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Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing

Review

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing

When I first learned that Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of majestic biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, was releasing a book on recollections about his experiences writing those life histories, I was quite perturbed. The fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is still being written, and seven years have passed since the publication of the fourth installment. Wouldn’t his time be better spent completing that series instead of writing a different book?

I was wrong. WORKING is a brief and refreshing interlude from the painstakingly detailed life portraits that have become Caro’s trademark. While featuring some previously published material, it offers readers a contextual view of what his writing seeks to accomplish and why he writes with the vivid and glorious detail that makes his books essential to an understanding of the life and times of his subjects.

"Caro is 83 years old and recognizes that his ability to complete his life’s work may be coming to an end. But he presses on in a seemingly never-ending effort, somewhat comfortable in the knowledge that his writing will endure."

Recently interviewed by the New York Times, Caro addresses the question of why he chose Moses and Johnson to be the centerpieces for biographies that would become his life’s work. His answer is simple but powerful: “I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man. From the very start I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times --- particularly the force that is political power.”

Although only 200 pages, WORKING offers significant insights into how a biographer treats his subjects and his craft. Moses designed and built hundreds of miles of highway in and around New York City. In addition to the financial cost, each of these roads had a “human cost,” impacting the lives of all who lived in the path or near the highways. Caro knew that those individuals needed to have a voice. This took substantial time to research and write, but in his heart, a full biography of Moses required that work.

In a similar manner, Caro researched life in the Hill Country of Texas in the 1930s and ’40s before young Congressman Lyndon Johnson helped bring electricity to that isolated, impoverished area. Electricity brought lights and pumps to south Texas, allowing water to flow into homes. It took many interviews from people in the communities to portray the physical toil of female homemakers to bring water to their houses. One woman remarked to Caro, “You’re a city boy. You don’t know how heavy a bucket of water is.” She handed a bucket and rope to Caro, who calculated that she probably hauled 200 gallons of water each day in that bucket, using the rope to fill and lift the water from a well.

In each of these instances, as well as countless others, Caro’s discussion of powerful men seeks to give some voice to those who occupy the opposite end of the power spectrum --- the powerless and the invisible. The careers of Moses and Johnson would improve the lives of many, but some would not be as fortunate. However, all were intimately bound together with the men who wielded the power.

WORKING illustrates two important philosophies that explain why Caro’s biographies occupy such a lofty position in the literary world. The first was taught to him early in his writing career --- “turn every page” --- which explains his exhaustive detail and dogged research. His years at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, have probably qualified him to be an honorary Texan. The second philosophy learned from years of experience is that there is no truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple. There are only facts, and the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. Truth takes time.

Caro is 83 years old and recognizes that his ability to complete his life’s work may be coming to an end. But he presses on in a seemingly never-ending effort, somewhat comfortable in the knowledge that his writing will endure.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 12, 2019

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing
by Robert A. Caro

  • Publication Date: April 9, 2019
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525656340
  • ISBN-13: 9780525656340