Friday, October 30, 2015

BIRTH | Oct. 30–Robert Caro, Biographer

Robert and Ina Caro.
This day was born in 1936 the world's greatest living English-language biographer, Robert Allan Caro, in New York City.

Caro's birthday is, appropriately enough, the day after the birthday of James Boswell. Boswell is surely the most famous English-language biographer of all time.

Caro graduated from Princeton in 1957 and earned an M.A. degree from Harvard. He was a journalist before he settled down to write his biography of Moses.

His first, masterly, biography was about a New York City area planner-developer, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974). This book was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century. Time magazine listed it as one of the hundred top nonfiction books of all time. It won Caro his first Pulitzer Prize in Biography, in 1975.

Robert Caro has since spent one-third of a century writing what was to be a three-volume biography of his equivalent of Dr. Samuel Johnson - President Lyndon B. Johnson. The number of volumes has expanded already to four, and the fifth volume is intended to cover only LBJ's presidential years, so that six volumes are likely.

For his biographical volumes, Caro has won three National Book Critics Circle Awards (for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year and Best Biography); the National Book Award; and the Francis Parkman Prize (awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best "exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist"). He has also won the Gold Medal in Biography from the National Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

The four volumes so far of the Years of Lyndon Johnson series have been called by the London Times "the greatest biography of our era." The LBJ books have appeared so far as follows:
1. The Path to Power (1982),
2. Means of Ascent (1990),
3. Master of the Senate (2002), winner of Caro's second Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and
4. The Passage of Power (2012). 
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said of the series: "It's a wonderfully written set of books. [...] It's about ideas and principled policy achievements. That's what makes it one of the great political biographies." Former British Conservative Party Leader William Hague said that Means of Ascent is "the best political biography of any kind, that I had ever read. [I]t conveyed more brilliantly than any other publication what it really feels like to be a politician." Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called Master of the Senate "magnificent". Former Vice President Walter Mondale called it "a superb work of history".

For the LBJ series, Robert and his wife Ina Caro  - who has been his sole research assistant - are said to have consulted 34 million documents at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. He has conducted more than one thousand interviews. He lived in Johnson's hometown for three years, so that he could get to know the people there well enough that they would open up to him. He also identified and interviewed every surviving member of Johnson's grammar school class.

Ina Caro has meanwhile written two well-regarded books of her own, on her travels in France and the connection between the places that she has visited and French history. I read her book The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France (1996) prior to spending two weeks in France last month, and she inspired Alice and me to visit and write about Vaux le Vicomte, the home of Louis XIV's first finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet.

See also James Boswell

Thursday, October 29, 2015

BIRTH | Oct. 29–Boswell, Biographer (Updated May 29, 2016)

James Boswell
This day in 1740 is born James Boswell, in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the greatest biographers ever.

The son of of advocate (later judge) Alexander Boswell and Euphemia, née Erskine, he enters the University of Edinburgh at 13, and doesn't like it. He escapes to London but is found and  brought home.

His father has him instead tutored in law at home, and he graduates at 18. His fellow students include John Johnston and William Temple, who become lifelong friends.

Boswell moves to London. He loves to drink, travel and gossip. He meets the famous Samuel Johnson for the first time in Thomas Davies' bookshop near Covent Garden, London.

Johnson is known to be writing A Dictionary of the English Languages, which would be published when Boswell was 25.

Boswell studies law at Utrecht for a year, and proceeds to a two-year Grand Tour of Europe, visiting German courts and Italian cities and Corsica, meeting Rousseau, Voltaire and Corsica's rebel Pasquale Paoli, who is leading a revolt against Genoa.

Boswell develops a lifetime taste for talking with European leaders of the day and writing down what they say.

Timeline by Age in Years

26–He completes his legal education with the dissertation Disputatio juridica de supellectile legata quam publicae disquisitioni. Two years later he writes An Account of Corsica, a widely admired book, translated into four languages.

29–He marries the daughter of his father's sister, Margaret Montgomerie.

35–He publishes The Journal of a Tour to the Western Isles of Scotland, an edited version of the journal he wrote during his journey through Scotland with Dr. Johnson two years before. During the next ten years he writes dozens of articles for London magazines.

42–His father, Lord Auchinleck, dies. Boswell becomes the 9th Laird of Auchinleck, a place where his family lived for two centuries.

44–Johnson dies.

48–Boswell is elected Recorder of Carlisle. He resigns the position after two years and moves to London.

49–Boswell's wife Margaret dies while her husband is on his way home from London.

51–He publishes the first of three volumes of a biography of Johnson, which has absorbed him for many years. The books are based on Boswell's own diaries (Boswell says - "A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion."), which were lost until the 1920s. His detailed journals for three decades from the early 1760s by themselves provide unique first-hand observations of life and personalities of his time and ensure continued interest in him. The biography goes beyond Plutarch's Lives, which were personal, and provides intensely personal stories and arresting descriptions of contemporary life.

55–He dies in his house on Gt. Portland Street in London, following weeks of serious illness, having not yet finished the third and final volume of his book.

See also Robert Caro.