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June 2012


The genre is the academic novel. That category might make one think of Tom Sharpe, David Lodge, Malcom Bradbury, Mary McCarthy, Kingsley Amis, C. P. Snow, or the ineffable Willa Cather. But John Williams is in a class nearly by himself in Stoner (1965).

Williams’s prose is windowpane clear. The emotions of his principle character Stoner are deep but nearly silent and all the more elemental. Stoner is surrounded by people who do not understand him, and lives his life entirely in their company.

Williams Stoner939.jpg


What is incomprehensible and mysterious about Stoner is that he loves the worlds that words make in books. In the English Department at the University of Missouri between 1920 and 1960, where he passes his days, this love is neither well-known nor highly regarded. That he lives only to read, to write, and to talk about literature makes him an academic failure in the company of career-makers who care nothing for words and ideas.

The accounts of Stoner’s several transformations from boy to student to scholar are marvellous. The best of these transformations is perhaps the last when his hand brushes a book and its pages quiver with life. That is the moment he dies forgotten, unlamented, and unmissed.

I did find the plot mechanical. Edith, the wife, and Lomax, the Head of Department, were ciphers there to bedevil Stoner, but who were otherwise empty of meaning. Nor did I find it creditable that the dean, Finch, would be so staunch. But each of these three characters provides a mirror for Stoner’s reaction and that is enough.

I said that Williams is in a class nearly by himself. Together with him I would assign Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925), a seat. She, too, captures something of the wonder and awe of learning that the other scribes listed at the outset are too jaded to realize and probably incapable of portraying.

My thanks to Trevor Cook for mentioning this book.

Wow! Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a magnum opus, a stupendous achievement, the most vivid biography imaginable, an insightful study of political power, a tragedy of Shakespearean depth...The Passage of Power is the fourth volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and in some ways it is the best so far.

Caro Passage938.jpg

It is the best because it covers the best of its subject - Lyndon Baines Johnson. That best emerged in the crucible of a seven-week period between 22 November 1963 and 8 January 1964. For informed readers the dates pulse with meaning. No explanation is required.


Caro offers in-depth studies of the characters in this drama and places them in the context of the times. The ego and alter-ego relationship between John and Robert Kennedy is particularly compelling. In the sunshine there is the charming Dr Jekyll of John Kennedy and in the shadows there is the deadly Mr. Hyde of Robert Kennedy. Those who were not won over by the former had to deal with the latter. ‘Ruthless’ is the only word that applies to Robert Kennedy.

Though Caro implies that John Kennedy's decision to put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket as vice-presidential candidate was the one thing John did not tell Robert and it is the one thing that Robert did not know by the telepathy with which these two brothers usually communicated. Ever the realist, John Kennedy knew he had to win the south to win and that he could not win the south alone or with any other running mate but Johnson and that Johnson alone could deliver the south. John did not tell Robert because Robert hated Johnson from the first time they met, a feeling the Johnson came to return in full measure, and Robert would have objected, as only he could object, to his brother, so to avoid that confrontation John did not tell Robert, John just did it himself and once it was done then it was done, and not even Robert could undo it, though undo it he tried several times, thus ensuring Johnson's continued enmity.

Fascinating as this part of the story may be, it is but preliminary. The focus of the book is Johnson's presidency from the moment John Kennedy was declared dead at Parkland Hospital on 22 November 1963 to the State of Union address on 8 January 1964 which launched the so-called War on Poverty. In between those dates Johnson performed miracles.

He calmed panic. He quelled hysteria. He stayed the hands that held the sabers. Stability, continuity, and order, these he created from fear, confusion, and anger and he did this nearly from the first moments and he showed a self-discipline that no one, least of all those who knew him best, thought he had. That alone caused one of Robert Kennedy's delegated haters to refer to Johnson at this time as 'masterful.' By 'delegated haters' I mean one of Robert Kennedy's aides who hated Johnson, it seems, because his boss hated him. The aide certainly hated Johnson before the assassination and in time he returned to hating him, but even he admitted that in the crisis Johnson was ...'masterful.' Others who disliked Johnson also acknowledged that this seven week period was ...'magnificent.'

It was masterful because after the initial shock, Johnson took charge in a calm and purposeful way. It was magnificent because in those seven weeks Johnson did things John Kennedy did not do in the preceding three years and could not have done.

What things are these?

