Review of John Drinkwater’s Robert E. Lee

Note: The following is taken from the January 1925 issue of The Sewanee Review (volume 33), pp. 122–23

ROBERT E. LEE. By John Drinkwater. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1923. Pp. 128.

The Civil War found one of its chief values in the revelation of character in the leaders, both North and South. To insure that their heroism, nobility, and self-sacrifice shall not be forgotten and their careers rightly understood is the legitimate aim of the poet. Memoirs innumerable have been published, many monographs, much history, but one can see, if he will take the trouble to do so, how the list of great men contracts as they are received into the domain of literature. The most interesting works at a given time are not always those most free from bias; but freedom from bias belongs to the highest art, and in this, possibly, English writers have an advantage over Americans who may think of writing about the characters and events of the War between the States.

There is always one name that is certain to be included on the artist’s list, and it is about this great soldier and even greater man that Mr. Drinkwater has written his play. Although it may seem that the secondary characters are the most realistic—Ray Warrenton, David Peel and Duff Penner, men whose like can readily be found in Virginia to-day—the character of Lee is finely drawn, with sympathy and sincerity. The first scene shows how, when the command of thearmies of the Union had been offered him, he chose deliberately the side which he, as a soldier, knew could not win, doing so because he believed this to be his duty in simple loyalty to his State. The remaining seven scenes portray a great character struggling in a great tragedy, sustaining with his strength of spirit an army worn out with victory in the field and defeat in every other phase of war—which is an economic business, after all. The play is not a closet drama, but must be seen to be best understood. In giving us such a play, “severely simple in structure” and written in the “plain style”, yet losing none of its elevation by that, Mr. Drinkwater has done more than add to his reputation: he has made us all feel grateful to him.