Category Archives: People

What I’m Reading Now: May 15, 2019

Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, 207 pp.)

I’m fascinated by process. I’m never content to simply talk to someone about what they do, I always want to know how they go about doing it. This is especially true of writers and readers, even down to what the space looks like where they work.

There are a plethora of books written by writers about writing–including the one I wrote about in this blog, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of the most popular and one of the best, in part because he gets down in the weeds about how to actually write, giving advice about everything from how to craft dialogue to how to find an agent.

More unusual is a writer who tells you how they actually work–what time of day they write, how many hours a day, how much time they spend researching, even the kind of paper, pen, or computer they use. I’m fascinated by all of it. 

I well remember the afternoon in the fall of 1986, when, as a first-year graduate student at the University of Georgia, I was prowling the history stacks on the 4th floor of the Main Library and came across the sixth volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington: A Biography.

Freeman died while the volume was in production, and Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone paid elegant tribute to Freeman in the Preface, entitled “The Pen of Douglas Southall Freeman.”

Here I first learned about Freeman’s Spartan schedule–rising at 2:30 in the morning, slavishly following the same routine every day, writing in the third-floor study of his home “Westbourne,” and tracking in a notebook every hour he spent working.

Mesmerized, I searched for every newspaper and magazine article I could find in those pre-Google days about this strange man who, by his own reckoning, spent 15,693 hours working on his biography of Washington. (Needless to say, I devoured David Johnson’s biography Douglas Southall Freeman when it was published in 2002.)

Robert Caro is in the midst of writing–as he puts it–the fifth of a projected four-volume biography of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and he has paused in that task to produce this little gem about why he wrote and how he researched his lives of Robert Moses and LBJ. As fascinating as this book is, I have to wonder why at age 83 and needing about a dozen years to write each of the Johnson volumes, Caro decided to steal precious hours away from that book to write this one. And yes, he knows the clock is ticking.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s well worth it: Caro gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at his process, beginning with the advice proffered by his editor at Newsday, Alan Hathaway. He advised the young Caro that in his investigative reporting he should “turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

Caro followed that advice through his massive study of New York commissioner Robert Moses and his four-volumes on LBJ–though he admits there aren’t enough lifetimes to turn every page in the LBJ Presidential Library, totaling 40,000 archival boxes and thirty-two million pages.

Caro is interested in power–where it comes from, how it works, and what people do with it. The famous mantra is that power corrupts but Caro insists that “power reveals.”

Robert Moses, the powerful NYC commissioner who, over the course of 40 years, built 627 miles of highways through New York’s five boroughs that uprooted hundreds of thousands of people (mostly the poor and minorities), had more power than any elected official, more power than the governor or the mayor, and he was never elected to anything. 

How did he amass that kind of power? Caro was determined to find out, and he explains how he surmounted roadblocks placed by Moses himself, stonewalling by other Moses cronies, and the near-poverty he and his wife Ina endured as the book advance ran out and the research and writing stretched out into years. The story of what became the Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Power Broker (1973) is a tale of perseverance, dogged determination, and plain hard work. President Obama called it the most influential book he’s ever read.

To research LBJ, Caro and Ina moved to Austin, Texas (“why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” she pleaded). When they weren’t both trying to “turn every page” in the archive, he spent hundreds of hours driving hundreds of miles, interviewing LBJ connections in far-flung places to give his readers not just a sense of LBJ, but a far deeper understanding than anyone ever had of this paranoid, insecure, nakedly ambitious Texas Hill Country native and his relentless quest for power.

After reading Working, you’ll want to dive in to The Power Broker and not come out till you’ve finished the most recent LBJ offering, which I reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Have your calls held and your food sent in.

To return where we began: what is Caro’s process? After the research is done, and the writing begins, he wakes every morning at 7 a.m., puts on a coat and tie, and walks across Central Park to a small office he rents (he lost the one he had for 22 years on Columbus Circle to a Nordstrom). Sitting at an unadorned desk, with a vast outline tacked to a cork board on the wall, he writes three or four drafts in long-hand on narrow-lined white legal pads. He types up the next draft on a Smith-Corona Electra 210, triple-spaced, leaving plenty of room to re-write in pencil. Work stops in mid to late afternoon because he found that most of what he wrote in the evening didn’t pass inspection later. The next day he comes in, reads what he wrote the previous day, edits, and begins the process all over again.

Does he know the title of this last volume? He does. Will he tell us? He won’t.

The aforementioned Dumas Malone spent 33 years on his 6-volume Jefferson bio, not counting the years of research before the first volume appeared in 1947. He was 56 when that first volume was published, 89 and nearly blind at the last, and he died at 94.

We can only hope that Robert Caro has that many years left because we need him to finish this monumental task, and, who knows, maybe there will be enough years to spare to write the full-length memoir that he promises in these pages. Caro says that he will finish the 5th and final volume of LBJ in about 3-4 years, which would put him at 87.

