The new instalment of an immense biography records how Lyndon Johnson survived political humiliation to become a president who shaped modern Americaby Sam Tanenhaus / April 23, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Lyndon B Johnson campaigning in 1964, to retain the office he assumed after the assassination of John F Kennedy
American publishers will release more than 300,000 books this year (throw in all manner of web-generated and electronic items, including Kindle one-offs and the like, and the number will be multiplied by at least ten), but the “industry” clings to hoary articles of faith. One such is that there are only two publishing seasons, spring and autumn, and that each yields at most a handful of reliably “big” books, almost always written by “brand-name” authors.
This season the biggest, easily, is The Passage of Power, the fourth but not final volume of Robert A Caro’s immense biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Its publication is not so much an event as an ordeal—for Caro, for his publisher, Alfred A Knopf, and for others too. Last winter, when galleys should have been available, they weren’t, because Caro was said to be combing over the huge manuscript in a final binge of perfectionism.
Although Caro is more celebrated for his research than for his prose—“I don’t know how good a writer I am,” he has said, “but I’m a very good interviewer”—he is fanatically attentive to each sentence he has written, both to its rhythms and to its look on the page. This is all the more impressive given the size of the project, which now exceeds 3,300 densely printed pages and is less a biography-in-progress than a campaign. It has been ten years since the previous volume, The Master of the Senate, was published and 30 since the first instalment, The Path to Power, appeared. Caro actually “writes fast,” he has said (the long years go into the research); still his approach recalls James Merrill’s lament, or boast: “We, though, were ancient foes,/ I and the deadline.” Caro has himself remarked that he and Robert Gottlieb, his longtime Knopf editor, “had a tacit understanding that the words ‘delivery date’ are never to be mentioned.”
Caro does as Caro likes—in large part because his passion for his project is all-consuming, and his work ethic beyond reproach, except by envious writers unable to match his tenacious discipline. But it can confound the plans of publishers in this moment of the “roll out,” in the dismal phrase, with its twin suggestion of the latest iPad dribbling off the assembly line and of the red carpet being frantically smoothed outside the entrance of a film premiere. When I spoke to Caro in April he seemed mystified by the conspiracies of 21st-century book publishing. “They want me to do everything,” he said—not only sit for interviews, but also to promote his labours via a website, Facebook page, Twitter chirps, and who knew what else. Even the prepublication excerpt in the New Yorker, an anointment for a normal author, was for Caro another tortured skirmish—tolerable only because he was paired with a seasoned editor, John Bennet, who is well-attuned to Caro’s fetishes involving dashes and semi-colons. Caro himself nurses the anachronistic ideal of “the Author” who might have a public identity, celebrated by his peers and embraced by the public, but remain a private citizen nonetheless. Not that Caro is a recluse. He is very much a Manhattan presence. He lives on Central Park West, the neighbourhood where he grew up (his father was in real estate; his mother died when Caro was a child). He lunches at the Century, the old-fashioned club on 43rd Street, popular with journalists (very few of them under 50, and many much older); dines in one of the front-of-the room red-leather booths at Ouest, the uptown Broadway restaurant favoured by eminent journalists and writers; mingles genially at the uptown apartment of Antonio Monda, the impresario from Rome who has become an energetic host to literary New York.