Robert Caro, one of America's greatest literary lions, gave a lecture about his work at the Newark Public Library, the downtown marble and wood-paneled shrine of the city's intellectual life, as part of an annual lecture series named after the equally revered author Philip Roth, a proud native son of Newark.
Caro, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was a journalist for many years before he began writing his deeply-researched historical books. He is the author of such well-known works as "The Power Broker," a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, and "Means of Ascent," part of a projected five-volume biographical series about the late former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Caro came to Newark last Thursday as part of the once-a-year Philip Roth Lecture Series, playing his part in the ongoing revival and rejuvenation of the library. Speaking to a packed crowd of more than 200 people inside of the library's Centennial Room, he imparted some of the knowledge he gained over a literary lifetime.
The overarching theme of Caro's lecture was how LBJ managed to push through the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act. Johnson, a master politician, got the job done through a potent combination of compromise, collaboration and cajoling, getting legislators in line with appropriate arm-twisting.
"Political power shapes all of our lives," said Caro, his voice tinged by his prominent New York accent, with a hint of his father's native Yiddish blended in. "To see Lyndon Johnson, in action, passing the civil rights bill, is to see the skill of passing legislation that is beyond just skill, to see the talent that was beyond just talent. It was to see something that was really genius."
The crowd who came out for Caro included former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. The crowd also included Newark notables such Liz Del Tufo, longtime city resident, tour guide, and Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee (NPLC) president; Jeremy Johnson, executive director of the Newark Arts Council; Junius Williams, head of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark; Amy Niles, president and CEO of WBGO radio; NPL Director Jeffrey Trzeciak; Nicole Butler, NPL's head of development; and Timothy J. Crist, Ph.D, president of the NPL Board of Trustees.
Roth recently announced that he will bequeath his personal library to the NPL, a major gift that will help inject new life into the museum after the world-acclaimed novelist passed away. With his pledge, Roth will leave in his well-known literary wake an institution enhanced and energized.
The NPL will be better ready for waves of both Newark citizens, hungry for knowledge just like Roth was as a childhood visitor and later as a Rutgers Newark student. The library will also be a bolstered bastion for bibliophiles everywhere, who will come to visit from around the nation and the world in order to honor and better understand Roth's work. Better yet, the NPL will be a place of inspiration for a new generation of writers who hope to build on Roth's love for Newark, and for the written word, to create new works of their own.
Examined side by side, Caro's life and Roth's life share certain similarities. Caro was schooled in Riverdale, a largely Jewish enclave of the Bronx. Roth was raised and educated in Weequahic, a formerly predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Newark that is the background for much of his esteemed work, including his seminal collection "Goodbye, Columbus." Perhaps partially as a result of these similitudes, Caro and Roth are good friends.
There are also more painful parallels in the work of both Caro and Roth. In his work, Caro recounts how during the struggle for civil rights in the South in the 1960's, blood was shed in the fields of Mississippi. In his work, Roth recounts how during the 1967 civil disturbances in Newark, a riot to some, a rebellion to others, the civic fabric of the city was ripped to shreds and almost burned out of existence once and for all.
Aesthetically, Caro and Roth have crafted their richly-detailed work through deep, extensive, and even obsessive research. Roth got real help from two critical figures in Newark's cultural pantheon.
Charles Cummings, the late official historian of Newark, deployed his encyclopedic knowledge of the city and its environs to help Roth provide the intricate detail of Newark that was known and loved by his readers. Cummings' weekly Knowing Newark columns for The Star-Ledger were a beacon of knowledge that lit up the city that he loved until the day he died in 2005. Clement Price, the late prominent Rutgers University-Newark professor, took up Cummings' mantle until he passed in 2014.
Make no mistake - both Cummings and Price were unseen, yet still present, in the library's Centennial Room during Caro's lecture, named in honor of Roth. Cummings and Price, both wraiths of faith in Newark, were there still in the heart of the city that they loved in this life, and maybe beyond the grave in the next one.
Roth himself was not present at the lecture named in his honor. Yet in a written statement released at the time he made his gift to the place that served as the genesis of his genius, his words spoke for themselves as he explained why he made his generous pledge.
"My decision to locate my personal library in Newark and, specifically, in the Newark Public Library was determined by a longstanding sense of gratitude to the city where I was born in 1933 and where I was raised in the Weequahic section during the middle of the last century," Roth wrote. "It was my other Newark home. My first other home. I ask you, where else should my personal library be located?"
During his lecture, Caro referenced a litany of leaders besides LBJ who were all in full force during the civil rights struggle of the 1960's, a period seen by many as a time for greatness.
The past leaders referenced by Caro included President John F. Kennedy, slain in 1963; U.S. Attorney General and later U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, slain in 1968; and the civil rights leader and icon Martin Luther King, Jr., also slain in 1968.
Here and now in 2017, many people are uneasy at what they see as a lack of leadership under the current administration of President Trump. Many see Trump's leadership as a time when greatness and moral motivation have been replaced instead by greed and mendacious mean-spiritedness.
Caro, however, stood before the crowd gathered in the heart of Newark and spoke of a moment in time when presidential leadership meant something else. He voiced something that, perhaps in the near future, can be achieved again in an America that for many people is not only already great. Rather, it is an America that will once again find a way to bring out its best and the better angels of its nature, especially in a time of crisis.
"The President shouldn't spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be," Caro said, using the words that some people advised LBJ with during his fight for civil rights for all Americans when he was in the White House. "But Johnson answered back and said, 'Well, what the hell is the presidency for then?'"