Robert Caro and a Sense of Place in Biography


Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington

I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.

The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.

Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me three years ago at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington. He talked about the importance of place and setting.

[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character  …

The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in the first two draft chapters of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

I’m convinced Eliza’s early years in Madison, Wisconsin, though brief, were an important influence on her life. Her ancestors were pioneers who left the East and “carved out a place for themselves in the American wilderness,” as I’ve written. It helps explain her own maverick spirit, and her admiration for westerners, as reflected in her early newspaper writings.

My second chapter focuses on Eliza’s growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and Gilded Age. Another place critical to her story, given her legacy of helping to shape the public face of the city by proposing Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac.

“The greatest of books,” Caro said in his BIO speech, “are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye.”

I keep that in mind in striving for vividness of place. It’s important all throughout my book because of Eliza Scidmore’s wide-ranging travels, and the need to make readers see what those worlds looked like in the late 19th century.

Caro cited as examples of great writing about setting:

•   the deck of the Pequod, in Moby Dick, when the sailors haul whale parts aboard the ship to melt down for oil.

•   the battlefield at Borodino, as Napoleon looks down from a hill and has to decide whether to send his men forward into battle.

•   Miss Havisham’s room in Great Expectations, where she was to have been married and where time stopped after she was jilted.

In writing his multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro said he and his wife, Ina—his sole research assistant—moved to Texas to gain insight into how life there shaped LBJ’s priorities. He also retraced Johnson’s walk to work at the U.S. Capitol every day, to capture the sense of wonder.

Cut-and-paste edits on my first draft chapter of Eliza Scidmore biography

Cut-and-paste edits on my first draft chapter of Eliza Scidmore biography.

It’s amusing to know that Caro still writes using an electric typewriter (problem: finding a steady supply of black cotton ribbons).

Caro also cuts and pastes his text when editing and revising—which I do, too! A practice since writing long news and feature articles many years ago. I need to see a piece in its entirety, on paper, in revising for structure, transitions, balance, and story flow; to move sections around and make notes in the margins.

Unlike Caro, I use a computer. But I do have my own writing-tool quirk: must use Zebra-brand pens and mechanical pencils (available at Staples).  


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Filed under Biography, Books, Eliza Scidmore, Research, U.S. History, Writing: Craft & Community

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