Two great feature stories came out this week about Robert Caro’s 40-year effort to chronicle the life of Lyndon Johnson: one in the New York Times Magazine, the other in Esquire. The fourth volume, The Passage of Power, which will hit stores on May 1. I love how both features capture Caro’s painstaking attention to detail and a writing process that hasn’t changed in the years that he has been writing. Here is an excerpt on that process from “The Big Book,” written by Chris Jones in Esquire:
“After Caro composes his one or two anchor paragraphs, he writes his outline, the first of his outlines. This is the one that he pins onto his bulletin boards: maybe two dozen pages, typewritten on his Smith-Corona Electra 210. (“It’s like giving your fingers wings,” the advertisements in Life magazine read in 1967. “They just kiss the keys. Never punch them.” Caro has nine spares that he can cannibalize for parts, and he collects ribbon like a hoarder.) Here, he writes only the briefest sketches of scenes, entire chapters reduced to single lines: His Depression or The Cuban Missile Crisis. “Once that’s done,” Caro says, “I don’t change it.” He has his frame.
“Then he writes a fuller outline that usually fills three or four notebooks, throwing himself into the filing cabinets that surround him, the yields from nearly four decades of research. Caro has spent vast stretches of his life poring over documents, mostly at the Johnson Library in Austin â€” it alone contains forty-five million pages, held in red and gray boxes, many of which he is the only visitor ever to have opened, rows and rows of boxes stretched across four floors â€” and interviewing hundreds of subjects.” Compare this photo from the Esquire story with this slideshow from the Times and you will see how little has changed–from the coat and tie, to the corkboard, to the fixtures on the desk.
From the book description: “Book Four of Robert A. Caroâ€™s monumental The Years of Lyndon Johnson displays all the narrative energy and illuminating insight that led the Times of London to acclaim it as â€œone of the truly great political biographies of the modern age. A masterpiece.â€ The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his careerâ€”1958 to1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassinâ€™s bullet to reach its mark.”