Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The passages of power

with 2 comments

Robert Caro

Every year or so, I go back and read Charles McGrath’s profile of the biographer Robert Caro, which is one of my favorite features ever published in The New York Times Magazine. (My favorite piece of all, if I’m being honest with myself, is Stephen Rodrick’s account of the notorious meltdown by Lindsay Lohan during the filming of The Canyons—and you’d probably learn a lot about human nature by reading those two articles back to back.) Caro, who was recently honored with a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation, has long been a hero of mine, for reasons that I’ve described at length elsewhere. He’s eighty years old now, and for most of his career, he has remained obsessively focused on two men: the city planner Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson. Yet his real subject is the nature of power in America, a theme that he has kept at the forefront of his work even at his bleakest moments. McGrath writes:

At the lowest point during the writing of The Power Broker, when Caro had run out of money and was close to despair about being able to finish, [Caro’s wife Ina] sold their house in suburban Long Island, moved the family…to an apartment in the Bronx and took a job teaching school to keep him going. “That was a bad time, a very bad time,” Caro recalled.

In an interview published this week with Rachel Syme of Matter, Caro goes into greater detail about this bad period:

This book took seven years. And money played a big part of this. We didn’t have any savings. I was a reporter. And I thought it was only going to take a year, so I couldn’t quit. I got a contract for $5,000, they gave me $2,500 as an advance. So I was trying for half the year to keep my job and work on the book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I heard about a grant for one year, and I got it. And I remember I told Ina, we are finally going to get to go to France. I thought, they are giving me this money for a year, and this outline is only going to take me nine months! Of course at the end of the year, I’d hardly started, and we were just broke.

So Ina sold the house, but that only gave us — this was before the real estate boom — $25,000 of profit. That was enough to live for a year in an apartment in the Bronx. And then I was just totally broke, and Ina went to work. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get out of bed for a long time. So she had to stop and do the research.

Caro adds that he still remembers the exact amount of their monthly rent in those years—$362.73—because they constantly worried how to pay it, and that Ina began to take a circuitous route on her walk home to avoid passing the butcher and dry cleaner to whom they owed money.

Robert Moses

And here’s the quote that sticks in my head the most: “But I must say, for several years, I had very little hope of finishing the book,” Caro says. “When I thought about the book, I didn’t feel powerful. I believed no one was going to read it. And I was just thinking I have to finish, but I don’t know how we are going to make it.” The italics are mine. The Power Broker was written by a man who felt all but powerless, doubted that he would ever finish it, and feared that nobody would read the result even if he did. (Caro recalls: “All this time, all I’m hearing is nobody is going to read a book on Robert Moses, including from my first editor. He said, ‘It’s a good book, but nobody is going to read it. You have to prepare yourselves for a very small printing.'”) For a writer, that kind of financial squeeze, as I know from personal experience, enforces a relentless logic. You can quantify the cost of every wasted day—and, even more terrifyingly, of every day spent on real work. Caro realized, for instance, that in order to give the reader a full picture of Moses’s impact on the city, he had to tell the story of one of the neighborhoods that were destroyed. The result, “One Mile,” is one of the most powerful chapters in the book, and probably the first that most readers remember. Caro knew that it would take him six months to research and write, and he didn’t have the money or time. But he did it it anyway. When you take that kind of decision and multiply it by the scale of the book that he envisioned, you’ve got seven years spent in utter suspense over whether any of it would make a difference. It couldn’t have been less like the power that he was trying to describe.

But he pulled it off magnificently. And it’s an example that is worth remembering now more than ever. We’re entering a era in which the media will be forced to confront the rise to power of a man it resoundingly did not want to see in the White House. (Only two mainstream newspapers endorsed Donald Trump.) In the aftermath of the election, writers and journalists can’t be blamed for asking themselves how much power they really have, in the face of a post-truth environment in which fake news was just as influential as the real thing. The answer, honestly, is that they have almost none. Yet this might be the only position from which they can speak honestly about power itself. As Caro says to Matter: “You have to deal with the powerless. You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power, both for good and for ill.” And it’s that invisible dynamic between the subject and its author—between one man of enormous power and another who could wield nothing but words—that made Caro’s work so enduring. The Power Broker is as massive a book as can be physically encompassed between two covers, and its scale, I think, was partly a result of Caro’s attempt to match himself to Moses. He might not have been able to build highways and bridges, but he could construct a book on the same scale. The result had a greater impact on Moses’s reputation than any of the monuments that he left to himself. It took Caro seven years, but he did it, starting from nothing. And we owe it to ourselves to do the same.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

2 Responses

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  1. Caro also gives us some good perspective on the incoming administration. Caro stripped away the rosy view of Moses and Johnson and showed them to be men consumed by ambition and the need to exercise power by any means necessary. Neither was an ideologue, and both were adept at manipulating populist sentiments. Ultimately, while both caused real harm, our institutions and our republic outlasted them. For all the talk about the diminished role of the media, I think Trump will operate in a much less secretive environment than those men (particularly Moses) did, and Trump’s die-hard supporters won’t believe negative stories, enough people will for them to have a real impact. LBJ was done in, in part, by the media being able to see through his lies on Vietnam to show what was really happening. If Trump’s policies are halfway as disastrous as they could be, I have faith that the media will expose that truth to enough people to sour us on Trump.


    November 19, 2016 at 10:09 pm

  2. @Nat: This month has made me appreciate how much more fun it is to read about history when you didn’t have to live through it.


    December 6, 2016 at 8:25 pm

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