When Robert Caro Submitted a One Million Word Book Manuscript

The_Power_Broker_book_coverCheck out Claudia Dreifus’s interview with Lyndon B. Johnson biographer Robert Caro in The New York Review of Books.

In 1974, Robert Caro sent A.A. Knopf Publishers the manuscript for his award-winning book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  It was 1,050,000 words long.  Needless to say, he was asked to cut about 300,000 words.

Here is a taste of the interview:

About The Power Broker: Knopf published it in 1974 as a 1,200-page volume (not counting the notes). I’ve heard it was originally a much longer book. True?

Well, the finished version I gave to my editor, Bob Gottlieb, was about 1,050,000 words. That was a polished finished version, not a draft. The book you read is roughly 700,000 words, or 1,280 pages, the maximum that Knopf’s production people felt they could get into a trade book.  

At the time, I asked, “Can’t we do it in two volumes?” Bob Gottlieb answered, “I might get people interested in Robert Moses once. I could never get them interested in him twice.”

Cutting the book down must have been difficult.

I don’t want to pretend: it was hard. The cuts are the equivalent of two novels. Whole chapters were cut. It took months to do it.

It was a huge job: rewriting, shortening stuff. Somehow, the section that I wrote on Jane Jacobs disappeared. To this day, when someone says: “There’s hardly a mention of Jane Jacobs,” I think, “but I wrote a lot about her.” Every time I’m asked about that, I have this sick feeling.

So, when I decided to do Lyndon Johnson, I said, “I want to do it in volumes because this time I don’t want to cut anything that I feel people should know.”

Did your editor agree to five volumes?

I originally thought it was going to be three. Bob readily agreed to three. I thought the first volume would go up through Lyndon Johnson’s race for the Senate. But then, I said, “No, I have to show people the Hill Country and what he grew up with.” Then we have a stolen election. That became the second book. All along, my aim was to explain the reality of how power works in a democracy. Stolen elections are a surprisingly big part of that reality.

And then, I thought, you’ve got to show what the Senate was before Lyndon Johnson led it, which was basically the same dysfunctional mess it is today. During Johnson’s six years as majority leader, the Senate became the center of governmental ingenuity and creativity. So, there I had another book. And then, the assassination and how a president takes over was yet another.

The final volume will be about Johnson and Vietnam and civil rights and about his death. He was young when he died: sixty-four.

You’ve been working on the Lyndon Johnson books for forty years. Do people ever ask what you’re going to do when you are finished with them?

They do. People always go, “You’ve been working on this book for seven years,” or whatever. I don’t even care anymore. When I was doing The Power Broker, after a year, friends went: “Is that the same book you’re still working on?” “Yes, it’s still the same book!”

When that came out and it had whatever recognition it had, I said to Ina, “We won’t have to be hearing that question anymore.” One year into the Johnson book and people started going, “Are you still working on same book?”

Now, I do have some plans for when it’s finished. I’ve written a lot of a memoir. It’s about the fights I had with Robert Moses and the Johnson people to write these books. There’s also another biography I’ve been thinking about to show some other aspects of power. I don’t want to say more, though.

Read the entire interview here.

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