A glimpse into what it takes to write epic non-fiction
From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: an unprecedented gathering of vivid, candid, deeply moving recollections about his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books.
Now in paperback, Robert Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces. He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses and to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ’s mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of working in solitude, he found a writers’ community at the New York Public Library, and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books.
Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences—some previously published, some written expressly for this book—bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.
A few days ago, a friend of mine shared a link to Robert A. Caro’s 2019 New Yorker essay, “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives”. I found it to be a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to write the kind of histories that Caro is known for. As I read, I was reminded that I actually had Working, and decided to dive right in. It’s a fascinating memoir about researching, writing, and interviewing. A very rewarding read, I really enjoyed this.
“Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”
This is the advice that Alan Hathaway, former editor of Newsday, told a young Caro when he started working on investigate pieces. It’s a piece of advice that has informed everything Caro has written ever since. In Working, he recounts his time in the Lyndon Johnson archives, sifting through who-knows-how-many pieces of paper, cross-referencing obscure mentions and asides to put together the puzzle that is LBJ’s life and career. Through examples, he shows the reader the painstaking, time-consuming effort that goes into each chapter (and even each scene) he writes in his books.
It should be noted, too, just how important Caro’s wife, Ina, is to his process: she has been with him for the whole journey, helping him go through papers, moving with him to various locations to immerse themselves in the environments of his subjects.
In addition to turning every page, Caro also makes a point of interviewing everyone who’s still alive, typically multiple times — going back over and over, armed with new information, and chipping away at the walls of others’ memories to get at the truth of the past (or, as he notes, the closest one can get to an objective truth of the past). How he unravelled the tangled truths and fictions of LBJ’s youth, for example, was fascinating — especially how he got Sam Houston Johnson, LBJ’s brother, to finally open up.
I found the section about LBJ’s rise to prominence in Congress, so early in his career, particularly fascinating. It was through a survey of his correspondence while there that Caro noticed a total tonal shift in the messages he was receiving from other legislators. The change, Caro found, occurred in October 1940 — just before an election. Caro recounts how he started sifting through more and more boxes of documents at the LBJ presidential library archives, piecing together a picture of a young man who realized the incredible potential of Texas wealth available for political fundraising. Johnson would deploy this to incredible effect, accruing incredible influence and power in the halls of government.
“the congressmen were going to need money for future campaigns, and they had learned that a good way to get it—in some cases the only way—was through Lyndon Johnson. They were going to need him. ‘Gratitude,’ I wrote, ‘is an emotion as ephemeral in Washington as elsewhere… but not merely gratitude but an emotion somewhat stronger and more enduring—self-interest—dictated that they be on good terms with him.’ As one congressman from that era told me: after October, 1940, ‘We knew… he had already started going somewhere…. He was a guy you couldn’t deny anymore.’ In that single month, Lyndon Johnson, thirty-two years old, just three years in the House, had established himself as a congressman with a degree of power over other congressmen, as a congressman who had gained his first toehold on the national power he was to wield for the next thirty years.”
Caro addresses a couple of times the fact that it’s taking him so long to write each volume of his LBJ series, something he is very aware of (especially considering his age). However, he’s so adept at research that there’s always new information that is uncovered as you work through the documents, interviews, and so on.
“Of course there was more. If you ask the right questions, there always is. That’s the problem.”
I thought it was quite interesting that the book contains a fair bit of repetition. However, rather than being boring, the repetition ends up illustrating the value of returning to sources multiple times, asking the same or slightly different questions, in different contexts and situations. Each time, additional details will be uncovered. For example, why did Caro choose to write about Robert Moses? That’s mentioned at least three times, in three different framings, and each one offers just a little bit more detail about how the seed of the idea took root, and how he started working on that beast of a book. (I’ve read some of it, and it is superb; I really want to finish it at some point soon.)
As it happens, I read this around the time that a new documentary, Turn Every Page, was starting to make the rounds and people were starting to watch. It’s a look at the working relationship between Caro and his editor. I’m not sure where it’s available, but after reading Working, I really can’t wait to watch it.
To conclude, Working is a must-read for anyone interesting in the process of writing, researching, and interviewing. It’s not only valuable for those interesting in writing door-stopper histories or biographies. There are so many anecdotes and accounts of fascinating interactions with prominent people, and some almost forgotten to history, and Caro brings to life each of these interactions. Despite his tendency to write run-on sentences, it’s gripping. Caro offers many pearls of wisdom, earned over decades of working and writing, that could prove inspirational or useful for all writers of all kinds of non-fiction.
Very highly recommended.