Saturday, June 25, 2011

Americans and the past - Robert E. Lee: Reading the Man

I was going to write a book review of "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Lee" by Elizabeth Pryor - but found that 'William Vallante' at had said everything I wanted to say:

"There is indeed a certain childish willfulness in the American mind that insists on chastising the people of the past for not being like them, or else pretending that they were. Which is a certain way NOT to learn anything from history." ---Dr. Clyde Wilson

"Put it this way - if you are the type of person Dr. Wilson is describing, you're going to love this book! If not, you'll be wishing you had paid for it in Confederate bills instead of U.S. dollars.

The book itself contains roughly 175 pages of footnotes, bibliography and index. There are 50 pages of actual letters, some of which have already been published and others of which are not even by Lee, but by other people. If you're planning on seeing 500 pages of newly discovered letters, forget it. The fewer than 50 pages of new letters by Lee himself will leave you grossly disappointed. Finally, we have 425 pages of Ms. Pryor's perseverative and monotonous interpretations of those letters, which I suppose is the "meat" of the book.

According to Ms. Pryor, Lee did not release the Custis slaves immediately. The terms of the will specified "within 5 years" of the elder Custis' death (in 1857). Lee fulfilled that mandate by manumitting them in 1862. This apparently wasn't satisfactory enough for Ms. Pryor as she repeatedly drones on about Lee's failure to understand how the slaves felt.

Ms. Pryor is also critical of Lee for expecting the slaves to actually work!? Oh horror! Oh horror!

Of course, there is the matter of several slaves being whipped by Lee, something which has never been conclusively proven. Like a second rate shyster, Ms. Brown does her best to drum up the case against him.

According to Ms. Pryor, Lee had no appreciation of other cultures and saw nothing worthwhile in the Mexican culture when he was there during the Mexican war. I'm wondering what Pryor expected Lee, an educated, well-to-do man from one of Virginia's first families, to say when he was in Mexico? "Gee! What lovely mud huts!?" I'm pretty sure that Mexico didn't have Grand Melia and Paradisus or any other resorts at that time, so I can't figure out what Ms. Pryor expected him to see in the place? I suppose to understand her reasoning, or her expectations, one would have to refer back to Dr. Wilson's quote above.

Also, according to Ms. Pryor, Lee had "poor cross cultural communications skills", a term apparently taken from today's lexicon of multicultural drivel. In this case she was referring to his "communication", or lack of it, with the Comanches. I ran this past a native American friend of mine and he almost fell over laughing. I'm not sure there were too many folks at the time who had good cross cultural communication skills with the Comanches of that era, as this particular group wasn't usually given to such things themselves. Would that it were possible to transport Ms. Pryor back in time to the 1850s and observe how her "skills" with the Comanches would fare? I would be taking bets on how long she kept her pretty blond hair.

In sum, this book, touted though it is by most "contemporary" historians, is one more example of the sham that has become what we used to call, "the field of history".

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