‘Turn Every Page’: A loving documentary about ideas, writing and comradeship
Robert Caro, left, and Robert Gottlieb

I knew the recently released documentary Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb would be right up my alley. These two men, for those who may need a reminder, are, respectively, the author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (now in its 41st printing), as well as the so-far four-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson and his times, with a fifth volume eagerly awaited; and Caro’s longtime editor at Knopf.

They are arguably the most critical historian and the most influential book editor living in America, and they have been collaborators for half a century. Each is committed to producing the best possible work that can come out of years of prodigious research, writing and editorial judgment. In the case of the 1974 tome The Power Broker, Caro’s original manuscript had to be trimmed down by 350,000 words, and it still came down to an unwieldy 1344 pages that could barely fit into one volume.

Through these books, which have won him two Pulitzer Prizes to date, Caro has been dedicated to investigating the source and the application of political power in America. His unflinching conclusion, which will likely be no surprise to readers of this newspaper, is that it has little resemblance to what our civics textbooks teach us. At the same time, his work is also a potent example of the legitimacy of independent scholarship and its disconnect from any preset ideological assumptions. With his exquisite alertness to the telling detail, the revelation that might only have been uncovered by turning every page in the archives, his ear to the pain of ordinary Americans, Caro has simply gone where the facts have led him.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit, and it is to my deep chagrin, that I have personally not tackled any of Caro’s literary works. I guess they might have appeared too daunting in volume, or I was just too engrossed in my own projects and activism to take the time.

In the case of the LBJ books, as a veteran of the anti-war movement in the 1960s and ’70s, I think of LBJ and what comes to mind is that terrifying chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Yet, of course, LBJ is—except for that!—now hailed as one of America’s great presidents, who brought to fruition the necessary updates to the New Deal of the 1930s by broadening voter rights and pushing Medicare and Medicaid through Congress.

But I knew that I would love this film, because it’s all about the love of historical research and writing and the close partnership—a kind of marriage, one could say—with an editor equally motivated to bring out the best of what the author has to say. And in my own life I have worked both sides of that equation.

As a lad of 22 I was armed with a travel fellowship to go to Brazil, research music history there, and find enough material for a master’s thesis. To my surprise and delight, a librarian at the Arquivo Nacional in Rio de Janeiro pulled out an almost foot-high packet of documents she thought might interest me. These were the weekly handwritten reports submitted to the emperor Dom Pedro II by the administrator of the opera house during the years 1852-53. I had familiarized myself with the bibliography of Brazilian music and had never seen any reference to these letters. I was undoubtedly the first person in well over a hundred years to hold them in my hands and appreciate what they meant, and they formed the basis for my thesis. The research bug had bitten me hard, and I have not been intimidated from pursuing a number of other large-scale research projects in later life.

I’ve also provided to other writers what Gottlieb describes as “an intelligent and sympathetic reaction to the text and what the author is trying to accomplish.” I’ve done this, uncredited, for a number of recent International Publishers books, for example, out of a passion to make sure what gets published meets the highest standards both of scholarship and of literature. Perhaps we on the left have a special obligation to those standards as a bulwark against accusations of bias. My guiding philosophy has always been to clear out of the way any obstacle—as big as a misstatement of fact or as minor as a misplaced, comma—that impedes the reader’s journey.

I do this too, as others on our staff also do, as an editor here at People’s World. My greatest pleasure as an editor is working with newer writers helping them shape their ideas into a readable, publishable article. Even with the more experienced writers, I always find something that could be just a little better. As Gottlieb explains of his role, “He does the work, I do the cleanup…it’s a service job.”

As I watched the film, it occurred to me that I have never really had that kind of editor myself, though I recall what one of our former PW editors said once, “You have to kill your babies”: That excruciatingly well-crafted paragraph you are so proud of just doesn’t add anything of substance and needs to go. Perhaps I need to remember that more often.

Turn Every Page is about so much more than this special relationship, though. It’s about aging, about change and constancy, about means and ends to achieve your goals, about the pursuit of knowledge as a key to fuller democracy. It’s a window onto the publishing world centered in New York City. And it delves sufficiently into the backstories of the two Bobs’ lives—their own childhood and education, marriages, children, passions, hobbies—that we truly care about them as individuals.

While Caro is single-mindedly devoted to his research, Gottlieb has other things to do. He has edited somewhere between 600 and 700 books, many by the leading writers and public figures of our time—Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Jessica Mitford, Joseph Heller among many others—and has written a few himself. Bill Clinton is interviewed in the film; Gottlieb edited his book. It was moving to hear him speak of Gottlieb’s work on the LBJ books about “dedicated, imperfect people,” as we sense that perhaps he was also talking about himself. He also notes, mordantly, that Gottlieb declined to work on Clinton’s post-White House memoir as something he did not feel was worth his time.

Among others who appear in the film are Barack Obama, Caro’s literary agent Lynn Nesbit, Conan O’Brien, and actor Ethan Hawke reading some poetic passages from Caro’s work. I had never reveled in the recitation of New York’s thruways and bridges quite so deliciously as hearing them here.

Most of all, cutting to the end, we fervently root for their continued good health. For at 87 (Caro) and 91 (Gottlieb), we can only hope they are able to produce their Holy Grail, the fifth and final volume of the LBJ series. People in their orbit have learned by now not to ask when the last volume will appear. When it’s ready, that’s all they can say.

This documentary was made by Lizzie Gottlieb, Robert’s daughter, and what a loving testament this five-years-in-the-making project is! According to a stipulation made by the two subjects, she was not permitted to interview them together, perhaps out of fear that any of their longstanding disagreements might get too heated. One amusing segment treats the all-important issue of the semi-colon—worth a civil war in Gottlieb’s opinion—on which an impressive array of writers and editors weigh in with their sage experience. No detail is too small to ignore—an axiom that might apply to virtually any human endeavor, after all. In the absence of such scenes, the two are finally brought together and appear silently working together in one of those lovely, lyrical cinematic breaks we see in romantic comedies. It bears stating that the musical score adds much tone and depth, in that scene and in many others.

Viewers will be well rewarded by this film whose appeal extends far beyond the literary types. The trailer can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

Comments

comments