Growing up in 1950s Richmond, Virginia, I would often visit houses that featured wall plaques, or cross-stitch samplers, or even cocktail napkins proclaiming this unattributed, apparently self-evident aphorism: “To be a Virginian, whether by birth, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side, is an introduction in any state of the Union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from Almighty God.”
I thought about those plaques as I read Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury, a memoir by former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust of her childhood in Virginia. The memoir is worth reading simply because of its insight into the making of an intellect that had a profound effect on American historiography through her writing and on American education as president of Harvard from 2007 to 2018. But I can’t help seeing her somber, measured tale of a midcentury upbringing through the lens of my own contemporaneous childhood not far away. Whether by divine providence or not, Virginia at that time was a distinctly unusual place to grow up.
I feel sure that Faust’s home, in northern Virginia’s “horse country,” did not have a “Benediction from God” plaque. We didn’t have one in the house I grew up in, farther south in the state’s capital, which was also proudly styled as the “Capital of the Confederacy.” I think it was partly because they seemed a bit tacky (real Virginians, dear, do not need to boast) and partly because my mother was (say it softly) from out of town. She took her interloper status in stride and eventually came to fit in; she would wryly quote the old Richmond joke about a woman who moved to town at the age of three months, died in her home 88 years later, and was buried with the epitaph Almost One of Us.
Faust was born as Catherine Drew Gilpin in 1947 (three years before me), but unlike my father’s family, her roots lay elsewhere: Her father, Tyson Gilpin, was Virginia-born but from a Tennessee family, and her mother, Catherine Mellick, was born in New Jersey (not only not from here but actually from up North). The Gilpins’s family horse farm was in rural Clarke County, at the very northern tip of the Commonwealth, about 50 miles from Washington, D.C. Among its other distinctions, Clarke County was home to Senators Harry F. Byrd, père et fils, dynastic rulers of the Commonwealth’s segregationist political machine from 1926 until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Necessary Trouble fascinated me because of my own background, but its painful narrative transcends its Virginia setting. It derives its power from the story of Faust’s mother—the tragedy of a woman trapped in a place and time deeply antagonistic to female flowering. This narrative forms an understated background to Faust’s memoir of her upbringing; the book opens with the mother’s death during Faust’s college years.
Catherine, her daughter writes, was unprepared for the bizarre contradictions of Southern life:
My mother was deeply unhappy in 1950s Virginia. It was a place of roles and rules, of revered traditions and rigid expectations not entirely removed from slavery times. An easy day’s drive from where she had grown up in New Jersey, this was nevertheless in many years a world apart. . . . . Segregation was mandated by Virginia law, and the unfamiliar details of racial etiquette and hierarchy were customs she needed to learn. In the suburbs of New York, she had not had to think about being white. But this was the South, and my mother had joined one of the families who regarded themselves as the local gentry, with the privileges and presumptions that entailed.
A major “privilege and presumption” of upper- and upper-middle-class Southern life was reticence. Certain things were just not spoken of; thus, Faust herself never learned the actual cause of her mother’s death on Christmas Eve at a Charlottesville, Virginia, hospital. Her grandmother claimed it was an aortic embolism; others spoke of colitis and a perforated intestine; Faust speculates that it may have been anorexia. The deeper cause was, as one friend wrote after her death, that “There was no happy future for her.”
Faust centers a large part of her mother’s tragedy on 1950s American sex roles, which varied by region but were always rigid. At one point in her childhood, Faust and her brother asked themselves whether getting a job might lift the gloom that enveloped their mother; the idea seemed, in Clarke County at that time, unimaginable: “She had never been educated or expected to work, and indeed not one of the other mothers in our social circle was employed outside the house.”
Here, our Southern stories diverge: My mother (who had breathed free air when she worked as a cryptographer, a World War II “code girl” in the Pentagon before marrying) lived on in grande dame splendor into her 80s, holding down a job until six months before her death; she spent Election Day 2008 driving voters to the polls for the Obama-Biden ticket, then collapsed with a fatal stroke while waiting for the returns.
What was the difference in the lives of our respective mothers, both constrained by the hard limits and unspoken rules of the segregated South?
Here’s a hint: “I cannot imagine,” Faust writes, “that my mother ever read The Feminine Mystique.” My own mother did discover Betty Friedan, and that discovery, and the changes it set afoot, transformed her life. For days after Rozanne Epps bought the controversial book in 1963, she would read it aloud at the dinner table to my father, my brothers, and me; not long afterward, she went back to work. Though the four males in her life protested at this violation of tradition, that day she first went off to her new job, in retrospect, was clearly the luckiest day of our lives. As Faust reports, Friedan’s book diagnosed the post-war housewife as feeling “terrible anger” at the rigidity of her role, an anger that, unable to be expressed against her husband and children, turned inward toward self-destruction.
