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Struggling with Robert E. Lee
On a recent essay on Anton Chekhov published in The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm asserted that "the letters and journals we leave behind and the impressions we have made on our contemporaries are the mere husk of the kernel of our essential life. When we die, the kernel is buried with us. This is the horror and pity of death and the reason for the inescapable triviality of biography." As a biographer, I agree with Malcolm in some absolute sense. Writers are capable of capturing only part of experience, though you don't have to be a raving postmodernist to dispute her essentialism: after all, the power is always in the most creative possible telling of a particular version consistent with the data, even if the book offers only one of several possible stories.
Malcolm is talking about the unknowable soul—the kernel of our essential life—that good writers can only infer and never recapture in toto. But that is the challenge, and that is where imagination comes into play. Like novelists, memoirists, and historians of all stripes, biographers have fragments, sometimes lots of them, sometimes fewer, with which they must do their best to construct the richest, most complex, and at the same time most truthful, rather than true, story. Lives do have themes. People who wrote letters or diaries or novels or tracts, or for that matter military orders, attempted to convey, or sometimes to deny, the urgent underlying issues of their lives. And biographers do their best to uncover those issues through their quest for theme and form, bringing to bear their own experiences and self-knowledge on their subjects.
For this task they need two fundamental analytical perspectives. The first is skepticism, about their own values and the predominant values of their culture, tied to an innate questioning of their subject's professions. The second, detachment, is golden. Special pleading—the bane of biography—corrupts the authorial voice. But so does coldness. The detached author at the same time must try to move onto the ground of the subject, be sensitive to the otherness of the subject's terrain, and yet find sympathetic if critical (even self-critical) connection with the subject.
On the issue of empathy I consider myself a "method biographer": that is, I try to utilize parts of my personality that bear some resemblance to the subject of my work in order to humanize my text. This was not such a stretch in the case of William T. Sherman because he had a voluble, angry, comic, manic-depressive personality of which mine is a very pale partial version. A vivid, compulsive, and rarely self-censoring fellow writer, Sherman almost handed me his complexities.
Now I have just finished a book on Robert E. Lee, about as opposite a personality to Sherman as one might ever encounter, someone who kept the entire world at great distance and his feelings so guarded that even he did not appear to know their contents very well. Three years ago, after sitting for six weeks or so in the marvelous Virginia Historical Society manuscript reading room in Richmond [End Page 7] reading Lee's close to the vest, deeply ritualized, and endlessly didactic prose, I phoned my wife and asked her, with a certain desperation, how I could ever write about such a reserved and conventional eighteenth-century Chesapeake gentleman. Sherman had been enough like me that I could find connections, I told her, but Lee . . . ? "Relax," Santa reassured me. "With Lee you get to explore your repressed side."
Unapparent though it may be to my friends, I of course contain that side too, and so Santa was quite correct in reassuring me that I could find such inner resources to draw upon, qualities even more embarrassing and harder to acknowledge than my blustering ones. Three years later, I believe I have made some inroads into Lee's iconic and aloof personality through discussion of his religiosity, his desire to control, his passion for battle, and...