Do We Really Need Another Biography of Robert E. Lee?

I’ve always thought this is a strange question to ask of any historical subject. The question assumes that at some point our historical knowledge is complete with nothing more to learn. Of course, that is never the case.

Good history always involves the interrogation of new evidence that has surfaced and a reevaluation of old evidence. Historians bring new questions to their research and writing that often emerge from their own lived experience. No one historical study is conclusive. Surveying the historiography of a given subject hopefully gets us closer to the truth, but it is always incomplete.

This question emerged on twitter yesterday after I posted that Knopf is slated to publish a new biography of Robert E. Lee later this year by Allen Guelzo. The discussion that ensued became a little tense at times. It quickly became clear to me that the question wasn’t whether we needed a new biography of Lee, but whether we needed one written by Guelzo.

First things first. It may come as surprise to some people, but we don’t have that many biographies of Robert E. Lee. There are plenty of studies that focus on some aspect of his life, including recent books by R. David Cox, Richard McClaslin, Steven Woodworth, Ethan Rafuse, and John Reeves. The one book that I recommend the most is Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man, which offers a close interpretation of aspects of Lee’s life, especially slavery.

For a more traditional biography the two go to books in my library are Michael Fellman’s The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000) and Emory Thomas’s Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1995). I have not had a chance to read Michael Korda’s more recent biography (2014), though reviewers were pretty much in agreement that it failed to say anything new.

Guelzo’s forthcoming study has a real chance of offering something new or at least providing an overview of Lee’s life that incorporates recent scholarship. The problem holding some people back from giving Guelzo the benefit of the doubt has to do with his conservative politics and especially his participation in the recent White House Conference on American History. I honestly don’t care about his political views. That said, like many of you I was appalled by his participation in this conference—which was more about history indoctrination than history education—and especially his comments about history educators.

As disgusted as I was, however, it has nothing to do with his scholarship. One historian has suggested that his forthcoming biography will be little more than a defense of Lee for conservative readers. I suspect this individual and others also believe that it will appeal to readers, who still embrace the Lost Cause, but the jacket description doesn’t support such a conclusion:

From the acclaimed author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion–a sweeping, singularly immediate, and intimate biography of the Confederate general and his fateful decision to betray his nation in order to defend his home state and uphold the slave system he claimed to oppose.

In fact, I am not sure that anything Guelzo has written over his long career has found a home within the Lost Cause crowd.

From what I can tell my personal politics have very little in common with Guelzo’s views, but that hasn’t prevented me from engaging with and learning from his many published books over the years, especially his work on Abraham Lincoln.

Whether we need a new Lee biography by Allen Guelzo should ultimately come down to the substance of the argument contained in the book.

Regardless of your personal opinion of the man, the publication of this book is itself going to be an event. It will be widely read, widely reviewed, and most importantly, it will be widely discussed on social media and elsewhere. It comes as Confederate monuments continue to be evaluated and removed in communities across the country. By September we may even see the removal of Lee monuments in Richmond and Charlottesville.

I for one am looking forward to this book.

23 comments… add one
  • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Feb 13, 2021 @ 6:26

    In a word, yes.

  • Brad Jan 17, 2021 @ 19:34

    I’ve read several of Guelzo’s books and thought they were fantastic books, specifically Lincoln: Redeemer President, his book on the Lincoln Douglas debates and Gettysburg (after I read that one, I decided I didn’t need the other Gettysburg books I had). I always found him objective and look forward to his Lee book. Although I may not agree with him politically, so what. Our tendency in this country is to judge everything our shaded lenses and not always on the merits.

  • Connie Chastain Jan 17, 2021 @ 17:48

    If you don’t want another Lee book, why don’t you just take a page from the cancel culture club? Tear out pages, pour paint on it, march around with posters and signs… Hey, it worked for monuments.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 18, 2021 @ 0:51

      Hi Connie,

      This comment doesn’t make any sense. Are you OK?

  • Msb Jan 6, 2021 @ 8:26

    Interesting news, thanks. Will have a go at Pryor first, though.

  • PeterK Jan 4, 2021 @ 13:13

    i find it laughable that you consider the recent WH conference to be more about indoctrination when for the last 40 years American students have been indoctrinated by Howard Zinn’s nonsense and other left-wing propaganda

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2021 @ 13:56

      Absolute nonsense.

  • Rob Wick Jan 4, 2021 @ 7:27

    Kevin,

    I own several of Guelzo’s books, but have only read his articles. It’s not a question of not wanting to read him, but rather having too much to choose from and forgetting about his work.

    While I disagree with him politically, I have to say his prodigious output certainly speaks well for him. I also admit to a little personal bias. When I was on Facebook, he accepted my friend request (obviously not knowing who I was or why I wanted to be his “friend.”). I had an article that I wanted to have published and asked him if he would be willing to read it. To my surprise he agreed. I expected just a brief “that’s nice” or “don’t quit your day job” response, but he took the time to read it and to provide a detailed page of suggested corrections and edits, most of which I agreed to and implemented.

    I never got it published, but I was moved by his willingness to help someone he didn’t know and to do it in such a way as to add value to my project.

    Best
    Rob

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2021 @ 9:00

      Thanks for sharing, Rob.

