ELIZABETH BROWN PRYOR is the author of two books about the Civil War era, Clora Barton: Professional Angel, considered the definitive biography of the pioneering nurse, educator, and Red Cross organizer, and Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters. The latter has been praised as much for its insights into Lee, based on previously unexamined correspondence, as for its unusual organization. Each chapter opens with a long quoted letter, making the reader a partner in the process of discovering the man behind the words. Pryor, it turns out, has only been moonlighting as a historian. In her day job, she has been a highly decorated employee of the State Department with the kind of responsibilities-negotiating arms control treaties, for instance -that would keep most other people from fulfilling an ambitious scholarly agenda in their spare time. And yet her curriculum vitae reminds us that public service is not at all inconsistent with the life of the mind.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Let's see. You've been a historian for the National Park Service. You've written two important biographies of major Civil War figures, and you have also been a highly decorated civil servant and have been on the scene for some incredibly historic moments. But what would you call yourself-a historian, a biographer, a diplomat?
ELIZABETH BROWN PRYOR: I don't know if I could categorize myself as one thing. They have melded into each other. And they have been mutually reinforcing.
I am very proud of having been associated with the National Park Service, because they do a marvelous job overall, often under political pressures and resource pressures. The amount of research that goes into restoring historic sites and into the interpretation of them for large public audiences is extraordinary.
I was fortunate to start in the department of interpretation at the Park Service, where I learned how to analyze -not critique, which I think of sometimes as a failure of academic systems, but to analyze-to take a lot of material, sift through it, try to figure out what you think about its truth or what the significant thread is-and then present it effectively.
Later, I was living out real history, real-time history, in a lot of the jobs that I had. At the State Department, I had to move at the heart of a lot of very problematic issues. And that affected my interest to go back and write more history. All that see-it-live experience and the responsibilities I've had have given me more appreciation for the dilemmas that historical figures have been in. I was in Sarajevo at the time of the siege, and I felt a kindred spirit with General Lee when he was at Petersburg and places like that.
COLE: You said you differ with academics -that what you're interested in is analysis rather than critique.
PRYOR: It's very easy to critique things, to find the weak points or to assess small details to death and lose the larger vision. Critique is quite different from analysis. In my humble opinion, it's a lot easier. It's a kind of cheap, poor man's version of analysis. I think the American system of scholarly training relies too much on what other people have said, on training people to respond to what others say, and often to pick those points apart. It's not the same as original analysis. One of the things I've found in doing the book on Robert E. Lee was how little original research there had been. There are a lot of people who are doing what I call "retread history." They just talk about what the last person said and what the person said before them. And not only does it make it easy to repeat errors, it's not particularly stimulating. It's not particularly original.
COLE: I like how you put that, "retread history": talking about what the last person has written and then talking about what the last person before that has written and then moving further and further away from the actual subject, which is the original source material. …