In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

TELLING LIVES / Steve Weinberg WHEN ROBERT CARO finished his biography of Robert Moses in 1974, he marked an end to seven years of research on the man who built twentieth-century New York City, influencing urban planners the world over. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York won the PuUtzer Prize for biography as weU as the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book which "best represents the union of the historian and the artist." It was quite an accompUshment for a former newspaper reporter turned first-time biographer. The Power Broker did more than win accolades for Caro—it also deeply influenced the modern-day craft of biography. Biographers had a new model: The nearly 1300-page book was much longer than the average biography; artfuUy written while stiU adhering to chronology; unusual in the depth of its portrayal of Moses' times, as weU as of his life; heavily dependent on previously secret documents; daring in its analysis of Moses' motives; and quintessentiaUy muckraking. His book contrasted with that of the other biographer winning a PuUtzer Prize in 1975—Dumas Malone, who achieved the pinnacle in the history category for his sixvolume , thirty-four hundred page Ufe of Thomas Jefferson. Unlike Caro's book, Malone's admired its subject. Malone noted that after thirty-eight years of researching and writing the Jefferson volumes, the former president had "withstood microscopic examination even better than I expected. This is not to claim that his judgment was always right, but no one can read his voluminous state papers without gaining increased respect for his abiUty." Malone was more loathe than Caro to psychoanalyze his subject's motives, noting, "I must confess that even with the benefit of hindsight, I have often found it extraordinarily difficult to arrive at a defensible judgment as to what he ought to have done." The spiritual ancestor of Caro's work was Lytton Strachey's four biographical essays, pubUshed as Eminent Victorians in 1918. Srrachey revolutionized mainstream biography. His Uves were artfuUy presented , with an emphasis on "the inward creature." Strachey determinedly shattered the conventional wisdom about his four revered subjects, as did Caro about Moses. Reviewing The Power Broker in the Washington Post Book World (October 6, 1974), WiUiam Greider Steve Weinberg The Missouri Review · 249 said, "when a truly exceptional achievement comes along, there are no words to praise it. Important, awesome, compelling—these no longer summon the fuU flourish of trumpets this book deserves. It is extraordinary on many levels and, despite its price and length, it is certain to endure." The book had its detractors, to be sure. It was controversial not only because of its substance, but also because of its techniques, so it was bound to spark debate—as books that shake up the estabUshed order often do. Moses issued a twentythree page rebuttal. Dick Netzer was one angry reviewer among a smaU but vocal group. Writing in The New Republic (September 7, 1974), Netzer said, "Exposés make for bad biography, and this is an unusuaUy bad example of the genre." The disagreement among the reviewers was part of a debate that continues to this day: What makes for good biography? For centuries before Caro, there was Uttle discussion about biography as a craft, because it was not considered to be a separate discipline. As Katherine Frank said, "Depending on its subject, biography was generaUy considered a chameleon form: history, Uterary criticism, or what you read in bed at night, and there seemed Uttle need to go any further, theoreticaUy, than that" (Genre, Winter 1980). Reviewers of biographies for book pages usuaUy wrote about how the subject Uved his or her Ufe, rather than analyzing how the biographer told that life. AU of that began to change during the 1970s, as demonstrated by the controversy over Caro's effort. Fourteen years after the pubUcation of Caro's book, the debate about what constitutes responsible biography continues, fueled by a pubUshing explosion: During the 1980s, American pubUshers have issued an average of about 2000 biographies annuaUy. Readers flock to buy them. "A good many more people are interested in reading about...

pdf

Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 149-160
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.