Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters

Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters

by Elizabeth Brown Pryor


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“Pryor’s biography helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee – chiefly, that he was, somehow, ‘anti-slavery.’” – Ta-Nehisi Coates,

An “unorthodox, critical, and engaging biography” (Boston Globe) – Winner of The Lincoln Prize

Robert E. Lee is remembered by history as a tragic figure, stoic and brave but distant and enigmatic. Using dozens of previously unpublished letters as departure points, Pryor produces a stunning personal account of Lee's military ability, shedding new light on every aspect of the complex and contradictory general's life story. Explained for the first time in the context of the young United States's tumultuous societal developments, Lee's actions reveal a man forced to play a leading role in the formation of the nation at the cost of his private happiness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143113904
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/29/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 753,117
Product dimensions: 5.53(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elizabeth Brown Pryor (1951–2015) combined careers as an award-winning historian and a senior diplomat in the American Foreign Service. She was the author of the biography Clara Barton: Professional Angel, considered the authoritative work on the founder of the American Red Cross, and Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, which won the 2008 Lincoln Prize, the 2007 Jefferson Davis Award, the 2008 Richard B. Harwell Book Award, and the 2007 Richard S. Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginia Biography. Her final book, Six Encounters With Lincoln:  A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons, was published posthumously in February 2017.

What People are Saying About This

Fergus M. Bordewich

"Pryor has taken an icon and given us the soul of a complex man and his turbulent age, and has delivered it wrapped in lithe and graceful prose that many novelists might envy. She has, in short, written a masterpiece."--(Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement.)

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Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Outstanding achievement by Author Elizabeth Brown Pryor in conveying a precise and comprehensive portrait of the remarkable life of General Robert E Lee. His life and times are brought to life with compassion and empathy. This is a must read for those looking for a clear insight of mid nineteenth century American History.
ALincolnNut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
By the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee had become an iconic American figure, as much myth as mortal even before his death in 1870. Since then, few historians have attempted to dig very deeply into the 'marble man' Lee became in Southern memory. Instead, the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia is most often a legendary figure, rather than a human one, particularly in most histories of the Civil War era.Biography offers an opportunity to explore the real man behind the myth, and several have attempted a more realistic portrayal of Lee. Even these books still tend to struggle with the legendary Lee who is thought to embody all that was noble in the antebellum South. Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor has devised an ingenious way to get around these obstacles in "Reading the Man," using Lee's own words, preserved in the vast number of letters he wrote, to present his life story.Lee was a prolific correspondent throughout his adult life, including during the Civil War years, and hundreds of these private letters survive. Using the full text of certain letters -- most by Lee, but a few by others sent to him or referring to him -- at the start of each thematic chapter, she then offers a context of theses letters using Lee's other correspondence and other historical sources. The resulting portrait is fascinating, showing a man who was devoted to his family but who struggled with the demands of his military life and the strain it caused on those relationships. While the decision whether to fight for the Union or resign his army commission and volunteer for Virginia is well known, it is clear in Pryor's account that Lee struggled with issues of duty and honor throughout his lifetime, partially because of the negative influence of his father, "Light Horse" Harry Lee, who was less than honorable, and partially because he frequently found military service frustrating.Particularly interesting are the chapters on Lee's service in the Army Corps of Engineers and his tenure as commandant of West Point. Lee's first serious military experiences after graduating from West Point were to oversee construction of infrastructure to preserve the port of St. Louis from the destructive forces of the Mississippi River. By all accounts, Lee handled the assignment well, though the impact of his engineering background upon his Confederate command is unexplored.Another key assignment before the Civil War, Lee's command of West Point, is reevaluated by Pryor. Unlike other authors who imagine that Lee's years at the military academy were warm and mutually beneficial, Pryor describes a leader who was not particularly well-liked by the cadets because of his strict discipline standards and his perceived distant personality. Given the adoration that Lee's Confederate troops gave him, it is difficult to imagine that, a few years before, few West Point cadets seemed to care that little for him as superintendent.Lee emerges as less of a mystery in Pryor's portrait. Through his letters, he seems more approachable as matters of family life, household problems, and work frustrations are discussed and endured. He also seems less of an icon, appearing to be reticent -- even shy -- around other people, though possessing both a subtle wit and a fierce temper. He is also highly compassionate and usually thoughtful of others, demonstrating wisdom gained from experience and some internal reflection -- though less so about matters regarding the slavery issue.In the end, Pryor's book is a superb approach to the actual Robert E. Lee behind the mythical 'marble man.' Well researched and heavily documented, the narrative incorporates much information that had been overlooked or undiscovered. More than this, Pryor writes with a clear and engaging style that will be appreciated by historians and general audiences.
lfranco on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the best biographies on Lee. It delves into his family life, military career and his views on slavery and secession. Every chapters begins with a letter either written by him or his family and friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tim_in_Virginia_Beach More than 1 year ago
Robert E. Lee didn't write his own memoirs, much to most historian's regret. Books like this are the next best thing and this book provides an insight as if written by an eye witness.
EmileeB More than 1 year ago
So much of what Robert E. Lee did can be seen no matter what part of the South you live in. This work gives great insight into the mind of a fearless leader and informs the reader of certain character traits they probably were not aware of before. Excellent!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Robert E. Lee was against slavery and hated the Irish. He was a racist. Even though he was a great general he was a man who needed to prove himself by exeerting his ego.