Based on emails I regularly receive, as well as comments posted to this site, I know that many of you are anxiously awaiting the fifth, and final, installment of Robert Caro’s magisterial series on Lyndon B. Johnson.
In late 2017 I read and reviewed the four existing volumes of this series as part of my initial tour through the best presidential biographies.
Frequent visitors to this site told me to expect a once-in-a-lifetime literary experience and they weren’t wrong! To understand what I mean, read my reviews of volumes I, II, III and IV. Better yet, read the series itself.
The first volume in this series was published in 1982; the most recent volume in 2012. Simple extrapolation suggests the final volume should be complete some time in 2022 (and that Caro will have spent over half his life on this series).
Many of you were understandably upset when Caro published his sixth book last year and it was NOT the long-awaited final volume in the series.
Well, the end may be in sight, if just barely.
In this New York Times article published yesterday (subscription may be required) Caro informs impatient readers that he has written about 600 pages of the final volume. Unfortunately, that only covers the first 1/3 of Johnson’s presidency. Or, as Caro told his interviewer, “It’s going to be a very long book.”
Let’s continue to wish for excellent health, undisturbed attention and a productive new year for the eighty-four-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
James Salerno said:
I can’t imagine trying to follow something like this in real-time. An awful lot can happen in 40 years. What if the project never finishes? I read Edmund Morris’s three-volume series on TR but I had the benefit of reading all three books consecutively, long after the final volume was completed.
The Caro LBJ series might be a little too much for me. Maybe after the dust has settled and my reading pile has thinned out, I’ll give it consideration. Here’s hoping all you Caro fans get your wish!
Steve Martin said:
I never thought I would read them either, but once I started, I realized that this was something very special. A once in a lifetime experience.
I’ve read each book in the series twice- most excellent. Another of those people who are anxiously awaking the final in the series.
I’m scared that its not going get finished. A couple of years ago he reiterated his intent to go and live in Vietnam to do research as he did with the Texas Hill Country for the first volume. Originally the series was going to be a trilogy, then 4 books, now 5 books. It’s taken him 8 years to write 1/3 of the supposed last book. At that rate we can expect him to be done in 2036 when he will be 100 years old.
I remember that 2017 interview quite well (along with his suggestion that his last big hurdle was spending time in Vietnam) so when I saw a photo of Caro in yesterday’s article and the background was New York City – not Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City – I considered shedding a tear. Or two.
When I think of somebody being 84 years old, I worry about how well their mental abilities are holding up. But I heard Caro on Conan O’Brien’s podcast last year and he is still incredibly quick, still really sharp, and still ten times smarter than me. So it gives me hope that we have several more years of enjoyment coming from him.
Thank you for posting the NYT article. It is good news his material will have a permanent home and a proper exhibit. Will we eventually see a Robert Caro Square?
‘Working’ was a nice teaser. Mr. Caro was able to share a few great stories and give some insightful interviews. “Turn every page.”
As for the LBJ biography, I can see the final portion being published as a two-volume set. The publisher can get a higher price point and Mr. Caro can properly tell the story.
The article references the material on Jane Jacobs and Al Smith deleted from The Power Broker. After LBJ is completed, it would be nice if they re-visited the material for either publishing separately in a book of character sketches or issuing a ‘Writers Cut’ of The Power Broker. Imagine a two-volume 50th Anniversary Edition in 2024!
John Keyes said:
Thanks so much for the update! This series is probably the best thing I’ve ever read, I love every book in the series. I haven’t read The Power Broker yet, but I’m sure it will be excellent as well.
Glad to see your back!
I bought the LBJ series several years ago and it has sat on my bookshelf since, waiting for me to take the dive. I won’t say I’m intimidated, but I expect my attention and concentration to be challenged, much like my experience reading Foote’s Civil War series. Hopefully 2020 will be the year I commit.
And I have Foote’s series sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to do the same…!