1. He defeated a threat to presidential power in an obscure Senate bill that had enormous implications which implications he realized immediately and which he averted.
2. He cut the defense budget more than it has ever been cut before or since, and this at near the height of the Cold War, only a little more than a year since the nuclear brink in Cuba.
3. He caused the House of Representatives and Senate to vote for tax cuts which legislation had been lost in committee by its opponents for eighteen months before he put he hand to it and it was lost no more.
4. He caused the Senate to pass a civil rights bill that had all but disappeared from the legislative calendar and which was opposed by a majority of Senators, but one-by-one he won over a majority giving a Master Class on how to count votes.
5. He started the War on Poverty with the monies saved from defense.

It is a breath-taking list, one that would make a four-year term admirable, and these things he did in seven weeks, while doing much else besides. It is exhausting to read the nearly hour-by-hour account that Caro offers of this titan at work. Did he ever sleep? Did he ever sit quietly and eat a meal? Did he ever zone out with fatigue? Evidently not during these weeks.

He appealed to the ego of egoists, to the patriotism of patriots, to the intellect of intellectuals, to image to the Narcissists, to the Kennedy legacy to those that clung to that, to favors for those who would trade favors, to duty to the dutiful, to honour to the honourable, and each time he got the equation right in this seemingly endless human calculation. Meanwhile, to the nation and world of television viewers he projected a sorrowful calm and a deliberate determination.

Counting the votes for the civil rights act, Johnson insisted that every Republican in every forum be addressed as 'a representative of the party of Abraham Lincoln who had freed the slaves.' He insisted that every Republican from Illinois be addressed, in addition, as 'from the land of Lincoln who freed the slaves.' In private conversations with Republicans who opposed the bill, Johnson kept asking them to live up to their great founder, Abraham Lincoln. In the end about half of them did. Without Johnson's incessant pressure no more than one or two would have. He made it happen.

If John Kennedy’s beautiful words made us think, Lyndon Johnson’s earthy prose made us act, so said one of those whom Johnson moved to action.

Some of the most touching parts of the books are the descriptions of Mr. Hyde in mourning for his other half. Robert Kennedy was stunned by John Kennedy’s murder and he remained stunned for weeks, for months afterward. Jacqueline Kennedy showed courage and self-control enough for several, but Robert was utterly bereft. In private Robert took to wearing some of John’s clothes, an old tweed jacket that had been left at Robert’s house by accident months before, a navy coat that was in a car. It is almost, but not quite enough, to make me feel sorry for Robert Kennedy.

Caro’s work, this book especially, sets the standard for research, everything has been done, everything, and this book sets the standard for judicious and balanced judgements for there are judgements aplenty. The book is not merely a recitation of information. Like Thucydides, and likening an historian to Thucydides is the highest praise, Caro has arranged the material to lead readers to the points he has drawn from his study. PhD students would do well to examine the method in this study. When Caro quotes the findings of another, earlier author, he then affirms the truth of those words by saying he has interviewed those same subjects and got the same answers, he too has read the same boxes of files and found that same material in them, he too has been to the spot and measured the distances, he too has stood in setting sun on the stretch of land and felt warmth on his face at that same time of year and can confirm the accuracy of those earlier reports. And if he cannot confirm the assertions of others, it is because he has found something they missed. He takes nothing for granted, assumes nothing is settled and tests everything for himself and for his readers.

Is it any wonder that The Years of Lyndon Johnson is consuming its author? At one point Caro sold his house to finance this research. His wife, put aside her own career, first became his research assistant and then went to work as a school teacher to fund his research. When he claims, by implication, to have read 5,000 documents in one archive, I believe he did. I said ‘by implication’ because Caro does not boast of his research for to him, doubtless, it seems natural, like breathing.

This book cross-references the first three volumes extensively, more than I have ever seen before in a multi-volume biography and I have read at least three of those. Caro says that The Years of Lyndon Johnson is not a biography but a study of the years of Lyndon Johnson. In making this claim, Caro seems to be explaining both the lack of chronological order and the cross-referencing to earlier volumes that the omission of chronological order requires. To this reader that seems a distinction without a difference, and one of the very few false notes in The Passage of Power.

This book refers to the following volume, one that I anticipate eagerly whether it covers seven weeks or more. Though I expect a subsequent volume will return to the negative side of Johnson that dominates much of the earlier volumes, and Caro says as much in the last words of this volume.

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