Ina Caro as a re​search collaborator and research that takes time

First off, a note: I will be maintaining this blog and social media accounts to some degree, but I am no longer responding or engaging to comments. I will use social media primarily for promoting books, the podcast, and my students.

I’ve been reading Robert Caro’s little book called Working, and as virtually all my close friends know, I am a sucker for writing process books, and this one is often really delightful. I have a longstanding dispute with Robert Caro over his paragraphing–he lets them go on entirely long. I get that his watchword patience, but good paragraphing can still let you go on as long as you like.

Reading this book has been lots of fun, not only because I have a fondness for Caro, but because his attitudes about so many things reflect my own: it boils down to, look if I could have written dozens of books quickly, I would have done that, but I couldn’t. I wrote and researched the only way that felt right to me.

Bless his heart for saying it out loud. For everybody looking at tenure track professors and financially successful authors, it’s easy to treat that statement as so much privilege. Perhaps it is. But perhaps it’s also actually true. I spent my early years on the tenure track, and before that, as a consultant, playing the game, and while I did it, I wasn’t all that good at it, and it hollowed me out and made me sick. I was really, really unsuited to the 8 to 7 world of a regular consulting gig; I can’t work around other people. That job finally drove me to a breakdown. This is one reason why now that I have tenure and full I spend a lot of time and energy standing against unreasonable expectations for productivity and adjunct exploitation.

Since the PR stuff around Caro’s book came out, there has been quite a bit of criticism about how his process reflects his privilege, and while it is true, it’s probably best to remember that a whole damn bunch of us who look like we’re sitting on top of the world weren’t born there and sacrificed a lot to get there.

There has also been a lot of speculating about how much Caro acknowledges his wife’s contributions and sacrifices, and if you are worried about Robert being grateful to Ina, don’t be. In this book, she is front and center, and it seems they are like Plato’s two halves made whole. She’s his lobster, and he hers. (He’s always talked about her extensively in his acknowledgments, too, but most people don’t read those unless they are looking for themselves or hopelessly nosy like me.)

Here’s Caro on how both he and Ina sacrificed and paid dues for the Power Broker:

When I was a reporter I blamed this feeling on the deadlines. I just hated having to write a story while there were still questions I wanted to ask or documents I wanted to look at. But when I turned to writing books, the deadlines were no longer at the end of a day, or a week, or, occasionally if you were lucky in journalism, a month. They were years away. But there were deadlines: the publisher’s delivery dates. And there was another constraint: money—money to live on while I was doing the research.* But the hard truth was that for me neither of these constraints could stand before the force of this other thing. It wasn’t that I was cavalier about deadlines. As it happens, I was lucky enough to have a publisher who never mentioned them to me, but they loomed in my mind nonetheless, as I missed them by months and then by years. * And I hated being broke, having to worry about money all the time. (I didn’t know the half of it. It wasn’t until, in 1974, when, after I had been working on the book for seven years, The New Yorker bought four excerpts from The Power Broker that my wife, Ina, said “Now I can go to the dry cleaners again.” I hadn’t realized—because she had never told me—that we had been unable to pay the bills at our local dry cleaners (or, I later learned, butcher shop) for so long that she had been doing her shopping in a more distant shopping area. (As years earlier, we had moved to an apartment in Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx after I came home one day to the house on Long Island that Ina loved, at a complete loss as to how to go on without a regular paycheck, to find her standing in the driveway to tell me, “We sold the house today.”

*See any of these spots for a paragraph break, friends. Would that be so much to ask?

Yes, certainly, lots of young writers don’t have a Princeton education and lots of young journalists never get a house to sell for their books, but the idea that this was all sunshine and roses it’s very accurate either. I’m for the idea that spouses who contribute as much as Ina did deserve authorship, it dishonors her considerable agency and commitment to the work–not just to Caro, to the work–to act like she was a long-suffering spouse who had no choice in how her life rolled out. One reason why the Caros took time over the stories they told was, simply, that they wanted to give proper time and attention to the people that nobody else paid any time or attention to.

Ina’s contributions become particularly important when getting information to precisely to the of the Texas Hill country:

And, of course, as Ina became friends with them, they told her intimate details they at they would never have told me: about the perineal tears, caused by childbirth without proper medical care, which seemed to be common in the Hill Country. (And indeed were: I was looking up federal statistics and studies from the New Deal days all the time now, and one study by a team of gynecologists had found that out of 275 Hill Country women, 158 had perineal tears, many of them third degree “tears so bad that it is difficult to see how they could stand on their feet.”) And yet, Ina would tell me, her eyes brimming, how these women had told her they had no choice but to stand on their feet and do the chores; with their husbands working from “dark to dark” (…) there was no one else to do them. I recall many moments of revelation like that; as I say, I hope to write about more them someday.* When Ina said to me one evening with real anger in her voice, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again,” I knew exactly what she meant. So many of the women in western movies were simply the background figures standing at stoves or pleading with their husbands not to go out to a gunfight. You hear a lot about the gunfights in westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling up the water after a perineal tear.


It’s certainly not a radical critique, it’s not a revolutionary insight or marriage, but Ina Caro was essential to it all, and it’s pretty clear that Robert Caro was the public face of a working partnership that suited her pretty well even if she didn’t receive the public acknowledgment she should have.