The American Center for Artists

Artist and Gallery Listings       Arts Organizations and Grants   Articles Stories and Poems  Staff


Southern Bound

by John Sledge

How to assess Robert E. Lee? There have always been strongly opposed views. After his death in 1870, he was both lionized and reviled. Former Confederate general Jubal Early expressed the sentiment that would obtain among white Southerners for over a century, “Our beloved Chief stands, like some lofty column which rears its head among the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and sublime.” But Frederick Douglass, a former slave and eloquent abolitionist, registered disgust, “We can scarcely take up a newspaper that is not filled with [nauseating] flatterings. It would seem that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven.” Military genius or unimaginative butcher? Principled patriot or champion of slavery?

Biographers have wrestled with Lee’s complex life and legacy for decades. They include Douglas Southall Freeman, a Richmond newspaper editor whose admiring four-volume study, R. E. Lee (1935), won the Pulitzer Prize and Allen T. Nolan, whose iconoclastic Lee Considered (1991) attempted to deconstruct the Lee mythos. Historians still do not widely agree on Lee’s overall generalship. But it is as an icon that Lee has been most important, a symbol of Southern honor and virtue, determined in battle and gracious in defeat. One biographer called him the “Marble Man.” As other voices have emerged in today’s multi-ethnic New South however, Lee’s sainted reputation has suffered, and the consensus over his public usefulness as a symbol has eroded. Schools bearing his name have rejected it, and his image has been defaced, most recently in a Richmond park. There are those who regard him as at best an embarrassment and at worse a hateful figure.

Enter Roy Blount, Jr., the Georgia born humorist whose Robert E. Lee (Viking, $19.95) is the latest volume in the much-praised “Penguin Lives Series.” In a mere 206 pages of text, Blount provides a much-condensed review of Lee’s life and career and concludes with appendices on his psychology, humor and attitude towards slavery. The writing is accessible, but occasional attempts at humor seem clunky and out of place. There are also numerous distracting mini-biographical sketches of other figures like Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart, which though interesting in themselves, dilute the text’s drive and focus.

Even in his own day, Lee’s upstanding character and personal conduct were the subject of much amazement. According to Blount, he went through West Point without a single demerit, “Never late, never insubordinate, ever impeccable in uniform.” During the Mexican War, his commanding officer called him “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.” And during the Civil War, Mary Chesnut, the Southern diarist noted for her shrewd and realistic observations, marveled, “Perfection – no fault to be found if you hunted for one.”

Blount is respectful of these opinions, and himself writes, “He was one of the few great men of whom it can be said that his sense of honor was rooted in genuine – if in fact far from simple or serene – honesty.” But getting at the man frustrates Blount. In the end, he cries, “He eludes us! He is vivid, and yet he isn’t there.” Blount deserves credit for making an effort in this book and shouldn’t be judged too harshly for coming up short. Like the other volumes in the Penguin Lives series, Robert E. Lee is meant to be an entertaining parallel exercise -- a contemporary literary celebrity writing about a great historical figure for whom they would seem to have some affinity.

But what’s truly needed in regards to Lee is something along the lines of what Plutarch did in his immortal biographical writings, namely to lift the life in question above quotidian detail and give a resonant moral lesson. But therein lies the difficulty with Lee. What moral to draw? It is a question of some importance in this rapidly changing South. Writ more largely, it becomes, what do we do with our past? Discard it? Embrace it? Rewrite it to suit a particular constituency? Blount is certainly sensitive to the problem, but it will take a greater writer than he, and maybe a lot more time, to give a credible answer.