As much fun and informative as this slim volume is, speaking on behalf of his legion of fans (including Conan O’Brien), we can only hope that Robert Caro doesn’t take on any more side projects that will delay, even for a day, the last LBJ volume.

The finish line is near, and the clock is ticking. Write, Mr. Caro, write.

S2E10: Steve Oney

Stan’s guest this week is prize-winning author and journalist Steve Oney, talking about his latest book, A Man’s World: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes (UGA Press) and his interviews with Greg Allman, Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte, Herschel Walker, and many others.

Face Down in the Mud, A Life Redeemed

Charles Van Doren (right) with his father Mark

Charles Van Doren, who died April 9 at age 93, will forever be known as the man at the center of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, the subject of the 1994 motion picture Quiz Show. Humiliated and ostracized when the truth emerged that Van Doren and other contestants of the brainy shows had been supplied the answers beforehand, Van Doren spent the rest of his life atoning for his betrayal of the public’s trust in a way that seems unimaginable now.

As Bret Stephens reminds us, the whole notion of “shame,” and in particular public shame, has radically changed over the course of the last 60 years. These days celebrities caught lying disappear from the public eye briefly and then reappear 6 months later for a teary “apology” interview and a lucrative tell-all memoir.

For Van Doren, his shame brought pariah-like status for the rest of his life, much of it self-imposed. Long after most of the world stopped caring about his sins, he still did. He declined to appear on camera talking about his mistakes, and 35 years after his appearance on “Twenty-One” he turned down an offer to be a consultant for the movie, refusing to profit from his lies. Who in the world would do that now? Not until 50 years after the scandal did he write about it.

Van Doren made amends in a more remarkable way, the only way that he knew how: by writing books about literature and the life of the mind.  Before appearing on “Twenty-One,” Van Doren had been a literature professor at Columbia University, like his father Mark before him. After the scandal broke, his nascent academic career in ruins, Van Doren accepted an offer from family friend Mortimer Adler and went to work for Encyclopedia Britannica at its Chicago offices.

It was a gesture, one friend said, “that saved Charlie’s life.” Van Doren acknowledged it at Adler’s funeral in 2001: “There came the time when I fell down, face down in the mud, and he picked me up, brushed me off, and gave me a job.” Van Doren labored in relative obscurity for 20 years at Britannica, editing articles and contributing reviews to The Great Ideas Today, an annual companion volume to EB’s Great Books of the Western World.

In 1972, Van Doren co-wrote with Adler the completely revised and updated addition of Adler’s 1940 masterpiece, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, which has never gone out of print. The book’s title has lent itself to jokes through the years, but as Clifton Fadiman pointed out, Van Doren and Adler don’t teach us “how to decipher words. That is merely a useful trick, just slightly above the capacity of a chimpanzee.” What this book teaches is how to read “books of some weight and density, into which went hard mental work and out which comes real mental change. Such reading involves a complex, often intense activity, not the passive reception of the author’s message. The result is not ‘finishing the book’ but starting something in the readers’ mind.”

A decade later Van Doren wrote in the 1983 edition of The Great Ideas Today a brilliant appreciation and review of Fernand Braudel’s pathbreaking The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. It deserved a far wider audience than it received.

Charles Van Doren wrote many other books, and they are delightful to read. Pick up his 1991 volume, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, which covers everything from Ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to AIDs and the computer revolution, and you’ll find many examples of gems like this one: “I have not met its author, but I have engaged Professor Berman in many silent conversations in the watches of the night.” Here is a sentiment every reader can share.

The Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works, first published in 1985 and revised in 2008, is even better. “Reading is my favorite thing to do,” he declares (that line was enough to hook me), and through a literary feast that doubles as a history of literature he proves it, writing knowledgeably and lovingly of books and authors from Homer to Harry Potter. It was Van Doren in this book who steered me toward Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer’s two great epics.

Unfortunately, Van Doren’s literary work received short shrift in the obituaries that appeared last week following his death, as I’m sure he always knew it would. He had no illusion about the fact that he would always be remembered for his part in one of the great shams of 20th-century popular culture.

But Charles Van Doren deserves more than to be remembered for his worst moment. His legacy is not to be found in the bad judgment of a 32-year-old who appeared on a long-forgotten TV show. Van Doren left something far more valuable: After falling face down in the mud, he spent his remaining 60+ years teaching and writing, hoping to inspire others to share his love of words, ideas, and books. His was the dignified example of a shamed man who made a very public mistake and thereafter lived a quiet life of redemption, a good and honorable and worthy life that should be remembered in its totality.

Van Doren wrote in his review of Braudel’s masterpiece, “It is a great historian who, when old, still is capable of making such an effort for the truth. And it is a great man who confesses the mistake that drove him to undertake it.”

