“I felt very much that I lived in history,” said Drew Gilpin Faust as she recently described her childhood in an interview for Humanities magazine. A well-known scholar of the antebellum South and the Civil War era and, since 2007, president of Harvard University, Faust had two histories in mind. First was the history of the Civil War.
In and around Boyce, where she grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, roads were marked by Confederate-gray signs for the many Civil War historic sites nearby, such as Cedar Creek, a few miles to the south and Winchester a few miles north. The cemetery, where Faust’s grandfather was laid to rest, bore numerous headstones that said only, “Unidentified Confederate.”
The other history was Faust’s own era, the second half of the twentieth century, as it was beginning to unfold around her. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation of the schools. In reaction, Faust’s neighbor, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd issued a call to “massive resistance,” including the passage of state laws to prevent desegregation. In 1957, nine-year-old Faust, of her own initiative, wrote to President Eisenhower to let him know her feelings on the matter: “Please Mr. Eisenhower, please try and have schools and other things accept colored people.”
From prep school onward, Faust was educated in the North, but she found her academic interest gravitate to the South. A dissertation on a circle of antebellum Southern intellectuals led to her doctorate and a book, A Sacred Circle. It also yielded an idea for another book, a biography of James Henry Hammond, who was a governor of South Carolina in the 1840s, and later a U.S. Senator who resigned his seat shortly before South Carolina seceded.
Diaries, letters, and business records furnished a superb record of Hammond’s rise from near poverty to social success as a politician and the master of a large plantation. While most academic historians avoid biography, Faust found in Hammond a combination of monstrous appetite and singular expressiveness, a first-rate character and a lesser human being. This abundantly documented life also yielded an exceptional view into Southern society: its codes of honor, the rigors of political advancement, and glimpses of the private lives of slaves.
Faust’s research into how the South viewed and justified slavery led her to other stories of the era, including those of Confederate women, generally thought of as being among the staunchest supporters of the Confederate cause. “Existing studies of Confederate politics and public life,” she wrote in the introduction to Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, “have paid almost no attention to the place of women.”
This lack of interest in the role of women led scholars to the growing disenchantment with the war on the home front as a factor in causing the South’s surrender, when the war might have been waged even longer. During the punishing years of the Civil War, Faust chronicled how women of the South went from self-denying to self-preserving, with their allegiances shifting from the aims of Confederate army to the safety of their families. As one Southern woman wrote in 1864 (she was one of the 500 Confederate women whose lives Faust examined), “Am I willing to give my husband to gain Atlanta for the Confederacy? No, No, No, a thousand times No!”
The life and work of Faust can seem paradoxical in certain lights. Brought up in an age of fast-changing values and an interventionist war in Southeast Asia, she wrapped herself in painstaking interpretations of the nineteenth-century American South, from its feudal society and slave economy to the almost forgotten inner workings of Southern womanhood. A civil rights activist—she marched in Selma in 1965 in support of Martin Luther King Jr.—and a progressive historian who labored to discern voices history has rendered silent, she has also been a close student of people and times many scholars would prefer to avoid. As she told former NEH chairman Sheldon Hackney in an interview with Humanities magazine in 1997, “I guess I’ve been studying unpleasant people or politically incorrect people for my whole academic career.”
In her 2008 book, This Republic of Suffering, Faust yet again provoked the history profession with a close examination of a major and yet strangely overlooked aspect of the much-studied and written-about Civil War: a death toll so large it altered human perception and foreshadowed the vast carnage of twentieth-century warfare.
Military deaths alone were staggering: “The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.” To bury and to memorialize, and to go on living, even after the passing of more than two percent of American society, all this required, Faust shows, a new set of norms, a sobered worldview, a familiarity with death that seems unthinkable today.
A productive and original scholar, Faust has also proven to be an able administrator. Appointed in the wake of widely aired disagreements between the president’s office and the faculty, she has brought calm and competence to the job of heading America’s most emblematic university, while also becoming a forthright spokesperson for the goals of educational access and inclusion. A surprising expression of this point of view came in March, when, after a forty-year absence, ROTC was welcomed back onto campus.
In This Republic of Suffering, Faust locates an authentic American voice in the poetry of Walt Whitman, who said on another occasion that he contained multitudes—a robust aim for the poet and a neat summation of the historian’s task.