Robert Caro and the Nonfiction ‘War and Peace’

Written by City and State on . Posted in Arts & Film, News West Side Spirit, West Side Spirit.

Anyone who has studied New York city or state politics seriously has read The Power Broker. When it came out in 1974, Robert Caro’s massive, illuminating, enthralling biography of Robert Moses instantly established Caro as one of America’s greatest nonfiction writers and historians—a legacy that he has continued to cement over the past five decades with the first four volumes of his epic The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The most recent volume, The Passage of Power, came out in May of this year to the delight of his readers, who had been hankering for the latest installment for a decade. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and lifelong New Yorker about his time covering Albany as a reporter, his approach to writing and who else he thinks would be worthy of a Caro biography.

Morgan Pehme: Having studied literature and begun your career as a journalist, I was wondering if you think of yourself as a writer first and a historian second.
Robert Caro: It’s not quite that. It’s that I feel like with writing, the level of the prose is just as important in nonfiction, as fiction … 99 percent of [nonfiction books] or more, you can see that the author doesn’t really think that the writing matters… He got the facts and he’s got to put them down on the page. But my feeling is that if you want a nonfiction book to endure, the same things that we think are important in fiction—like sense of place, narrative drive, rhythms, that reinforce the words, that let the reader see the place where it’s happening—they’re just as important, and that’s not a belief that’s really held, and so I wanted to test it out. When I was first starting The Power Broker, I took the novel that’s most like a great long work of real history, which is War and Peace, and then I took [British historian Edward] Gibbon, and I would read a couple chapters of Gibbon and then a couple chapters of Tolstoy, and the level of writing—you can fool me about almost anything, but you can’t fool me about writing—the writing is just as important. So when I was doing something like Lyndon Johnson, when he gets out of the hospital … and he’s so far behind [during his first race for senator], and he’s desperate to catch up, I remember putting a note, scotch-taping it to that lamp: “Is there desperation on every page?”—not just the facts.

Is there a time in New York City history that is particularly relevant to understanding the New York of today?
The 1920s, when New York was expanding into [a] large metropolis. Now you have this situation where not only is the skyline changing with all of these huge buildings going up, but what that signifies to the neighborhoods that used to be there. I think that it’s important that the city build—it’s important that the city do what’s necessary to come into the modern age—but you have to be very careful that … the values of community, the values of neighborhood, are not being lost in this expansion … If you wanted to sum it up like we were taught in school, that Rome is power and Greece is glory, what is New York? New York is home. New York is the ingatherer, it’s the place that for a century and a half the peoples of the world have come to—in the 1870s and ’80s, the Italians, then the Irish, then the Jews, now all this wonderful influx of the Asian countries—so you say, What did New York do? It took these people in and it made them part of the fabric of the city … I don’t say this is happening, but I worry. … Are those values being destroyed again [like they were by some of Moses’ projects]? … I can’t pay enough attention to what’s happening in the city now, because [writing the Johnson book] is taking all my attention, but you can’t help thinking and wondering about it.

Is there a current figure in New York city or state politics now who would merit a Caro biography?
No. [Robert Moses] changed the world that we live in. Somebody said to me last night at dinner … “I was coming down the West Side Highway, and I was passing Lincoln Center, [and I realized] this is still the city that he built.” And I said, “He built it in many more significant ways. The fact that you had no choice but to come by car, that’s because he stopped the building of subways.” At the time he came to power, New York had this great subway system and it was being expanded, and he stopped that, and he stopped the maintenance on it, so that the MTA could basically never catch up … I don’t see anybody. He wanted to change the world, and he changed it, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse.

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