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The Revisionist

Drew Gilpin Faust has been called Harvard's "safe" choice to succeed Larry Summers. Now, as she prepares to take office, no one knows what kind of president she will be. But we do know what kind of historian she is, and safe is not the word.

Eighteen years ago, at an academic conference at the University of California, San Diego, Drew Gilpin Faust, then a widely respected professor of Southern history at the University of Pennsylvania, caused an uproar that some of her peers still talk about.

Among historians of the South and the Civil War, there is no larger question than why the Confederacy lost its bid for independence. Explanations range from battlefield tactics to the North's industrial superiority, from slave insubordination to the gradual disillusionment of the South's poor, white, non-slaveholding majority.

In San Diego that day, Faust, who takes over the presidency of Harvard on July 1, offered her own explanation, and it managed to rub nearly everyone the wrong way. The South lost, she argued, largely because of the part played by rich, white women, the very figures that had been held up as Dixie's staunchest supporters. Their disappointment with the cause, and their subsequent entreaties to their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers to give up the fight, did as much as anything else to bring on collapse and defeat.

"It may well have been because of its women that the South lost the Civil War," her paper concluded.

Faust's revisionist salvo brought a fierce response from her audience. Stephanie McCurry, a historian now at Penn who was moderating Faust's panel, remembers the reaction as immediate. The audience at the talk, she says, "went nuts." To military specialists, to historians of slavery, to economic historians, even to some feminist historians, Faust's argument seemed at once radical and wrong-headed, and at the conference and afterward many people let her know that. Faust was verbally attacked. "I'd never seen anything like it," McCurry recalls.

As bombshells go, it can't compete with the one Larry Summers, who stepped down as president of Harvard a year ago, famously dropped in 2005, when he questioned women's aptitude for science. Indeed, Faust's tenure as dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has earned her a image in Cambridge as a kind of anti-Summers: In contrast to his damn-the-torpedoes style, she is a discreet conciliator, and her impeccable feminist bona fides stand in sharp contrast to his controversial musings on gender.

Nevertheless, Faust's distinguished career as a historian suggests a temperament quite different from that of her reputation as a consensus builder. Although as an administrator she has by all accounts been a smooth inside operator, as a thinker and writer Faust has displayed a taste for shaking things up.

"Her historical work has certainly not been that of a 'safe' thinker," says James McPherson, an emeritus professor at Princeton and leading Civil War historian. On the contrary, he says, her reputation among historians is as a "bold" scholar.

During a 30-year career, Faust has ranged widely, taking up neglected historical figures and proposing unfashionable ideas. Along with her pioneering work on Confederate women, she has written an intimate account of the life of a sexually predatory Confederate politician. She has broken down the economics of plantation agriculture and the logistics of slave management and mined Confederate best-sellers for clues to attitudes about the war. She has explored the life of the antebellum Southern intellectual as well as the politics of hoop skirts and the 19th century's understanding of the "good death."

In her scholarship, her peers agree, Faust has not been afraid to play the provocateur. If anything, she has been a risk-taker and has resisted pigeonholing -- as a feminist or anything else.

In her writing, Drew Faust has explicitly described the ways in which her intellectual interests grew out of her personal background. She grew up privileged, in Virginia horse country, a place where memories of the Old South still felt fresh, and early on she rebelled against the region's rigid class, gender, and racial stratifications. As a child, she refused to wear dresses and joined the 4-H club to raise livestock with the boys. At 9 years old, she wrote a letter to President Eisenhower protesting segregation. Her freshman year at Bryn Mawr, she cut her midterms to travel to Selma in support of Martin Luther King.

As a graduate student, however, she chose to focus neither on the South's second-class citizens (its women) nor on its noncitizens (its slaves), but on its ruling class. Her doctoral dissertation in American Studies at Penn, which became her first book, "A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860," was about the antebellum Southern intelligentsia.

But while her focus on these decidedly white, male thinkers bore little trace of Faust's political activism, it was, in its way, a brash move. According to historian Edward Ayers, a dean at the University of Virginia who in July will become president of the University of Richmond, historians have only recently started to take 19th-century Southern intellectuals seriously. The past few years have seen a few major works dedicated to the subject, but back when Faust took it on, Ayers says, "historians thought it was a contradiction in terms."

Faust was essentially establishing a new field of study -- as a graduate student. "She was quite a pathbreaker," says Civil War historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown, an emeritus professor at the University of Florida, whom Johns Hopkins Press asked to read the manuscript when Faust submitted it for publication.

Faust's argument in "Sacred Circle" was that the antebellum South had in fact shown a tradition of critical thought. Looking at a close-knit group of five thinkers self-described as the Sacred Circle -- a novelist, an agricultural reformer, a philosopher, a lawyer, and a politician -- she described how they strove to create a larger Southern culture of letters despite formidable obstacles, among them underfunded Southern universities full of academically disinclined sons of the planter aristocracy, a lack of Southern publishing houses, and a general public indifference to both scientific methods and high art.

And while much in their thought was unique to their time and place -- pressing the South to modernize, for example, even as they staunchly defended slavery -- their plight also touched on the more general questions and frustrations that preoccupy intellectuals and institutions of higher learning today: how to balance pragmatic against abstract thought, how to remain a critical observer of the world, and how much to seek to shape events.

One of the members of the Sacred Circle was a South Carolina planter named James Henry Hammond. Faust's next book, published in 1982, was a biography of Hammond, who would serve over the course of a distinguished political career as a congressman, senator, and governor.

