Biography of a Biographer: Inside the Robert A. Caro Archive

From a Wall Street Journal review by Edward Rothstein headlined “Biography of a Biographer”:

If the life of Robert A. Caro ever receives the Caro treatment, that biographer will have his hands full. “The Power Broker,” Mr. Caro’s 1974 biography of Robert Moses, runs to some 1,300 pages and took seven years of work. His still unfolding biography of President Lyndon Johnson comprises some 3,400 pages after about 45 years, with expectations high for what the author has called the “fifth of a projected three volumes.”

As for any possible Caro treatment of Caro, it would now have to begin at the New-York Historical Society, which announced the acquisition of his papers in early 2020—some 200 linear feet of files, said to be the society’s largest archive devoted to a single individual. And as was promised to Mr. Caro, the society has opened a permanent exhibition—“‘Turn Every Page’: Inside the Robert A. Caro Archive”—consisting of six themed wall displays on the second-floor hallway….

You get a sense of just how much the archives contain from these samplings, which range from one of Mr. Caro’s sports columns (“Ivy Inklings”) written while he was a student at Princeton to meticulously self-edited manuscript pages from the fourth volume of the LBJ biography. There are scribbles in reporters’ notebooks as he conducted interviews, including a capitalized note to himself—“SHUT UP”—during a circa 1970 interview with Robert Moses; Mr. Caro wanted to ensure that the man whom he portrayed as New York’s morally monstrous master builder would fill any silences on his own.

Interspersed too are memorabilia of a writing life, including one of the 14 Smith Corona electric typewriters Mr. Caro is said to have stockpiled. A page from his 1971 “Planning Calendar” keeps track of his ambition to write 1,000 words daily; when he fails, excuses appear in parentheses—most frequently, “lazy.”

You also see traces of Mr. Caro’s relentless probing in documents relating to the three years he and his wife, Ina, moved to Texas Hill Country to comprehend the hardscrabble world, lacking electricity or running water, that shaped LBJ’s youth. We see, too, a 1967 letter giving Mr. Caro access to the New York City Parks Department’s archives beneath the 79th Street Boat Basin, where he found long-forgotten carbon copies Moses wanted kept secret….

To a great extent, Mr. Caro’s judgments were shaped by 1960s and 1970s liberalism… But there is no hint here of opposing interpretations, even though debates about cars in the city or the effects of Great Society programs continue. In “The Power Broker,” for example, Mr. Caro presents data about increased traffic every time Moses built another highway to alleviate traffic, implying a kind of futility, without taking into account that it was also a sign of increased commerce, population growth and urban vitality.

The exhibition also repeats an apparent Caro error that played a role in a controversy earlier this month when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, wanting to demonstrate “structural racism” in road design, repeated Mr. Caro’s assertion that bridges over the Southern State Parkway leading to Long Island’s Jones Beach were kept low in order to detour buses that might be carrying poorer residents of color. But while Moses had his prejudices, parkways were designed specifically for scenic car transportation, not buses or trucks; aesthetics and budgets, as historians have since pointed out, had far more to do with the roadway than racism.

The exhibition’s title, “Turn Every Page,” comes from a lesson that Mr. Caro’s mentor at Long Island’s Newsday gave the young reporter about how to treat documents in an investigation. The question is whether that principle can also be applied here, going beyond the celebratory. Acclaim is deserved, but so is assessment and criticism as those studying the archive begin to turn every page.

Edward Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.


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