Web Exclusives: PawPlus

Posted November 20, 2002:

Master of history
How Robert A. Caro '57 approaches his work

By Mark F. Bernstein '83


Q: Before you start writing one of your books, you make a very substantial outline. How do you construct that outline?

A: At first, you don't know how to do it. What I learned is that I have to know what the last sentence is. I can't start writing the book until I know what the last sentence is.

With the Power Broker, I had never written a book before. I had this huge mass of material, and I didn't know how to organize it. [New York Parks Commissioner Robert] Moses had long since stopped talking to me, but I would go whenever he appeared in public. So I went to this event out at the World's Fair grounds, where he was giving a talk, and at the end of the talk he said, "Someday, let us sit on this bench and reflect on the ingratitude of man!" And in front of me was this line of old guys who used to work for him, nodding and saying, "Oh, yeah, that's right." And I suddenly knew that the last line of the book would be: "Why weren't they grateful?" So I went right back to work and started outlining.

I'm not one of these writers — I really admire them — who can just start and go where the stuff takes me. I think it's great to be able to do that but I can't do it. Before I start a book I have to see the book.

Q: Do you do all your research first or do you research as you go?

A: I try to do all the research first, but that's nonsense because when you get into a chapter you always find that something was important but you didn't know it so you didn't look for it. That happens constantly. So you have to fly down to Texas and spend another month in the library. But you do the bulk of the research. And when I've done that, then I make myself think, "What is all this about?" That takes a long time. I write very fast with the outline, but sometimes you just sit here for a long time.

Q: How did you come to write the section on the history of the Senate for your latest book?

A: One thing that was different with Master of the Senate is that I did the outline without doing the history of the Senate. I was unhappy with it. I knew something was wrong. And I thought this has to be as much about the Senate as about Johnson, so you might as well stop trying to put in little bits here and there and just write the history of the Senate. If no one wants to read it, they won't read it. If you write it well enough, they'll read it. So then I did the whole history of the Senate, which I hadn't put in the first outline at all.

Q: The research part sounds like fun. Is it?

A: I love finding out. People say, oh it takes you so long, but that's not the way I feel about it. You're just learning something constantly.

Q: You rely quite a lot on interviews. Would you be interested in writing about someone long dead who left few letters and for whom there were no surviving contemporaries left to interview?

A: It would be very hard. One of the things I try to do is make the reader see the scene. In order to do that you have to be able to pick up the phone and call the guy and say, "You know that scene — where were you sitting? On the sofa?" You can't make it up.

Q: The climax of Master of the Senate is the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. You graduated from Princeton in the spring of 1957, when a lot of that would have been going on. Was it something you followed at the time?

A: No. I was politically very unaware.

Q: What made you decide to go to Princeton?

A: Because they had the best parties. I went to Horace Mann, and I had very good marks. In those days, if you went to Horace Mann and you had good marks, they'd ask where do you want to go to college? Well, I had a friend and he had me down to Houseparties, and I thought, "These are the greatest parties I've ever seen!" That's the truth.

Q: How do you respond to criticism of your work by academic historians?

A I think it's very unfortunate this divide between academic historians and historians whose backgrounds in many cases is journalism. Because I think that the best popular historians are just as rigorous in their demands for proof. Academic historians don't seem to fully realize how much the writing matters. You can tell within three pages whether the historian thinks the writing matters. Parts of history are very dull, but parts of history are quite thrilling. So you're not really being true to history unless you do everything you can to make it just as exciting on the page as it was in real life. When that is done, as in the best books that are being written now, people do get interested in history.

One thing Carlos Baker used to say [in class at Princeton], it stuck with me all my life, is that Hemingway used to try to find the thing that created the emotion. So I'm always asking people I interview, what is it that got you? You spend endless hours interviewing someone asking, if I were there, what would I see? But if you do it long enough, you do find out what was the atmosphere, what produced the emotion. I think that's a very essential part of writing history.

One of the things [academic historians] attack nonacademic historians for is the nonacademic historian's reliance on interviews. They say, well no one remembers. Well, that's because they've never been a journalist, they don't know what an interview is. They think an interview is where you sit there and ask a question and the guy answers it and you go on to the next question. That's not what an interview is. And you don't use just one interview.

Q: You are a great fan of Tolstoy and Trollope, both of whom wrote about politics and history. Is there are relationship between great history and great literature?

A: There is. A couple of summers ago, I wanted to find out if this was true, because I was working so hard on the writing and people said, you're just wasting your time. So I took Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and I would read a hunk of that. And then I said, what historical novel is most like it? Well, War and Peace, because it's so huge. So I would read a couple of chapters of Gibbon and a couple of chapters of Tolstoy and I thought, yeah, it's the writing. No one can ever fool me about writing. Their styles are different, but they're both writing at the same level. They are each trying just as hard to get le mot juste, the perfect word.

When I started to write The Power Broker, I wanted to write it on the same level as great literature. And as time has passed, I've come to believe that history that endures, really endures because the writing, the level of the narrative, the words, are the same as in great fiction.

Q: Professor Stanley Kutler of the University of Wisconsin was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that historians would not cite your books 20 years from now. Do you care?

A: Absolutely. I want a wide readership. And I feel I have my standards — I never put anything in my book that I haven't researched.

Twenty years, Kutler says? Well, The Power Broker has been out for 28 years. The first volume [of the Johnson series, The Path to Power] has been out for 20 years. Neither of those books has ever been out of print in hard cover or paperback, and neither has Means of Ascent. You can walk into almost any big bookstore in New York and there they are, still on the shelves. To me, it's important that they have endured. The Power Broker and The Path to Power are both now appealing to a whole new generation of readers. People aren't still reading The Power Broker because they remember Robert Moses, because there's almost nobody still around anymore who does.

His Coliseum used to be right out there at Columbus Circle until it was torn down a couple of years ago. I remember Moses used to say, "Oh, that book won't last." That's what he used to say. "How long will The Power Broker last? It'll be gone before you know it." So when they started tearing the Coliseum down, that was one of the greatest moments of my life! Books do last.

Mark F. Bernstein '83 is working on a book about the electrification of New York.