Thursday, October 1, 2009

Robert Caro at Leon Levy Center for Biography

Robert Caro, the most arresting biographer of our time, spoke the night before last at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York Graduate Center at 5th Avenue and 34th Street. The event was first come first served, so I arrived about an hour early and was able to secure a good seat for myself and Karen. After holding Karen's seat for 40 minutes, I got up briefly to go to the bathroom. I noticed that the auditorium was almost full. As I did so, a very tall figure sidled over to us to ask if my seat was available. It was Bill Bradley, the former Presidential candidate and Senator and great basketball star. I told him that if he really didn't have a good seat, we would gladly vacate our seats for HIM, but it turned out that there were VIP seats waiting for him even closer to the front. This is just a small indicator of two things really: 1)how readily one encounters well known figures in New York; 2)how much people - both the ordinary (us) and the extraordinary (Bradley) wanted to see and hear this great biographical documenter of two transformative power brokers - Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. I should add that Leslie Stahl, who looked stunning, was sitting about five rows in front of us as well.

And after the introductions were made and Robert Caro rose to deliver his talk on the writing of biography, you could feel the warmth toward this man and the admiration for his accomplishments. Caro himself, now almost 74, seemed incredibly fit and beamed with the radiance of someone who knew he had already accomplished a great deal. His work, which dazzles you with intricate detail, bold insights and startling new perspectives, not just about his main subjects, but about a whole host of secondary characters - from Sam Rayburn to Richard Russell - is as influential as biography gets. Indeed, his portrait of LBJ was seen by some historians as so biased and so one-sided, but also so definitive, that it led a number of them to write their own counter-lives, most prominently in the case of the scholar Robert Dallek, who penned a 2-volume account of LBJ's life that he consciously strived to make a model of balanced, unsensationalized reporting.

In any case, Caro's books are not only fascinating, they are fun to read. When the first volume of the LBJ biography, which became Path to Power, was serialized in the New Yorker back in the mid-1970s, I can remember waiting impatiently for the next week's issue to arrive. The story he was telling was that compelling and that dramatic.

On Tuesday night, he spoke about the Sense of Place in biography, and how biography cannot endure unless that sense of place is conveyed in the lives biographers recount. In the case of LBJ, he said that were two places, in particular, that needed to be captured for the reader: The Texas Hill Country of the 1920s where LBJ grew into adulthood; and the world that surrounded Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., which LBJ first encountered at the age of 23 in the depths of the Great Depression. More about the work of capturing that sense of place in tomorrow's post.

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