At the end of his Tuesday night speech at the City University of New York, Robert Caro pointed to his wristwatch and joked that he’d run over his allotted time, a trait that showed why “I always write thousand-page books.” Judging from the applause, I doubt many people noticed he’d gone into overtime — or even cared if they had.
The theme of Caro’s speech, delivered before a capacity crowd at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, was the importance of conveying a sense of place in writing biography. As the author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and the ongoing Brobdingnagian chronicle The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro certainly has the credentials to show how biography should be done.
Interestingly, when Caro illustrated the need for a sense of place he cited examples from fiction: Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace; Herman Melville’s account of a dead whale being systematically taken apart by whalers in Moby-Dick; and Dickens’ depiction of Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, a mansion turned into a mausoleum for the hopes that died when she was jilted by her suitor. It served as a reminder that Caro is a contemporary of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and other New Journalism figures who brought literary techniques to their reportage, though I could hardly think of great books with less in common than The Power Broker and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, or Means of Ascent and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
What Caro went on to demonstrate was the power of storytelling grounded in deep, painstaking research. Anyone hoping for a taste of the fourth and (Caro says) final Johnson volume went away disappointed: Caro concentrated on his time spent in the Texas hill country, where he got a feel for the loneliness, isolation, and poverty that wracked Johnson’s youth. Caro noted that when he started his Johnson research, there were already seventeen books about the controversial president, and he had read “Johnson grew up poor” so many times he thought he already knew most of what he needed. Only by going to the hill country and imagining what it would be like to live in a place where the essentials of life had to be dug, chopped, and hauled across miles of rugged landscape.
Particularly spooky was Caro’s description of how one of Johnson’s relatives made him get on his knees and thrust his fingers into the soil, by way of demonstrating the mistake that ruined the Johnson family’s fortunes. No matter where he dug, Caro said, he never found soil that was even deep enough to cover the length of his fingers. The land was beautiful, but the beauty was a veneer of easily exhausted soil over rock. Johnson’s father overpaid for his land, thinking he would grow crops, and so dragged the family into ruin. His son’s ruthlessness and drive, Caro explained, was rooted in that disaster.
Not all of this was new, and some of it has been offered by Caro at many other speaking engagements. But Caro’s storytelling skill rendered that irrelevant. To illustrate his theme of the need to convey a sense of place, Robert Caro spoke of New York City,Washington D.C., and the Texas countryside. But by the end of the evening, it was all Caro country, and I am eager to pay it another visit.