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.