Robert Caro: Understanding Texas and the Importance of Place to LBJ's Story

We've written before about our unabashed admiration for Robert Caro's towering and ongoing multi-volume LBJ biography.

A tweet from Lisa Gray alerts us to a presentation Caro recently gave on "the power of place" when it comes to biographers trying to capture their subject.

Caro, a native New Yorker with an accent to match, famously moved to the Hill Country in an effort to understand LBJ.

During interviews with area residents, women would pull out the wooden yokes they had used to carry gallon after gallon of water from the well to their homes - water that wore them out and warped their spines. Over time, Caro came to realize just what it would mean to deliver electricity, to "bring the lights," to that isolated corner of the world. And he developed a different understanding of Johnson's first congressional campaign slogan, which urged voters to vote for him "so you won't look like your mother did."

Said Caro:

If the place is important enough in the character's life; if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it, was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate, or exercised power in it, like the White House; if 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 without giving him a lecture, will have made the reader therefore not just understand but empathize with a character, will have made the readers' understanding more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.

In terms of the White House, we saw a C-SPAN interview with Caro a while back where he talked of how difficult it was to get specifics on the special multi-showerhead system Johnson had installed there. (This was at the time when the LBJ Library still had him on its shit list and did the absolute minimum it could to help.)

He was ecstatic when he finally tracked down plumber's blueprints for the project, or one very much like it.

Anyway, it's interesting stuff at the link and, as always, just whets our appetite for the next volume to finally come out.

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Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly