Washington and Lee University

Lee the American


WHAT I have aimed at in this book is the portrayal of a soul. We live in an age of names and a new name has recently been invented—psychography. This means, I suppose, an art which is not psychology, because it deals with individuals, not general principles, and is not biography, because it swings clear of the formal sequence of chronological detail, and uses only those deeds and words and happenings that are spiritually significant.

New names are often attached to old things. This thing is as old as Plutarch, as old as the Bible, as old as the first man who reflected on his fellows and sketched them with one brief word that made others reflect. What a portrait painter was Tacitus, and Clarendon, and Saint-Simon. But the nineteenth century, with its scientific training, brought more method to the work, more patient curiosity, more desire to base its results on deep research, and delicate discrimination. Matthew Arnold's essay on Falkland is an English masterpiece in this kind. Lowell wrote A Great Public Character. Mr. Rothschild, in his Lincoln: Master of Men, has drawn a full-length with loving care. And there are others too numerous to mention. But the prince of all psychographers is incontestably Sainte-Beuve. He is usually spoken of as a literary critic. In pure literature he has some limitations. As what he himself called “a naturalist of souls”1 he has never been surpassed, or equaled, or even approached.

The art of painting souls has its difficulties. First, one would wish to be fair-minded, impartial, free from prejudice. This is, I think, impossible, and the impartial historian, or biographer,—that is, he who studies his subject in and for itself, without preconception or prepossession, without an instinctive disposition to misrepresent from one cause or another,—does not exist. There are simply those who think they are impartial and those who know they are not.

To begin with, there is the cruder element of political, or religious, or social partisanship, from which none of us is wholly free. Tacitus can see little good in a Cæsar. Clarendon finds the Devil's finger pushing Cromwell. Saint-Simon hates a parvenu. Mommsen has to justify the imperialism of Prussia in the imperialism of Rome. These are the extremes. Besid that the defects which are neither slurred nor palliated are touched in a very different spirit from that in which a lover of Cæsar would have touched them.

In our own war literature Henderson's Jackson is an excellent example of what I mean. There are few saner, more exact, judicial tempers than Henderson's. Not on any account would he deliberately have concealed or misrepresented any flaw or weakness in his hero. Yet, by some subtle, inexplicable alchemy, everything turns to Jackson's credit; and words and acts which might have been used by others only to make him repulsive and ridiculous serve in Henderson to make him heroic and lovable.

Finally, the psychographer has to contend with another humiliating difficulty, the indisposition to change his mind when it is once made up. You labor widely, through thousands of dull pages. Gradually your picture arranges itself in neat order and correct detail. You see your subject as you think it must finally stand. Then comes some little sentence in an out-of-the-way magazine, or some kindly correspondent reveals a flaw you could not have discovered, and large readjustment seems to be indicated. You are ready for it—oh, yes. You accept it, if true—oh, yes. But it is surprising, the amount of ingenuity you expend in convincing yourself that it is not true, that it may be explained, disputed, adapted. When you come to your senses, you laugh at yourself; but you are so ready to do the same thing again!

All these subjective difficulties beset the charming art of the psychographer; but the objective are no less, perhaps greater. Every portrait of a character must be based finally upon that character's own words and actions. As regards actions, it is obvious that we depend entirely upon report, and little study is needed to make it plain that a man's own report is unreliable and that of others much more so. The reliability, indeed, varies. Report at third or tenth hand by incompetent witnesses differs considerably in quality from that transmitted by a trained observer in direct contact. But this latter is difficult to obtain and at the very best must be used with caution. A man's eyes are the servants of his mind and all minds are biased to some degree. Therefore the mass of biographical anecdote and reminiscence has to be sifted and tested by numerous almost instinctive criteria before it can be profitably employed.

When it comes to a man's words, we are on surer ground; that is, to his own written words; for words reported by others belong in a quite different category. If we can consult a manuscript as it was actually penned, we have material which, so far as it goes, is indisputable and invaluable. Unfortunately this is in all cases difficult, in many impossible. For the most part, we are obliged to rely on a printed copy, and printed copies are very far from being verbal facsimiles. Even when we are guaranteed against willful omission or emendation on the part of editors, the danger of error is by no means eliminated. Printers are careless, proof-readers indifferent. No text of historical documents, made before the nineteenth century learned conscientiousness in such matters, is to be used with security, and few since. I do not suppose the most scrupulous historian will ever again consult the original records of the Civil War. Probably the printed copies are to be implicitly relied on. Yet they were made by many people and passed through many hands. Who knows?

