Great Expressive Moments
Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s massive Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Viking, 2007) seems like one of those old-fashioned nineteenth century “life and times” of a prominent historical figure with more quotations from personal papers than critical analysis. It is not, although just how well it will be received by scholars on the Civil War and ante-bellum American society I leave to those experts. Obviously, I read the book because of the emphasis on Lee’s letters, but I also found Pryor making an effort to provide a balanced and critical review of Lee’s life and activities that moves us past the stereotypes and impressions of the resident of Arlington and the Confederacy’s military leader. Pryor minces no words in portraying Lee’s attitudes about slavery, for example, or about his doubts and struggles about his personal religious views.
Pryor’s interest in Lee’s personal papers developed from a temporary job she had with the National Park Service at Arlington. In this position she worked with Lee’s papers, documents she indicates had been restricted or at least normally not available to researchers. While engaged in this project, Pryor discovered many other “unpublished or unusual documents in scores of archives and attics and trunks” (p. xi). As she observes, “Lee’s papers have never been collected and published, which seems astonishing given his historical prominence” (p. xii).
This author seeks to highlight the insights into Lee that can be learned from his letters. Pryor also seeks to provide some commentary on the nature of letter writing in this period, arguing that the increased accessibility to good paper and writing materials, the creation of a postal system, improved schooling, and standardization in grammar, among other things, all made the Civil War a “great expressive moment in American history” (p. xv). As Pryor suggests, “Before the days of the photo album, letters were the only way a family had to record its history, glimpse into its past, recall the personalities of departed relatives and friends” (p. xxi). The growing scholarship on letter writing, some of which I have commented on in this blog, confirms Pryor’s assessment. While Reading the Man is not a study of letter writing, it can be considered a case study.
Pryor provides some comments on the fate and dispersal of the Lee papers. She describes how when Federal troops took over Arlington at the beginning of the Civil War, Mrs. Lee removed various family and personal papers to other residences. This prompts Pryor to provide an interesting comment about George Washington Parke Custis, Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law, who maintained artifacts related to George Washington and the family at Arlington: “By amassing this rich collection and willingly making it available to the public, Arlington’s master presaged a national preservation movement that would not begin for a half century. He was not a perfect curator in the contemporary sense of the word – in his enthusiasm to give away mementoes, he broke up irreplaceable sets of china, cut up battlefield memorabilia, and excised signatures from the bottom of priceless letters” (p. 49). We know that these are fairly common practices for the nineteenth century.
Providing a close reading of Lee’s letters enables Pryor to lead her readers into a glimpse into Lee’s innermost thoughts and struggles. Lee had a deep affection for children and “Lee’s letters on the subject of children are among the most complex documents we have, showing his gentle wit and painterly ability with words, but also a side that could be uncomfortably strict and authoritarian” (p. 104). Because of the systematic manner in which Lee addressed so many issues, we also get a deeper view of his complex and shifting opinions about matters like slavery and religion, revealing attitudes common for his day but also providing a far more human portrait of human frailty and contradictions. Lee is removed from the pedestal and taken down from the monument.
To bring the letters to the readers, Pryor starts each chapter with several examples and a brief commentary on them. One chapter commences this way: “The three letters that open this chapter might at first glance seem easy for a historian to pass over, yet they are a distillation of Robert E. Lee’s professional personality, an extract of his bonhomie, his uninspired diligence, his frustrated ambition” (pp. 194-195). Pryor also provides descriptions of Lee’s epistles when she is considering some aspect of his life and career. For example, Pryor provides this assessment of his letters written during his military sojourn in Texas in the 1850s: “The letters he left from this period greatly illuminate his evolving mindset and also contain some of his most sentimental prose. However burdensome his correspondence, it is clear that it awakened his feelings and gave them form. In his search for a way to strengthen his precious connections, he could be touching, wry, or trenchant by turns. His style at this time had matured; gone were the affected, flippant phrases of his youthful letters; now the technique was more subdued, more elegant” (p .253).
As one might expect, Pryor reflects about the change in nature of letter writing and historical documents between Lee’s era and our own: “The nature of historic documents has fundamentally altered during the last hundred years. Historiography of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will differ significantly from the way we evaluate evidence from earlier times. Lengthy evocative letters like the ones Lee and his marvelously eloquent soldiers penned are rare now. Our feel for the temporal has also radically changed. Nineteenth-century writers took the time to be expressive; they knew their letters could require time to arrive; and they expected they could be carefully kept as timeless mementos” (p. 342). Now, there is something to mull over.