Against the Great Man Theory of Historians

Robert Caro has penned more magisterial works of history than nearly anyone else. But without accounting for the often-invisible work of others in his research, his new memoir Working is not so much inspiration as an exercise in self-celebration.

Robert Caro addresses the audience at Strand Bookstore on March 29, 2013 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Midway through chapter fifteen of his 1974 book The Power Broker, Robert Caro describes the relentless work ethic of his subject, Robert Moses. Upon being appointed secretary of state under New York governor Al Smith in the late 1920s, Moses whittled away every distraction in his life. He gave up bridge, golf, and Sundays with his family. His wife, Mary, took over paying the bills and clothes shopping. She even hired a barber to come to Moses’s office to trim his hair.

Most of all, Moses disliked restaurants. “Lunches,” Caro writes, “were a constant source of irritation to Moses; he hated to interrupt his work for them.” If he was compelled to take midday sustenance with company, Moses insisted that a secretary bring him — and his companion — a sandwich.

Lunch upsets Caro for similar reasons, as he notes in his brief new book on his own career (a placeholder, we’re told, for a full-length memoir yet to come). Once, while typing in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room at the New York Public Library, Caro’s concentration was interrupted by an elderly gentleman with the temerity to ask him to lunch. He recounts what happened next: “I found myself on my feet with my fist drawn back to punch the guy.” And as for his editor? Caro picked him — longtime Knopf editor, Robert Gottlieb — because every other one Caro’s agent introduced him to took him out to fancy lunches. “I don’t go out for lunch,” Gottlieb told Caro, “but we can have a sandwich at my desk and talk about your book.”

Working is a book about the allure of a certain kind of ambition — an aspiration to create monumental books rather than highways and bridges. It is a book about what it feels like to be totally, completely immersed in an intellectual project, to give oneself over to something so entirely that not even lunch can get in the way.

A biographer of Moses and LBJ? No — “I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man.” Caro’s real subject is “political power” — how the decisions of a few people shape all of our lives. In the thrall of exposing power and its machinations, he has felt himself compelled to keep following the story, to go ever deeper, do the next interview, order up the next batch of documents from the archivist. “Turn every page. Never assume anything, turn every goddamned page,” Caro’s editor at Newsday told him when he was a young reporter just beginning to discover the frisson of investigative work. Caro took those words to heart.

All the ordinary limitations under which most writers and scholars labor — deadlines, money, family obligations — have never contained the force of Caro’s curiosity, which he describes as something akin to a compulsion. Writing about the decision to track down the people displaced by one mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, to interview them and include their stories in The Power Broker, he says, “There was really no choice involved.” Moving from New York City to Hill Country, Texas, to try to understand the depth of poverty in LBJ’s hometown? “I had to tell it, or at least to try.”

For anyone who has ever tried to write a book, Caro’s love song to research is immediately recognizable. The sense of anticipation, anxiety, and thrill that comes from visiting an archive for the first time — flipping through the finding aids, calling up the first boxes from the stacks, seeing them roll out on their metal carts. The way it feels to page through the documents, uncertain what you’re even looking for, the slight buzz of frustration and worry about whether you’re simply wasting your time. The flash of historical insight, when suddenly it seems as though you’re looking over the shoulders of the powerful and imagining what they were thinking — understanding them even better than they were able to understand themselves.

Caro’s excitement when recounting his best detective work — for example, the day he gained access to a cache of carbon copies of Robert Moses’s correspondence, kept in a former parking garage underneath the 79th Street Boat Basis — is palpable and contagious. Even now, when he’s in the middle of writing, he wakes up in the middle of the night to scrawl a paragraph or two.

But Caro seems to be writing about — and from within — a different place and time. He does his first drafts longhand on legal pads, then types his second drafts (on a Smith-Corona Electra 210), triple-spacing the lines as he learned to do in his first life as a newspaperman.

Today, the print journalism he came up in is in decline. The long-term, steady publishing relationships that have sustained him (he started at Knopf and is there still) are also in turmoil. His book jacket mentions a Twitter account; incredulous, I checked it out and was relieved to discover that it is maintained by his publisher, not by Caro himself.