  • bryanac625 Jan 4, 2021 @ 5:40

    Anything that could put Lee in a more authentic light than the “Marble Man,” Confederate Jesus interpretation would be great to see. I have had issues with Guelzo in other areas but a good book would be welcome.

    Speaking of writings on Lee, this gives me the chance to share a little news. I recently picked up the book “Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Personal and Military History Embracing a Large Amount of Information Hitherto Unpublished” by Armistead L. Long, who was a member of Lee’s staff during the war. My copy is a reprint (the book was published in 1886). I thought it might be interesting and hopefully informative to read this. Is anyone else familiar with this book and is it good history? Fortunately, I got it for free (along with Volumes 4, 5, and 6 of the original run of Confederate Vetern Magazine).

  • Josh Jan 3, 2021 @ 15:59

    “It quickly became clear to me that the question wasn’t whether we needed a new biography of Lee, but whether we needed one written by Guelzo.”

    I heartily agree we need a comprehensive biography of Lee. Korda’s book is very uneven and tries to make some dubious arguments.

    Guelzo is one of those historians I have not personally read. Not because of his politics, but because nothing I’ve heard about his books make them sound appealing. I expect he will have some unusual opinions about Lee, but ones that come off a bit headscratching more than anything.

    • New England Jon Jan 4, 2021 @ 6:25

      I’ve read a number of things by Guelzo; including articles at the Clermont Review of Books. Maybe it’s because of my interest in the subject, but the one that stands out for me is the one on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. I thought that it was good. For what it’s worth, Dimitri Rotov panned it on his blog. But since discovering his blog six months ago, while I have found some interesting books through him, Rotov is more and more reminding me of an SAT like analogy.

      Rotov:Civil War books::Armond White: Movies.

      I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, but it puts him in perspective.

      PS How much does memory consist of books versus monuments, and other things such as parks, reenactors, et cetera?

    • James Simcoe Jan 4, 2021 @ 6:32

      I am no friend of the Lost Cause. His (G’s) ‘Gettysburg…’ has a pacing that is unusual for battle histories. Makes it come alive as an organically connected chaos. He touches on the major controversies…seems friendly to Howard’s testimony to Congress that Reynold’s was furious when given Meade’s orders pulling in on the reigns. Leaves the question marks in place of Slocum’s errant Division on day 2.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2021 @ 9:02

        There are certainly lots of places in that book for people to disagree, but I really enjoyed the book. It does a really good job of contextualizing the battle into the broader political scene of 1863.

  • Walter D Kamphoefner Jan 3, 2021 @ 7:35

    Something I only recently learned about Lee was that in the 1860 election, he voted for the Southern extremist John Breckenridge rather than the southern moderate John Bell whom a plurality of Virginians favored. But perhaps one should not give too much weight to this in view of the fact that Breckenridge carried the future West Virginia counties that soon seceded from secession.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2021 @ 7:40

      I was recently surprised by the number of votes that Breckenridge received from the state of Connecticut.

      • New England Jon Jan 3, 2021 @ 9:07

        I was recently reading Larry Tagg’s book on the generals of Gettysburg and surprised to learn that Jubal Early was a Whig and opposed secession antebellum.

  • Terry Beckenbaugh Jan 3, 2021 @ 7:09

    Guelzo once wrote in an article that Lee committed treason “purely on the merits.” Also, what a historian says is one thing, what that historians puts in print is quite another. Here’s the article Guelzo wrote: https://athenaeumreview.org/essay/did-robert-e-lee-commit-treason/

  • Elmar Petersen Jan 3, 2021 @ 5:44

    Hi Kevin – Interesting post. I am looking forward to the new bio from Guelzo. Just wondering – in your post you mention recent books about Lee. – what is your opinion about the recent dual biography (2014) about Grant and Lee by William C. Davis?

    Best regards
    Elmar
    Faroe Islands

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2021 @ 5:56

      I have not read it.

  • New England Jon Jan 3, 2021 @ 5:19

    I’m pretty sure that the Abbeville Institute won’t like this book.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2021 @ 5:40

      No chance.

    • New England Jon Jan 3, 2021 @ 6:04

      If one of your readers doesn’t understand here’s a link:

      https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/american-girondins/

      You can get the flavor from the title if you don’t feel like clicking.

      I find internecine warfare more interesting than the typical Red/Blue arguments that are more commonly portrayed; whether it’s the Force The Vote (for Medicare 4 All,) argument, traditionalist Catholics arguing about which group is most Catholic (sedevacanists, SSPX, or FSSP,) or the neoconservative/neo Confederate divide. I may be using the former term loosely. I think that Guelzo’s views line up with Harry Jaffa. It’s likely more accurate to call Jaffa a West Coast Straussian. It seemed to me that Jaffa viewed Lincoln as a synthetic neo-Thomist and had little regard for any of the Confederates

      PS- Brion McClanahan, who wrote the linked article, also wrote a book about presidents that almost sounded pacifistic at times. And I once saw a clip of Thomas Dilorenzo addressing the Ludwig von Mises Institute that had rhetoric that sounded like language from Noam Chomsky’s Manufactured Consent. Sometimes folks lean so far to the right that they wind up on the left.

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