Robert Caro’s rhythm
One of my favorite recent-summer traditions is to read the next volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. Starting in 2018, I’ve spent part of the summer reading the first three books. After missing last summer (a move, a new job, etc), a few nights ago I finally started the next — and most recent — volume, The Passage of Power and it felt like returning to a familiar friend.
I’ve written before about my love for Caro; first after reading The Power Broker in 2016 and again in thinking about reading him in the age of Trump. He’s perhaps our country’s best biography and an unparalleled reporter and researcher, to boot. I love reading him for the stories, the history, the insights, but I also love reading him, simply, for his prose. Alan Jacobs recently wrote about how Caro is the master of the digression — which is absolutely true! — but there’s another under-remarked upon aspect of Caro’s writing I want to draw attention to: his sense of rhythm.
Take this sentence, for example, from The Path To Power, the first book in the series:
Lyndon Johnson was not one of these Congressman. Not that he was silent in the rear aisle or in the cloakrooms. He was friendly, gregarious —could, his fellow members agree, even be said to talk a lot.
But he didn’t say anything. Congressmen now observed what classmates had once observed: that, while he might be speaking very volubly during a conversation on a controversial issue, he wouldn’t take a position on the issue —or, indeed, say anything substantive in nature. He tried to avoid specifics, and if pinned down, would say what the other person wanted to hear.
Read that passage out loud. There’s a beat to it: a series of short sentences followed by longer, meandering sentences. He’s great at a series of short sentences, steadily building in strength before pausing for something longer.
Or this one, from the second book, The Means of Ascent:
So deeply and widely mistrusted had Lyndon Johnson been at little Southwest Texas State Teachers College in the Hill Country that the nickname he bore during his years on campus was “Bull” (for “Bullshit”) Johnson. And his fellow students (who used his nickname to his face—“hiya, Bull,” “How doing’, Bull?”) believed not only that he lied to them—lied to them constantly, lied about big matters and small, lied so incessantly that he was, in a widely used phrase, “The biggest liar on campus”—but also that some psychological element impelled him to lie, made him lie even when he knew the lie might be discovered, made him, in fact, repeat a lie even after it had been discovered, made him, in one classmate’s words, “a man who just could not tell the truth.”
He’s doing the same here, but adding a new element: repeating words. Note how often Caro uses a version of the word “lie”: …believed not only that he lied to them—lied to them constantly, lied about big matters and small, lied so incessantly that he was, in a widely used phrase, “The biggest liar on campus”—but also that some psychological element impelled him to lie, made him lie… Nearly ten times in one paragraph!
This, to me, is classic Caro; he does this all the time: layering sentences on top of each other, using the same word again and again to slowly build his case. It makes for writing that’s a pleasure to read, that gives me the rhythm I’m drawn to, but it also makes it, I think, easier to read. Caro’s books are BIG. They are dense but never unreadable and I think this sense of rhythm, through short sentences, through repetition, works to his advantage. As someone who’s always thinking about rhythm in my own writing, I’m drawn to the Caro method. And especially as someone who unconsciously mimics the writing of those I’m reading, I’m excited to spend the next few weeks deep in Caro’s prose, ready for it to come out again in my work.