America's Finest Biographer
Meet Robert Caro, "The Only Thing That Matters Is What Is On This Page"
As a popular historian, there are few, if any, in my profession that I hold in higher regard than Robert Caro. The Power Broker is a masterpiece, and his Lyndon Johnson biographies are beyond compare. The shelves of his office must sag under the weight of the number of awards he has won, most notably a dual pair of Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards.
That is why I’m so excited to publish this guest essay by Jillian Hess on Caro’s craft. Jillian is an Associate Professor of English at Bronx Community College, and I dare say, one of the world’s experts on “note-taking,” which she revels in at her endlessly interesting Substack: NOTED. As Jillian explained to me, “Reading a person’s notes can tell us so much about how they interact with the world, process information, and create new works.”
Here we go with Jillian’s essay on Robert Caro…
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If you want to publish award-winning history books that total well over 1,000 pages each, you’ve got to have an organizational system. Unsurprisingly, Robert Caro’s got one. We, mere mortals, can glimpse it by reading his most recent book, Working. Or, by visiting the New York Historical Society, which has an ongoing exhibit on Caro’s methods.
Even though his readers usually have to wait at least 10 years between books, Caro jokes that he’s actually a very fast writer. It’s the research that takes forever. And the research takes so long because Caro has a deep appreciation for truth in all its complexity. “The more of those facts you get…the closer you’re coming to whatever truth there is.” And we have to start from there, because, if not, the foundation of democracy crumbles. Caro explains,
I don’t think there’s anything more serious for a democracy than what’s happening right now, where, for many reasons, we’re losing belief in facts and truth.
Reading gives us access to one kind of information. The body has a different sort of truth. While researching Lyndon Johnson (we are waiting for the 5th installment of this biography), Caro and his wife, Ina, moved to rural Texas Hill Country. Living there for three years gave the Caros an intimate sense of how the future president grew up.
Caro recounts how a Hill-Country woman challenged him:
You’re a city boy. You don’t know how heavy a bucket of water is, do you?
Once Caro lifted a full bucket from the well, he understood just how difficult life was in early 20th-century Hill Country.
There are many other stories like this that show Caro’s dedication to his projects. And through it all, he took copious notes. Here are some highlights from different stages of his writing process.
Caro didn’t set out to be a biographer. He was interested in power — what it is, how people get it, and what they do with it. Given this interest, Caro was also concerned with his interviewees’ motives. So he warns himself:
Be very careful. This guy just wants you to say something that he can quote all over town.
Caro’s note-pads are filled with reminders to himself. For example, to make sure interviewees have silences to fill, Caro has scribbled “SU” throughout his notes — a reminder to shut up.
All of these notes end up in carefully labeled files:
Caro outlines his books before he starts writing. Then he pins the outline on his corkboard. Once he has finished working on a page, he draws a line through the center
Then, Caro creates a second outline that includes all the evidence he has gathered from his extensive research and interviews
Notes to Self, Scattered around the Office
Caro writes the best notes to himself! Check out Caro’s lamp with a note attached: “Is there desperation on the page?”
Other notes include reminders of what to cut from the draft, what to put into the draft, and how the reader ought to feel when reading a particular section.
Don’t put in any more on RK in the 1st section. Don’t ruin that wonderful rhythm. DON’T RUIN IT!
And, my personal favorite:
The only thing that matters is what IS on this page.
Once Caro has an entire draft, he creates lengthy to-do lists for himself.
I especially love the following items on the to-do list:
7 “Do you have any idea how many paragraphs you start with ‘and’?”
11 POWER REVEALS — it’s not in anywhere!
Of course, #11 is the subtext of Caro’s work — power doesn’t shape a person; it reveals the person. And then there’s #14, a great example of how Caro talks to himself
14 CASON! - you MUST have her. How can you not?
I assume the “Cason” Caro refers to is Betty Cason Hickman who was in the room (taking notes) when Kennedy talked with Johnson about the vice presidency.
Tracking Word Count
Caro aims for 1,000 words a day. Sometimes he exceeds his goal. Sometimes he falls short. For every day that he writes zero words, he gives a reason such as his son (Chase); travel (Italy); or just plain fatigue (lazy). Even with his ambitious working schedule, Caro reserves Sunday for rest.
Writing is hard work. And it’s comforting to know that even Caro had days when he felt “lazy.” There was a time when I used to religiously document my word counts. Perhaps it’s time to get back to it.
A note on Ina
I loved the exhibit, but as a researcher, I’m left wanting more. It drives me crazy when I see a notebook behind glass and can’t turn the pages. In particular, I want to know more about Ina, Caro’s wife, and the notes she took. The two worked together on all of his books.
While Robert Caro gives ample credit to Ina in Working, she is mostly absent from this exhibit, with a few exceptions. While doing research for The Power Broker, the two of them went to Jones Beach to tally visitors by race. It seems Robert Moses was, indeed, successful in keeping people of color away from this particular park
I contacted the archives at the New York Historical Society to ask about Ina and learned that some of her notes are probably in the exhibit, but that it’s very difficult to tell who was writing what. The NYHS is still cataloging the collection — Caro donated all his papers to them — and they should be available for research by the Spring. When they’re ready, I’m getting back on the subway and heading back to the Upper West Side.
Hope you enjoyed Jillian’s essay. I strongly recommend her newsletter for more fascinating behind-the-scenes investigations of people’s notes, including her most recent look at Harry Houdini. You won’t be disappointed!
Also, if you’re interested in my own note-taking and organizational methods for my popular works of history, check out my following post :
We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.
P.S. With my freshman attempt at publishing a newsletter, I’ve been eager to learn more about marketing and reaching new audiences. Here’s one newsletter resource I like: Highrise — free marketing news and actionable strategies, right in your inbox every week.