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Unintentionally funny story of Lee's feet.
by longboarder4 on March 19, 2009The Penguin Lives series purports itself to be "A beautifully designed, innovative series of biographies pairing celebrated writers with famous individuals who have shaped our thinking." Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse. Thomas Keneally on Abraham Lincoln. And, unfortunately, Roy Blount, Jr. on Robert E. Lee. I'm wondering if Penguin assigned the biographies or if the writers picked their topics--I'm looking to place the blame here.
Blount's bio of Lee is rambling (strange for a bio of less than 200 pages) and at times pointless. Its as if the task of distilling this giant of American history down to a couple hundred pages was so daunting that Blount just couldn't get his arms around it. He wades into Lee's life, seems to get hopelessly lost, realizes he's bumping into the space constraints of the series, and kills the man off. That's the good part.
Then, he adds a couple of appendices. The first is called "Speculation" in which he psychologizes (badly and amateurishly) about Lee, quoting from a text on the psychology of gifted children and from contemporary letters regarding the erotic view of feet in the 19th century. It seems it all boils down to Lee's small feet, or to his mother's feet, or to women's feet in general, not sure and neither is Blount. Consider this passage: "Elvis (Presley) and his mother made a great deal over each other's feet, calling them 'sooties.' Did Robert (E. Lee) and his mother? We don't know. (P.180)" And we don't even know what character traits or flaws or strengths that Blount is ascribing to the small foot issue (apparently Lee liked to have his kids massage his feet in the evening--which explains I suppose his decision to send Pickett against the center of the Union line on the third day at Gettysburg.) Blount spends the better part of a page speculating on whether Robert Duvall will make a good Lee in an upcoming TV show. I guess it all lacks focus and that's what bothers me most--a time waster. I think Blount wanted to say something about Lee, something new maybe, something important maybe, but he never figured out what it was, so he fell upon Lee's small feet and Elvis's mother. Fortunately, I bought the book used.
The second appendix is on Lee's sense of humor. A great deal of it is spent trying to explain a remark Lee made to some cronies regarding "pussyism." Roy, as a humorist, should know, if you gotta explain it, it ain't funny. This section does, however, contain an interesting anecdote about a Lee letter to a friend that for while was taken as a confession of the murder of a Canadian lighthouse keeper, but was, in fact a joke on Lee's part about the killing of a snake.
The third appendix is on Lee's views on slavery. He was apparently a reluctant slaveholder, receiving all of his chattel through inheritance. Blount sheds nothing new on this topic.
If I go on any longer, I will have taken more space to decry this biography than the actual biography takes to present the life of Lee. I am hoping that some of the other "celeberated writers" manage better with their subjects.
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