Necessary Problem: Growing up in the middle of the century
By Drew Gilpin Faust
FSG: 320 pages, $30
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Drew Gilpin Faust has risen to the top on her journey as a writer and academic. An award-winning historian, Faust made history herself in 2007 when she became the first woman President of Harvard University. There is no better access to the Halls of Achievements and Privileges than this.
Faust’s scholarly specialty is the fragmenting effects of slavery and racial injustice on American life; her 1996 book “mothers of invention“: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War” won two major history awards, and 2008’s “This Republic of Suffering,” which explored how the Civil War shaped America’s relationship with death, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards. Now she has written a memoir recalling how her early experiences inspired her to become a historian.
“Necessary trouble“takes us from Faust’s birth to her graduation from Bryn Mawr University, from her upbringing in the 1950s to her involvement in the turbulent civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. The story of how a Southern daughter born into the privileges of a segregated society had to grapple with the history of a nation prone to racial amnesia is rich in potential, especially as the struggle to dismantle structural racism intensifies .
Part memoir, part political and cultural history, “Faust” is a sharply observed reminder of the forces that shaped her, though it can be frustrating for anyone looking for a deeper psychological portrait of this incredibly talented individual.
Faust calls 1950s Virginia “an era that feels like a foreign country,” a society so segregated that the only black people Faust knew were farm laborers or domestic servants. These workers cleaned their house, cooked their meals, and were never addressed by anything but their first names. Most of the residents of the black community down the road lived without running water. “The whites I grew up with believed that blacks both accepted and deserved their assigned, separate, and subordinate place,” she writes.
Faust’s mother was the specter of a woman, probably anorexic, who had given up any identity outside of motherhood and “viewed the world as a dangerous place for women, for their bodies and for their reputations”. Subsisting on camels and whiskey, she advised her extremely bright little daughter to submit to Virginia’s bidding and become a “lady.”
“I’m sure she loved her children,” writes Faust. “But I’m less sure if she liked or enjoyed us. Especially me.” When Faust was still in college, her mother died after surgery on Christmas Eve. At the funeral reception, “a neighbor came up to me and grabbed a handful of my long, straight hair — which has been the cause of many of our mother-daughter arguments “You killed her, you know,” she spat.” Her father, a racer, breeder, and horse dealer, stayed on the sidelines of the family struggles.
Many young women would have perished from this lack of affection, but Faust only reinforced their convictions. Bolstered by the confidence she gained through horseback riding, independent thinking, and reading stories of strong women (Nancy Drew, Anne Frank, Scout Finch), Faust came to the conclusion that the treatment of black people by their neighbors was an affront to the Christian ideals that she had brought up An. Three days before her 13th birthday she went to boarding school. In an atmosphere where women were valued and encouraged to reach their potential, she embarked on a lifelong course in learning how to learn, how to lead, and how to value your own gifts.
At Concord Academy and then Bryn MawrFaust received the best education money could buy for a young woman, and from an early age she was stimulated to write, travel, and eventually protest. At the age of 15, she joined a group of multiracial students who traveled through Eastern Europe in the middle of the Cold War and witnessed firsthand the aftermath of oppression.
The following year, 1964, the same week that three civil rights activists were murdered in Mississippi, she accompanied a multiracial group of students on a Quaker-sponsored trip to Virginia, where she participated in black protests and voter education efforts. “No one openly expressed fears or concerns,” she writes. “Instead, the sense of risk and danger brought us closer.” This was the beginning of an active engagement that culminated in her joining the Montgomery March in 1965 and taking her through the darkest days of the Vietnam War.
Faust’s gift to this story is her knowledge of American history. She effortlessly inserts the signposts of her own life into the how and why of the convulsions that rocked the 1960s. She has a bone dry sense of humor and is aware of the irony of learning activism in institutions grappling with their own racist legacy. There were no black history or women’s history courses at Bryn Mawr, and the contemplative life was facilitated by a group of black servants.
At the same time, Faust maintains a distance that makes the reader want more. As soon as she leaves home, her tormented but fascinating family fades into the background, and her vivid portrait of her parents inspires a desire for a resolution that is never fulfilled. How did you view her burgeoning activism? Did you know that a few miles away she risked her life to campaign for civil rights? Was there ever a reckoning?
Necessary Trouble ends in 1968, a tough year for America and the year Faust graduated from college. I, for one, would love to read about her next chapter — how she became a historian, how she excelled in academia, and how she became a committed activist to head an institution that many see as a metonym for privilege. Her account of herself is well told but incomplete. We can only hope that eventually she will tell the rest of the story.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in Seattle, writes about books and authors.