“Show, don’t tell” is a mantra of narrative writers everywhere, but even the most useful adage can lose meaning with repetition. Before a lunchtime audience of writers at the Second Annual Compleat Biographer Conference on Saturday, legendary biographer Robert Caro reinvigorated the concept.
How did he do it? With a vivid evocation of the way that place can reveal motivation and illuminate character – making direct explanation completely unnecessary.
In a National Press Club banquet hall, Biographers International Organization President Nigel Hamilton presented Caro with the 2011 award for lifetime achievement in the biographical arts. Hamilton noted that the prize honored what Caro has done “not just for the craft of biography but for the standing of biography itself in our society.”
Caro thanked his wife, Ina, as the sole member of his research team during the many decades of his career. Then he quickly got down to a lesson on craft. Setting, he suggested, plays a vital role in timeless fiction:
“The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye: the deck of the Pequod while the barefoot sailors are hauling the parts of the whale aboard to melt them down for oil. The battlefield at Borodino as Napoleon, looking down from a hill on his mighty imperial guard, has to decide whether to wave them forward into battle. Miss Havisham’s room, the room in which she was to have been married, the room in which she received the letter that told her that the man she loved wasn’t coming, the room with the clock stopped forever at the minute she got the news, the room with the wreckage of the wedding feast that has never been taken away.”
Yet he noted that few reviews point to the power of place in nonfiction. The value of place, widely acknowledged as a key component of literature, Caro suggested, is often overlooked in biography:
“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.”
A 1966 Nieman Fellow, Caro won the Pulitzer Prize twice, first in 1975 for his biography of Robert Moses and again in 2003 for the third installment of his four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (the final installment is still in process). To illustrate his point about the power of setting, Caro talked about his research on two key places in Lyndon Johnson’s life.
Johnson had grown up outside Johnson City, Texas, and when Caro first started mining his subject’s life, he knew there was something he was missing about the place. To get a better understanding, he decided to move there. He took a sleeping bag into the hills to spend an entire day alone, to sleep alone and wake up alone. What he came to realize over time was how empty and inhuman the landscape was.
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.”
Caro contrasted the place Johnson grew up with Capitol Hill, where Johnson came into his own and made his career. As with the Texas hill country, Caro felt that something was missing from his understanding of the place. He talked with an early co-worker of Johnson’s, who had been an administrative aide on Capitol Hill with him when he was new to Washington. She described watching Johnson come across the length of the Capitol on his way to work in the morning, and mentioned that he always seemed to be running. At first she had thought it was because he didn’t have a warm winter coat, but she later noticed that he did it even in summer weather.
Caro wondered about the draw of the place for Johnson and spent time on the Capitol grounds, taking the walk that Johnson took on his way to work again and again, still looking for something. Then he recalled that Johnson and his co-worker were from farm country and headed to work early in the morning. So he tried again at a much earlier hour and found that just after dawn, the east side of the Capitol building was lit up and glowing.
To show how he made use of the discovery, he read the audience a passage from his book, describing Johnson coming to work:
“When Lyndon Johnson first came to Washington, he lived in the basement of a shabby little hotel, in a tiny cubicle across whose ceiling ran bare steam pipes. Its slit of a window stared out across a narrow alley at the weather-stained red brick wall of another hotel. Leaving his room early in the morning, Lyndon would turn left down the alley, walking between the red brick walls of other shabby hotels, but when he turned the corner at the end of that alley, suddenly before him at the top of a long gentle hill would be not brick but marble, a great shadowy mass of marble. Marble columns and marble arches and marble parapets, and a long marble balustrade high against the sky. Veering along a path to the left, he would come up Capitol Hill and around the corner of the Capitol, and the marble of the eastern façade, already caught by the early morning sun, would be a gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling white.
A new line of columns, towering columns, marble for magnificence and Corinthian for grace, stretched ahead of him, a line of columns so long that columns seemed to be marching endlessly before him, the long friezes above them crammed with heroic figures. And columns loomed not only before him but above him. There were columns atop columns, columns in the sky. For the huge dome that rose above the Capitol was circled by columns not only in its first mighty upward thrust, where it was rimmed by 36 great pillars for the 36 states that the Union had comprised when it was built, it was circled by columns also high above, 300 feet above the ground, where just below the statue of Freedom, a circle of 13 smaller, more slender shafts for the 13 original states created a structure that looked like a little temple in the sky, adding a grace note to a building as majestic and imposing as the power of the sovereign state that it has been designed to symbolize. And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.”
“Of course he was running,” Caro said, adding that he didn’t know if he had succeeded at what he was trying to do but still believed that working hard to convey a true sense of place could illuminate something profound about a subject. He hoped, he said, to explain what Johnson was striving for “not by lecturing the reader, but by showing him what Lyndon Johnson saw.”