Caro and Auerbach’s Homer

Another note about reading Robert Caro: one of the great things about his books is that they frequently offer thrilling brief histories of subjects that are only peripheral to his main biographical focus.

So, picking up The Power Broker, you might wonder: do I really want to read 1344 pages about Robert Moses? But you don’t have to. One section, for example, consists of a mini-biography of Al Smith, leading up to the moment when he became Caro’s patron and political mentor. Similarly, Caro’s Master of the Senate—the third volume in a biography of Lyndon Johnson—begins with a wonderful introduction to the Senate of the nineteenth century.

Caro’s technique reminds me a little of the “Odysseus’ scar” chapter in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach points out how when Homer introduces a new element in the story, he helpfully fills in all the necessary information that would allow the reader to understand its significance, even if this means pausing to interject seventy verses of background in an eighty-verse narrative. When Odysseus returns home and his housekeeper recognizes him by the scar on his thigh, Homer provides a flashback to tell us about the origin of the scar; when Robert Moses falls under the sway of Al Smith, Caro pauses to tell us the story of Al Smith’s life; when Lyndon Johnson becomes a senator, Caro pauses to tell us the story of the U.S. Senate… 

Everything is made external and brought to the surface for the reader’s benefit (in contrast to the way that external details have significance primarily as a prompt for internal meditations in some of Virginia Woolf’s writing, as Auerbach describes in a later chapter).


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