Beyond All That Changes: The Unchanging Lee

Posted: Jan 16, 2014 12:01 AM
Beyond All That Changes: The Unchanging Lee

Dear Alert Reader,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your email informing me that a Carol Kerr, who is identified as a spokesperson for the Army War College, says the school may remove the portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that now adorn a third-floor hallway.

Your astonishment is all too understandable; erasing history to appease today's politically correct attitudes is an exercise better left to totalitarian societies. They have so much more practice at it. No edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, for example, was complete until all traces of the old Bolsheviks who'd been purged by the Party had been removed. And so they were airbrushed out of official history.

George Orwell caught the spirit of the thing by having poor Winston Smith in "1984" work for the Ministry of Truth, where his days were spent expurgating the truth from official records.

Thank you for your suggestion that I write a well-deserved response to that kind of historical revisionism, which is as un-American as it is untruthful. Allow me to beg off for now, and hope that the blue and gray will remain united in the U.S. Army without anyone's having to point out what a folly it would be to set us warring against each other again. In the style of General Lee himself after The War, a stoic silence might be best. For now.

Let's wait and see what the pickets report after they've reconnoitered these politically correct lines before dashing off to battle. Some problems solve themselves, given a little patience and perspective, and enough time for cooler heads to prevail.

To quote a letter that the General, eloquent as ever, wrote to a former Confederate soldier once hostilities were concluded and the nation was one again: "This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony."

In that spirit, let us hold our rhetorical fire till this fleeting embarrassment fades from the news, and even the most impassioned among us remember that we're all Americans now.

It is my great privilege to spend one night a year poring over various biographies of the general in order to put together our annual Lee page here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. To dwell on his life even once a year leaves one with a renewed sense of peace, the way classical tragedy elevates and reconciles. This annual exercise is also a reminder that there was once such a thing as a gentleman -- and honor.

E Pluribus Unum,

Your Fellow American


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