Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Quote of the Day (Robert A. Caro, on the Art of Biography)

"I am trying to make clear through my writing something which I believe: that biography—history in general—can be literature in the deepest and highest sense of that term. Whether I am succeeding at that I don't know—and I suppose nobody will know for many years, because the test of whether something is literature is whether it endures for a long time."—Robert A. Caro, biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, quoted in Jonathan Darman, “The Marathon Man,” Newsweek, Feb. 16, 2009

I can still recall when I saw Robert A. Caro speak, in the winter of 1982, at a dinner of aspiring young journalists like myself at Columbia University. He had just issued the first volume of his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. Twenty-seven years later, he is in the midst of his fourth and last volume of that work.

You wonder sometimes if he worries about expending virtually his entire adulthood slaving away on a biography not just about someone who frequently is anything but admirable, but whether that work is even going to endure. If he does fret about this, though, I think that’s misplaced.

In one crucial way, Caro resembles a great general as much as a great biographer: He stakes out the ground where the subsequent battle takes place. No subsequent biographer will be able to take the measure of either Moses or Johnson without coming to grips with Caro’s revelations and conclusions (often harsh) about each man. For writers, he is a model for finding the story that’s never been told before through indefatigable research.

Another reason why I admire his biographies is the focus he sheds on subsidiary characters in the lives of his main subjects. In The Power Broker, that person is New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith. In the three volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson to appear to date, those men are Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House; Coke Stevenson, the man LBJ defeated for the Senate in a stolen election; and Richard Russell, the lonely bachelor taken under their wing by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and who, in turn, taught the new Senator from Texas everything he knew about the levers of power.

Caro’s work is a magnificent achievement. Like many readers, no matter how thick his final LBJ volume, I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

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