Journalism Lessons with Robert CaroHistorians in the News
tags: New York Historical Society, Robert Caro
You can sense Robert Caro’s disappointment after he asks a group of CUNY Newmark Graduate School journalism students if they’ve seen a typewriter before and nearly every hand shoots up. The typewriter he is standing over is a Smith Corona Electra 210, a model practically synonymous with him. It is—no surprise—no longer being made. Caro has several backups, which he scavenges for parts, but is down to 10. If, that is, you don’t count the one that has now become a museum display and, at the same time, a kind of metaphor for Caro himself.
The typewriter also marks Caro’s first lesson to the 20-odd graduate students who are crowded around him. Caro, the most influential biographer of the last century, is leading them through selections from his archive, which has recently gone up as an exhibition at the New York Historical Society. It is likely the first permanent public exhibition of an archive devoted to a living author in the country. (Everyone, it should be noted, was vaccinated and masked except for Caro—his bifocals fog up—and this was late October, before omicron.)
“People ask me why my books take so long,” Caro said. “I’m very fast. When I was at Newsday, I was on the rewrite desk—I was the fastest rewrite guy,” he said barely disguising the hint of pride.
But when it came to writing books, he recalled a piece of advice from an old creative writing professor at Princeton, R.P. Blackmur, a poet and critic perhaps best remembered now for being parodied by Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift.
“Mr. Caro,” Blackmur told him, “you’re never going to achieve what you want to achieve if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.” And so Caro endeavored to slow down by whatever means necessary. “I write my first draft in longhand,” he continues. “Sometimes many first drafts. And then I go to a typewriter, and I use a typewriter instead of a computer basically because a typewriter is slower.” He continues making revisions through the entire publishing process, not just in galleys but in page proofs, something that’s practically unheard of. (“He breaks all the rules,” jokes Paul Bogaards, a Knopf publicity executive who has worked with Caro for more than 30 years.)
Dressed casually (at least by his standards) in a red sweater and suit but no tie—he famously writes from home in a full suit, an anomaly in the ubiquity of Covid-era casual work-from-home attire—Caro is, in some ways, an odd choice as a mentor to journalism students in the 2020s. (Caro, who hasn’t worked on a news desk since the late 1950s, is also mortified by the challenges facing young journalists in digital newsrooms. Asked in a 2019 Gothamist interview about Chartbeat, the analytics tool that tracks, among other things, page views and engagement time on articles, Caro joked that it was “the worst thing” he had ever heard of.)
Although Caro is among the most influential nonfiction writers of the last century, his mammoth biographies of the shadowy New York kingpin Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson are, in many ways, throwbacks. They’re immense, covering ground that few, if any authors, are allowed to attempt today. The Power Broker, his book about Moses, comes in at over 1,200 pages, while there are currently four volumes in his biography of Johnson, spanning thousands of pages covering the thirty-sixth president from his birth until 1964. He is currently at work on a fifth volume, which is expected to cover Johnson’s legislative accomplishments during his first full term as president, as well as his escalation of the Vietnam War. The books themselves resemble, as much as anything, the totemic novels of the midcentury.
But Caro’s great subject—power—and his approach to journalism are as pertinent and vital here in the young years of this century as is the close, empathetic attention he pays toward those who become caught in the crosshairs of the powerful.
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