Only days before she was installed as Harvard’s 28th president, Drew G. Faust received a message from the past.
It came in the form of a letter written in 1951 by then-President James B. Conant ‘14, who sealed it with instructions that it should be opened by the first Harvard president of the 21st century. The letter was lost in the Harvard Archives during the tenure of Lawrence H. Summers—or maybe it was just waiting.
The letter resurfaced just in time for Faust, a historian by training, to read from it during her installation speech
, in which she argued that universities are uniquely accountable to the past.
“This is my life. My life has been, as a historian, the voices across generations, the voices from the past that have spoken to me in primary sources,” Faust said with palpable excitement on the eve of the installation. “To have something directed this way, to me at this moment, seemed almost supernatural somehow.”
A Civil War scholar raised in Virginia, Faust has written extensively on the experience of white slave-holding women and Confederate nationalism.
“She’s established herself as probably the foremost historian of the antebellum South in terms of cultural and gender history,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian James M. McPherson.
“This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” Faust’s fifth book, was released yesterday by Knopf to largely positive reviews. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]
The book—an analysis of the cultural impact of the Civil War’s 600,000 casualties—is the latest work in a remarkably broad scholarly career that has stirred praise and some controversy in academia.
And Faust is poised to bring the skills that she honed in her academic career—not least a dedication to provoking discussion about contentious issues—to bear on the presidency, infusing the office with a respect for and understanding of the past.
Faust’s bibliography, which lists a book on the plight of Confederate intellectuals next to a biography of a plantation owner who molested his teenage nieces, reveals a career spent jumping from topic to topic.
This approach has given her a reputation as a “restless” scholar, says Edward L. Ayers, a Civil War scholar and the president of the University of Richmond.
“She’s not found a single style or perspective that she repeats again and again,” says Ayers, who reviewed “This Republic of Suffering” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “She picks a problem, and then develops a method and a language for it.”
One constant has been a concerted effort to draw attention to issues and perspectives that have gone unnoticed, Faust says. And while she says she has rarely caused “revolutionary uproar,” this attitude did give Faust her biggest taste of historical controversy.
Faust argued in a 1990 article that white Southern women became disenchanted with the Confederate cause as the war dragged on, concluding that “It may well have been because of its women that the South lost the Civil War.”
“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people didn’t believe that,” Ayers says. “If you look carefully, you find that Southern women were holding on to the Confederacy in some ways longer than the men did.”
McPherson, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, says that though the article was “not controversy of the first order,” it elicited several published challenges—the ultimate academic compliment.
Faust, whose first semester as president has been relatively controversy-free, says that the article was intended at least in part to be provocative.
“That was a very controversial article,” Faust says. “But it was in part meant to be, because it was meant to stimulate discussion about something that had been marginalized.”
The same argument appears in Faust’s 1996 book “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War,” which won the Francis Parkman Prize, given annually to the best book of American history. And while Faust had toned down the rhetoric, her colleagues say she had made her point.
“What she intended to do was put gender at center stage in thinking about how a nation sustains war,” Ayers says. “We’ve continued to talk about it ever since.”
Faust says “This Republic of Suffering,” was written in the same spirit even though it may not elicit the same kind of responses. The book uses soldiers’ letters to examine the impact that the omnipresence of death had on individuals and on the nation collectively.
Faust has gradually broadened her academic interest, from focusing almost exclusively on the antebellum South to including the war itself. “This Republic of Suffering” also marks her first significant foray into analysis of the Northern experience.
Ayers says Faust’s career path—particularly her sojourn into biography, a “very untrendy” genre—has been unique.
“No one else would have followed the trajectory she did, but its value is hard to argue with,” Ayers says.
O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN
Faust’s background as a “systematic and very sophisticated historian” should prove useful in her tenure as president, says Sidney Verba ‘53, the former University librarian who spoke at Faust’s installation.
“A historian is somewhere in between, between the social sciences and the humanities, and it gives someone a breadth of understanding,” Verba says.
Ayers, who became Richmond’s president on July 1, the same day that Faust took office at Harvard, says that Faust’s academic work reveals a combination of “patience and fearlessness” that he says he recognizes in her leadership style.
And both Ayers and McPherson point to Faust’s fondness for bridge-building, both in the scholarly and administrative spheres.
“I know she hopes to be a kind of conciliator of all the different points of view and factions at Harvard, and that would clearly be related in some way to her role as an historian, in that she’s never been a strong partisan as a historian, and she’s always been open to interpretations that are not her own,” McPherson says.
Faust says she has been relying on her historical mindset as she begins to think about her new job and what she hopes to accomplish in it.
“‘Mothers of Invention’ is a book about change, and about how people define change,” Faust says. “So thinking historically about what makes change possible, what makes change work, that has been something that has informed me in thinking about what leadership is, and how institutions evolve.”
Faust says that this focus was particularly helpful during her time as dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which transformed from a defunct women’s college to an elite research center during her tenure.
“It was so traumatic for some of the alums,” Faust says. “And so I thought if I could embed Radcliffe in its history, and make its future make sense in terms of what had come before, I might make that transition easier.”
And while her colleagues note that her academic training has been an asset in her new job, Faust speculates that the source might be more intrinsic.
“I think that temperamentally, I am a historian. I ask historical questions when I think about problems,” she says. “I don’t know if I became a historian because I am that way, or if I am that way because I’m a historian.”
—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at email@example.com.
CORRECTION: The Jan. 9 news article "With New Book Out, Faust Shows Historical Side" incorrectly stated that "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" is Drew G. Faust's fifth book. In fact, it is her sixth.