UD reflects on Caro’s new exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Max Chasin, Staff Writer

  “Turn Every Page” — an exhibit dedicated to the work of historian and journalist Robert Caro ‘53, famous for his biographies on Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson — opened at The New York Historical Society on October 24. “It is very hard to sum up a career as significant as Mr. Caro’s in glass cases, but the exhibit did an excellent job of bringing in a ton of material about his work,” Head of the Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. 

When Caro first visited the exhibit, he loved it, he said. “It is made up of two long walls, one being biographical information, and the other is full of all of my writing,” he said. “It includes all the stages — samples of my outlines, my first drafts in longhand, and my typewritten drafts as well.” 

Caro has dedicated his life to writing. “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember,” he said. “When I gave papers to the historical society, I found, in my ancient files that my mother or father kept, an essay that I wrote in the 5th or 6th grade that was a biography called Honk the Moose.” 

The exhibit is beautiful, History teacher Barry Bienstock said. “Caro has done extensive research over the years, yet much of the research and writing did not make it into the published books. That material is now available to researchers. His archive will be invaluable to anyone working on American history from the 1930s through the 1960s.”

Caro’s favorite parts in the exhibit are two quotes about his work, given by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, he said. Obama gave Caro the National Humanities Medal and said that Caro’s book, “The Power Broker,” “helped to shape how I think about politics.” Clinton found Caro’s work to be very descriptive, and he wrote a glowing review about the book on Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro said. 

Caro hopes viewers of his exhibit learn that the standard and quality for writing in nonfiction books should be equal to that in books of fiction. “Nowadays, people have less interest in American history than there used to be, all too often because the books are not written well,” he said. “There needs to be a strong sense of place, some type of rhythm to help the reader understand the mood of what’s happening, descriptions of characters, like those in books of fiction.”

Caro’s work in journalism began at the school. He was Editor-in-Chief of the Record, which had a tremendous influence on him, he said. “In the class above me, there was a ton of excellent writing, which made you feel pressured to meet a certain standard with your own writing — when I became editor, I continued to feel like I had to continue the strong quality of writing in the paper.”

Throughout his time at the school, Caro was very involved with the community, Levenstein said. “Caro was an important school leader as head editor of The Record, and he produced a great newspaper that year.” 

Today, Caro’s influence at the school is reflected by the Robert Caro Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History, which all students in UD history classes can participate in, Levenstein said. 

Bienstock came up with the idea for the writing prize, and approached Caro 11 years ago to discuss creating it, he said. “When we met, Caro wanted to make sure that the prize adhered to something he believed in, which is why it combines literary qualities as well as rigorous research.” 

Caro wanted to make sure that the writing celebrated was in itself beautiful and effective, Levenstein said. “He believed that excellent historical writing is not just writing that amasses historical information efficiently, but writing that creates a feeling in the reader that a novel might create,” she said. “He loves what he does, and he does it all beautifully.”

When looking back upon his life and career, Caro is most proud of his ability to show not just how political power works but the effect it has on people for both good and for bad, he said. “When I was writing my book, ‘The Power Broker,’ which is about Robert Moses, I had to read tons of books about highways, as Moses built more roads than anyone else in history,” he said. “However, 21 neighborhoods were destroyed from his roads, so I showed what it meant to destroy a neighborhood by interviewing people from these destroyed locations.”

Caro has had an immeasurable impact on the school’s community; he completely changed the way our school teaches research papers and makes research papers an important part of our curriculum for history electives, Bienstock said. “I credit the Caro Prize for generating increased student interest in the writing of research papers over the last few years.” 

“HM’ers are proud that Caro is an alum of the school, and students interested in history definitely see him as a role model,” Levenstein said.