Not just his formative influences but the vision of power that he writes about seems to belong to an earlier epoch. Much of what has fascinated Caro through his long career is old-school, bare-knuckled politicking: Moses wrecking the careers of his opponents by tarring them as Communists; Johnson becoming a conduit for contributions from the Texas oil and gas industries to other Democratic politicians across the country; Johnson stealing an election. The ability to knock down buildings and force people to move in order to slap down a highway where you think it should go. Moses keeping the water in the pool at Jones Beach cold because he thought it would dissuade black people from swimming there.

What is almost always missing is economic power on its own terms, or the ways that even Moses was ultimately subservient to commercial interests in the city. Power, for Caro, is something that belongs to the state, rather than emerging out of economic life. Strong-arming a recalcitrant senator, not closing a factory, is the power that Caro seeks to interrogate. For instance: even though The Power Broker was published just one year before New York City’s near-bankruptcy in 1975, there’s little in the book that might help account for the role that the municipal bond market and the financiers who spoke for it would play in forcing a dramatic reconsideration of the city’s priorities — let alone the idea of government itself.

Caro’s own ambivalent concept of politics comes out near the end of Working. He reports that he wanted to write about the corruption of the public good; now he lives in a time when the very idea of a public good is mocked. “There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power,” he notes, “but there is also great good.” He concludes with a surprising celebration of the Triborough Bridge: “To provide enough concrete for its roadways and immense anchorages, cement factories that had been closed by the Depression had to be reopened in a dozen states; to make steel for its girders, fifty separate steel mills had to be fired up.” Once, the Triborough had mattered to Caro because it gave Moses an independent source of toll revenue to build his own power; now it serves as an example of what public investment can accomplish.

The same shifting context cannot help but have reshaped his thinking about LBJ. When Caro began writing about LBJ, the president was only a few years out of office. He was still celebrated as the great liberal hero, and the Great Society programs he helped create were the law of the land. Today, those programs, problematic as they were at the outset, are in shreds, while the mainstream of the Democratic Party has spent the last four decades turning its back on them. How exactly should Johnson’s power be considered now?

Just as Caro’s implicit theory of political power seems to belong to a mid-century world, the picture he paints of his own immersion in his work as simply a facet of his tenacious character also seems to belong to an earlier moment. Even if Caro feels that he had no choice but to keep researching and writing as though time were no consideration, the fact is that other people facilitated all of this — his publisher, his agent, his journalistic relationships.

Most of all, his work has been made possible by his wife Ina (a writer in her own right), who Caro describes as the “only” assistant he has ever trusted or tolerated. Her research contributions have been oft noted in profiles of her husband, but one anecdote that stands out here is the description of how she sold their Long Island home and moved them to the Bronx — without even telling her husband she was doing so, presumably to avoid causing him stress. And then there is the mention of how, once the rest of the money for The Power Broker came in, Ina commented that she was finally able to go back to the dry cleaner and the butcher. This was news to Caro, who apparently had not been thinking much about laundry or dinner (let alone the daily care of their young son).

The question of what relationships might sustain intellectual work — what might make the commitment Caro has demonstrated more widely available — is unfortunately never taken up in Working. And this is what makes the book seem less generous than it might be; its anecdotes and reflections not so much inspiration for others, but an exercise in self-celebration. Most historians, after all, are not allowed to write five-volume biographies, no matter how much they might like to (leaving aside the question of whether there’s any virtue in concision). Most graduate students are not able to work year in and year out with no other source of support.

There’s a gap between the potentially limitless nature of research, and the necessary incompleteness of any finished book. And the majority of scholars and writers cannot dissociate themselves from their obligations to other people: students, colleagues, family. As impressive as Caro’s accomplishments are, the total surrender to his own intellectual ambitions that he describes here in fact involves a tremendous amount of work on the part of others. His freedom is a difficult one to attain. It is hard to avoid the sense, at the end of Working, that it may even involve a certain kind of power — although of a very different sort than the power he has spent his life so adeptly trying to unravel.

In the end, as he himself would probably agree, memoir isn’t adequate to understanding a life; Robert Caro may have to wait for his own biographer as well.