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  • Robert E. Lee:Heroic, But Not the Polio Vaccine
  • Daniel S. Margolies (bio)
Elizabeth Brown Pryor. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. New York: Viking, 2007. xxiv + 640 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95.

This thoughtful and sprawling book on the life and character of Robert E. Lee is sure to enlighten, annoy, impress, confound, and assuage just about every reader at some point. It will be read in these multiple ways no less because of the wide-ranging purposes it adopts and the broad audience it seeks than because of Lee's still-elusive essence. Reading the Man is an impressively researched volume and a well-told story, with just enough ingratiating nods to Lee's core virtues to mollify defenders and consumers of all-things-Lee and more than enough critical analysis of primary materials to interest and entice historians. This book will not supplant either the best overall Lee biography, which remains Emory Thomas's cogent and compelling Robert E. Lee (1995), or Michael Fellman's fine exploration into Lee's personality, The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000). Yet Pryor effectively builds upon these works, considers new materials, and offers some new insights. What is fresh in this book is her artful and rhythmic recreation of Lee's life amidst the cascade of his enduring and notable contradictions.

As her title indicates, Pryor is self-consciously "reading the man" rather than simply telling his life. This book is as much character study as biography, with special attention given to Lee and his family rather than to his military exploits. Pryor mines (though not stridently) a revisionist vein rather than recapitulating the powerful and persistent abstractions of Lee as myth and messiah. She resists a sensationalistic accounting of Lee and his exploits or efforts to "compartmentalize him . . . [or] simply lionize him" (p. xiii). She wants readers to know and feel his "all too human existence" and the "heart-rending way he strove, but failed to achieve his dreams" (p. 470). Pryor wants readers to sense the "possibility of redemption" through Lee, and to know the "vagaries of human existence," and she is unashamed enough at the clichés to state it (p. 473). [End Page 385]

While not exactly innovative in seeking to reverse unthinking Lee worship, Pryor does put her impressive talents to work bolstering and clarifying many crucial and distinctive points of critique about Lee's decision-making, moral and political stances, and character. She creates a portrait of Lee that is complex and ultimately critical, and she does so with a deep respect for, and use of, the sources. She declares her purpose to be stewarding "precious pieces of our past" in the form of Lee's personal writings and actions in order "to amplify our understanding of what constitutes heroism" (p. xiii). This book is thus presented as a study of his heroism, but it is accomplished in an extraordinarily delicate fashion. Pryor reaffirms Lee's core heroic image while ultimately questioning its purpose, meaning, and significance.

Reading the Man coheres to the longstanding imperative of reassessing this complex and tragic figure while seeking simultaneously to acknowledge (if not celebrate) his accomplishments. To study Lee is, fundamentally, to grapple with this conundrum of linking personal integrity and enormous historical resonance with an evaluation of his final "transcendent importance" (p. 472). Pryor argues that "the greatest honor we can give Lee is to admire him for who he actually was, rather than as an imaginary creature, which only insults him by implying that the reality was inadequate" (p. 471).

Pryor's well-supported and often corrosive reading of Lee observes this reality of "who he actually was" while sustaining the gaze of fascination for the man, detailing his many triumphs and strengths, and reaffirming him as a great (if fallible) man of history. She argues that Lee demonstrated "how strong is the potential power of one individual in a truly democratic society, and therefore how great the burden of responsibility" to make the right choices (p. 471). She recognizes that Lee holds, and likely always will hold, an exalted position in the states of...


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pp. 385-392
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