Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Moses

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

Homer on the highways

leave a comment »

Robert Caro

When I was writing I kept hearing, year after year, that nobody would read a book on Robert Moses. For most of those years I believed that. I never thought The Power Broker would have any sort of mass audience. But Moses was a figure who had so great an impact on New York and in many ways shaped it for centuries. He threw 500,000 people out of their homes for his highways and “slum” clearance projects, and I thought it was important for people to know how he got his power.

I wanted to write an introduction that would make readers see the scope of what Moses did, and how many lives he touched. So I asked myself what I had read that really captured the scope of something titanic. In the Iliad, Homer lists all the kingdoms that are coming to sack Troy and all the heroes of Troy who are going to fight them. These lists have a great rhythm to them. I thought that, if I could write well enough, I could do the same thing with highways: “He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.” The change in rhythm in the last line, that’s a dying fall.

Robert Caro, to The New York Times Style Magazine

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2014 at 8:02 am

Robert Caro and the work of a lifetime

leave a comment »

What does it mean to devote your life to one book? Yesterday, I spoke about the figure of the freelancer turned man of letters, who spends his career moving from subject to subject like a shark, but this tells us nothing about a man like Robert Caro, who has spent his entire life writing about two subjects, and for the past forty years only one, the life of Lyndon Johnson. What was originally expected to run three volumes has now expanded to four, with a fifth on the way, covering something like 3,500 pages, with most of Johnson’s presidency yet to come. As Charles McGrath points out in a recent profile in the New York Times, Caro has now spent more time writing about the crucial years of Lyndon Johnson’s life than Johnson spent living them. At first glance, then, Caro might seem like the opposite of the kind of writer I’ve described. But when you look more closely, as Caro himself would, you find surprising affinities.

If Caro has mostly turned aside from other kinds of work, it wasn’t because he didn’t need it—McGrath’s profile notes that Caro and his wife sold their house in Long Island and moved to the Bronx to save money during the writing of his first book. Instead, Caro’s singlemindedness seems inspired by both his own meticulous personality and an almost fanatical sense of progressive revelation, the idea that looking closely enough at one life can allow us to understand an entire society, but only if we dig as deeply as possible. And it helps, of course, that he has chosen subjects that lend themselves to such expansiveness. As McGrath points out, The Years of Lyndon Johnson encompasses everything from detailed miniature biographies of secondary characters like Sam Rayburn or Hubert Humphrey to a history of the United States Senate, all of which Caro furnishes for the sake of necessary context. In short, like any author, he constantly follows his curiosity into unexpected places—he’s just lucky enough to be able to encompass it under one larger theme.

I haven’t read all of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, although those three big volumes have been staring down imposingly from my bookshelves for a long time now, but I have read The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, which remains one of my fondest memories from a lifetime of reading nonfiction. It’s about as big, physically, as a book can be and still fit between two covers, but it’s a marvel of pacing and detail—the reader’s interest never flags—and we can almost believe Caro when he says that he cut 350,000 words and still regrets every one. (The real hero of McGrath’s piece is editor Robert Gottlieb.) Caro clearly takes his cues from Gibbon, an edition of which is visible in his office, and like Gibbon, his life has been consumed by one great work, to an extent that seems to have taken even his loved ones by surprise. “I never thought this would be all he’d write about,” his wife Ina says. “I’ve always wanted him to finish a novel.”

But of course, Caro has already written his novel, or novels, which are buried throughout his larger work. (Just one example out of many: the account in The Power Broker of the relationship between Robert Moses and his brother Paul, which reads like a self-contained tragedy.) Every story unfolds into others, and episodes that were originally conceived as a single chapter end up taking up most of a book. In this sense, Caro’s approach really is Homeric: in the Iliad, there are passages of a couple of lines in the surviving text that, when originally sung, could be expanded by the performer to last for hours, based on the interests of the audience. Similarly, there are times when Caro’s work reads like a standard biography of Johnson in which each paragraph has been expanded in every imaginable direction. Like Thomas Mann, Caro knows that only the exhaustive is truly interesting. And its pursuit is, in every sense, the work of a lifetime.

%d bloggers like this: