I’ve avoided reading the political writer, but he’s right about one thing—biography teaches us that individuals matterby Philip Collins / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Read Sam Tanenhaus’ review of the previous volume of Caro’s Johnson biography
They have been sitting there, tucked in neatly between Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes And Hero Worship and EH Carr’s What Is History?, admonishing me for years now. The first three of five planned volumes of Robert Caro’s epic biography of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B Johnson. Those 2,280 pages demanding my attention, mocking me for never having opened them, trying to excite a hunger in me to be more serious. There is another volume, not yet purchased and another, not yet written but expected. At my usual rate, the three volumes I have will consume three months, even if I read absolutely nothing else—no newspapers, magazines, novels, old Wisden almanacs, nothing but Johnson. If the conversation doesn’t get round to the electrification of rural Texas, I will have nothing to say.
It took Caro’s recent visit to London, in which he was given the royal treatment by the British political class, including slots on Newsnight and the Today programme and an audience with the press gallery of the House of Commons, to force me to get them down from the shelves. However, having done so, and having been alerted, for the first time in years, to the Carlyle and the Carr, the contents of which I retained in broad but vague outline, I found myself constantly diverted from the Caro. The three books—Carlyle, Caro and Carr, to put them in their alphabetically-shelved order—started a conversation which is, essentially, about what counts in history. Historians exist along a spectrum which has the individual agent at one end and grand impersonal forces at the other. The claim of the biographer is that history is better illustrated and understood through the prism of the single important life. Given Carr’s point that only some facts are historical, this inevitably means that most biographical writing is the account of the lives of great men and women. In that debate, the Caro and the…