Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Power Broker

For some months now, I have been slogging through Robert Caro's 1200-page biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, while taking little breaks in the middle to read mystery novels and the like. It is, without a doubt, magisterial, an incredible picture of the development of New York from the twenties through the sixties and the one machiavellian bastard who rose up to control its destiny.  When I'm done with it, after a suitable pause, I will probably take up the four existing volumes (will he live to produce another) of Caro's bio of LBJ.

That said, I have to take breaks in the middle due to Caro's insatiable appetite for detail.  At times it is wonderful, as figures like Al Smith and other forgotten but honorable figures who were outsmarted by Moses at one point in or the other spring from the page.  At other times, Caro just cannot stop himself from just listing things, the things Moses built.  Something like "and as he stood on that boat, he could see the Belt Parkway, the Verrazano Narrows, the Triborough, the Whitestone, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, Jones Beach,"  yatta yatta yatta.  And this seems to devolve into overenumeration.

And yet, it is reminiscent of another book I'm in the middle of, which has been sitting on my coffee table for months, something I had never read and picked up for just that reason, a book which lends itself to being picked up and sampled, so rich is its smorgasbord of America, Whitman's Leaves of Grass. 

Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love--or sleep in the bed at night with any
one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds--or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown--or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best--mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans--or to the _soiree_--or to the opera.
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring--yet each distinct and in its place.

That is, honestly, just a quote I pulled off the interweb because I am too lazy to go downstairs and grab the book and open it to some random place. The point is, I think, that both Caro and Whitman (and Moses) share in this American revelry in the epic, the grand in scope, the cornucopian.  And why not?

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