Email #305: “demigod of gentlemanly virtue”?

At 7:45 last night, white supremacist leader Richard Spencer and a group of three dozen supporters held a fifteen-minute “flash mob” in Charlottesville, once again carrying torches around the statue of Robert E. Lee. The group sang “Dixie” and chanted: “You will not replace us,” “We will be back,” and “The South will rise again. Russia is our friend. The South will rise again.”

Spencer said before the group: “We are about our heritage. Not just us Virginians. Not just as Southerners. But as white people . . . we’ll take a stand.” He added to reporters afterwards: “Our identity matters. We are not going to stand by and allow people to tear down these symbols of our history and our people – and we’re going to do this again.”

The event returns attention to the “Unite the Right” rally last August when white supremacist James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of anti-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others. It also draws further attention to Robert E. Lee as an icon of the white nationalist movement. I live about an hour from Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, formerly named Lee Park, where Lee’s statue has stood since 1924. But I live only five minutes from the campus of Washington and Lee University where I work and where a statue of Lee occupies the altar in Lee Chapel.

Do you agree with Richard Spencer that Lee symbolizes not just the heritage of Virginians or Southerners but of all white people? How would you advise your alma mater to handle its own heritage and relationship with its namesake?

Your fellow Washington and Lee University alumnus Charles Correll wrote in the National Review in August that “even with his faults, Lee deserves to be honored,” criticizing Lee’s critics for dwelling exclusively on Robert E. Lee’s “faults” while ignoring his “virtues” and so failing “to distinguish between the commendable and the condemnable.”

Washington and Lee University’s “Our Namesakes” webpage devotes about five hundred words to Lee’s five-year presidency of Washington College, including his addition of the law school which you attended a century later. The statement credits Lee as a “creative educator whose curricular innovations transformed the classical college” and who “established a lasting tradition of student self-governance.” I believe it would be accurate to list these under what Mr. Correll calls “the commendable.” But paralleling Mr. Correll’s criticism of Lee critics, the namesake statement dwells exclusively on his virtues while ignoring his faults.

Perhaps an institution should not be expected to discuss “the condemnable” of a namesake. Or perhaps an institution, especially an educational institution, bears a greater responsibility to do so since, in Washington and Lee University’s case, it continuously honors Robert E. Lee through its name. This violates Mr. Correll’s implied virtue of balance.

The trustees of Washington College changed their school’s name after Lee’s death so that he would “be forever hereafter associated indisputably, as … Restorer of our beloved College!” But the trustees looked beyond just the commendable of Lee’s role as college president. They described Lee and George Washington as “two of the most renowned names of their respective centuries.” Since Lee served only five years at what was then an obscure and collapsing school, he was renowned only for his role in the Civil War as general of the Army of Northern Virginia. Rather than distinguishing whether this role is commendable or condemnable, Mr. Correll ignores it by mentioning only that “he fought against the Union.” That understatement is akin to saying Donald Trump works in the federal government. It is literally true while comically inexact.

Because the trustees’ wish for Lee’s indisputable association has come true, it has produced a further imbalance. Washington and Lee’s 1924 president called Lee a “secular saint.” That attitude has continued into the current century. As Mr. Correll writes: “it will be impossible for Washington and Lee to preserve General Lee’s vaunted status as a demigod of gentlemanly virtue.” Mr. Correll is a recent graduate and so he is describing Lee’s current status among students. Since vaunted demigods are an extreme example of “the commendable,” Mr. Correll has indirectly criticized his and your alma mater for ignoring Lee’s faults and dwelling exclusively on his virtues.

You graduated in 1977. Did you also see Lee as a “secular saint” and “demigod of gentlemanly virtue”? When you think of your alma mater, do you associate the name only with Lee’s brief presidency or with Lee overall?

Mr. Correll compliments Washington and Lee’s current president: “Rather than rashly react to the demands of the mob, Washington and Lee has resolved to understand the contributions of its namesakes and discuss their virtues and shortcomings openly, in the name of truly open dialogue.”

As an alumnus of Washington and Lee University’s law school, will you join this dialogue and help to achieve the balance Mr. Correll advocates? Since Washington and Lee has honored Lee as a saint and demigod for a century and a half, is it time we discuss his shortcomings?

Or are you content with Richard Spencer and other white supremacists speaking about Lee for you?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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