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).

Literature, Politics

Muckraking and Documentary Film

Thought for the day: I’m reading Robert Caro’s wonderful biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. At one point, Caro describes the central role that muckraking journalism played in fueling the progressive reform movement. It was not only that the journalists drew public attention to issues that had previously been hidden from public view. They also performed the more basic role of collecting facts in an era when government had for the most part not yet entered the fact-collecting business.

I remember being surprised a few years ago to learn that the U.S. government made no attempt to measure the size of the economy until the Great Depression. (Simon Kuznets invented the notion of GDP while working to address this problem at the NBER.) But according to Caro, the lack of basic data-collection went even further than this prior to the progressive era. In the later nineteenth century, city governments did not even keep numerical track of their budgets—sources of revenue, amounts spent. When a municipal government discovered that it was unable to pay its bills, it would often simply issue some bonds.

It struck me that while newspapers are in decline today, there is a new form of muckraking that is on the rise, and could be compared to the progressive periodicals of an earlier era in some ways: documentary film. Just as powerful magazines like McClure’s regularly provoked policy reforms in the last Gilded Age, our current Gilded Age has seen several documentaries succeed in provoking changes in public attitudes. The first example that comes to mind is The Invisible War, which deals with sexual assault in the U.S. military. Apparently, the film drew Senator Gillibrand’s attention to this issue and played a significant role in bringing about the legislative responses. Other examples of surprisingly influential, muckraking documentaries would not be hard to find: Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove

So, even if newspapers can no longer afford thorough investigative reporting because the public stopped buying classified ads, maybe documentaries can partially fill the gap. And ironically, some of the same forces that have made in-depth newspaper reporting less economically feasible have made documentary-making more feasible. The same Internet that destroyed the classified section has created a new avenue for documentary film distribution through streaming video services.