Robert Caro, The Path to Power
pocket squares & the absence of boring parts
“How could they know about the grass?”
I usually hate biographies. This will, I know, make me sound like a moron, but: they seem as a form almost built to be dull. Imagine you’re going out to dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in a few months. You settle in, order some guacamole, and say, “So — what’s been going on?” And your friend says, “Well, lemme seem, the last time we saw each other was March first. On March second, I went and got a new filter for my air conditioner. And then on the third, weirdly, I realized the filter was the wrong size…” I call this friend Biography.
The obligations of biography (thoroughness, respect for chronology) seem indifferent or even hostile to the prime imperative of storytelling, as articulated by Elmore Leonard: skip the boring parts! To which Biography, raising its bespectacled head from a pile of years-old Daily Planners, says, Boring parts?
However! Robert Caro’s biographies are astonishing. The Path to Power in particular (the first of his four-and-counting LBJ books) is one of those books you read on vacation and then end up remembering better than the vacation. It’s a 768-page book that is somehow without boring parts. Caro pulls off a Nicholson Baker-esque feat: he examines the water droplets of daily life with such a high-powered microscope that he reveals the cosmos of striving, seething animalcules within. If it were LBJ who’d bought that AC filter, Caro would place you so deep inside the world of the hardware store owner (his childhood polio, his store one returned-item away from bankruptcy) that, by the time of the great wrong-size reveal, you’d be in tears.
Which brings us to the sentence about the grass.
This unassuming sentence comes in the very first chapter, the little-is-known-about-his-great-great-grandfather part of a biography that is usually as far as I get. But what Caro does, ingeniously, is to tell this story — of the Buntons and the Johnsons, the two sides of Lyndon’sfamily tree — not as a story of antiquated names begetting other slightly less antiquated names but as a story of place. And that place, the Hill Country, turns out to be fascinating. Fascinating because it is awful. Almost willfully so, in Caro’s telling — it baits people, it traps them, it destroys them. And the way it does so is with its high and luscious grass.
“To these men the grass was proof that their dreams would come true. In country where grass grew like that, cotton would surely grow tall, and cattle fat — and men rich. In country where grass grew like that, they thought, anything would grow.”
You may, from these couple of sentences, have deduced that Caro ordinarily writes in an almost mythological register. He uses repetition (In country where… In country where…) like a cellist. He conducts the speed and inflection of your reading with more em-dashes and italics in a chapter than most writers use in a book. His is the kind of prose for which the word magisterial, which I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered outside of a book review, was invented.
So when he turns to you and asks, with pained plainness, How could they know about the grass?, the question lands with unusual, even chilling force. I hear in it a note of panic or despair — as if a highly esteemed doctor were compelled to set aside his ordinary talk of survival rates and intervention options to say, It’s really bad. This grass, this goddamn grass, has briefly moved Caro to take off his glasses and dab at his eyes with his perfectly folded pocket square — before he clears his throat and carries on.
This question has demonstrated, in other words, that beneath the imposing, impeccable appearance, Caro cares. Even if you hadn’t read about Caro and his wife shivering in sleeping bags on the plains of West Texas so as to better understand the land (it’s true!), you’d be able to tell, from the unfakeable choked-up-ness of this one sentence, that this whole LBJ-business is more than a book subject for Caro; it’s an obsession. And so, by that mysterious law — what matters to the writer will matter to the reader — will it become an obsession for you, however many unread biographies sit heavily on your shelf.