This month in Virginia, the most famous statue of Robert E. Lee — a 21-foot-tall bronze equestrian sculpture — was swung down from its granite base on Richmond’s Monument Avenue and cut in two at the waist so that it could fit under highway overpasses on its final journey to an undisclosed state facility. Hundreds gathered to cheer the event as a victory for racial justice.
My reaction was more complicated. As a Yankee born and bred, I had never been schooled in deference to the Southern Confederacy’s most famous general. But as a historian of the Civil War era, I had been at work since 2014 on a new biography of Lee, partly because he is so dominant a figure on the Civil War landscape, partly because I had become intrigued by how to write the biography of a man who committed treason. However, the seven years that followed — and especially the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 — quickly turned Lee into something different for many Americans. He became a symbol of our racial trauma, and one after another, Lee statues — in Dallas, in New Orleans, in Charlottesville, now in Richmond — came down.
I wondered whether the same toppling awaited my biography. I called my editor: Should we just put this manuscript in the freezer? My editor found my courage for me. No, he replied, we want to go ahead with this. If anything, he assured me, a thorough, unflinching and humane biography of Lee is more important now, as the monuments to him have been removed from view. That put me back on the rails. My book, “Robert E. Lee: A Life,” will be published next week.
There are some biographies that are almost impossible to write, but write them we must. Biography demands a close encounter with a subject, an entrance into motive, perception and explanation. The intimacy of that encounter carries with it the danger of dulling the edge of the historian’s moral judgment — and that kind of judgment is what makes historical inquiry worthwhile, something more than a mere jumble of events and dates. As Ian Kershaw wrote at the beginning of his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, the work of a biographer has the “inbuilt danger” of requiring “a level of empathy with the subject which can easily slide over into sympathy, perhaps even hidden or partial admiration.”
Monsters on the order of Hitler are comparatively rare. But monsters are not the only problem for biographers. There are also the Inconsistent, the Out-of-Step, the Authors of Important Mistakes, the Nearsighted, the Disastrously Well Intentioned. How do we write a biography of a Nearsighted like the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and explain how he could have misjudged Hitler so catastrophically? How do we engage with an Out-of-Stepper like Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill (on the Dardanelles, Edward VIII and colonialism)? How do we treat an Inconsistent like Ulysses Grant, fighting for the Union as a general in the Civil War but issuing an antisemitic order in 1862, or Woodrow Wilson, making the world safe for democracy but endorsing Jim Crow?
My examination of Robert E. Lee has posed many of these same questions. He raised his hand against the United States he had sworn to defend, and there is no other word for that but treason (Lee was indicted on a charge of treason but never brought to trial). He fought with maddening skill during the Civil War in defense of a Confederacy openly devoted to the perpetuation of slavery. By some accounts, he even whipped an enslaved person who attempted to run away. And he became the apex of the “Lost Cause” mythology, which treated him as the peerless Southern cavalier and the ultimate vindication of white supremacy.
But then other realities intrude. If by “cavalier” Lee was supposed to be a plantation aristocrat, Lee was certainly no cavalier. His branch of the famous Virginia Lees was a marginal one, and Lee himself was the product of an adverse childhood. (His feckless father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary fame, deserted him when he was only 6.) That left him possessed by thirsts for security, independence and perfection.
Lee is a study in contradictions. He frankly admitted that slavery was “a moral & political evil in any country” — but added mercilessly that it was really more of a problem for whites and made “the blacks … immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically.” He urged emancipation on the Confederacy’s leadership, including the enlistment of emancipated enslaved people in the Confederacy’s armies — but the enlistment gambit came only in the war’s final months, as a last desperate gasp, when the Confederacy’s situation was already hopeless. In the postwar years, he discouraged the fostering of “Lost Cause” myths and assumed the presidency of a small college that he turned into a pilot for progressive education — and yet showed no sympathy for the former slaves all around him and made no effort to integrate the college’s student body. Like the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s described by W.G. Sebald, Lee was “always looking and looking away at the same time.”
Not even the Lee statues express a simple message. Confederate statuary always carried with it a truculent refusal to face up to the new racial and political world created by the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Ana Edwards, a community activist, hailed the statue’s removal as “representative of the fact that we’re sort of peeling back the layers of injustice that Black people and people of color have experienced when governed by white supremacist policies for so long.”
But some postwar Southerners also fastened onto Lee as an explanation of how the American Horatio Alger, winner-take-all success myth didn’t tell the full story of human behavior. Our dominant understanding of success and failure still defines the successful, just by virtue of being successful, as the good, and the losers as morally or spiritually deficient. To these Southerners, Lee and the Lee statues were a way of asserting that dignity — even in an unworthy cause — could survive in the face of defeat. As Thomas L. Connelly wrote in 1977 about Lee’s image in American history: “Lee emerged as the man of good character who experienced defeat. He was the image of anti-success, magnificent even when failing.” Lee served as the proof to some that failure was not worthlessness.
Confronting all these hurdles tempts anyone trying to write about Lee to ask why difficult biography should be attempted at all. Mainly, I think, because difficult biography forces on us a special exertion of caution, good sense and balance. We cannot wave away moral delinquencies and plead “context” — that Lee was simply “a man of his times” — since context-making is itself a slippery task and often turns the biographer into a co-conspirator in the subject’s failings. We need to confront those delinquencies head-on, rather than tiptoeing conveniently around them.
On the other hand, no biographer of the difficult subject is ever entitled to sneer. The great literary critic John Gardner laid down this rule, quoting the British novelist John Fowles: No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion. Without the will to judge, as Mr. Kershaw recognized in his biography of Hitler, any empathy is suspect and will be regarded that way. Without compassion, however — without a deep understanding of motives, times, places, losses, sorrows — the result will never rise above sanctimonious caricature.
Difficult biographies present a challenge not unlike the one experienced by lawyers who have to make convincing cases for repulsive clients. They make for difficult work, but you cannot leave them unwritten, any more than Plutarch or Suetonius did. Without the warning signs that difficult biography sets out, we could easily lapse into the comfortable persuasion that evil, wrong and injustice have no substance, and we would lose the sharpness of vision that tell us the difference between the path to human flourishing and the off-ramp to disaster.
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Allen C. Guelzo is the author of several books on American history, including the forthcoming “Robert E. Lee: A Life,” and is the senior research scholar at the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.