Those who rely on the mainstream media for their news will know all about the Iowa Caucus and Martin Luther King Day; both of which took place on Monday, January 19th. But they might not know that yesterday was also the 197th anniversary of the birth date of Robert E. Lee. Americans no longer expect the mainstream media to mention Robert E. Lee’s birthday because it is not a part of government defined culture. But those of us who think highly of General Lee are a steadfast group and, in our own ways, we paid tribute to this Southern icon whom we consider to be one of the finest men our country has produced.
Rarely does a year go by that a new biography of Lee doesn’t appear. 2003 saw the publication on the Penguin Lives Series edition; Robert E. Lee by Roy Blount, Jr. The Penguin Lives Series are condensed biographies, not written for scholars but for mass consumption. To make them more accessible to the general public, fiction writers rather than historians are often chosen to write these mini-biographies. Although these little books, usually 200 pages or less, have limitations, they provide an excellent source of information for those who have neither the time nor the inclination for more thorough research. Overall, Roy Blount has done a commendable job of investigating the life of Robert E. Lee, and I am impressed with his ability to condense so much information in order to meet the Penguin format.
But it is unfortunate that Blount employs the popular trend of resorting to "psychobabble" to explain General Lee. It doesn’t work. It not only demeans Lee, it also belittles Blount’s scholarship. Roy Blount states his purpose at the beginning: "What is so fine about Lee is that he is exempt from whatever sifter a given age may employ to sort out personality. It is too late for Freud now, but not for psychologizing." Apparently Blount isn’t aware that Freud’s contrived theories about complexes developed in childhood have been universally discredited and are now considered passé. So he blithely attributes an Oedipus Complex to Robert E. Lee: an abnormal attraction to his mother because his father was largely absent from his life.
Mr. Blount falls into the psychobabble trap again by attributing feelings of inferiority to Lee as a result of his small feet. For a man of five foot eleven, Lee’s feet were indeed small, size 4. Shoe sizes were the same as now and an adult male of Lee’s height would normally wear a shoe size between 9 and 11. But where is the evidence that Lee had feelings of inadequacy about the size of his feet? As proof, Blount offers the frequent references to socks in the General’s letters to his wife who knitted his socks and sent them to him at various battle sites. Blount states: "No one has ascribed any psychosexual significance to this socks fixation but it must be said that in Lee’s culture feet were highly eroticized."
Blount also quotes Alice Milleru2018s Drama of the Gifted Child: "A recent study found boys brought up in "mother-only households" to be disproportionately at risk for major depressive disorders." According to Blount, Lee was one of those children who grew up in "families who were socially isolated and felt themselves to be too little respected in their neighborhood. They therefore made special efforts to increase their prestige with their neighbors through conformity and outstanding achievements." In other words, Robert E. Lee was driven to achieve as a result of deeply rooted feelings of inadequacy.
But consider this 1831 painting of Robert E. Lee as a young Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. Does this look like a man who feels inadequate? To the contrary, we see a confident and handsome young officer who could have come right out of Central Casting. We can understand why ladies were drawn to him and why he commanded the respect of his soldiers. In fact, in every painting or picture of Lee, he always appears larger-than-life.
However, we live in a time when larger-than-life types must be reduced to life size, even if it takes psychobabble. And some of the psychobabble is simply ludicrous, as is this example of Roy Blount’s use of hidden meanings to interpret Lee’s actions. Again our author returns to Robert E. Lee’s childhood, this time for a psychological explanation of one of the most thoroughly analyzed and controversial skirmishes in the War Between the States: the Confederate attack on Cemetery Ridge, commonly known as "Pickett’s Charge." Follow this closely because Blount really strains for this fanciful diagnosis.
When Robert was a young boy, his father, Lighthorse Harry Lee, traveled to Baltimore to help defend a newspaper editor who was under attack from an enraged mob. In the ensuing fracas, Lee was beaten into insensibility by "a giant of a man named Mumma" who tried to cut off his nose. The mob left Harry for dead but he miraculously recovered and guardedly made his way back to his Virginia home. In what was certainly a traumatic experience, young Robert saw his blood-soaked and battered father stumbling toward the house. Harry was 58 at the time and never fully recovered from his injuries.
It would take a fertile imagination to transpose this painful childhood memory into an explanation of Lee’s fatal military decision at the battle of Gettysburg. But Blount presents a series of coincidences to support his theory. First: At the time of the Gettysburg conflict, Lee was about the same age as his father when he was savagely beaten in Baltimore. This fact must have weighed heavily on his thoughts. Second: The Union’s headquarters were located about a thousand yards from the Baltimore Pike. The word "Baltimore" surely brought back memories of his father’s tragedy. And third: Lee’s headquarters were about the same distance from the Mummasburg Road. How could Lee not be reminded of the man, Mumma, would had almost killed his father in Baltimore?
Our author suggests that these coincidences overpowered Lee’s reasoning. "In a kind of adolescent ecstasy" Robert E. Lee thought he could "resolve his Oedipal conflict" and restore his family name that had been tarnished by his father’s failed financial dealings. So, in a moment of reckless bravado, Lee impulsively ordered Pickett’s troops to charge directly into the Union line. But strategically placed Union artillery eventually overwhelmed the attacking Confederates and more than half of Pickett’s men were killed, wounded or captured.
Although Roy Blount, Jr. is noted primarily as a humorist, I have to think that he wants us to take his psychological theories seriously. But we cannot. They are absolutely too far-fetched. However, Blount’s biography of Lee fits well into our "anti-hero" era; i.e.: There are no great men. Those who excel are simply driven by something they lack, some shortcoming. This minimizing of exemplary men is a by-product of egalitarianism — to infer that some men are remarkable is insensitive because it implies that others may not be.
This photograph of Lee shows the handsome young Lieutenant in advanced age. Look at those eyes. A little sadder than those of the youthful officer we saw earlier but still the eyes of a leader. And again we are struck with Robert E Lee’s imposing demeanor. In the early 1930s, before psychobabble and egalitarianism, Douglas Southall Freeman said of General Lee: "There is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved." Freeman maintained that Lee’s character is easily understood by two elements: "simplicity and spirituality." To me, "simplicity and spirituality" ring true.