Family, history, and the 1960s all helped to shape Drew Faust, but it was illness that urged her forward

Historians in the News
tags: Harvard, Drew Faust

The setting of her childhood — Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley — instilled in Drew Faust a dual passion for history and justice.

Weekend trips to battlefields and joining her brothers to play soldier helped to deepen her interest in the Civil War. Decades later, her study of the conflict’s devastating toll in blood and grief, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” (2008), was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The inequality she saw in the world drove Faust’s early devotion to civil rights. At age 9, she penned a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower urging him to support integration. As a freshman at Bryn Mawr, inspired in part by Freedom Rider John Lewis, she skipped a midterm to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Faust was a member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania for 25 years before her appointment, in 2001, as founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Six years later she became the first woman to lead Harvard University, or, as she said at the time, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard.” She will step down on July 1.

Q: You grew up in the Shenandoah Valley. I’d love to hear a little bit about that and what your early life was like.

A: I grew up on a farm. My father was in the horse business, so I was always surrounded by animals. I rode a pony, had sheep in the basement, little lambs that we saved when their mothers died in the winter, and ducks, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, everything you can imagine. When I was in, I guess, seventh grade, I got very interested in joining the 4-H Club and in animal husbandry. So I raised a steer both my seventh- and eighth-grade years. The first one was named Toby, after Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night,” and the second was named Ferdinand, after the book about Ferdinand the bull who sits down and smells the flowers.

I’d get up every morning before school, go feed them, and groom them in the afternoon. And I’d go to the 4-H meetings. I was the only girl interested in animal husbandry, all the other girls were doing sewing and canning and those kinds of things. I was always kind of a tomboy....

Q: Let’s turn to your writing, in particular “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War.” I’d love to know how you came to that specific topic.

A: Two things. I entered Civil War studies as a practicing Civil War historian at a time when U.S. history was changing dramatically. It was moving from a focus on generals, politicians, battles, and war to much more attention on everyday life and social history and the experience of people other than the powerful.

So there was this whole shift in emphasis that transformed the historiography of the Civil War, beginning probably in the early ’80s, and I very much benefited from that wave, because it opened up so many other dimensions of the experience of war that hadn’t been really treated adequately before. So that was one thing. I had been trained to think about what was people’s experience, rather than who made what happen on a policy, political, or military level.

There was also a personal dimension to it. I was diagnosed in the summer of 1988 with breast cancer. I was 40 years old, and it was this stunning news from a mammogram. I had a mastectomy and was just shocked and kept thinking: What is health? What is sickness? What is life? What is death? It had a big impact on me.

Afterwards, I wanted to work with breast cancer patients, and I did so through an organization called Reach To Recovery, where newly diagnosed breast cancer patients connect with breast cancer survivors. I wanted to do it partly because I wanted not to forget what that experience of looking at death had been like when I had my mastectomy — when I was diagnosed. Because I think it so sharpens your perceptions and makes you smell the flowers, makes you re-prioritize, makes little perturbations of life seem irrelevant. And that was very valuable....

Q: You had turned down Harvard before. Why?

A: The history department was really a mess. They had been unable to appoint anyone in U.S. history for well over a decade. I felt if I came here, I would have to spend my time helping to clean it up, and I had a really nice, happy situation in Philadelphia.

Then, come mid-March 2000, I said yes to [Harvard President Neil Rudenstein], much to my astonishment. I think cancer played a role in this decision as well. In January 1999, if I get my dates right, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and I had a thyroidectomy. I remember thinking to myself very explicitly through all these conversations: If there’s going to be risk in my life, why don’t I take some risks instead of having these risks imposed on me?

I think that having the second cancer made me think, What the hell — why don’t I just go to Harvard and turn my life upside down? Which I don’t think I would have done, necessarily, without that. It also meant I didn’t have to disrupt my daughter because she was going to college anyway. That made it easier. And then there’s a third part of it, which is that Neil assured me that because it was an institute for advanced study, I would be able to have time to devote to my death project, to my work. It didn’t turn out that I had as much time as he had anticipated, but it was like easing into administration, in the sense that it seemed like I could retain a scholarly identity with it.

Read entire article at Harvard Crimson

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