Now in his 80s, author Robert A. Caro provides a wonderful example to other writers of not only how to keep going in spite of challenges, but how to conduct exemplary research. Caro has been awarded numerous prizes for his work – which includes biographies of urban planner Robert Moses, and a four-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Caro is presently working on a fifth volume. In his book “Working: Researching, interviewing, writing” (2019), Caro brings together a number of published essays and interviews in which he discusses the craft of the writer. Caro describes this short volume (which contrasts with the lengthy books he has published) as including “some scattered, almost random glimpses of a few encounters I’ve had while doing research on the Moses and Johnson biographies, encounters both with documents and with witnesses” (p. ix).
Caro began his writing career as a journalist in New York City and describes himself at the outset of “Working” as a fast writer. He then tells an anecdote concerning a former professor at Princeton University who told him, “But you’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers” (p. xi). Caro took this admonishment to heart and explains that in order to slow himself down since “writing was so easy” (p. xii), he took to writing first drafts longhand. (One of my own mentors wrote three books in longhand prior to publication, but I’m not sure I would publish anything at all if I did this!)
In Working, Caro describes how he came to write about his studies of power: first in the biography of urban planner Robert Moses, and then in his multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The narratives show the circuitous route he took to study Moses, who as a power-broker in New York City, did not take kindly to being interviewed or having people who knew him engaging in interviews with Caro. As an elite subject, Moses had ensured that papers to do with his deal-making were not accessible to others. Another journalist who was aware of Caro’s project in documenting Moses’ work and life got in touch with Caro to assist him in accessing the carefully filed and stored carbon copies located in a parking garage of the Parks Department. These documents provided the source materials to support Caro’s claims concerning how Moses’ power operated behind the scenes of elected government officials, which included the eviction of half a million residents to make for highways and “urban renewal” projects (pp. 65-68).
Later Caro describes the necessity of taking the time to interview people in order to get beneath the polished stories first offered. An example is that of taking Lyndon B. Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson back to the Johnson Boyhood Home – which had been preserved by the Park Service – in order to generate the context in which Sam Houston might talk candidly about his brother and family life. Something truly astonishing happened when Caro asked him: “Now, Sam Houston, I want you to tell me again all those wonderful stories about Lyndon when you both were boys, the stories you told me before – just tell me them again with more details” (p. 107). Rather than tell you what happened next, I’ll let you read it yourself! Caro tells captivating stories about how he doggedly tracked down hundreds of people to interview for his books, how he kept following up on leads to gain greater insight into what “really” happened and the ways in which he encouraged interviewees to describe the details that formed the basis of his compelling portraits. As but one example, what happened to deliver Lyndon B. Johnson the Texas state senate seat in the late 1940s, six days after appearing to have lost the election? Caro talks about the interview in which he tracked down the details of what happened that other Johnson biographers had missed.
One short paragraph, labeled “Tricks of the Trade” conveys Caro’s advice on interviewing: the strategic use of “silence”. He writes, “silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it – as long as the person isn’t you” (p. 137). “Shut up”, he advised himself when interviewing, writing “SU” repeatedly throughout his notebooks.
Such is the meticulous detail of his research that Caro’s papers, which have been donated to the New York Historical Society, will be one of the largest collections of individuals held by this archive. Caro’s work – which is repeatedly described as “monumental” – will also be subject of a permanent exhibit that explores how he did his work (Schuessler, 2020).
I have yet to read Caro’s biographies, but they are on my “to-read” list, although I won’t be finishing these any time soon — the book on Moses is well over 1,000 pages! For those of you wanting to read about how a great writer and researcher works, Working: Researching, interviewing, writing, provides a thoughtful account of what’s entailed. And may we all learn something…
Caro, R. A. (2019). Working: Researching, interviewing, writing New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Schuessler, J. (2020, January 8, 2020). Robert Caro’s Papers Headed to New-York Historical Society. The New York Times