Letter from the President
Revisionism a Dirty Word?
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
I've finished reading two splendid new books that came out earlier this year, Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters and my colleague Nelson D. Lankford's Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.
Pryor takes a new look at Lee, having used a remarkable Lee family collection acquired by the VHS and described in the last History Notes. Relying on a large body of recent scholarship, Lankford revisits the coming of the war. Of course, these are both familiar subjects to us all. Dozens if not hundreds of historians have examined them over the years. But the work of these authors is unique, and they remind me that history is not just reciting a chronology of accepted facts. How boring! History is a constantly changing interpretation of those facts. Revisionism has become a dirty word to some people, but I believe that all good history is revisionist history. Gifted historians don't just repeat what their predecessors have written. They're always looking at familiar subjects but from different angles to come up with new ways of describing the past. New collections acquired by institutions like the VHS can lead to new perspectives on events and people. It's not unlike a detective changing his analysis of a case based on newly uncovered evidence.
If you think about it, journalists writing for different newspapers look at the same event and produce quite different stories. Writing history is no different. No two historians looking at the same subject will bring it alive in exactly the same way. Each interpretation is unique. Each gives readers a different insight from that presented by previous writers on the subject.
In the case of these new books, the authors do not agree with what others have written about their subjects. But history is more interesting when historians do not entirely agree. If the definitive account had already been written about Lee or the war, there would not be a need for these two books or, for that matter, any future books on these subjects. But clearly authors, publishers, and most importantly, the reading public do not agree that the last word has been written on those topics or on any others.
Posted September 2007
• Letter archive
• Charles F. Bryan, Jr. biography