National Book Foundation to present the 2016 Medalist for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro accepting the 2016 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Dr. William P. Kelly, The New York Public Library’s Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries, introduces Robert Caro.



One of literature’s most prestigious honors, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage.

Robert CaroThe Foundation will award Robert A. Caro its 2016 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Caro, the acclaimed biographer of The Power Broker and the multivolume biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is being honored for his exceptional work and significant impact on American literature. Caro is the 29th recipient of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL), which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include John Ashbery, Judy Blume, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and Tom Wolfe.

“Robert Caro has long been one of our most treasured biographers,” said David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “His ability to understand power, privilege, and the unique ways in which that power has shaped American government and American cities throughout the 20th century is a road map that will endure because of its depth, breadth, and import, and we are honored to have the privilege to present him with this medal.”

“Robert A. Caro is an American treasure,” said Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “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. His life’s work, and his stunning prose, teaches us to better understand political influence, American democracy, and the true power of biography.”

“Robert A. Caro is an American treasure”

—Lisa Lucas, Executive Director
National Book Foundation

Caro is the author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and The Years of Lyndon Johnson biographies. The biographies include National Book Award Finalists The Path to Power (1982) and The Passage of Power (2012), and National Book Award Winner Master of the Senate (2002). Caro has won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography twice; the National Book Critics Circle’s awards for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year twice, and Best Biography of the Year; and a multitude of other accolades including the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, and the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Caro’s high school, Horace Mann, established the Robert Caro ‘53 Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History in his honor.

Books by Robert Caro

The Power Broker
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 1975.
Path to Power
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power,
Means of Ascent
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent
, 1990.
Master of the Senate
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate
, 2002.
Passage of Power
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power,

Nominations for the DCAL are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, Judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. The final selection is made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal.


Robert Caro Biography

Robert Caro was born in New York in 1935, and attended Horace Mann and Princeton University. After college, Caro worked for a local New Jersey newspaper and then at Newsday where he spent six years as an investigative reporter writing articles on politicians.

At Newsday, Caro’s interest in politics grew. He wrote a series of articles about the urban planner Robert Moses’s plans to build a bridge. A great number of politicians agreed with Caro’s articles that the bridge was not practical, but Moses, who had never been elected to a political office, convinced the New York state legislature to vote in favor of the bridge. In Caro’s quest to understand that not all political power comes from the ballot box, he applied and got a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to study urban planning, which is where he conceived the idea to write a book examining where Moses got his power and how he used it to shape New York. It took several years for Caro to write what would become a thirteen-hundred page book, and to make ends meet, Caro’s wife, Ina, sold their house on Long Island and they moved into an apartment.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York was published in 1975, won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and was a 1975 National Book Award Finalist for Contemporary Thought/Nonfiction. Both TIME magazine and Modern Library selected The Power Broker as one of the greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Known and praised for his meticulous research, Caro also recognized that rhythm, mood, and sense of place are all essential elements if readers are to emotionally connect to the characters.  

Caro’s mastery in storytelling based on his in-depth research led to the publication of four of the five planned volumes on the 36th President of the United States in a biography series called The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The first volume, The Path to Power, published in 1982, won the 1982 National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction, and covered LBJ’s life until 1941.

To gain an understanding of where Johnson grew up, Caro and his wife moved to Hill Country in central Texas and lived there for three years. Means of Ascent, published in 1990, won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography, and covers Johnson from 1941 until the Texas senatorial primary. The third volume, Master of the Senate, published in 2002, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, the 2002 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, and the 2002 D. B. Hardeman Prize, and covers Johnson’s twelve years, from 1949 to 1960, in the United States Senate. The fourth volume, The Passage of Power, published in 2012, was a National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction, and won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. The Passage of Power covers Johnson's life from 1958 to 1964, a time that included the challenges Johnson faced as he attempted to gain the presidency. It was also the first time people were able to catch a glimpse of the Kennedy assassination through Johnson’s eyes. Caro is working on the fifth volume that will cover Johnson’s presidential years.  

Caro currently lives in New York City with his wife, Ina, who is also a writer. 


Presenter: Dr. William P. Kelly

Bill Kelly PhotoDr. William P. Kelly is The New York Public Library’s Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries. He is charged with preserving and expanding the use of the most democratically accessible of research collections, which includes approximately 45 million items and is growing by about 150,000 books per year.

Kelly’s scholarship includes Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales and (under contract) Astoria: John Jacob Astor, the West, and the World. He has written numerous articles for a variety of journals, newspapers, and magazines.

(Photo credit: Jonathan S. Blanc, Producer, NYPL Multimedia Content Office)