One of the fun aspects of being fairly well-read is the (perhaps false) confidence to make very sweeping statements about literature. Well, here’s one: I’ve just finished reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s mammoth biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I am now more convinced than ever that it is the greatest work of American literature that I have ever read and, perhaps, the greatest that our nation has produced.
I read the first three volumes of the biography way back in 2003, during the summer after my junior year in high school. And even at the time, they profoundly influenced my vision of human nature. Caro has researched Lyndon Johnson about as extensively as a person can be researched (which includes uncovering tons of stuff that no previous biographer had ever found). He, very famously, went into the work intending to write a somewhat hagiographic account–a book that would (at least partially) rehabilitate a President who, despite the horror of the Vietnam War, also presided over the high watermark of compassionate government in America (by enacting civil rights laws, Medicare, etc). However, once he began his research, Caro found that Lyndon Johnson was, in many ways, a terrible man: vindictive, arrogant, small-minded, power-hungry, unprincipled, and ruthless. He’s a guy who not only destroyed people he didn’t like…he also destroyed his friends and subordinates by humiliating them again and again until they either left him or became shells of human beings.
This isn’t a case of “Well, we all have our faults”. No, if Caro’s book is to be believed, then Lyndon Johnson was an awful person on a level that few ordinary people manage.
He displays sparks of compassion for poor people, colored people, underprivileged people…but acts upon this compassion only when it’s politically expedient. For instance, this guy who became the champion of civil rights actually worked to block civil rights legislation during much of his time in the Senate.
For the high school version of me, the book was like someone being honest to me for the first time. The vision of human nature that we’re given as children is such thin stuff. People are portrayed as somewhat unitary: they’re kind or cruel, they’re compassionate or callous, they’re faithful or disloyal. On occasion, someone might have a “failing”–a mostly-good person might be unable to control his adulterous impulses or might succumb to the lure of ambition. But, in general, people have a level. They have a soul. They have a personality.
Human nature is portrayed as fundamentally top-down. You’re a certain kind of person and, thus, you act in a certain way. A kind person is basically a kind robot–they can be relied upon to dispense kindness in most situations. In those cases where they fail, it’s because the kindness automation has suffered a temporary “failing.”
It’s such an impoverished view of the world.
What the best works of modernist literature–In Search Of Lost Time, Mrs. Dalloway, The Good Soldier–did was to set aside this view of human nature and try to explain how what we see as a person’s essence is really just a pattern that we’ve concocted from a fairly limited data-set: the sum of what we’ve seen and heard about them.
In Search Of Lost Time contained characters who were recognizably themselves, but nonetheless changed dramatically when viewed from different angles. From one angle, Baron Palamede was a handsome charmer with perfectly refined manners; from another angle, he was a grossly lustful monster who corrupted and was corrupted by the youth that he consorted with. And both were true portraits of the man.
But, as good as those works are, they’re still fiction. The Years of Lyndon Johnson is true. It’s the field-test of that theory.
Lyndon Johnson is an awful person. But he’s more than that. He works incredibly hard. He’s perceptive. And he’s driven by the kinds of fears that would make any person’s life hell.
And, what’s more, he knows how to get things done.
Time and again, he clashes against liberals who know how to talk right and act right, but can’t enact what they want. He knows how to do it. And because they actually come to fruition, even his limited efforts do far more good than those of his peers.
By the end of even the first volume of the book, you know that you’d never want to even be in the same room as Johnson. But you also love him.
Anyway, even as a high school student, I thrilled at the realization that there is more to life than personality: that a life is something that’s constructed, day after day, action after action. In reading this latest volume as an adult, I now see how well-constructed it is. The series is a supreme literary achievement. The pacing is fantastic, the use of detail, the ways in which Caro skips over things that we already know or have seen, the way he reminds us of stuff that’s already happened. The ways in which he shifts the focus of each volume.
This series contains the world. It holds long meditations on power, privilege, personality, governing–it’s impossible to describe. Oftentimes there’ll be hundred page long riffs on stuff that Caro thinks is necessary to the current volume. In this latest one, he contains long sections on the two Kennedys: RFK and JFK. In the last one, he included a history of the Senate and its functioning.
Anyway, this is a brilliant book. It’s absolutely worth the time it takes to read. Much more so than Moby Dick.
However, if you want a shorter example of Caro’s technique, it’s also worth reading his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Moses, I certainly hadn’t. But the book is absolutely fantastic and it uses a similar sort of technique and creates a similar sort of effect.
(Oh, for those who’re wondering where this volume stacks up re: the other three volumes, I will have to say that it’s a bit worse. The beginning, where Johnson vacillates over whether to run for President, is really slow. I mean, he’s scared to run. We get it. And the middle, where he mopes over how powerless he is as a Vice President, also feels a bit overwritten. However, the 2/5ths or so of the book that takes place after the Kennedy assassination is really great. A total return to form. And the whole book is still very interesting. I read it in, like, five days.)