I have no idea who first told me about Robert E. Lee, but whoever it was, I have no doubt the person pronounced the name slowly, quietly, as one might that of a beloved uncle or grandfather only recently passed away. Such deference was, I believe, common in Southern homes in those days, is, perhaps, still in many. But the effect was even more pronounced in ours, for my father had attended the school where Lee had served as president in the years following the Civil War, the place where, when death finally caught up with the general, his body was placed in a special mausoleum at the very center of the college green. In 1969, following in my father's footsteps, I too became a student at Washington & Lee University, the school long since become a living memorial to the general and the qualities for which he was universally renowned. Reverence for the man is, I suppose, mine by right of birth.
But with reverence comes—naturally enough—a certain amount of curiosity. We don't want to just sit and gaze at statues of Gandhi and Lincoln, we want to know the men themselves, the living, breathing human beings that inspired the sculpture. And of course with Lee our feelings have to be mixed. How can we admire a man who fought so hard to preserve a system that endorsed slavery? So I read Freeman's Lee and Crenshaw's Mr. Lee's College, I read Shaara's Killer Angels and Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox. But Lee, like the good general he was, always remained elusive, a gray will-o'-the-wisp hovering just beyond the horizon.
Or he did until I read Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters.
Letters are different, aren't they? Most writing involves persuasion of one kind or another. Whether we're composing a business letter, a press release, or a summation for the jury, we usually have some point to make; we seek to persuade or dissuade someone of something. But in our personal correspondence, most of the time, all we're trying to do is to offer someone far away a sense of ourselves and our thoughts and maybe a little bit about the weather on a perfectly ordinary day in our perfectly ordinary lives.
Lee's letters are just this human, just this down-to-earth. He is a fine writer with an eye for the telling detail, and Pryor uses his correspondence skillfully to create a vivid, convincing image of the man—a man caught tragically in the glories and contradictions of the great turning point in American history. As part of the library's commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, on Monday, May 14, in Easton, and again on Thursday, May 24, in St. Michaels (it was 150 years ago this May that Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia), I will host a discussion of Pryor's excellent biography. Between now and then, check out a copy of the book, read it, and then sign up for one of our discussions. I look forward to hearing what you think of the man who, as it turns out, was so very much more than a statue.