Reading the Man by Elizabeth Brown Pryor is a quasi-biography of Robert E. Lee. It follows his life in a loosely chronological order largely through the letters he wrote. Each chapter opens with one or more of his letters or a letter of someone related to him and is followed by a biographical narrative by the author of the time or subject or particular character of Lee that the chapter covers. The book includes a trove of letters of Lee, stored in a bank by one of his daughters before she died, and only recently discovered. The letters give excellent insights into the character and person of Lee in his own words, although the author seems to go to great lengths to emphasize any flaws she sees and diminish any strengths. Pryor seems to focus on times of anger, depression and failure to paint Lee in the worst possible light but nonetheless his overall sterling character cannot help but shine through in his letters and Ms Pryor does note many of them. In fact, she clearly ends up admiring many of his character traits such as his dignity and diligence and his light-hearted gift for friendship among many others. Lee’s successes engineering career, military generalship, family relationships, tense relationships with some men, and deep affection for women (although always faithful and loyal to his wife) are explored in detail.
Pryor has justly been criticized for the section of the book dealing with the Civil War being weak as her command of the subject matter is not particularly strong and some of her interpretation of battles and the results of battles are questionable. This is particularly true where she tends to give undue criticisms of Lee’s generalship and limited credit for any of his successes.
Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume biography of Lee remains the best available biography and should be the standard read to learn about Lee. However, Reading the Man gives a unique perspective of the inner workings of the man through 45 years of his letters. As a student of Lee, and having read many books on his life, I found it a very interesting, if biased, view of the man, Robert E. Lee. If nothing else, read the excellent selection of letters contained in the book, many never seen before, and draw your own conclusions of Lee. Supplement your reading with Freeman’s biography or one of the more recent shorter, but still thorough, biographies of Lee such as Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda.