Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 107-109
[Access article in PDF]
In the summer of 1861, just a few months into the Civil War, Mary Boykin Chesnut wondered in her journal if anyone could say that they knew Robert E. Lee. "I doubt it," she answered her own question. "He looks so cold and quiet and grand." He looks cold and quiet and grand in one of the most familiar photographs of him, the one on the cover of this book, the one Mathew Brady took in Richmond four years later—just a week after Appomattox.
When Chesnut asked and answered her question, Lee, then still relatively unknown, was not yet the "General Lee" who would become the hope of the Confederacy a year later, much less the "Marse Robert" of history and legend. One hundred and twenty years later, looking back on dozens of biographies and other books on Lee, his army, and their war, as well as countless treatments of him in articles, films, and other elements of American popular culture, Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows observed, "We know so much about him, or at least we believe we do."
We believe we know so much about him because so much—whether in admiration or condemnation, and whether good, bad, or indifferent—has been written about him. The titles and subtitles of Lee biographies sometimes reflect their interpretations, almost as if their authors were claiming to have answered Chesnut's question. The titles of older works, such as Thomas Nelson Page's Robert E. Lee the Southerner (1909) and Robert E. Lee, Man and Soldier (1911), Gamaliel Bradford's Lee the American (1912), James Young's Marse Robert: Knight of the Confederacy (1929), or William E. Brooks's Lee of Virginia (1932), are typical of those appearing before Douglas Southall Freeman's Pulitzer Prize-winning four volumes—R. E. Lee: A Biography (1932-34). The titles of more recent studies, such as Connelly's [End Page 107] The Marble Man (1977), Alan T. Nolan's Lee Considered (1991), Michael Fellman's The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), and Richard B. McCaslin's Lee in the Shadow of Washington (2001) often declare their focus more dramatically.
"What on earth," you may be asking yourself about now, "is the point of another book on Robert E. Lee?" The answer is that this Lee, by Roy Blount Jr., humorist, journalist, and man of letters, is an especially engaging and thought-provoking short life—even if an observation or aside here or there may prove to be simply provoking to some readers. Blount's Lee is not the Lee of Page, Bradford, Freeman, Connelly, Fellman, McCaslin, or Emory M. Thomas, whose Robert E. Lee: A Biography (1995) is in many ways as satisfying as any Lee biography of the last seventy-five years. Then again, it is not intended to be. If taken on its own terms, Blount's Lee is one remarkably well suited for that anonymous "general educated reader" of the twenty-first century, that reader for whom so many authors write, or at least claim to.
Blount, asked to write a biography of Mark Twain for the Penguin Lives series, proposed this book instead. He has immersed himself in his subject, demonstrating an astonishing familiarity with the vast literature on Lee, the Confederacy, and the Civil War and a keen understanding of others' interpretations, but never limiting his own portrait of Lee by what has been written before him. Though Blount makes effective use of quotations from Lee's own letters, or from contemporaries and historians, this book is more than a collection of colorful excerpts and vivid stories. It is a spirited interpretation of the general, his soldiers, and the war they fought; the man, his family, and the times in which they lived; and his place—actually, multiple places, depending on one's point of view—in American history. He covers the essentials, of course, from the influences Lee's father and George Washington had on young Robert...