Friday, October 2, 2009

Robert Caro on Sense of Place in Biography

This post offers just a few brief comments regarding Robert Caro's talk on the sense of place in biogaphy given at the Leon Levy Center for Biography last Tuesday night. Almost the whole talk was based on some comments I have heard him make a number of times before, but I loved every minute of it anyway. Caro speaks with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, sometimes a bit awkwardly; he is not at all glib or particularly articulate, but he gets the point across beautifully nevertheless. And his point, this time, was to convey how much a place shaped Lyndon Baines Johnson's life. This place was the Hill Country of Texas, which stretches for some 300 miles west of Austin and covers something like 24,000 square miles. When LBJ grew up in one small part of this vast area - Johnson City - and even when Caro and his wife and sole research assistant, Ina, went to live there for close to three years to absorb that sense of place, only a few hundred people were living in Johnson City. More than anything, what Caro wanted to get across was how lonely and desolate and isolated this part of Texas was, and how much LBJ and his mother, especially, hated this isolation, and the incredible drudgery that went with living in a place where neither electricity nor running water were available. In Path to Power, Caro's set piece of what it was like to do laundry with nothing more than lye and well water has become a classic, and he did not dwell on this in his talk. But he did recount how Lyndon and his brother Sam would sometimes wait for hours on the main road (or more accurately rut) of Johnson City just waiting for a car to pass and perhaps even stop for a chat in their tiny town. This rarely happened. Caro described the nights in Johnson City when the only thing that could be heard was the sound of animals gnawing on the bones of fallen prey, and he emphasized how hard this was especially on people like Lyndon's mother, who was nearly driven mad by the loneliness.

The reason all of this mattered so much for the life of LBJ was that when he finally reached Capitol Hill in the early thirties, as the hardest working secretary to any United States Congressman, he never seemed to stop moving. He was driven, as few people have been driven, to change the conditions of people's lives. And more than anything he wanted to "bring the lights" to the Hill Country, something he accomplished almost immediately upon being elected as the Hill Country's representative to Congress in 1937. The Hill Country made him, and how he lived there and what he eventually did about it would be most monumentally echoed in the torrent of Great Society programs that he signed into law in the mid-sixties as the 36th President of the United States.

I don't know of another biographer who is better able to explain through the accumulation of dozens of tiny details the psychology of why people do the things they do. And no one, perhaps ever, has shown as powerfully as Caro how place influences and motivates actions. For those lucky enough to be there, Caro explained it all on Tuesday night.

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