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The Novelist’s Lee

June 2024
3min read

Wherein the general moves against the author and occupies his book

I had not meant to write a novel about Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I had meant to write about an exiled Southerner living in New York City in love with a much younger and extremely mobile dancer. That Southerner would be writing a novel. His frustration at not being able to catch up with his dancer was such that he would begin to think about the Civil War. Perhaps something about his relationship with the dancer would remind him of Lee’s relationship with Jackson, the Lee who at the start of the second year of the war was little more than Jefferson Davis’s glorified press secretary and the Jackson who was dancing circles around three Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley.

Then three pieces of reading fell into place for me. From Bruce Cation’s history of the war I remembered mention being made of the peculiar psychic intimacy that Lee and Jackson shared during that time. It was as if Lee could read Jackson’s mind and back in the war office plot the younger leader’s surprise marches as Jackson was conducting them miles away. Working through Lee’s war correspondence, I discovered a letter in which Lee advised Jackson that “the blow must be sudden and heavy.” I remembered thinking that there was something whispered and private about those words (they were, of course, highly secret), almost forbidden. Then, reading through Douglas Freeman’s biography of Lee, I came across the following remark: “What he seemed he was, a wholly human gentleman …”

I am a novelist. I belong to a famously heterogeneous bunch, but I’ll venture to say there is one thing that 99 percent of us will swear to: Nothing is entirely of a piece, a wholly human anything. Men and women are not like blocks of wood, however fine the grain. Nor, for that matter, are they like blocks of man-shaped marble. They are characterized and animated by the contradictions they contain. The greater the man, a novelistic rule of thumb might be, the more intense the contradictions. Frequently in fiction these characterizing contradictions get dramatized as an attraction of opposites. We have only to think of Ishmael and Ahab, Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, Quentin Compson and Thomas Sutpen—that is, men of the mind and a certain sensibility versus men of the will. Lee was certainly the former, and the latter would be Stonewall Jackson. Together they made one man, not two. I subsumed the younger—and, I suppose, the mentally less complex—within the older and called my character Robert E. Lee.

Still the novelist, I wondered what would happen if I let Lee, after a fashion, “narrate” Stonewall Jackson, tell him what to do, as, of course, a commanding officer would, but also be, in some sense, his animating inner voice. Another piece of reading came back to me then, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’s thesis was that individual subjectivity, as we think of it today, is a relatively modern phenomenon. Not much longer than two millennia back, when a man “talked to himself,” it was not himself he talked to but, perhaps, a god. Stonewall Jackson (as I imagined him) was forever listening to God’s voice, seeking God’s approval. We know for a fact that before undertaking his great marches and battles, he prayed to God, alone in his tent. In my novel (in my Southerner’s novel within a novel), the voice that talked back to him with Jehovah-like authority but with Christlike compassion and love was that of Robert E. Lee. Lee, of course, in communing with Jackson was communing with that part of himself that he hid from public view but which occasionally broke into the open: the fanatical fighter and warrior, the “Southerner in flames,” who would rush to his death just as so many of Lee’s officers foolhardily rushed to theirs.

I saw Lee standing his horse at the Second Battle of the Wilderness, trying with the very force of his person to stem the tide that the onrushing Grant represented, and I thought: That was Stonewall Jackson’s job. And then I thought: It’s not just that with Jackson gone Lee is in a militarily less tenable position; no, with Jackson gone Lee is simply a lesser man.

Who was thinking whom? By now it was as if Lee and Jackson had made themselves psychically very intimate with me. My young dancer was gone, and except for a prologue, an epilogue, and a short section in between, so was my exiled Southern novelist. The novel was now theirs, the composite character as I imagined him, the Lee/Jackson. And while I imagined him, that South of the refined sensibility and that South of the fierce, almost messianic will were me.

I remembered from Freeman that during Lee’s tenure as president of Washington College, it had been hoped that he would write the history of his campaigns. Halfheartedly, Lee had started to gather materials; then he had stopped. He had a family not in the best of health, and he had an example to set, a fledgling college to run. I can imagine his reluctance to reenter the extraordinarily enlivening and horribly demoralizing events of that war.

I can imagine him, instead, standing beside the grave of his junior officer, his neighbor in this small hilly town of Lexington, Virginia. I can imagine him whispering the words of his loss. He was a deeply moving figure for me there, silently and, to the public eye, impassively communing with his younger, other self. He was like a father mourning his son’s death, but he was also an old man with a long and vivid memory mourning the loss of his youth, and in that sense he was all of us, a standing monument to man’s fate. But not made of marble, certainly not. To try to show how unmarblelike I thought he was, I sat down and picked up the pen that Lee would not and wrote The Unwritten Chronicles of Robert E. Lee.

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