Take one very trifling yet significant instance of slight verbal variation. Jones, Fitzhugh Lee, and Captain R. E. Lee all reprint the important letter in which Lee refers to the capture of Mason and Slidell, and they all print differently one little word which might have quite a bearing on Lee's instinctive mental attitude towards his old allegiance. Lee assures Mrs. Lee that the United States will not go to war. “Her (R.E.L.) The (Jones) Our (F. Lee) rulers are not entirely mad.” Which did Lee write? None of the three quite commends itself, though Captain Lee's text is probably correct. But the point is that each editor prints his own version with placid indifference and not a hint that there is the slightest doubt about the matter. A trivial thing, you say. So it is. But an inch on a man's character is sometimes prodigious, and it is precisely in the trivial things that the danger lies. Here is another case of the mere variation of a letter. In his eulogy of Lee, B. H. Hill apparently called him “a man without guile,” and so it stands in some texts; a harmless compliment, surely. But other proof-readers have it “a man without guilt,” and this calls down upon Hill a page of abuse from Rhett in the Southern Magazine for daring to place Lee on a level with Christ.

If we cannot trust a man's own written words, what are we to do about words attributed to him by others? Generally speaking, we can have no confidence in them whatsoever. If you have tried at a half-hour's interval to recall the exact form of some speech that has been made to you, you know the difficulty and how apt you and other auditors are to differ. Yet in these matters of character study the exact form is sometimes all-important. Who can suppose that even trained and conscientious observers like Boswell or the Goncourts really get a stenographical report of the long conversations which they write down so industriously three or four hours after hearing them? And if not they, who? Can any one doubt that these reporters unconsciously arrange, adapt, and supply words and phrases which they know to be generally characteristic of the man, but which may never have been uttered in that connection and which the speaker would disown? An admirer declared that the Goncourt conversations “sweated authenticity.” But Renan at least energetically disavowed his share in them.

The ancient historians, Livy, Tacitus, even Thucydides, have been abused and ridiculed for inventing the speeches of great historical characters. But I am not at all sure that a thinker and an artist, knowing the man he dealt with, and the occasion, and the substance of the speech, would not produce something more humanly accurate and characteristic than comes from many a stenographic reporter to-day.

Sainte-Beuve has some excellent sentences on this matter of reported speech. “I must, in my turn, point out, that from such conversations, reported and repeated at leisure, even when they are reproduced with the utmost sincerity, we can accept only the significant touch and the general drift. As regards the details, inexactitude and guesswork always enter in more or less. And, moreover, memory is a great adapter and arranger (la mémoire aussi est une arrangeuse).”3

In estimating the value of words attributed to a historical character, one rule, well known to the critics of classical texts, is often useful; viz., that among several doubtful readings, the least intelligible, the least smoothly conventional, is the most likely to be correct. For example, I feel sure that Lee's eulogy on Stuart, “He never brought me a piece of false information,” reads exactly as it was spoken; for no “arranging” memory would have been satisfied with a turn of phrase so baldly inadequate.

Even when there is a reasonable assurance that we have the actual language used, how seldom do we get all the meaning a speaker intended to convey. Words by themselves are so little. The emphasis is so much. The smile or gesture is so much. No reporter succeeds in giving us these; yet how far they go in enhancing or diminishing the bare significance of speech.

Nevertheless, we will assume that we start from an exact knowledge of a man's words and actions. Still, we are only on the threshold, only lifting the latch of the door which leads to the secret of his character. We must get back of word and action to the motive beneath. The deeper one's study, the wider one's experience, the less confidence one has that this can be done. We may know historical facts to be true, as we know facts in common life to be true. Motives are generally unknown,” said Dr. Johnson.4 Different actions so often spring from the same motive and the same action from different motives. Ambition does the deeds of loving kindness and haughtiness of humility. Greed sometimes squanders and charity pinches itself and those it loves. Again and again a man fails to understand his own motives, even when he tries to disentangle them, errs ludicrously in making an honest attempt to explain them in warm words or in cold print. How, then, can we ever be confident of penetrating the motives of those who lived years ago, with different habits of speech, different habits of thought, viewing them in a mirror so uncertain as we have seen the records of the past to be?

Perhaps I may be permitted another illustration from the subject which has most recently brought all these questions to my mind. General Porter, describing Lee's surrender, says that afterwards, as the general stood on the porch of the McLean house waiting for his horse, he struck his hands together. There can be no question about the fact here. So good an observer as Porter has told us only what actually took place. I have followed Porter further in the assumption that the motive for this gesture was an immense despair. But neither Porter nor I know anything about it, and an uncomfortable suspicion besets me that, after all, Lee may have been only calling for his horse.

