Art takes time


Robert Caro, 2012

I’ve caught Hamilton fever. Yes, like many others, I listen to the original cast album, over and over, and look forward to someday seeing the musical in person.

The Hamilton soundtrack connects me to one of my other lifelong passions: biographies. Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show.  It’s been on my reading list for quite a while, mostly because I enjoyed and learned much from his earlier volume on J.P. Morgan and the House of Morgan.

It’s amazing to me how much Chernow and Miranda pack into a single book and a single musical. It’s especially impressive when I go to my bookshelves to learn more about Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and pull off volumes of Dumas Malone’s six-volume work on Jefferson.  Malone started work on the series in 1943, published the first volume in 1948, and finished the sixth volume in 1975 (published in 1977).

In the introduction to the first volume, Malone describes the four volumes he intended to write.  He notes that it will take him five books to tell his story in the introduction to volume two.  By the sixth volume Malone wrote, “I eventually felt compelled to extend the number to six. Even so, I have left out much I would have liked to include and cannot hope to have done full justice to a virtually inexhaustible subject (p. xiii).”

Malone’s six volumes reminded me of Robert Caro’s multivolume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, another of my favorites. He began the project in 1976, just as Malone finished his work on Jefferson.  I opened volume one, The Path to Power, and this in the introduction: ““What Dumas Malone wrote of Thomas Jefferson, however, is true of Lyndon Johnson: ‘He loses none of his fascination but he does lose much of his elusiveness when one follows him through life the way he himself went through it, that is, chronologically.’ In this three-volume work, Johnson’s life will be told as in fact it unfolded (p. xix).”

In 2012, Caro published The Passage of Power, volume four in the series.  The book carries LBJ from 1957 through the first six months of his presidency; Caro still has the Great Society and the Vietnam War to cover in, he says, one more volume. I’m betting on two.

Charles McGrath profiled Caro in the New York Times Magazine when the most recent volume arrived.  He wrote, “Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company (he also excerpted Volume 2 at The New Yorker when he was editor in chief there). Not long ago he said he told Caro: ‘Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now 80, and you are 75. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.’ Gottlieb added, ‘The truth is, Bob doesn’t really need me, but he thinks he does.’

Thinking about all of this reminds me that art takes whatever time it needs to come into being.  Deadlines help, but as Douglas Adams noted, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”  Sometimes you can create three minute masterpieces on a schedule, but sometimes you just have to scribble, scribble, scribble and let the work take its course.