Harvard and the Civil War

I have been missing the excitement surrounding the appointment of Harvard's new president. She's a woman, which seems to be one of just two complex facts the news outlets can digest. The other is that she's a social scientist - a history professor.

More imporant, for us, is that she's a Civil War author of long standing. (Hat tip to Richard F. Miller for wakening me from my news slumber.)

The elevation of Drew Gilpin Faust in combination with the retirement of James McPherson from the academy and from the presidency of the AHA sets up the expectation for a potentially new "greatest living Civil War historian." I'm not going to ride this McPherson hobby horse any further today, except to say that Faust writes an infinitely more respectable sort of history than "the people's historian" with his gross simplifications and impossible generalizations. To the extent that she rises while he diminishes, we will be well served.

Consider this blurb from LSU Press:
Drew Gilpin Faust argues that coming to a fuller understanding of southern thought during the Civil War period offers a valuable refraction of the essential assumptions on which the Old South and the Confederacy were built. She shows the benefits of exploring Confederate nationalism “as the South’s commentary upon itself, as its effort to represent southern culture to the world at large, to history, and perhaps most revealingly, to its own people.”
That is the most Voegelinian statement I have read in the last five years. History as understanding a people's representation of itself to itself in the midst of an epochal crisis. That breaks the Voegelin meter.

On a more frivolous note, I have long had this habit of referring in private conversation to a certain kind of Civil War narrative as pornographic. Faust also uses the term pornography to characterize certain Civil War history - and in the same way.

HNN notes that the Manhattan Institute issued warnings about Faust's radical feminism. But Faust's concerns strike me as profoundly conservative in a way today's movement conservatives will not easily grasp. The radical meme of "meaningless war," for example, she rejects. She is paraphrased as saying, Thus we [historians] are the ones who give meaning to war. Her "Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South" - a Faustian book topic - has interested the Unionist right since Mencken's seminal "Sahara of the Bozart".

The point is not to deduce her politics, but rather suggest that she represents an earlier type of public intellectual and that here is a cultural conservatism that interests itself in truly large and complex historical problems. She appears to me therefore to be a credit to the field of Civil War history.

A couple of background notes. She is publicly aligned with the Gilder / Lehrman / Boritt camp of Lincolnology rather than the Holzer crew. She has been a Virginian teaching at Harvard following a University of Pennsylvania higher education. As to the count of books she's authored, here's my own tally:

(1) Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War
(2) James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery
(3) A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860
(4) The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South
(5) The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860
(6) Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War
(7) A Slaveowner in a Free Society: James Henry Hammond on the Grand Tour, 1836-1837
(8) Moment of Truth: A Woman of the Master Class in the Confederate South

There's more here.

Now let's see if this corner of the nonfiction world can get a little respectability.


p.s. Good to see Brian salute what he calls a "real scholar." Kevin is happy with Faust's "level of scholarship and sophistication." Those are criteria I like. Good-bye "readable and popular." You had your turn.