My Writers: Robert Caro

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The books are massive, which makes them intimidating. Just glancing at one of the spines, likely wide enough to place a comfortably discernible portrait on it, is enough to tingle up a feeling of exhaustion. And yet one of the things I find most remarkable about Robert Caro’s biographies is the clarity of the writing. There’s a plainspokenness to his writing that makes it approachable, as if a story recounted rather than heavily detailed reportage based on unbelievably exhaustive research. That doesn’t mean the material is simple. Caro locks in on the complexity of lives of people who changed their worlds through sheer will of force.

There is nothing dashed off and no supposition lacking a mound of evidence. And Caro is notorious for his meticulous approach, reworking every last words of manuscripts that swell near to — and sometimes over — one thousand pages. He doesn’t farm out the research, nor does he easily acquiesce to the alterations of editors. Every word is his.

And those words lead the reader expertly, with a constant pull forward. Although Caro is master of the time-honored craft of ending every chapter with a promise for what will come next, he assiduously avoids anxious cliffhangers or other overt manipulations. In Caro’s craft, the pending page is as necessary and as natural as the twinkle of tomorrow.

Caro’s first book was published in 1974. His recent tome was unpacked onto bookstore shelves in 2012. In that multi-decade span, Caro effectively wrote about two men. The earliest biography covered the life and career of Robert Moses, a towering public figure in New York for a sizable chunk of the twentieth century. Four other books — thus far — have traced formative years and political ascendancy of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Caro was in his forties when the first part of his multi-volume Johnson biography was published. As he’s chipped away at the fifth and probably final volume, the writer has become an octogenarian. Half of Caro’s life has been devoted to the Johnson books. It’s astonishing, speaking to a stalwart sense of mission. And the resulting extended biography is staggering, demonstrating that it is still possible — through dedication, precision, purpose, and artfulness — to create a work that is truly definitive.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

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