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Challenging History

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

There are a number of things that make Drew Gilpin Faust different from those who've come before her as head honcho of America's flagship university.

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Faust is, for example, the only president of Harvard known to have produced an academic paper titled "Equine Relics of the Civil War," the research for which included attending a solemn burial ceremony for the cremated bones of Stonewall Jackson's horse.

She is, it seems almost certain, the only one among the anointed to talk about what inspires her by calling herself "an archive rat."

More seriously: None of Faust's predecessors ever stood up at a conference of her fellow historians and suggested -- as Faust did in Washington in 2004 -- that the war narratives they so lovingly create may endow chaotic slaughter with a coherence and purposefulness it does not deserve. Now she has backed up that suggestion by publishing a Civil War book that focuses on a deceptively simple question: How did bloody carnage on a scale unprecedented in this country change the society that had to cope with it?

"This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" is the culmination of a scholarly career that Faust's historian peers laud as unusually productive and original. If you're looking for what separates her from the Harvard pack, that career is an essential starting point.

Oh, and there's that other little difference, the one Harvard's student newspaper has called "the two X-chromosome thing." In the course of an hour-long conversation, Faust will have a few words to say on that subject as well.

But let's not go there yet.

She has a new book to talk about, and it feels like an archive rat's last hurrah.

* * *

A tall, calm woman of 60 who wears a thick, dark pantsuit on this cold winter day, Faust perches on a small couch in the president's recently refurbished Massachusetts Hall office. (Gone: the computer desk used by controversial predecessor Larry Summers.) She is an attentive listener, the kind of interview subject who often starts to smile halfway through a question -- presumably because she's caught your drift and knows how she'll respond.


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