NEW YORK — Robert Caro is this year’s winner of a National Book Award medal for lifetime achievement, given for “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.”
The 80-year-old historian, known for his epic, acclaimed biographies of former President Lyndon Johnson and municipal builder Robert Moses, was praised Wednesday by the National Book Foundation for his “exceptional work and significant impact on American literature.” Previous honorees include Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Ursula K. Le Guin.
“Caro’s in-depth and long term exploration of the lives of two prominent men makes a much larger contribution to American Letters than it might seem at first glance,” Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement. “His life’s work, and his stunning prose, teaches us to better understand political influence, American democracy, and the true power of biography.”
Caro will receive his award Nov. 16 at the annual National Book Awards ceremony and dinner benefit in Manhattan, where winners in the competitive categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature will be announced.
A longtime New York City resident, Caro is one of the world’s most prominent historians even though he has published just five books. “The Power Broker,” his landmark biography of Moses, is standard reading for city historians and planners and has been praised by President Barack Obama, who once said he was “mesmerized” by it. Caro’s writings on Johnson, four volumes so far, are best-sellers widely read in Washington and have inspired some legislators to seek his advice.
Accepting awards has almost become routine for Caro. His resume includes two Pulitzers, a competitive National Book Award (for “Master of the Senate”), three National Book Critic Circle prizes and a National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2010 by Obama. He won at least five awards just for his most recent Johnson book, “The Passage of Power,” published in 2012.
Interviewed recently by telephone as he stood outside the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Caro said receiving the National Book Award medal had him thinking about the “wonderful journey” of his life, an adventure joined by his wife and primary editor and researcher, Ina Caro. He spoke of being so broke while working on “The Power Broker” that he and Ina had to sell their home. For the Johnson books, he has lived in rural Texas and spent many days in Washington on Capitol Hill, where LBJ reigned in the Senate in the 1950s. He’s still planning a visit to Vietnam for the next Johnson book.
“This award in particular means a great deal to me because it’s getting me to remember a lot of things along the way,” he said.
Caro’s interview with The Associated Press was a quick break from his ongoing Johnson work. He was at the library for yet more research on a series that began 40 years ago and totals more than 3,000 pages for the first four books. He isn’t ready to set a date for the fifth, and presumed last installment.
“When I first was coming to Austin there used to be scores of people in the Johnson administration who were close to Johnson. I could hardly find enough time to interview all of them,” he said.
“Now, almost everyone is dead. At the library, all the archivists I’ve worked with are retiring.”