I’ve just finished reading a great book by a great American writer many people have probably never heard of. Robert Caro has devoted his life to writing two massive works: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and the five-volume (at 83, he’s still working on volume five) biography called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The book I just finished was a timeout from his massive LBJ project called Working, published last year. It reveals the behind-the-scenes strategies of an indefatigable researcher and meticulous craftsman.
You might imagine that if you’re not particularly interested in Robert Moses or LBJ, Caro’s books are not for you. Perhaps you’re right. But I’d make the argument that the subject of a book needn’t attract or deter you from a book. Friends have told me they’re not interested in certain books, both fiction and non-fiction, because they’re “about” tennis or a couple’s honeymoon or 1920’s Paris. I reply that the books may not actually be “about” those things. They may actually be about America or love or families. The apparent subject is a guise for talking about other deeper, more interesting things. Or, just as important, the value of the book may be the skill of the writer and his or her eloquent and beautiful prose. I have only a passing interest in baseball, for instance, but used to love Roger Angell’s baseball essays in the New Yorker. You needed no baseball expertise to appreciate their grace.
So, too, with Working. It’s about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, to be sure, but sort of in the way that Moby-Dick is about a whale. The anecdotes about the two movers and shakers are gripping, just like Melville’s three-chapter account of chasing down the white whale at the end of his novel. But both writers have plenty of other things on their minds. Working is about American history, about single-minded dedication to one’s work (a la Ahab?), about political power, about race in America, about the tragedy of great men whose power outstrips their wisdom, about writing, about research, about poverty, about interviewing, about marriage, and so many other things. If you disregard a book based on its apparent subject, you may be missing out.
Working has remarkable relevance to today, in a way that Caro couldn’t quite have predicted as he compiled the book before 2019. He devotes a beautiful chapter near the end of the book, called “Two Songs,” to the contrast between LBJ’s monumental achievements at home—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare, Head Start, bringing electricity to Texas’s hill country—and the tragedy and crime of the war in Vietnam.
One of the two songs is “We Shall Overcome,” which Caro intends to explicate in his final LBJ volume. He approaches the subject with humility. “The writing will have to be pretty good to capture what that song meant,” he says, “but I’m going to try.” His words reminded me of singing that song with the congregation at St. Cecilia’s years ago during Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. We’d leave our pews and circle around the perimeter of the church, holding hands, black people and white people, and sing verse after verse: “We shall overcome,” “We are not afraid,” “We’ll walk hand in hand.” Who knew when I picked up a book seemingly about the lives of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, I’d be swept back to that time?
Anyway, in the “Two Songs” chapter, Caro describes how 1965 saw the violent attack on protestors, including Congressman John Lewis, in Selma, Alabama, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Soon after this egregious police violence, Lyndon Johnson rode from the White House to the Capitol to deliver a speech advocating for his voting rights bill and on the way could hear demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome.” Johnson’s speech, Caro tells us, made Martin Luther King cry, a sight, his aides said, they had never seen before.
Caro writes, “And of course the speech that Johnson gave is one of the greatest speeches, one of the greatest moments in American history. I watch it over and over. I’m thrilled every time. [Johnson] said, ‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’”
Our enemies, Johnson said, are not our fellow man, not our neighbors, but “poverty, ignorance, disease.” Good writers can remind us of the history that’s always with us. It’s alive, good and bad, right in this moment.