As my mother began to spread her work wings, her unexpressed anger dissipated to the relief of all under her roof. Catherine Mellick Gilpin never had that release. Perhaps that stifled rage is part of what killed her far too early.
Faust’s father, meanwhile, returned from World War II to build a career as a horse breeder. The braided story of this couple, outwardly favorites of fortune but inwardly doomed, forms the backdrop for Necessary Trouble. Indeed, one way to read this wonderful memoir is as a kind of Southern murder mystery, the story of two people who, in essence, murdered themselves, who disappeared forever into the roles Southern white society demanded they play. (Faust writes that her maternal grandmother, Isabella Tyson, developed dementia in old age but never lost her awareness of the proper response to any situation: “So strong were the lessons and expectations and prescriptions that defined her, they outlasted rational thought or self-conscious intention. They remained when the self beneath them had departed.”
Like the prize-winning historian she became, Faust sets the family story against the larger economic and social history of America in the 1950s—the Cold War, the near-panic of Sputnik, duck-and-cover nuclear drills in schools, TV dinners, instant coffee, Life magazine, and “magic controller bras.” Beyond that, she points out a key difference between that time and our own—that government policy back then favored a rising middle class and economically penalized those who lived on inherited wealth. During the 1950s, the middle class was moving sharply upward, but, unfortunately for the residual landed gentry like her family, that rise “was accompanied by sharply narrowing inequality that had been inaugurated by the 1929 crash and expanded by the New Deal and the [Second World] war.” The horse country sank as the urban middle class (like my family) rose. Since 1980, of course, the reverse has been true. But that came too late to save the Gilpins.
The rest of Tyson’s life was a prolonged “struggle against downward mobility.” Tyson and Catherine’s inner lives can’t be recaptured because so much of those lives was not expressed, one suspects, even to themselves. But for reasons unclear to the reader, these two prisoners of Virginia brought up a daughter equipped to escape from their world. From an early age, Drew had an English nanny rather than someone from the rural south; when she was ready for high school, Tyson and Catherine sent her off to Concord Academy in Massachusetts, where she was encouraged to excel academically, read widely, and think independently.
This part of Faust’s memoir brought me to tears. They were tears, first of all, of joy for Faust, who had been given the keys to her cell. Not every gifted young woman got those keys, and many dashed themselves against the bars. But my tears were also for myself because I was not permitted an early escape from the dim, silent aquarium of segregation, where for all the gentility on display, violence and hatred lurked below the surface; I spent my adolescence kicking vainly against the bars of a cage I was not intellectually equipped to understand and about whose limits there was no one—friend or adult—I could talk to. While she was learning about the free spirits that had roamed 19th Century Concord—Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau—I was being required to memorize drivel like “The Song of the Chattahoochee” by Sydney Lanier, “the poet of the Confederacy,” or “The Baby Corps,” a poem lauding the heroism of Virginia Military Institute Cadets who died at the Battle of New Market; the wisdom of Robert E. Lee loomed larger in my schooling than that of any Transcendentalist. Faust reported being required to use “primary sources” for a Concord assignment; I did not know what that term meant until my sophomore year of college. History was what was written in the textbooks (some written, not by historians, but by segregationist politicians—including heaping helpings of praise for slavery and the Lost Cause.)
Unlike at Concord Academy, at my segregated boys’ day school, any hint of dissent, and indeed of unsanctioned thought, was—as elsewhere in segregated society—an occasion of horror and closed-door consultation; a child’s reputation for independent thinking brought down the full weight of adult bullying, both inside the school and outside, in the larger society of white Richmond. In my senior year of high school, I made the most modest imaginable gesture of protest against a symbol of segregation (an American flag that the school did not lower after King’s 1968 assassination). The adult reaction was a firestorm; adults in the larger community were at pains to tell me how dreadful the flag protest had been, and the school leaders told me they would see that my acceptance to Harvard was rescinded. (I don’t know whether they tried, but, in the event, it wasn’t.) That was a lesson about the power of symbols to define our segregated world and was one reason why, far from the South, I felt myself breathe easier when Richmond tore down the motionless ghosts of Monument Avenue.
