Robert E. Lee, and Sister Aimee

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The reputations of few important Americans have fluctuated as widely as Robert E. Lee’s has. At the beginning of the 20th century, Lee was admired not just in the South, where he was a demigod, but in the North as well. He was seen not only as America’s greatest general but also as a humane Christian soldier who, after the war, helped reunify the country. He prayed for his enemies and insisted that hostilities not continue past his army’s surrender at Appomattox.

Decades later came the revisionists. Armchair strategists criticized Lee the soldier for incurring so many casualties in his victories as to bleed the South to death. In his private life he was portrayed as an overbearing patriarch who intimidated his daughters and abused his father-in-law’s slaves.

The latest addition to the Lee bookshelf is Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking, $29.95, 658 pages, illus.). The title is something of a gimmick; virtually all Lee biographers have made use of his dull family correspondence, and Ms. Pryor’s practice of opening every chapter with a verbatim Lee letter or two disrupts the narrative.

Yet, she has provided a thoughtful, balanced assessment of her enigmatic subject, and if she has not completely humanized him it is not from lack of trying. Ms. Prior writes with grace, focusing not on Lee’s battlefield exploits but on his personality.

Whether more than 600 pages are required to assess this personality might be questioned, for Lee was not a complicated person. At the core of his personality was a sense of duty. (After the war, when asked to bless an infant, Lee told the mother, “Teach him he must deny himself.”) For Lee, duty became a secular religion.

Like many authors, Ms. Pryor cannot explain exactly how the outgoing, sociable young Lee evolved into the Marble Man. He had few close male friends, and apparently he could relax completely only among his extended family. Lee was intensely religious, but his religion was less a comfort than a spur. He berated himself in family letters for his perceived sins and spiritual inadequacy.

Lee had little interest in politics and was tone deaf in matters relative to slavery. He disliked slavery as an institution, but he was not interested in doing anything about it. Ms. Pryor takes Lee to task for the two-year period just before the Civil War when Lee, on a leave of absence from the Army, served as executor of the estate of his late father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. The Custis will provided for the slaves at “Arlington” to be emancipated after a period of five years, but restoring the plantation to solvency with a restive work force proved impossible. In the author’s view, Lee’s direction of operations at Arlington was “insensitive to the slaves’ fears, longings, and attachments.”

But Lee did his duty, and to do so required a series of difficult decisions. His sense of duty led him to conclude in 1861 that his primary loyalty was to Virginia rather than the United States. Four years later the same sense of duty led him to defer to President Jefferson Davis’ disastrous insistence that Lee continue to defend the besieged Confederate capital of Richmond rather than resume some form of mobile warfare.

Historically, Lee’s main problem has been the myths that came to surround him in the postwar South. As Ms. Pryor writes, “The greatest honor we can give Lee is to admire him for who he actually was, rather than as an imaginary creature.” She concludes that “{bullet}uty and diligence … brought him neither success nor happiness.”

Ms. Pryor may not have discovered what made Lee tick, but she has humanized an icon in need of humanizing.

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There’s no shortage of books about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, including two autobiographies. Nonetheless, Matthew Avery Sutton has done such a thorough and engaging job with Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, $26.95, 378 pages, illus.) that the market should be satisfied for a while. His approach is not wholly biographical, but it explores the role of “Sister Aimee” in American life in the 1920s and 1930s, when, he claims, she “reshaped and redefined the old-time religion in the United States, in effect resurrecting Christian America.” Whether she “Christianized” America is an open question, but Mr. Sutton argues that the influence of evangelicals in American political life today reflects her efforts.

Sister Aimee, voted in a 1936 poll of California college women as second in national prominence only to Eleanor Roosevelt, evangelized with Hollywood-like pizzazz, and the book’s dust cover appropriately showcases the “Hollywood” hillside sign. Her “illustrated sermons” at her Los Angeles mega-temple didn’t always go exactly as planned — a macaw she enlisted to dramatize the Garden of Eden was hustled off the stage when it screamed, “Aw, go to hell” — but her audience loved the shows and queued up for tickets in the thousands.

Sister Aimee’s life didn’t go as planned either. Her mother was a sergeant in the Salvation Army, and young Aimee used to preach to her dolls, but she lost her early faith when confronted with evolution in high school science. Converted to Pentecostalism by Robert Semple, a charismatic Irish preacher, Aimee accompanied him on a self-appointed mission in China, only to be left a widow after a few months.

Upon her return to America she felt inspired to found the Foursquare Gospel church, which “focused on the nature of Christ’s character; he was savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming king.” She got people’s attention through faith healing and speaking in tongues, but soon she moved toward more mainstream, if flamboyant, Protestantism.

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