On Monday night, a couple of us went to the Kennedy Center to hear the annual Jefferson Lecture, a spring tradition in Washington, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This year’s speaker was Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University and a Civil War historian with six books to her credit, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. With the sesquicentennial of the attack on Fort Sumter just a month ago, Faust was a natural choice to give the prestigious speech. (And all the more suitable for us WQers, who are preparing the Summer issue’s Current Books section, which is entirely devoted to the Civil War.)
Faust recalled her girlhood in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where she played a Civil War version of cops and robbers with her brothers and took in a reenactment of the battle of Antietam with the excitement most kids reserve for the circus. Looking back, Faust said that the story she was drawn to “was a carnival without carnage, a battle stripped of content and context… designed to be less about remembrance than about forgetting.”
As Christopher Clausen observed in his piece for the WQ’s Spring 2010 issue, the debate about how the clash should be remembered is still intense. I particularly enjoyed Faust’s eloquent and perceptive take on the deeper reason that people are drawn to the Civil War:
“An essential aspect of its interest and appeal—not just to those reenactors, but in fact, to all of us—is simply that it was war. As we have sought through the centuries to define ourselves as human beings and as nations through the prisms of history and literature, no small part of that effort has drawn us to war. We might even say that the humanities began with war and from war and have remained entwined with it ever since. The first masterwork of Western literature, dating to approximately 750 BCE, was the Iliad, a tale that exerts a wrenching power almost two millennia after its origin. Western historiography was born somewhat later, but it too emerged as a chronicle of war in the hands of Herodotus and Thucydides in the fifth century BCE.
How is it that the human has become so entangled with the inhumane? That humanity’s highest creative aspirations of literature and imagination have been all but inseparable from its most terrible invention: the scourge of war?”
Read the rest of Faust’s lecture here.
Photo credit: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by random letters via flickr