From Jonathan Darman’s recent article on biographer Robert A. Caro, “The Marathon Man”, in the current issue of Newsweek:
By training, Robert Caro is a journalist. By profession, he is a biographer, among the most highly acclaimed living, thanks to his four books—three volumes on Johnson and a saga about the New York public-works titan Robert Moses. But in his daily life, Caro more resembles a scientist, driven by the principle that you understand something only by observing it, watching it with great concentration and for a long time. In his New York City office, where everything has its particular place, he works long hours, seven days a week, poring through interview transcripts and primary source notes, working slowly and deliberately on books he publishes, on average, once every 10 years. His meticulous routine is sometimes painful, he says, but necessary. Only by gathering as many facts as possible, cataloging them, cross-checking them and sitting with them at great length, can he choose the right words to re-create the past inside his readers’ heads. Words matter to Caro. “I have always thought,” he told me this winter, “that in nonfiction, the level of the writing has to be as good as any novel if it is going to endure.” …
The story of Robert Caro is the story of a man who set out at a young age to produce writing that would survive. A close look at his research and writing process offers lessons at a moment when it seems that nothing endures. Does Caro’s obsessive work life — ruled by diligence, deliberateness and desperation—offer hope for the printed word? Or is Caro the last of his kind?
Robert Caro has always needed more words. Growing up on New York’s Upper West Side in the 1930s and ’40s, reading was his haven; as a student at the Manhattan prep school Horace Mann, he devoured all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” At Princeton in the ’50s, he wrote his senior thesis on Ernest Hemingway, who believed ideas were best expressed in as few words as possible. (Caro’s essay ran 235 pages.) Working as a cub reporter for the Long Island tabloid Newsday, he learned that, while editors would technically limit the number of words he could write, when it came time to measure his stories, they would count only lines on the page. So Caro peppered his typed prose with tiny carets, squeezing every inch of available white space.
A Robert A. Caro bibliography:
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1975 Pulitzer Prize for biography)
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Volume 3 (2003 Pulitzer Prize for biography)