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Robert Caro Keeps Writing Into The Sunset With ‘Working’

Robert Caro Keeps Writing Into The Sunset With ‘Working’

Death looms over Robert Caro’s indispensable new memoir, Working. At the age of 83, the consummate historian has dedicated the past four decades of his career to The Years of Lyndon Johnson, an expansive five-volume biography of the 36th President that has brought him widespread acclaim and a Pulitzer. The thing is, that fifth volume—the culmination of his life’s work, of thousands of published pages and overturned research documents—is still in progress, still years away from completion by Caro’s own estimate.

So what’s he doing wasting time on something else, on literally anything else, as his manuscript just sits there, risking incompletion? It’s a question Caro addresses almost wryly in Working’s introduction, responding to journalists and eager fans who, concerned about his advanced age, pester him to “do the math.”

“Well, I can do that math,” he writes. “I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.”

And even the most anxious Caro superfan, worried he might not make it to the finish line, should be glad he did. Through its mix of previously published personal essays, cohesively edited together with new reflections and insights, Working becomes an invaluable how-to for aspiring nonfiction writers and journalists. It’s an intimate glimpse into the anxieties and painstaking sacrifices that go into the ridiculously in-depth reporting Caro has made his name on.

Working comes at a time of renewed interest in Caro’s work and Caro himself, perhaps even more than the historical figures he writes about. While the LBJ volumes have established him as one of America’s best biographers, Caro’s popularity over the past few years can largely be tied back to his first book, 1974’s The Power Broker, a 1,300 page biography of infamous New York planner and builder Robert Moses. The book has become a foundational text for certain groups of aspiring urban planners and millennial public transit enthusiasts, eager to challenge the dogmatic, car-centric philosophies that Moses pioneered, and have dominated American city planning for decades. With The Power Broker, Caro gave readers an intimate, unflinching portrait of how power actually works in America—an expansive thesis he uses to draw a through-line between all his work. In Working, we see just how dedicated he is to that project, “to discover and disclose the fundamentals of true political power—not theoretical political power but the raw, naked essence of such power.”

Caro’s devotion to his craft bleeds through in Working’s accounts of his fastidious research, much of which has taken place in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. Throughout the book, Caro is able to make the thumbing through of arcane government memoranda a climactic escapade, turning the act of reading and writing into sleuth-like endeavors. He recounts one particularly satisfying story about tracing a series of vaguely written telegraphs into a major revelation about how Johnson consolidated power as a young congressman. Caro’s joy in such an incident is palpable, and it should be: he’s digging up nuggets of American history that without him, would be lost forever.

The research is the backbone of his books, as it would be for any historian. But the key to Caro’s success rests in his ability to bring alive the people who witnessed or were transformed by the political power he’s trying to describe. In Working, he gives ample attention to how exactly he does this: by focusing so intently on creating a sense of place in every scene he writes.

As Caro notes, sense of place—using descriptive, well-placed language to create atmosphere and verisimilitude—is a basic tenant of fiction writing. But, he laments, it’s often sorely forgotten or ignored when it comes to writing history. His books, with their vivid anecdotes and supple episodes, aim to change that.

“If a biographer describes accurately enough the setting in which an action took place,” Caro writes, “and if he has accurately enough presented the protagonist’s character, the reader will be helped to understand the emotions that the setting evoked in the protagonist, and will better understand the significance the action held for him.”

In Working, we see just how far Caro’s dedication to sense of place goes. In the late 1970s, Caro moved to the Texas Hill Country, the vast, isolated area where Johnson grew up, for three years. His goal was to soak up the place and its people, especially Johnson’s former schoolmates and neighbors who still lived in the rural landscape.

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One revealing example from this period involving LBJ’s brother, Samuel Houston Johnson, underscores Caro’s dedication and ingenuity as a biographer.

Caro had interviewed Sam Houston several times, but struggled to get him to open up about his brother beyond the usual, bombastic stories. Eventually, Caro had the idea to take him back to his childhood home, which had been preserved by the National Park Service. They sat in the dining room, Caro sitting behind Sam Houston, slowly asking questions. And gradually, as Caro retells it, there was a shift. Charged by his own nostalgia and sorrow, true and previously untold childhood stories about his famous brother started pouring out of Sam, stories that reshaped what we know about President Johnson’s early years. And writing about it even forty years later in Working, Caro doesn’t forget to emphasize sense of place.

“It was late afternoon, almost evening, about the same time of day that would have been dinnertime in Johnson City long ago. Rays of low evening sun came into the dining room and cast shadows, the same shadows that rays of the sun would have cast as Sam Houston had sat there as a boy.”

The story becomes another example of Caro’s unique ability to dig through ego and pride and shame to get as close to the truth as possible. All of a sudden, we’re there with Sam Houston, reliving the childhood family dinners that so influenced his brother’s character and fate, and the fate of his country. That’s the ultimate charm of Working: it’s a reminder that we should care less about whether or not the work gets finished, and more for everything Caro has given us so far.

By Robert Caro
Published April 9, 2019

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  • Heard an NPR interview with Caro about “Writing” a few months ago. Sounded interesting then. Sounds interesting now. Time to get off my butt and find a copy…

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