John Beberman said:
Tracy and Steve: I started volume 1 Path to Power in 1990 and got 175 pages in and simply had to drop it since I didn’t have the time. I picked it up again in 2022, from the beginning now that I’m retired and have the next two volumes on deck. I’m an admirer of what Johnson accomplished and Caro’s unceasingly negative portrayal makes it a slog. We’ll see if Caro has one positive thing to say other than Johnson died before reaching 70 years.
John, congrats on retirement and getting back to the series! I hope you stick with it despite your view that Caro may be too negative. In my own humble opinion, Caro is so observant and penetrating a biographer that his work is worth reading even if someone disagrees with his tone or apparent underlying biases. If you make it further into the series I’ll be quite interested to see what you think…!
The obligatory update on Mr. Caro:
Thanks for the update! It’s always interesting to see what’s going on in his life. I sincerely hope that (i) he finishes his series on LBJ – soon! – and (ii) someone writes a biography of Caro’s life that does uncommon degree of tireless dedication justice. Oh, and did I mention I hope he finishes that last volume soon?
Who could be the biographer? Jon Meachem and Candice Millard would be at the top of my list right now. As you noted in a comment elsewhere about another book, how much of a market would there be among the general public for it?
Good question – I really need Meacham to finish up his bio of James and Dolley before he moves on to Monroe. (And I’d really prefer he took up effort on Martin Van Buren…)
Oops. I was referring to Caro’s biographer.
My reading comprehension skills are obviously disintegrating 🙂
I just finished reading a comment on the recent Monroe biography and it was stuck in my head…and I failed to make the transition.
I have absolutely no idea who I would like to take on Caro’s life. It’s probably not dramatic enough for Millard and Meacham is never going to finish that Madison bio, but this seems to be the kind of thing he might embrace.
This 2019 PBS interview conflicts with the AP article and is more promising in the “final pages” comment toward the end. If Caro works strictly linear and was at 1967 according to the AP, we have a road ahead. If, however, the PBS comment is accurate, he may be moving around the timeline wrapping up loose ends.
As a researcher, I can tell you Covid has seriously slowed archival research. Gottlieb needs to unload resources on the Caro duo so they can focus on the finish line.
3:09 for an interesting comment re if he doesn’t finish it. Pretty hard answer for the typically mild calm Bob. I wonder why/if Ina could finish it? She’s written two books.
I feel a little bit about Caro as I do about Ruth Bader Ginsburg; you’ve just got to stay alive a few more years. Conservatives can fill in another name but you get the idea. After reading Hamilton about 5 years ago I decided I should read Chernow’s Washington….which led to Adams and Jefferson and so forth. I’ve just finished Caro’s Passage of Power and it’s frustrating to have to stop there; Viet Nam, Bobby Kennedy, civil rights are coming up. Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” was surprisingly the best presidential bio I’ve read so far. It’s not fair to compare this trilogy with the other biographies because Caro has devoted much of his so far long life to this work. That on it’s own would not have been enough but his writing and research skills are
exceptional and he did have living witnesses to interview. I want to thank Stephen Floyd for his very helpful website that made choosing these biographies much easier. And it’s nice to know there are others that have this idea of reading a bio of every president. Some of my friends think I’m a bit odd but this journey has been a very significant lifetime experience.
For me there really is something special about combining important historical figures, solid research and excellent writing. Chernow and Caro have slightly different strengths but they are both literary treasures.
Athough some may find your trek through presidential biographies a bit strange, I think it’s time exceptionally well spent! And in these strange political (and cultural) times, I find that having experienced America’s entire history through the eyes of each president (and/or their biographers) provides invaluable context for understanding where we are and where we may be headed-
I have grave doubts Caro will be able to finish his project. One reason is his age. The other is his mania for thorough research. I wish he would admit that it’s not possible to include everything he will uncover in just one more book and that he publish a volume based on what he claims to have written so far. Then he can continue his research, to the best of his ability. If he has the world enough and time left to write a 6th book, hooray. If not, at least a lot of the best research will already be there for others to pour over, add to and write books–their own books, not a sixth volume of his.
Yes, he and George R.R. Martin are in competition as to who is least likely to complete their series.
No holiday surprise here: No date for volume 5.