Last night Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard and distinguished Civil War historian, delivered the 2011 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. According to the National Endowment for the Humanities website, the Jefferson Lecture is the “highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. Previous Jefferson lecturers include John Hope Franklin, Saul Bellow, C. Vann Woodward, Barbara Tuchman, Jaroslav Pelikan, Forrest McDonald, Robert Nisbet, Walker Percy, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Toni Morrison, Bernard Bailyn, Caroline Walker Bynum, James McPherson, Henry Louis Gates, David McCullough, Tom Wolfe, and John Updike.
Earlier today AHA Today republished Yale historian David Blight’s appreciation of Faust and her work. Here is a taste:
…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 clear, 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 past’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, The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South: 1830–1860, and a biography, James Henry 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. Their failed struggle to manage any permanent “institutionalization of intellect” turns out to be similar to those pursuing the life of the mind in many other eras and worlds.
Even more lastingly, Faust helped forge a new interpretation of proslavery ideology. Rather than ungraspable “odd” defenders of the twin evils of slavery and white supremacy alone, the myriad writers who fashioned an elaborate justification of slavery in the antebellum era were believers in an organically conservative, hierarchical worldview, manipulating the Bible, but also a theory of history and human nature to defend racial slavery as a vision of social order. Their views were rendered no less racist or abhorrent, but in Faust’s handling their defense of such a system of exploitation became comprehensible as rational thought. Moreover, in Hammond, Faust found a figure through which all the contradictions of the Old South flowed; he was a brilliant and handsome sexual predator who abused his slave women at the same time he argued for a blending of modernization and tradition in a society heading toward destruction.
I am sure it was a great lecture. The title was “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.” Inside Higher Ed reports on the speech here.
Christopher Eads says
The written text of the presentation is available at