According to George Rable, a Civil War historian at the University of Alabama, Faust's Hammond biography was in its own way a provocation, and only in part because the book humanizes a man personally and politically objectionable to modern eyes. Though biographies of historical figures have found favor with popular audiences, they're often dismissed by professional historians, many of whom, Rable says, believe that "the individual life is not the story of history."

Professional historians, especially young ones, Rable says, are expected to write about social movements or intellectual trends or economic classes of people at a particular moment in history. Rable himself, though he's quick to argue that he doesn't share that bias, nonetheless says he tends to steer his graduate students, for the sake of their careers, away from writing biography.

In Hammond, though, Faust found someone who embodied the conflicting currents she saw in the South on the eve of the Civil War -- between modernization and tradition, between elitism and democracy, between the image of slavery as a benevolent institution and the brutal and exploitative reality. Hammond, a brilliant, handsome polymath, was at once a committed agricultural reformer and a defender of the social order of the Old South. A politician elected to the highest offices in the state, he thought democracy dangerous. He grew up poor, married into wealth, and ever after extolled the South's rigid class hierarchy. He sired children with his slaves and sexually molested four of his nieces.

It wasn't just intellectuals who grappled with these paradoxes, though. Ordinary Confederate citizens, too, tried to reconcile them, and in the prestigious Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in 1987, published as the book "The Creation of Confederate Nationalism," Faust investigated their efforts.

For decades, historians have argued over whether there was such a thing as Confederate nationalism, whether Southerners felt any real allegiance to the idea of a Confederacy rather than to their individual states, and whether, by extension, the Confederate States of America could ever have survived as a nation.

Some historians, pointing to the fact that the Confederacy was willing to fight through four years of the bloodiest combat in American history, see evidence of nationalistic convictions as powerful as those in Germany and Italy, two nation-states that came into existence shortly after the Confederate States of America. Others point to how completely the Confederacy collapsed at the end of the war -- evidence, they say, that it was simply a political fiction imposed by Confederate leaders on the fractious Southern states and perpetuated by elegists of the Old South after the war.

Faust, for her part, argues that both sides were wrong. Confederate nationalism was a very real phenomenon, she argues, but ultimately unable to support the weight of its contradictions. "The creation of Confederate nationalism represented an apotheosis of the Old South at the same time it introduced glimmerings of the New," she concluded. "It caught the South within the paradoxes of that very change the Confederate nation had been founded to avert."

With her work on Confederate nationalism, Faust waded into an existing debate. In "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War," she in effect created her own.

"I don't need to tell you that there've been a lot of books written about the Civil War," says Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University and a leading scholar of the causes and consequences of the conflict. "It's rather difficult to come up with an original idea about it." With "Mothers of Invention," Foner says, Faust did just that.

Faust remains best known for that book, which grew out of the article she presented at the San Diego conference. Most scholars still believe the arguments she made there were at least partly wrong. James McPherson, for example, argues that Faust overstates both the degree of alienation Southern women felt about the war effort and the impact their change of heart had on the war. "The main reasons for the Confederate loss were not internal breakdown but defeat on the battlefield," he says, "and the relentless attrition of resources which made it impossible to continue fighting."

Faust herself qualified the article's claim in "Mothers of Invention." But despite, or perhaps because of, its controversial argument about women and the war, the book in 1996 won the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize for the year's best work of history. Faust wasn't the first scholar to look at women's experiences during the Civil War, but she was the first to argue that women had a significant impact on its outcome, and the work cemented her reputation not only as a pre-eminent historian of the American South, but as a feminist scholar.

Faust has given no public indication that she objects to this feminist label. (She declined to be interviewed for this article.) Especially in recent years, she has dedicated much of her time and energy to the cause of women in academia: for four years after the publication of "Mothers of Invention," she served as chair of the University of Pennsylvania's Women's Studies Program, and the Radcliffe Institute, which she ran for six years, is descended from Radcliffe, the women's college that was for many years affiliated with Harvard. In 2005, at Summers's request, she chaired Harvard's task forces on Women Faculty and on Women in Science and Engineering.

Still, women's history has not been a predominant intellectual interest of Faust's. Of the five books she has written, only one deals primarily with women, and her next book, due out next year, is about the ways in which the Civil War revolutionized the American understanding of death.

And, as Faust herself has pointed out, the message of her scholarship on women is not a straightforwardly feminist one. In a 1997 interview in Humanities Magazine, she emphasized how reluctant the white, elite Southern women she had studied (she had read the correspondence of nearly 500 of them) had been to take on the new responsibilities the war thrust on them -- from managing plantations without men to entering the workplace and even, as the war dragged on, contributing time and money to assisting the troops.

"It was not women embracing the possibility of liberation," she said. "It was women being forced into taking up new roles and being forced into breaking boundaries. That's very different from the message of much of feminist scholarship about women in the American past."

Faust's own new role is a formidable one. As Harvard's president she will have to manage not only a major expansion of the campus and the reform of the undergraduate curriculum, but the day-to-day demands of running an institution with a $30 billion endowment and a collection of mind-bogglingly large (and often tenured) egos. To succeed, she'll need to take on entrenched interests within the university, knowing when to play the conciliator and when to provoke debates.If her past is any guide, the latter should come naturally. Stephanie McCurry remembers a conversation she had with Faust at the San Diego conference after Faust had given her paper. As McCurry recalls, Faust told her it had been something of a goad (Faust herself admitted as much in the 1997 Humanities interview). As Faust saw it, since the only way to make something really matter in Civil War history is to argue that it explains the Confederate defeat, "she just went ahead with it," McCurry recounts.

"She was three-quarters of the way convinced of her argument," says McCurry, "so she just said, 'What the heck.'"

That spirit may serve Faust well as she sets out to shape, rather than study, history.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail