Editorial: Fleshing out the cartoons

Quite a few intriguing articles about the general have crossed my threshold, and I've been passing them on to you almost as soon as they come in

I've been reading a lot about Robert E. Lee lately. Quite a few intriguing articles about the general have crossed my threshold, and I've been passing them on to you almost as soon as they come in. Trust me, not every issue will have a piece about Lee, but for now, I'm taking a sort of "smoke 'em if you've got 'em" policy toward especially good articles that reflect fresh thinking, and we've had a particularly fine run of Lee articles.

This issue has two articles specifically about "Marse Robert," and one about George Pickett that also touches importantly on the sort of commander, the sort of person, Lee was. This last bit--what Lee was like as a person--is something that I've been trying to understand for years. Some great books have furthered our knowledge of him--I especially appreciate Emory Thomas's Robert E. Lee: A Biography, published by W.W. Norton in 1995. In the final analysis, though, Lee still escapes me. My view of him is something of a Picasso portrait that shows several perspectives at once but still falls short of capturing the whole.

Granted, it's hard enough to really know even the people we live, work, and play with, let alone people who lived more than 100 years ago. The intangible aspects of human beings don't lend themselves to dissection or categorization. Still, you do get to know a person much better when you are around him or her over an extended period. You become attuned to non-verbal expressions--tones of voice, eye movements, facial expressions, body movements, gestures, laughs, and more. And from these, you gain a knowledge that enlightens and informs your understanding of the person's words and actions. Without this full context of verbal and non-verbal elements, we can know someone only as a caricature.

That's exactly what history (in this sense a glorified word for "death") does to people--turns them into caricatures. I was watching a documentary on the Civil War one night, and a photograph of Sherman appeared on the screen. A voice actor was reading a letter written by Sherman, and doing a fine job of it, but it really took me aback. I had never thought about how Sherman might have sounded, and when I heard his "voice," it caused me to see him a bit differently. Without the real Sherman for comparison, I can not say whether the actor's interpretation was right or wrong, but the experience reminded me of the way animated cartoons are produced, with real people's voices giving personality to two-dimensional visual characters. Much as the documentary's Sherman was a sort of cartoon, my Lee is a cartoon Lee. The cartoon may be very lifelike in certain ways, but it is still just a cartoon, a flickering two-dimensional projection.

Ironically, we, with our cartoon Lees, in some ways know more about the general than did the people who knew him in life. A large part of historians' work is to gather as many diverse source materials as possible, cull what is meaningful, and synthesize the findings. Over time, this process yields an increasingly comprehensive view of the subject, a sort of bird's-eye view that was never available to the subject's contemporaries. Probably no one who knew Lee knew as much about him as historians do today. After the synthesis of findings, however, comes the reason why historians rake in the big bucks (Ha!): interpretation. In the case of Lee, it is in this phase that knowing about him but not knowing him becomes a problem.

I suppose that the best historians are those who resist the temptation to presume knowledge where there is only speculation, who refuse to flesh out the "cartoons" of historical people with imagination rather than truth. As Thomas's aforementioned book shows, there is much available to give us hints of what Lee was like, of what motivated and swayed him, of his strengths and weaknesses, of what he really thought. It may not be enough to satisfy our thirst for real understanding, but, in the end, it's the best we can hope for. And the thirst is the part that keeps history honest.

James P. Kushlan, Editor, Columbiad


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