"Means of Ascent," Robert A. Caro's controversial and unflattering second volume on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, won the National Book Critics Circle award for biography yesterday -- as did Caro's first volume, "The Path to Power," in 1982.

The organization of American book critics also honored another book that generated heated discussion when it was published last year, Shelby Steele's "The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America." Steele's essays challenge generally accepted wisdom about the value of affirmative action and other racial policies and trends of the last several decades.

The group's fiction award went to John Updike for "Rabbit at Rest," the fourth novel in the Rabbit Angstrom series. The critics' citation said the book "brings to a close a work which will stand as one of the major achievements of American fiction in the 20th century."

The poetry winner was "Bitter Angel," a first collection by Amy Gerstler. The honor for criticism was given to Arthur C. Danto, art critic of The Nation magazine, for his "Encounters and Reflections."

According to a source present during the two days of deliberations in Claremont, Calif., the Updike novel was the clear winner in its category from the outset.

In three other categories, the strongest unsuccessful contenders were books by Washington authors: T.H. Watkins, for his life of Harold Ickes, "Righteous Pilgrim," which reportedly gave Caro's book its stiffest competition; the late O.B. Hardison, for his "Disappearing Through the Skylight," which lost to the Steele collection; and Anthony Hecht, for "The Transparent Man," which narrowly gave way to Gerstler's poems.

The critics announced a special lifetime award to Donald Keene, the scholar, translator and anthologist of Japanese literature, and said its annual citation for excellence in book reviewing will go to Molly Giles, a creative writing teacher at San Francisco State University who contributes frequently to the San Jose Mercury News book pages.

The awards will be presented March 14 at New York University.