Paul Greenberg

Dear Countryman,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your reminder that Lee's Birthday is the 19th, though it is scarcely necessary in my case. I look forward to it every year, when I get to refresh my acquaintance with the General's memory. I am transported from the ever-changing present to the unchanging past -- from today's fluid superficiality to a contemplation of values that never change. Values like duty, which Lee called the sublimest word in the language.

There is a thrill of subversion to celebrating Robert E. Lee in this so-different time. It's like unveiling a Byzantine icon in some faceless museum of modern art. Remarkable thing, modernity. Especially its art, which can be the ideological equivalent of whiteout. It can take the blasphemous, the profane, the supposedly daring and disgusting, and convert it all into the utterly boring. How does it do that? Maybe it's the modern, now the postmodern, soon to be the post-postmodern, absence of continuity. If there's no shared past, no common standard, there's no way to desecrate it. The shocking becomes simply the meaningless.

It's no wonder that doing this annual Lee column has come to be a highlight of my year. For one day, the glitz and clatter of the unceasing 24/7 news cycle is shut out. I've spent more than one night into the early morning hours nursing a cup of coffee, fortified by a pile of Lee biographies and Civil War histories, thinking on the general, his life and character, and, most of all, about why he should still matter, why the old gentleman still speaks to us, not just in his words and deeds, but in his silences. They resound timeless, alone, grave yet the greatest comfort. No wonder they still draw us to him, like a deep river in a dry land.

It is a night-into-morning well and satisfyingly spent with General Lee before having to return to my day job -- dealing with the leaven of the news, not the dough. For that's my usual beat: politics, which is the study of mere power, the surface reflection and not the inner substance of events.

I inevitably hear from readers like yourself before and after that long night's journey to the dawn, and recognize someone who comes from the same country. Call it the South, or the Past, or Home, but it draws us together whatever our superficial differences. All it may take is a shared memory, a single word. In the South, that word is Lee. It echoes yet. And thrills anew. Like a band striking up Dixie. There is no reason to tell you why. You understand without needing an explanation. Naturally, it would be a Southerner, the Southerner of Southerners named Faulkner, who said it: Memory believes before knowing remembers.

Years ago, in a crowded dining room in Florence, where American tourists come and go speaking of Michelangelo, the babble was but background to my morning café au lait, and then I heard a familiar accent above all the others -- an immediately recognizable, absolutely unmistakable Charleston drawl. You couldn't miss it, and my spontaneous reaction, an inward exclamation, came of its own: A countryman! Which was also my immediate reaction to your message.

The South can be a complicated, convoluted place, but a single syllable -- Lee! -- makes all of us in these latitudes one, even disparate types like you, sir, and this

Inky Wretch


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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