Challenging History
Harvard Leader Drew Faust Breaks New Ground Studying the Past

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


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.

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.

Right now she's talking about a letter she came across while researching "This Republic of Suffering." In it, a soldier who knows death is near tells his father the news.

Holding it, Faust felt as if she were time-traveling.

"You can see the bloodstains," she says. "To have James Montgomery telling me that he's dying, and to see part of his body essentially in that letter -- it was very moving." But Montgomery's choice of words was an intellectual revelation as well.

"I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son," he wrote.

Today, we recoil at that "delighted." But as Faust explains, the 19th-century notion of the "good death" emphasized the importance of the dying person's last words. Because Civil War soldiers couldn't die at home, surrounded by family -- perhaps half of those killed never even had their bodies identified -- Montgomery assumed his letter would be seen as a rare blessing.

In the 21st century, we "shy away from death," she says, and we tend to think of a good death as a sudden one. Not so in the 19th century. Dying well meant having time to assess your spiritual state and say goodbye -- which is difficult to do if you're killed in battle.

What's more, there were so many dying: some 620,000 soldiers in four years. As a percentage of population, Faust says, that's "the equivalent of 6 million Americans today."

How could the culture not be changed?

Looking at the war through this seemingly simple frame -- death -- Faust writes about how soldiers rationalized killing and coped with the need to bury the slain. By the time the fighting stopped at Gettysburg, she reports, "an estimated six million pounds of human and animal carcasses lay strewn across the field in the summer heat."

She describes the desperate attempts of families to track down their dead, and the trouble they had working through their grief when bodies were not found. She tells of the entrepreneurial rapacity of embalmers, who'd collect unidentified corpses from battlefields and display them in store windows to advertise their booming trade.

"It's impossible to read this book and hang on to romantic assumptions about the Civil War," says University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher.

Columbia's Eric Foner has reservations about the way Faust downplays political meaning. But framing the war as she does "is quite original," Foner says. "And given that there are X number of thousands of books on the Civil War, that's an accomplishment."

It's not a surprise, however.

Faust's whole scholarly career has been about finding new ways to look at old subjects. Unlike many historians, colleagues say, she hasn't worked the same ground over and over again. And she's kept writing books that required intense archival research well past the point when tenured academics tend to scale back such digging.

Her early work centered on the intellectual arguments of slavery's prewar defenders -- historical territory that hadn't been much explored because it seems so abhorrent today. Faust had been appalled by the injustice that surrounded her growing up in segregated Virginia in the '50s and '60s. Now she wanted to understand how whole classes of people can get caught up in a shared worldview, to the point that they simply can't see.

Moving on to the Civil War itself, Faust found herself asking questions about the Confederate home front. "Three out of four white men of military age went off to battle," she says, which left white women -- untrained and unprepared culturally for their new role -- to manage slaves and try to keep up agricultural productivity. Going into serious archive-rat mode, she culled evidence from these women's letters and other writings and turned it into "Mothers of Invention," her best-known book.

Published in 1996, "Mothers" vividly evokes the difficulties Southern women had coping with war and social upheaval. Beyond that, it suggests that overburdened and eventually disillusioned women played a larger role in the Confederacy's failure to sustain itself than Civil War historians have recognized.

Some years earlier, Faust had made this suggestion more bluntly in an academic paper. "It may well have been because of its women," she wrote, "that the South lost the Civil War."

Outrage! Controversy! It wasn't just military historians who didn't buy this. Those who favored economic, racial and class-based explanations also rejected Faust's assertion -- as she knew they would.

"I made the assertion in part to be provocative," she says now. Historical work on the Civil War "had been so centered on why the South lost, why the North won."

She wrote her paper as "a way of saying that women need to be more central" to historians' thinking.

'Don't Bother to Apply'

"It's a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you'll be."

This, as Faust recalled in the preface to "Mothers of Invention," was her own mother's advice, half a century ago, to a daughter who was "refusing to wear dresses" and had joined the 4-H Club "not to sew and can like other girls, but to raise sheep and cattle with the boys."

Her mother's words got recycled a lot last winter after Harvard announced her appointment.

Indeed, if you were a biographer looking to exemplify the almost ungraspable way women's lives have changed in the decades since the advice was offered, you could hardly find a better subject than the former Catharine Drew Gilpin.

The biography would start with a 1950s childhood spent in the kind of Shenandoah Valley family in which the husband breeds horses, the wife is usually identified as a "socialite" and children are taught to say "ladies," not "women."

It would note that most male Gilpins attended Princeton, an option denied young Drew (she never went by "Catharine") because the university did not then admit women. Instead, she ended up at Bryn Mawr, where she would join in civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and lobby successfully for the elimination of that all-female institution's protective curfew.

Next up: grad school. Is it true, Faust is asked, that the University of Pennsylvania's history department kissed her off because she was married?

