[Cross-Posted at Progressive Historians]
The number of books hitting the market in recognition of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown has been quite impressive. Even more impressive is the steady stream of Lincoln studies that will no doubt continue through the bicentennial celebrations of his birth in 2009. Such a trend stands in sharp contrast with the dearth of new material that has been released or will be released in 2007 in honor Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday. A quick search of Amazon confirms that there is little to be seen on the horizon. The only study worth mentioning is Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking, 2007) which I picked up and am working my way through. Each chapter begins with family letters about Lee or letters written by Lee himself which serve as a launching point to explore a specific topic connected to his personal life. I’ve read through the first two chapters and have to say that Pryor’s analysis seems even-handed. She worries about any type of foray into the psychological that is not contingent on sufficient sources. As an example Pryor refrains from drawing any firm conclusions regarding Lee’s own beliefs about his father or its influence on his later life. The problem is that there is insufficient evidence on which to base much of anything.
The book is quite long (500+ pages) and will no doubt attract a fairly wide readership. As to how to explain the lack of scholarly attention on Lee this year I am at a loss. On the one hand Lee’s military career has been explored in various battle studies and articles, but we have not seen a decent scholarly biography since Emory Thomas’s Robert E. Lee: A Biography(1995). It is certainly an excellent place to start, but I found myself wanting much more upon completion. We need a biography that does a much better job of integrating the military with the personal. While I know that some people expressed concern that James I. Robertson’s biography of "Stonewall" Jackson betrayed a historian too close to his subject I think it serves as an excellent model of what is needed. This is pure speculation, but I suspect that part of the reason that we have not seen more in the way of critical biographies of Lee has to do with our popular perceptions that there is simply nothing to explain. Consider the famous final words about Lee that can be found in Douglas S. Freeman’s wonderful 4-volume biography:
That is all. There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.
I am a huge fan of Freeman’s biography of Lee and still believe that it is the richest portrayal of the general, but it is clear that the author found the moral and psychological contours of a man that had already become well-ingrained in the culture. This is not to suggest that Freeman’s conclusions would somehow not stand up to modern scholarship, but that there is room to understand better. No doubt most people have not read Freeman (even if they say they have).
There is an assumption of transparency that comes through in the Freeman passage above. Lee was transparent to himself as well as others. That’s a difficult assumption to defend regardless of the amount of time spent with a given subject. One could perhaps make the case that if anyone was justified in making that conclusion it was Freeman, but the extent to which that assumption pervades our popular culture is simply disturbing and even quite humorous. Consider the following comment which was left in response to a post by Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors:
I am a native Virginian. We worshipped God, Jesus and Robert E. Lee in that
order, and, as a Southerner, I’ll not apologize. As an historian, of course I
realize that Lee was human. But this is where his genius lies: I believe it was
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in writing about Jackie Kennedy that commented she
understood what she meant to people. That was Lee. He understood what he
represented and felt an obligation to that image. It’s a tremendous insight to
comprehend your place so clearly. It takes many of us a lifetime, if ever, to
see our roles in relation to others. It is also an incredible burden. This seems
to be something Lee grasped at an early age and accepted.
There is no hint of concern on the part of this individual that perhaps one’s conclusions ought to be tempered when entering the domain of psychology – and childhood psychology for that matter. Once again, Lee’s motivations along with his deepest desires were transparent to himself, those around him, and can still be easily discerned generations later.
It would be nice to have a few scholarly/critical studies of one of the most important figures in American history. Failure to do so means that Lee will continue to be interpreted by people whose agenda includes little more than the concepts of hero worship as opposed to any real interest in historical analysis.