An Appreciation: A Historian's Historian

By Blight, David W. | Humanities, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

An Appreciation: A Historian's Historian


Blight, David W., Humanities


"WAR IS TERRIBLE AND YET WE LOVE IT/' wrote Drew Gilpin Faust in 2004 "War is, by its very definition, a story. War imposes an orderly narrative on what without its definition of purpose and structure would be simply violence. We as writers create that story; we remember that story. ... We love war because óf these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war stories we may be helping to construct war itself." With such probing insights, Faust has made a permanent impact on the writing of American history.

Faust is widely known today as an important American first - the first woman president of Harvard University. For this distinction, her remarkable career should be recognized and studied as a story of ambitious and graceful achievement. Since her appointment as Harvard's twenty-eighth leader in its 375-year history, she has established a reputation as a skilled manager of people. Universities, and especially the humanities, are vital to the very survival of our civilization. President Faust represents that essential truth as a model, but the trajectory by which she became Professor Faust tells us even more about her as a person and a scholar.

Catherine Drew Gilpin was born into a prosperous Virginia family on September 18, 1947, and raised in Clarke County in the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Valley. Her father bred thoroughbred horses on their sprawling land and her mother brought her up to be a "lady." But along with her three brothers, Drew preferred to get a great education, and to challenge the gender destiny and racial segregation with which she came of age. She came north for high school to Concord Academy, a girls' prep school in Massachusetts, and then to Bryn Mawr, a women's college outside Philadelphia, where she graduated in 1968. A year later, she entered graduate school in history and American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, and achieved her PhD in 1975 at the tender age of 27.

Faust soon established herself as a historian's historian - a scholar who logs endless hours in archives, and asks new and provocative questions that yield fresh and surprising insights, all captured in dear, sometimes even lyrical prose. Scholars and readers alike rightly tend to value most those historians who, like Faust, can make us think anew, and embed their research-based judgments in good narrative, as they also suggest the pasf s inherent place in our present.

Drew Faust has been a pioneer in at least three distinct subfields of nineteenth-century American history: first, the intellectual history of the Old South, especially proslavery ideology; second, the history of women and gender; and third, the social and cultural history of the Civil War, particularly that conflict's overwhelming scale of death and suffering. Faust has not merely contributed to historical knowledge or told old stories well. She has changed the questions and pushed the story in new directions.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Faust published her first three books- A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, Tfie Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Tfaught in the Antebellum South: 1830-1860, and a biography, James Heriry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery - she worked against a prevailing assumption that the slaveholding elite of the Old South produced no "intellectual history." While the "mind of the South" had been a twentieth-century preoccupation of many writers and scholars, few had probed the disturbing and, to modern sensibilities, retrograde proslavery mind. But in the five Southerners who fashioned themselves a "sacred circle" of alienated intellectuals, the politician Hammond, the novelist William Gilmore Simms, the agricultural reformer Edmund Ruffin, and the college professors Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and George Frederick Holmes, Faust uncovered and humanized a cadre of book-toting critics of the society they were helping build. …

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