Yes, it is. Faust's first husband was a medical student. Thinking he might not find an internship nearby, she asked whether, after spending two years in residence at Penn, she could finish her graduate work at a distance if necessary. Back came a letter, she recalls, from John Shover, the history department's chair of graduate admissions:

"We're not interested in women who are following their husbands. Don't bother to apply."

"He was a very nice man," Faust says, "but he had certain assumptions." She ended up in Penn's American civilization department instead.

Women historians of Faust's generation all have stories like this. Faust seems to have considered hers so commonplace that good friends like UCLA's Lynn Hunt, Iowa's Linda Kerber and Penn's Stephanie McCurry have never heard it.

McCurry is 48, a dozen years younger than Faust. She thinks she's led a " charmed life" compared with those who went before her.

In Faust's day, McCurry says, you'd arrive in grad school to find that "there weren't very many people like you." Certainly there were no senior women to serve as scholarly mentors, let alone to ask -- as McCurry could later ask Faust, when combining work and motherhood began to seem impossible -- "How the heck did you do this?"

Faust's second marriage, to historian Charles Rosenberg, had brought her a daughter and a stepdaughter. She was okay with the work-motherhood thing. But at 40, she found herself facing another female-specific hurdle:

She had breast cancer.

"She handled that the way she handles everything," Hunt says. "She did what she had to do."

"I had a 6-year-old child," says Faust, who had a later bout with thyroid cancer as well. "I wanted to see her graduate from high school. I wanted to see how her life unfolded. At the same time, I was so incredibly grateful that this was happening to me and not her."

Did her experience help her understand the belief many 19th-century Americans had -- as she explains in "This Republic of Suffering" -- that their lives would be enhanced by an awareness of death?

"Oh, yes," she says quietly.

A minute later, she's smiling again.

"I was a big fan of 'Six Feet Under,' " Faust says.

'Is This Really Happening?'

Time to flash forward a couple of decades. Faust is being formally installed as Harvard's 28th president -- the first to be blessed with two X-chromosomes. In the crowd are a cadre of historian friends who shared her journey from "Don't bother to apply" to this not-quite-believable day.

"We were pinching ourselves and saying, 'Is this really happening?' " Hunt recalls.

It was. But how it had happened still wasn't precisely clear.

Did it begin, perhaps, when Faust -- after joining the University of Pennsylvania faculty straight out of graduate school -- found herself, as a sensible-seeming female, being asked about administrative jobs?

"People would look at me and say, 'Here's a sane one,' " she says, laughing. "I decided I didn't want to do that."

For academic women, everything was new, everything was unknown. It was impossible to look too far ahead. "She just looked to the next step," McCurry says. "At every point you enter, your head is already hitting the ceiling."

Says Faust, summing up for her imaginary biographer: "I have been the enormous beneficiary of a time of great change."

Her resistance to administrative work began to waver in the fall of 1999, when then-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine started calling her about the transition the university's separate-but-not-very-equal college for undergraduate women was going through.

As part of the deal by which Radcliffe College would finally, completely, merge with Harvard College, its name and some significant resources were to go to the new Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a scholarly haven that would emphasize the study of women, gender and society. Rudenstine started by asking Faust's advice, then began recruiting her for the deanship of the institute.

"I seem to be talking to Neil about going to Harvard," Faust told her husband.

"Does Neil understand that you'll never go?" she remembers him asking.

But she did.

The timing was good, Rosenberg says: Their daughter was just out of high school. Faust says she was attracted to the prospect of building an institution with "a strong emphasis on two things that mattered to me a lot: the free play of intellect and ideas, and the issues concerning women and gender that I thought it was important for Harvard to get right."

She wasn't looking beyond Radcliffe. How could she?

Yes, there were already women presidents at Ivy League universities. But there was no way Faust could have anticipated that Rudenstine's successor, Larry Summers, would go down in flames, his leadership style condemned as arrogant and non-consultative by a significant portion of the faculty.

And there was certainly no way to predict the irony that Summers would fan those flames with ill-advised remarks on the possibility that high-level science and engineering might be -- just as Faust's mother had tried to warn her, all those years ago -- a man's world.

Last February, on the day her selection was announced, Faust made a point of drawing a distinction for a Boston Globe reporter. "I am the president of Harvard," she said, "not the woman president of Harvard."

"What I meant by that was: I don't have an asterisk," she says now. Nothing about being a woman makes her less powerful or legitimate than her male predecessors.

And yet . . .

After she was chosen, Faust was inundated with mail, much of it from young girls. "Young girls in China, young girls in India, Brownie Scout troops who sat together and all wrote out little letters for me and then put them in envelopes," she says. "What this appointment meant to women and friends of women all over the world was overwhelming to me."

She's been trying to decide what she owes them, how she can best respond. She'll be doing a fair amount of international traveling, she says, and "I've asked to go to girls schools. I don't know if I'll see the actual young women who wrote to me -- probably not -- but I'll see young women like them."

Meanwhile, those letters are being carefully preserved.

Drew Gilpin Faust is far too good an archive rat to miss the fact that she's become a part of history herself.

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