Being There

By Deirdre David

In recalling the seven years of research that went into the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power (1982), Robert Caro describes driving from Austin, where he was working at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, to the Hill Country that spreads out to the west in an “incredible empty panorama.” Stopping his car, he spotted in the distance the ranch in the valley of the Pedernales River where Johnson grew up. And shortly thereafter, he announced to his wife, Ina, that they needed to move to the Hill Country in order to understand fully Johnson’s early life. For the best part of the next three years, they lived in rural Texas, driving to isolated ranches and farms to interview people who remembered the hardships of the Hill Country and who grew up and went to college with Lyndon Johnson. As Caro puts it, they “helped make up his first political machine.” Caro needed to be there.

In 2017, Robert and Ina Caro graciously agreed that BIO should establish a Travel Fellowship in their name and Kitty Kelley generously offered to support the first year of funding for the award: $5,000. The review committee (Kate Buford, Marc Leepson, and me [as chair]) stipulated that proposals should specify as fully as possible how traveling to a particular location would enable the biographer to develop the importance of a sense of place. Just as living in the desolate Hill Country enabled Caro to grasp the conditions that shaped Johnson as a politician, applicants for the fellowship were asked to tell us where they wished to go and why they needed to be there.

We received 21 impressive submissions. Among other places, people wanted to travel to Northern Ireland, to Senis just north of Paris, to Korea, to Brooklyn, to Ohio, to Maine, to New Mexico, and to West Virginia. Our two winners, each of whom will receive $2,500, were Natalie Dykstra, Professor of English at Hope College, and Marina Harss, dance writer and translator. Natalie will be traveling to Florence, Milan, and Venice, cities where her biographical subject, Isabella Stewart Gardner, assembled paintings, drawings, tapestries, porcelain, mirrors, and other objects to be placed in her eponymous museum that opened in Boston in 1903. Marina will be visiting various locations that played an important part in the artistic development of the distinguished choreographer who is the subject of her biography, Alexei Ratmansky—Kiev, Moscow, Copenhagen, and St. Petersburg. Natalie, in particular, was inspired by Robert Caro’s memorable line taken from his 2011 BIO Conference talk, “The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye.”

When Robert and Ina read the two winning submissions, Robert wrote to say, “They both sound just perfect for what we all have in mind. You can see how vital a sense of place is in both of these books, and if this fellowship helps the two authors achieve it, everyone connected with the fellowship will, I think, be able to take pride in having helped a little bit in the achievement.” At our conference in May at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, to be held in collaboration with the Leon Levy Center for Biography, Natalie and Marina will receive their awards and meet Ina and Robert Caro. They will all be there.