In his prime, Roy Blount Jr. declares, Robert E. Lee "may have been the most beautiful person in America, a sort of precursor-cross between England's Cary Grant and Virginia's Randolph Scott." Why, then, do most Americans today think of Lee if they do at all as a solemn, unsmiling figure in gray? Such an image comes to us, of course, largely from myriad photographs taken during the Civil War. Leave it to Blount, the renowned humorist, to show us not only the iconic Lee dubbed "The Marble Model" by his fellow cadets because he never received a demerit at West Point but also the flirtatious ladies' man who never outgrew his fondness for dancing, gossip and parties.
Those readers who seek information on Lee as a career Army officer and military tactician will not be disappointed here; one finds extended discussion of Lee's service in the Mexican War, as superintendent of West Point, and later as Confederate general. What distinguishes Blount's treatment, however, is the author's analysis of Lee and the race issue. The Virginian owned a handful of slaves and wrote that he considered "the blacks" to be "immeasurably better off" in the United States than in Africa. "God's will," he maintained, dictated that they be enslaved for their "instruction." As Blount points out, Lee's views on African Americans differed little from those of his contemporaries, North or South. For example, his battlefield nemesis, Ulysses S. Grant, wrote in his post-presidential memoirs that in order to bolster the Republican Party "it became necessary to enfranchise the negro, in all his ignorance." This outstanding volume is the latest entry in the Penguin Life series, which allows distinguished authors to select a person about whom they are curious and then write a short, synthetic account that will inform the general reader and the specialist alike. Blount's graceful narrative reflects the author's wide reading of and mature reflection on the standard biographies of Lee. The result is a miniature masterpiece. Dr. Thomas Appleton is professor of history and associate director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University.