But even with a sure knowledge of fact and an unfailing insight into motive, the exact portrayer of character would still have a wide, uncharted course to travel. For he must finally resort to general terms. His subject is honest, generous, frank. Well, an honest man is one who does nothing that is not honest. A generous man does only what is generous. A frank man always speaks the truth. In other words, all traits of character are merely generalizations from habitual action and motive; and on a foundation in itself utterly unstable we must rear an edifice as shifting and fleeting and uncertain as the clouds of heaven. When Macaulay says of Laud, “his understanding was narrow . . . he was by nature rash, irritable, quick to feel for his own dignity, slow to sympathize with the sufferings of others,”5 we get a vivid impression which stays with us, but which may have been wholly borne out by the facts, or mainly, or very insufficiently. When Saint-Simon says of La Feuillade, “I don't think there was ever a madder head or a man more radically dishonest to the very marrow of his bones,”6 we feel that we are beholding a fellow creature damned beyond the limit of human desert. And the weakness of all such soul portrayal is admirably shown in one of Clarendon's most striking specimens of it. “He quickly lost the character of a bold, stout, magnanimous man, which he had been long reputed to be in worse times; and, in his most prosperous season, fell under the reproach of being a man of big looks, and of a mean and abject spirit.”7 We see suggested here how slight is the basis of all our moral generalizations and how uncertain is the interpretation of motives on which even that slight basis rests. “There is,” says Sainte-Beuve, “a degree”—and perhaps we may conclude a very limited degree—“of intimacy beyond which it is not given to man to advance in the study of his fellow man! There are secrets which the great Anatomist of heart keeps only for himself.”8 May we not establish one final test of a thorough knowledge of character; that is, the prediction of action under given circumstances? But who of us dares often predict with any certainty the action of others, or even his own?

If, then, the portrayal of character is so difficult—not to say impossible—why persist in it? First, because, largely on account of this very difficulty, it is the most fascinating of human pursuits. The naturalist spends long days or months of patient toil in observing the habits of a bird or an insect. Is not the human soul of more value than many insects? Also, with birds and insects the naturalist rarely attempts to go beyond the species or concern himself with the individual. With humanity the individual is endless in variety, inexhaustible in interest. What a delight, after going through pages that are irrelevant and for one's purpose unprofitable, to find some sentence that, in Sainte-Beuve's phrase, reveals “bare soul “! It is as if one had groped for hours in darkness and then suddenly opened a little window into bright heaven. Such, for example, is the careless touch in Cavour's letters, which sums up a whole glorious career, and stamps the eternal difference between the founders of modem Italy and modem Germany: “Je suis fils de la liberté et c'est à elle que je dois tout ce que je suis.”9 Some writers, as Pepys, are studded thick with these jewels of self-revelation. But perhaps the pleasure of finding them is even greater when they are comparatively rare, as with Lee; and I shall not soon forget my delight in the reported phrase, “It is well that war is so terrible, or else we might grow too fond of it,” and the written one, “She is like her papa—always wanting something.”

Moreover, the art of character study is recommendable not only for its charm, but for its utility. The knowledge of birds and insects is of merely indirect advantage to us. The knowledge of men and women, obscure, imperfect, incomplete as it necessarily is, profits us from the cradle to the grave. The infant, hardly able to speak, learns whom it can wheedle, and whom not. The child, but little older, knows very well that its parent forgives a fault or grants a privilege more readily after dinner than before. All of us always build and unbuild the character of others, observe, divine, detect, use instinctively every little indication of face, of tone, of gesture. We often blunder, often go far astray. The wisest are those who recognize most clearly their utter lack of exact knowledge and most frequently exclaim,—

        Oh, that there were an art
To read the mind's character in the face.

Yet they persist, because they must. And all men and women are, whether they know it or not, if I may say so, mutual psychographers.

For this purpose of mutual self-knowledge some may question whether it is essential or desirable to choose prominent figures rather than the man in the street. They say, it is not the great men, who are remote and above us, who help us to understand ourselves, but those who have lived a little petty life of trifles such as we live.

To begin with, the man in the street is less accessible. He does not leave letters and memoirs. His speech and actions are not jealously observed and faithfully recorded. We may study him for our own profit, daily, as we can. But the permanent portrait painter must look further afield for the material with which to work.

Then, men who have lived large lives and filled great places bring more of their humanity into action. A violin that is played on in only one small portion of one string yields us far less than one that is swept broadly from end to end of its entire compass. A man who for forty years has carried the wide world's burdens on his shoulders may not have finer natural faculties than you or I, but at least he has brought every faculty into use with all the might he has in him.

