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Michael Korda on his biography of Robert E. Lee

Created date

June 25th, 2014
Robert E. Lee biography
Robert E. Lee biography

In the world of book publishing, Michael Korda is something of a living legend. During his 40-year career as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, he polished literary gems by authors the likes of Larry McMurtry and David McCullough, all the while writing his own bestselling titles.

His latest book, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (HarperCollins, 2014), chronicles the enigmatic Confederate general and his leading role in a doomed cause that was responsible for America’s bloodiest war. Recently, he spoke with the Tribune about the biography and his life in publishing.

Tribune: One of the most important things a biographer can do is get inside his subject’s head. You do that very well in Clouds of Glory. By the end of the book, I felt as though I knew Lee. 

Korda: I’m happy to hear you say that because I didn’t do my job if readers don’t feel like they knew him. When I started researching the book, it struck me how little material there was that did get inside his head. 

It’s wrong to attempt to psychoanalyze a person from the distant past, but using correspondence and letters, you can gauge a good deal about his mindset. Lee is no exception.

Outwardly, he was formal and proper, so he came off as stiff. But there are moments when he reveals himself, especially in his letters home to his family. These provide wonderful glimpses of his personality. 

He had enormous charm, a striking sense of humor. He was a devoted husband and father, and when you discover these details, you wind up with a remarkably human portrait. 

By the time I finished writing, I liked him very much.

Tribune: Biographers often do grow fond of their subjects, but your biography of Lee is quite evenhanded. Was it difficult for you to stay objective given your respect for him?

Korda: No, I was able to approach him with a natural objectivity. I’m not a Southerner. I was born a British subject. With my background, I would find it difficult to write objectively about someone like Winston Churchill. I’m part of the generation that grew up during World War II. And I knew Churchill—he was a great friend of my uncle’s.

I don’t have such connections to Lee. I wasn’t raised on stories about him as this larger-than-life figure.

Tribune: But as you discuss in your book, many people were. After his surrender at Appomattox, he ascended to a sort of secular sainthood so to speak. 

Korda: He did in spite of his role in the rebellion. He was an extremely virtuous man in nearly every conceivable way: he was unfailingly polite; impeccably mannered; always focused on duty and honor. Americans—North and South—recognized these traits and admired him for them.

But he also made mistakes, which is not something that historians have been careful to make clear. In reality, Lee was as tragic a figure as he was admirable. Grant once said of him that “No one ever fought harder for a worse cause.” 

Lee is an incredibly complex character. I think that’s why I liked writing about him.

Tribune: What do you hope readers take away from this biography?

Korda: There are many things, but in particular, I believe that past works have misrepresented Lee as a rabid secessionist, this raging rebel. He was neither. He was very much opposed to Virginia’s leaving the Union, but at the same time, he wasn’t willing to join the U.S. Army in striking his home state. 

Lee’s decision to go with the South was difficult for him; and he lost everything because of it. I hope that comes through in the book.

Tribune: You’ve also written biographies about Grant and Eisenhower along with a host of other books, several of which were bestsellers. Still, you spent most of your career as an editor. What attracted you to publishing?

Korda: I don’t think I was attracted to publishing. The only way I knew how to make a living was by reading things. Before Simon & Schuster, I was a script reader at CBS, but I was only part-time. I was paid based on the number of things I read. I simply couldn’t make a consistent living doing that. 

Then someone suggested book publishing to me; and I thought, well, I’d be doing the same thing that I was doing at CBS, but I’d be getting a paycheck every week—and I was right [laughs].

Tribune: When did you realize you were also a writer?

Korda: It was gradual. As an editor, I had a flare for writing dust jacket copy, but I never thought much about it. One day, someone asked me to write a piece on rock ‘n’ roll for Glamour magazine, which in those days [early 60s] was a topic that Glamour normally wouldn’t have printed. I agreed to write the article and, as it turned out, I enjoyed myself.

So, I got into the writing side of the business a little at a time. And it surprised me hugely that it worked out.

Tribune: Are the two Michael Kordas—the editor and the writer—ever at odds?

Korda: No, they’re not, but they’re not complimentary either. I can edit other people, but I’m not a good editor of my own work. Once someone else has pointed out a problem with my manuscript, I see what has to be done. 

Because of that, I owe a great debt of gratitude to those who edit my books. 

Tribune: You were Simon & Schuster’s editor-in-chief for almost 40 years. Now, you’re editor-in-chief emeritus. Has the job changed with the title?

Korda: Though I stepped down from my full-time position, I continue to edit a couple of authors, namely, David McCullough and Mary Higgins Clark. But otherwise, my title means that I don’t have to go into the office anymore [laughs].