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Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters Hardcover – May 3, 2007

3.7 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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Robert E. Lee remains one of the most revered figures in U.S. history. For southerners he remains the personifiation of the Lost Cause, a military genius and courtly aristocrat whose nobility of spirit was worthy of the intense devotion he elicited from his men and admirers. Even Americans who despised the cause for which Lee fought express admiration for his military acumen, compassion, and kindness. But both in his personal and public life, Lee was more complicated than the iconic image suggests. Historian Pryor uses a compilation of Lee's private correspondence, adding her own commentaries, to present a more balanced but scrupulously fair portrait. There are surprises here. As commandant at West Point, Lee was far from beloved by cadets, who resented his authoritarian ways. Although Lee had his doubts about the utility of slavery as an institution, his views on race relations were hardly enlightened Still, his letters and Pryor's analysis reinforce our appreciation of Lee's best qualities, including his personal warmth, devotion to friends and family, and sense of fairness. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


“ An unorthodox, critical, and engaging biography [that] impressively captures Lee’s character and personality.”
The Boston Globe

“ Pryor moves onto important historical and interpretive terrain with a far more discerning and critical eye than most of her scholarly or popular predecessors.”
The New Republic --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (May 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670038296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670038299
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #862,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Matthew Penrod on July 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I have been a park ranger at Arlington House, The Robert E. Memorial for 17 years now and I can honestly say that I have read at least five biographies, assessments, evaluations or interpretations of Robert E. Lee for each of those years. I am certain that when all the books and articles are added together they number close to a hundred. It's important that I do that. It's my job and my responsibility to have as comprehensive an understanding of Robert E. Lee's life as is possible so that I can honestly and accurately convey it to the people who visit and the students who partake in our education programs. But with all of these books and articles there is a certain consistency, not with interpretation but with information. It is safe to say that since Douglas Southall Freeman wrote his landmark, Pulitzer Prize winning four volume biography in the 1930's the assumption has been that there is nothing new that can be found out about Lee. Freeman's work was so exhaustive, seemingly leaving no stone or document unturned, that, it seems, every biographer of Lee since then has taken the approach that no new research was needed or possible. Instead, it became the fashion for biographers and other historians to simply take what Freeman researched and interpret it in whatever way they wanted. Thomas Connelly chose to psychoanalyze Lee in a groundbreaking and exceptionally flawed work, The Marble Man while Alan Nolan chose a lawyerly approach, constructing the case against Robert E. Lee in his book, Lee Considered, as if Lee had never been considered before. And there have been others, many quite reverential but the problem with all of them is that they've all used the same information. Writing about Lee ceased being about scholarship and instead became bickering op ed pieces.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having read a couple of reviews in the "main stream" print media that appeared to celebrate this book's exposure of Robert E. Lee's true sentiments about slavery (e.g., the Philadelphia Inquirer's review focused ad nauseum on the most negative report of Lee's ordered whipping of a captured runaway slave), I relunctantly bought this book (from Amazon, of course), fearful that this would prove to be yet another exercise in political correction by a less-than-objective historian.

Reading it, however, revealed something altogether different -- Lee was a man of his times (high society in the antbellum south, 19th Century) and also a real and very moral man, who focused more on the practical than the theoretical.

That is not to say that the author, Elizabeth Pryor Brown, sought to try prove that Robert E. Lee wasn't the icon that he is held to be, even to this day, in many parts and in many hearts of the South. She dramatized the presence of a whipping post for errant slaves, with little proof that it was ever used. But as is often the case with historians who delve deeply into their subjects, her heart was touched the humanity, grace and character of Lee, through a thorough and scintillating read of private letters that had been locked away in a bank vault for more than a century.

Things I learned in the book: He was a mega-flirt, but never unfaithful to or threatened by his strong-willed, secure and relatively independent wife. He loved the company of others, particularly his fellow soldiers and officers. None of three daughters ever married. He was confident yet humble,loved his family, and had a tireless devotion to duty, both an an engineer and a soldier.
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Format: Hardcover
For those who wish to have a good look at the life of Robert E. Lee in one volume, this is the book to use as a basic biography and guide. Author Elizabeth Brown Pryor has taken letters written by Lee as the springboard for each of the chapters of the book, corresponding with the chapters in his life. This gives the reader a chance to read and sense the tone of the celebrated General, in his own words. Surely, this was not an easy task since there are about 10,000 known letters of Robert E. Lee scattered hither and yon. To find, read and cull the best of these must have been both Herculean and painstaking. One suspects it has also been a labor of love.

Those with the sketchiest knowledge of Lee will remember that his father was a Revolutionary War era hero, that he had an almost unparalleled record as a West Point cadet, that he married into the Custis and therefore Washington family, making him not only one of the First Families of Virginia but also of the First Family of America. Of course best known is Lee's choice to side with state and kindred during the Civil War and the resultant verve and disappointment on the field of battle.

In this 200th birthday anniversary year, Pryor fleshes out these facts with a nuanced portrait of a complex man whose personal and professional life are not as easily summarized as one might suppose. Dealing with those who came before her who served as Lee's uncritical biographers, Pryor demythologizes Lee in a respectful way, allowing him to be not only three dimensional but also multifaceted. She also gives an outstanding précis of aspects of the Lee hagiography and misconceptions that have persisted through repetition. It would be correct to call Pryor's approach even-handed.
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