It’s clear now that Charles Van Doren was writing about himself. May he rest in peace and his words–and example–live on.

What I’m Reading Now: April 3, 2019

Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams, 2018, 405 pp.)

Fred Rogers as a child was bullied, chased home from school, and taunted as “Fat Freddy.” An only child, he sought refuge in the attic of his parents’ home, where he created his own world with puppets that he made. Why, he wondered, couldn’t the other kids see past his outward appearance to find out what he was really like? His parents and grandparents told him to “let on that you don’t care” how the other kids treated him. This would disarm them and show his indifference. He later wondered, “I didn’t have any friends and yet I was supposed to act like that didn’t bother me?” Children, he thought, deserved better than that.

Many years later, in his office at Pittsburgh’s WQED, where he and others produced his famous television show, Mister Rogers kept a framed plaque: “What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye.” It’s not what we see of other people–their face, their weight, their hair or clothes–that truly matter, but what’s inside them. It was a mantra that he lived by his entire life, shaped through the trauma of his own childhood, the love of parents and grandparents who instilled a lasting sense of service to others, and a strong Presbyterian faith.

Like many people of my generation, I watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” nearly every day when I was little, and I loved it. I was fascinated by the Neighborhood of Make Believe and wanted desperately to visit it, to see King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Aberlin, on whom I lavished my first crush. Having my own puppets and later my own line of comics (written, drawn, and edited by yours truly), I spent a great deal of time in my own Neighborhood of Make Believe.

(Sidebar: The OCD part of me always worried that he wouldn’t get his sweater on and his sneakers tied before he came to the end of the opening song. Little did I know, till I read this book, that his musicians were right there on set with him and could time the song to his actions. Whew.)

The other thing I learned from Mister Rogers besides the power of imagination was that it was okay to be just who I was, inside and out. It didn’t matter the color, gender, or religion of his viewer, he wanted you as his neighbor. A powerful message then and now.

With the publication of this book, coinciding with the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and the upcoming bio-pic You Are My Friend starring Tom Hanks, Fred Rogers is more relevant than ever. Fifteen years after his death we seemingly need him again, with civility, kindness and tolerance stretched to the breaking point in our fractured and dysfunctional society. The simple lessons that he taught and lived are more potent and necessary with each passing day.

To be sure, he had his faults. Mister Rogers could be petulant at times when he didn’t get his way and was baffled as to how to raise his own two boys once they reached adolescence (his wife Joanne discovered their marijuana stash growing in the basement). But that only helps to humanize a man who would otherwise seem too Christ-like to be real. Still, despite these all-too-human foibles, he was, according to those who met him in person, very much the man he appeared to be on TV–authentic, caring, and always, always, kind.

He also had an unexpected sense of humor. One of my favorite stories in the book was when Fred Rogers and his wife were picked up at the airport and during the drive to the next destination, on a cold and rainy night, the car ran out of gas. The driver had to flag down a passing State Trooper, who put the Rogers and their belongings in his car. The driver groaned and asked Mr. Rogers, “what would Lady Elaine [one of the show’s puppets] say in this situation?” Out of the darkness he heard Rogers in Lady Elaine’s voice reply, “She’d probably say, ‘Oh shit!'”

I find it difficult to read about Fred Rogers–or to watch him–without channeling his behavior. And that’s not a bad thing. To wit: while reading this book, I drove to work one morning, and in my haste to get through a stop sign to secure a scarce parking spot, I failed to look both ways and almost ran into an older man who was crossing the street from my right. I suddenly saw him out of the corner of my eye and could hear him yelling at me through the car window.

I slammed on the brakes and he crossed behind me. As he came around the car, his face flush with anger, I rolled my window down.

Pre-Fred-Rogers Stan, impatient and late for work, at this point might have called this fellow a name that would have implied that his parents weren’t married. But I could hear Mister Rogers’ voice in my head: “There are three ways to accomplish success: first, be kind; second, be kind, third, be kind.” 

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I didn’t see you.” He wasn’t expecting that. “Well,” he barked and sputtered, “look both ways next time, okay?”

In as friendly a voice as I could muster, with nary a hint of sarcasm, I replied, “Yes sir, I sure will. I’m awfully sorry.” He looked perplexed and turned on his heel and walked off.

Fred Rogers believed, as his biographer so eloquently puts it, that human kindness will always make life better. Such a simple lesson, but one that struggles to be heard through the noise and anger of modern society.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”

Need inspiration? Pick up this book, watch the above-mentioned documentary, or simply go online and watch a few of his shows.

Then pick up his standard and carry it forward. It’s not too late to make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

S2E9: Paul Pressly, Ossabaw Island, and Environmental History

This week’s podcast guest is Paul Pressly, who talks about Ossabaw Island, his new book on environmental history–Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture—just out from UGA Press, and the history and future of Georgia’s great barrier island treasures.