FAUST VIVIFIES DEATH WITH WIT AND HUMOR

She has a wicked sense of humor, our president, even in a work as heavy as “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” In her first book published since taking the University’s helm, Drew G. Faust returns to the Civil War, whose women and slaveholders have previously drawn her historian’s eye.

This time, she tackles death, or, as she calls it, the Good Death. More precisely, it’s the soldier’s attempt to maintain dignity when confronted with the war’s greatest indignity, anonymous death. Even when writing about the unknown slain stomped deep into mass graves, Faust invests her subjects with significance, granting the soldiers a Good Death a century after their first.

Faust’s humor emerges subtly, the finest example coming when she turns her attention to the fashion of mourning. Women at home bought rich black silks and velvets to mark the socially-required mourning that could last up to two and a half years. At one store in Philadelphia women could purchase black fabrics of every design in July 1863—which was, Faust devilishly adds, “just in time for Gettysburg.”

It takes great talent to make a reader laugh while writing about the Civil War. No one, even the fashionable lady mourner, is exempt from Faust’s wit. Everyone’s story—whether they’re a private or a general, a slave or a Harvard scholar—is fair game. Faust tells us about Walt Whitman’s attempts to nurse wounded soldiers, Clara Barton’s mission to exhume and identify the bodies of unknown soldiers, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s (if you were wondering, Class of 1836) search for his soldier son. But she’s most concerned with the men who were buried under cracker boxes scrawled with the name “Unknown,” if they were even buried at all.

The work of interring, marking, and mourning the dead changed the way Americans approached politics, culture, and God. The war, Faust argues, popularized America’s two greatest products: sentimentality and irony.

Her research relies on soldiers’ letters culled from archives around the country. By attaching these voices to names, Faust defines each one’s individuality and grants her subjects intimacy and dignity. The effect is akin to reading a neighbor’s home-printed Christmas letter that’s sprinkled with updates on 10-year-old Sammy’s Little League triumphs.

Luckily, Faust has a good ear for picking just the right words. One teenager, “Nannie Haskins of Tennessee,” takes offense when told her black mourning dress becomes her. “‘Becomes me fiddlestick,’” Faust quotes Haskins as writing. “‘What do I care whether it becomes me or not?’” Haskins’ anger seethes off the page.

Despite her extensive research, Faust gracefully weaves her sources into the text. The quotes create the illusion that the dead are still speaking to the reader. Faust writes about the efforts of spiritualists to believe in an afterlife for their slain kin, but she’s the one summoning spirits. She calls them the Civil War Dead, in all capital letters, as if these bodies together constitute a single breathing being.

In the process of conjuring up these voices, Faust obscures her own—but given the sacrifices of those she honors, that may be a necessary loss.

—Staff writer April H.N. Yee can be reached at aprilyee@fas.harvard.edu.