In other words, the main advantage of studying great men comes not because they are great, but because they are not great. Carlyle wished to exalt a few choice heroes and let the rest of humanity bow down to them. The opposite seems to me the true course, to insist that all men may be heroes if they will. What strikes me most in men who have achieved greatly is not their difference from others but their resemblance to them. They are in all points tempted as we are, laugh as we, weep as we, suffer as we, fail as we, and for the most part are astonished at triumphing as much as we should be. And do not urge that this is the old theory of “no man a hero to his valet,” and that in applying it generally I am only displaying a most valet-like spirit. I hope not. For it is not my aim to debase them, but to exalt us. When it is shown that great personages, who left a name behind them, had only qualities like ours, often defects like ours, and that they made their greatness perhaps by a happy balance of qualities or by an extreme development of some particular quality, perhaps even a little by the kindliness of fortune, it seems to me that we should be led to emphasize rather what we may be than what they were not. If Lee had something of my weakness, may I not have better hope of attaining something of Lee's nobleness?

It must be confessed that such a method of studying heroic characters depends for its success largely upon the spirit in which it is carried on. It may easily degenerate into the trivial, the gossiping, or even the scandalous. The distinction between what is humanly significant and mere gossip is not always simple. Even mere gossip may be immensely amusing, but the psychographer is concerned only with that which has a bearing upon character. Thus, if my neighbor's wife falls downstairs and breaks a leg, I may be civilly sympathetic, but I shall feel no scientific interest. But if she runs away with the coachman, the psychological problem attracts my curiosity at once. To take a historical instance. Mrs. Chesnut, in her invaluable Diary, tells a long story of a colored waiter who was convulsed by the blank baldness of Joe Johnston. This is entertaining, but it shows me nothing of Johnston's character. On the other hand, she remarks, in one brief sentence, that Johnston spent an afternoon enlarging to her and a friend on Lee's and Jackson's mistakes. Here we have a revelation.

Still, the border line between psychography and gossip is easy to cross, especially when the psychographer is unkindly. Indeed, the art, to have its richest usefulness, should be based upon love. Our observer of birds and insects almost always loves them with a personal tenderness. Much more, I think, will the observer of men gain by loving them. To be sure, there have been great observers who seem to have hated. But the very wisest, richest, deepest—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Cervantes—have always loved; sometimes laughed a little, teased a little, mocked a little, but loved always. Humanity has been to them a strange thing, a pitiable thing, sometimes a deplorable thing; but even in its lowest vice and degradation, as in its height and grandeur, lovable, because they themselves were human.

It is in this point of love that Sainte-Beuve is weakest. He prided himself on understanding everything (le père Beuve avec son touchant désir de tout comprendre) and I think a little on loving nothing. Therefore his very subtlest work is sometimes bitter, and bitterness is no help to psychography or to anything else.

It is an advantage to have a subject like Lee that one cannot help loving. I say, cannot help. The language of some of his adorers tends at first to breed a feeling contrary to love. Persist and make your way through this and you will find a human being as lovable as any that ever lived. At least I have. I have loved him, and I may say that his influence upon my own life, though I came to him late, has been as deep and as inspiring as any I have ever known. If I convey but a little of that influence to others who will feel it as I have, I shall be more than satisfied.


1. Portraits Littéraires, vol. III, p. 546.

2. Sainte-Beuve gives no authority for this quotation from Macaulay and I have not been able to trace it exactly. Mr. Norris E. Pierson and other correspondents have pointed out to me passages somewhat similar in the essay on “History.” “Those are the best pictures and the best histories which exhibit such parts of the truth as most nearly produce the effect of the whole” (paragraph 16); and again, “Some events must be represented on a large scale, others diminished; the great majority will be lost in the dimness of the horizon; and a general idea of the joint effect will be given by a few slight touches” (paragraph 17). But Sainte-Beuve appears to be quoting literally, and if he is paraphrasing these passages in form, he really betrays them in sense. See Sainte-Beuve, Premier Lundis, vol. III, p. 163.

3. Nouveaux Lundis, vol. XIII, p. 78.

4. Boswell, vol. I, p. 449 (American ed. 1807).

5. History of England (Harper's ed., 1853), vol. I, p. 67.

6. Mémoires (éd. Hachette, 1884), vol. III, p. 326.

7. The History of the Rebellion (American ed., 1827), vol. I, p. 114.

8. Causeries du Lundi, vol. IX, p. 229.

9. Volume IV, p. 25.

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