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Faust's path to Harvard

Truth-seeker's activism detailed

Drew Gilpin Faust dedicated 'Mothers of Invention' to her mother and grandmothers. Drew Gilpin Faust dedicated "Mothers of Invention" to her mother and grandmothers.

Through faded diaries and letters, Drew Gilpin Faust resurrects long-dead characters with names like Mary Chestnut and Lizzie Neblett.

Faust, 59, dissects their power-struggles with slaves, reluctance to run plantations during the Civil War, and even their thoughts on sex lives and hoop skirts.

Faust, an award-winning historian expected to be named Harvard's president today, reveals much about herself and her work habits in a three-decade career as a scholar of the American south. Her goal, she has said in interviews, is not simply to tell the stories of the neglected. Instead, colleagues say, Faust wants to confront the truth -- even when it is ugly.

Pulitzer-winning historian Steven Hahn , who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where Faust taught American history for 25 years, said he has joked with Faust about her propensity to investigate often unsavory characters.

"She just laughed," he said. "She's interested in people wrestling with all sorts of challenging circumstances."

Faust's work parallels her efforts to reconcile her past with her present; as a privileged white girl with black servants who rejected her Southern lifestyle, school segregation, and her dying mother's views of the "lady" she should be.

As a child in Virginia, Faust refused to learn to sew and instead joined the 4-H club to raise sheep and cattle with the boys. As an undergraduate history major in the late 1960s at Bryn Mawr College, a women's college near Philadelphia, she attended rallies for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

But as an adult, she traded activism for history, she wrote in a 2003 article in Harvard Magazine. In 1975, she earned her doctorate in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation was about the white, male intellectuals in the slave-holding south. Then she went to work as a professor at Penn, devoting her life to digging through Southern archives, unfolding dusty files and blood-stained letters.

Though much of her research is on women and African-Americans, her work encompasses a broader range of topics about the South -- including white elitism, Confederate nationalism, and slave-ownership. Her sixth book, about how the South handled death, is due out next year.

Faust declined to be interviewed yesterday.

In a 1997 magazine article, she said she thought history should not simply celebrate the past or highlight neglected groups. Instead, she said, it should shed light on people's "complicated" lives.

"They're not heroes and heroines," she said in Humanities magazine, published by the National Endowment for the Humanities. "They're combinations of heroism and villainy."

In "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War," published in 1996, she exposed the weakness and self-doubt that afflicted Southern women. Unlike Northern women who fought for independence, she wrote that many Southern women had it forced on them.

"The story here about these plantation women is not one that a radical feminist would approve of," Sheldon Hackney , a southern historian and former president of Penn, said in an interview yesterday. "The heroic story would have been that plantation women were left behind and they took charge. But that's not the story she tells because that's not the story that's in the documents. It wouldn't have been honest history."

Hahn, the historian, described Faust as an "archive rat," willing to go to great lengths to track down a document. For "Mothers of Invention," she visited more than two dozen archives, including those in 11 southern states and the District of Columbia.

In vivid writing in the book, she sought to explain big historical events through the voices of ordinary women. "I have tried not to drown out the Confederate women's voices with my own," she wrote in the preface.

To capture the dread of losing men to war, she wrote about the scene at a grief-stricken boarding school in Georgia, where women screamed and sobbed when a regiment left for battle.

To describe women's love for their husbands, she quoted from Kate Rowland's diary: "What do I care for patriotism? My husband is my country," Rowland wrote in Georgia. "Charlie is dearer to me than my country, & I cannot willingly give him up."

To convey women's despondence over slave insurrections, supply shortages, and managing farms, she cited a letter Mary Bell of North Carolina wrote to her husband, Alfred, away at war.

"I confess I have very little confidence in my own judgement and management," Bell wrote in December 1864. "Sometimes I am almost ready to give up and think that surely my lot is harder than anyone else."

One of Faust's favorite characters, according to the Humanities article, is Lizzie Neblett, a knot of contradictions. Neblett beat her children and her slaves, sometimes with mixed feelings, and lived in fear of childbirth. She pointedly informed her husband that he should not return without birth control in his pocket.

Faust's approach to history parallels the contradictions in her own life.

Described as good-natured and unassuming, she has devoted years of research to some reprehensible characters, such as slave-owner James Henry Hammond. She also studied Mary Chestnut , a Southern elitist who excoriated slaves and insulted a white woman in North Carolina who protected her from Yankee invaders.

"Sometimes I couldn't resist using those, probably because they weren't entirely representative but were such an extreme that they did have that startling effect that reminds you who these people were," Faust said in the magazine article, "and that they are not you."

In her books and interviews, Faust said her Southern roots are a source of inspiration, even though she rejected the restrictions of her childhood. She opposed segregation, and at age 9 she wrote a letter to President Eisenhower criticizing it.

Faust dedicated "Mothers of Invention" to her grandmothers, and to her mother, Catharine Mellick Gilpin , whom she described as "powerful" Southern women who lived within the confines of their time. They helped inspire the book, she wrote.

She wrote that she battled with her mother, until the night before her death when Faust was 19. Her mother, a housewife, often told Faust she lived in a man's world -- and she should just accept it.

"I have been luckier than she," Faust wrote in the preface, "in that I have lived in a time when my society and culture have supported me in proving that statement wrong."

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story yesterday about Harvard's new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, misspelled the surname of Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut.)