Faust had to evade this same adult bullying at home (at her mother’s funeral, she reports, a neighbor who knew of their frequent mother-daughter conflicts grabbed Drew by the hair and hissed, “You killed her, you know.”) and societal suspicion of the intellect. An academic star from an early age, she recalls a note from a teacher to her mother suggesting she discourage Drew from reading books over the summer: “Enough is enough.” She never explains why her parents allowed her to evade the dark heart of Southern life. Perhaps they understood that nothing good could come from forcing her to conform—that her path was set because of what was clearly a strong character. At any rate, the central fact of Necessary Trouble is that this child of fading privilege and gentility came, from an early age, to embody a decorous but insistent dissent from the injustices among which she lived. In 1957, at the age of 10, she wrote a long, ceremonious letter to President Eisenhower, asking him to alleviate the inequalities of segregation: “Colored people aren’t given a chance. ‘They don’t have a good education,’ says [sic] many people. Is it their fault if their fathers are so poor, they must be taken out at an early age to find jobs?”, she wrote. Mild as this dissent was, it was all but unsayable for most white Virginians even by the time I reached high school seven years later.
When the time for high school came, her parents sent her to Concord Academy in the free air of Massachusetts. Concord Academy in Faust’s time was all-female (it became coed in 1971), but Concord women were expected to be, within the mannerly framework of 1950s society, full persons, complete with knowledge, values, and opinions. At Concord, Faust attended a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. at a nearby boys’ school. Even more remarkably, Tyson and Catherine allowed Drew, at 16, to travel with a small student group, coed and biracial, to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. This remarkable decision was not parental carelessness; before giving assent, Faust’s mother traveled North to make certain that, even in the Communist world, Drew would be properly chaperoned around young men.
A year later, she was permitted to join a similar trip through the South to speak with the proponents and opponents of the Civil Rights Movement, including a stop in Prince Edward County, the deepest heart of the segregated beast, which had closed its schools completely rather than desegregate, and had kept them closed for five years. (White students got county-paid scholarships to “Prince Edward Academy,” a segregated private school with a library donated by famed Richmond newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick.) By the time she entered Bryn Mawr in the fall of 1964, Drew had seen large parts of American and world society that adults in my world were desperate to cover up. And, true to her temperament and upbringing, she emerged at this women’s college as an effective but profoundly sober and decorous rebel.
She excelled academically and rose to the top of student government. Her commitment to civil rights continued—after the Bloody Sunday attack by Alabama state troopers on non-violent voting rights marchers in 1965, she went to Selma (receiving permission from one of her teachers, of course) to take part in another march. Returning to Bryn Mawr, she received a note from the professor, who said that he sympathized with her desire to join the march but could “not help deploring the effect on the paper that decision all too evidently had. . . . [P]aragraphs are not crisply determined, and ideas and phrases are repeated far too often.”
I doubt that anyone since has ever questioned whether Drew Faust was crisply determined. The administration at Bryn Mawr felt her gentle wrath when, as head of the student government, she confronted the injustice of the college’s “parietal rules,” which required the female students to be safely in the dorm by curfew. At the same time, no such rule bound the chaps at nearby Haverford. In a bold move, “I called for an open meeting to consider whether Bryn Mawr women should be permitted to spend the night at Haverford.”
In this battle, as in others, she writes, “I was much more comfortable with a politics grounded in debate and persuasion, and with power exerted through democratic expression, than with the new performative and coercive style coming to characterize young militants.”
The struggle seems to have resembled repartee during a minuet far more than the chaos of revolt that overwhelmed Northern campuses only a few years later. Drew politely piloted her side to victory and relishes the tale. Years later, she proudly told it to her college-age daughter: “‘I eliminated parietals at Bryn Mawr!’ My daughter looked at me blankly and asked, ‘What are parietals?'”
The history of the parietal struggle was, of course, soon drowned in the tumult of the Vietnam War, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, the hippie movement, urban rioting, radical Black movements like the Black Panthers, and the post-Friedan arrival of a truly radical feminist movement. Drew Faust also took her part in that struggle—volunteering for an ill-fated Students for a Democratic Society organizing project in Philadelphia and attending the enormous anti-war marches in Washington during the waning years of Lyndon Johnson‘s administration. But she was clearly shaped far more powerfully by the kind of protest that won the freedom of Bryn Mawr women to disport in nearby men’s dorms.
If I read her story right, the decorous impulse to protest that led her, at the age of 10, to instruct Dwight Eisenhower in race relations remains a wellspring of her character and remarkable career. As a historian, she chronicled with sympathy the inner lives of 19th-century Southerners, male and female, and the terrible toll that the Civil War exacted from Americans on both sides of the conflict. Her temperament has been a powerful intellectual and professional force. It may count among the remarkably small number of good things to emerge from the wreck of Southern white society in the segregated era.
We who remember that bleak, silent, all-but-forgotten world should, like her, bear witness to its injustices and tragedies and should be grateful that Drew Gilpin Faust has done her part to prevent them from being forgotten—or as now seems horrifyingly possible, revived.