcing Caro and his wife Ina to sell their house to make ends meet until he could finish the book. How a back injury left him bedridden for nearly a year, during which Ina became his fulltime and, because she was so good, lifelong researcher. How the manuscript that Caro turned in to Alfred A. Knopf was shorn of 350,000 words, the equivalent of three midsized books, so that the remaining 700,000 words could fit between two covers. How the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for biography and sell nearly a quarter-million copies. (It's now in its 34th printing.) And how the success of The Power Broker earned Caro the literary reputation and financial security to spend the rest of his life writing about anything that captured his interest.
Lyndon B. Johnson not only captured Caro's interest but has held it captive for 29 years as of this new year and counting. In 1974, the year The Power Broker was published, Caro began work on a planned two-volume, then three-volume, now four-volume, and possibly five-volume biography called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The first installment, The Path to Power, was published in 1982. It took Johnson from his birth in 1908 to his defeat in the 1941 Senate election. Since then, as Nicholas Lemann recently observed in The New Republic, Caro has been "proceeding through Johnson's life at an almost real-time pace." Means of Ascent, the second volume, was published eight years after the first and covers seven years of Johnson's life, culminating in his election to the Senate in 1948. Master of the Senate, which was published in May 2002, took 12 years to write. It spans Johnson's 12-year career in the Senate.
All of the Johnson books have been excerpted in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly and all have been best-sellers. The Path to Power and Means of Ascent won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and biography, respectively, and Master of the Senate is sure to be a leading contender for this and other major prizes. No one is complaining about the biography's expansion from two to four or more volumes, least of all Knopf. Nor, apparently, is anyone shearing Caro's manuscripts for shearing's sake. Taken together, the three published Johnson volumes run 2,647 pages and roughly 1,375,000 words. Consider what Caro has left to cover: the 1960 election, Johnson's years as vice president, his densely eventful presidency, and his retirement.
By all accounts, as well as by the evidence of his work, Caro hasn't changed a bit during his career as an author. Assisted only by Ina, who is a professional historian, he does the research for each book by immersing himself in the documentary record, conducting hundreds of interviews, and living for months or years in places that he feels he must experience personally in order to make sense of his subject. (For the first two volumes of the Johnson series, that was the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country; for the third, it was Washington, D.C., especially the Senate chamber; and for the next one, it's a Vietnamese village and a small Southern town.) Caro does the actual writing in a nondescript office in New York, working from a broad outline of the book that he spreads across the full length of a 22-foot wall and, on a day-to-day basis, from detailed outlines of each chapter that he compiles in thick loose-leaf notebooks. He weaves into his books long and detailed portraits of historical figures who were important to his subject, as Al Smith was to Moses and Sam Rayburn, Coke Stevenson, and Richard Russell were to Johnson, along with extended digressions on related matters. …