Robert E. Lee: A Biography

Article excerpt

Robert E. Lee: A Biography. By EMORY M. THOMAS. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. 472 pp. $30.00. EMORY M. THOMAS's Robert E. Lee has received much acclaim since its appearance last year and deservedly so, especially considering the handicap that such a biography must encounter. Who would wish to invite comparison with Douglas Southall Freeman, author of the famous fourvolume, Pulitzer Prize-winning work? Thomas bears the burden of an "anxiety of influence," to borrow Harold Bloom's phrase, with aplomb and produces a volume that is economical in length, commonsensical, moving, and judicious.

Sagely, Thomas rejects the image of Marse Robert as saint and repudiates the almost gleeful destructiveness of attorney Alan T. Nolan's Lee Considered (Chapel Hill and London, 1991). Instead, Thomas offers a portrait of a Lee more at home on the battlefield or distant fort in Indian territory than at the hearthside of his large family. We discover a flawed hero with whom we easily sympathize. First, there is Thomas's portrayal of the son whose once sizable patrimony had long since vanished but whose grace and intelligence set him above his comrades as a West Point cadet and young officer. Then the author reveals both a long-suffering husband with an arthritic, demanding wife and a troubled parent of children unable to reach their father's heights. The conscientious breadwinner who had to depend in part on his wife's wealth comes next. Thomas does not neglect Lee as the frustrated professional who knew he was worth more to his country than his slow prewar advancement and meager salaries signified. Finally, we have in these pages the defeated warrior with a weakened heart, whose best exertions of spirit and command were still not good enough to save the cause he served.

Thomas handsomely renders this manysided and very human Lee. Some may object that the domestic Lee is given such prominence that his military life becomes too secondary. But, no amateur about martial affairs, Thomas recognized that these matters have been well treated elsewhere. …