WHEN THE GANGSTERS of the Berkshires roll up to the Mom ‘n’ Pop in their Saabs, they yell, “Yo, throw me one-a them Blounts.” And the proprietor says, “Roy’s new collection doesn’t drop till May one. But his ‘Robert E. Lee’ is out in paper.” On Thursday, a Smithsonian Associates audience will hear tales of the rebel idol, of whom the displaced Southern humorist and cultural commentator writes, “As a father Lee was fond but fretful, as a husband devoted but distant, as a slave master unvicious but feckless. As an attacking general he was inspiring but not necessarily cogent.”
» EXPRESS: How did you come to write about Robert E. Lee for Penguin Lives?
» BLOUNT: They wanted me to write about Mark Twain, but I had just written several things about Mark Twain … and I didn’t think I had anything more to say about Mark Twain at the moment.
» EXPRESS: Were you well versed in Lee lore?
» BLOUNT: When I was a little kid, I used to play Confederate soldier, but after that I got kinda tired of hearing about the Civil War. … But I always felt I ought to know more about it.
» EXPRESS: It must’ve taken a lot of research.
» BLOUNT: It actually took me longer than the war to read all the stuff I had to read to write about Robert E. Lee. … I didn’t even try to catch up with the war south of Virginia.
» EXPRESS: What do you make of Lee’s decision to back the Confederacy?
» BLOUNT: Tip O’Neill said, “All politics are local.” [Lee] went with his people. He thought of Virginia as his country more than he thought of the United States as his country. It was not a good career move. Also, his wife would never have forgiven him if he hadn’t gone with the South.
» EXPRESS: If he were alive today, would Lee drive an F-150 with a Stars ‘n Bars bumper sticker reading, “Pride Not Prejudice”?
» BLOUNT: No, I don’t think he would at all. I think he’d be embarrassed by a lot of people who do.
» EXPRESS: Your new book, “Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South,” contains a few afterthoughts and anecdotes related to Lee.
» BLOUNT: When I was going around promotin’ that Robert E. Lee book, somebody in — where was it? Louisville, I think — came up to me after I did a little reading and said, ”Now, you know, my ancestors were Confederate generals, and the Confederacy was not fighting for slavery.„
And I said, “Well, what were they fighting for then?” And she said, “They were fighting for freedom!” And I said, “The freedom to do what?” And she said, “Freedom to decide whether to have slavery or not.”
» S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW; Thu., 6:30 p.m., $13-$25; 202-252-0012. (Smithsonian)
Photo courtesy Random House