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2008 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist Drew Gilpin Faust Interview

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Photo © Tony Rinaldo.

Drew Gilpin Faust
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Alfred A. Knopf

Interview conducted by Meehan Crist.

MC: When did you decide to write This Republic of Suffering and why? Did your reasons change as you worked on it?

DGF: I decided to write this book as I was working on an earlier one: Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. As I was doing the research for that book and reading hundreds of Confederate women’s letters and diaries, I was struck that as they wrote about the war, they talked so much about death—the fear of death, the reality of death, the aftermath of death — of fathers, brothers and sons. As a historian I had long approached the war with different questions foremost in my mind: the preservation of the union, the emancipation of the slaves, the military challenges in securing victory. Yet as I listened to these women I realized that for Americans of the 1860s, death was at the heart of the experience in ways we of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries had not fully acknowledged. 620,000 is the number most often cited as the total of northern and southern military dead. That was 2% of the population, which would be 6 million Americans today. It seems unimaginable. I wrote this book because I wanted to explore what the impact of such a death toll was on American society — from its burial and mourning customs to its most fundamental political and religious values.

MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of your research? Did it change the book in any way?

DGF: The most surprising thing I learned was something that I discovered early on, and it shaped everything I did after that. I had been studying and teaching Civil War history for more than a decade when I began to focus my research on death. But I had not realized that neither the northern nor southern army had any formal process of notifying families of the dead about the fate of their loved ones, and that, indeed, soldiers did not even wear identification badges. Forty percent of dead Yankees and a far higher proportion of dead Confederates died unknown. It seemed to me astonishing that less than a century and a half ago, our government did not assume responsibility for the names and bodies of the dead. I vividly remembered the strength of the MIA movement after the Vietnam War, and I learned too of the more than $100 million the federal government continues to spend each year in the effort to find and identify the approximately 88,000 individuals still missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. We do not question the obligation of the state to account for and return — either dead or alive — every soldier in its service. Remarkably, such assumptions did not exist in 1861; perhaps even more remarkably, just a few years later they did. The experience of Civil War created a revolutionary transformation of assumptions and values. Such dramatic and rapid change cannot but be a matter of deep fascination for any historian, especially when the change involves both public policy and the most basic human sentiments.

MC: How did you decide on the structure for the book?

DGF: When I was organizing my research in order to begin to write, I noticed how often Civil War Americans talked about what they called “the work of death,” meaning the duties of soldiers to fight, kill and die, but also meaning battle’s consequences: its slaughter, suffering and devastation. Death in war doesn’t just happen; it requires action and agents. It is work to kill; it is work to die, to know how to approach life’s last moments; it is work to bury the dead, to remember the dead, to explain death’s meaning. My book is organized around that notion of work, around the notion of death’s demands of us. All of the chapter titles are gerunds: Dying, Killing, Burying, Believing and Doubting and so on, with each chapter representing a dimension of that work. I see the changing work of death from era to era and from place to place as a historical problem, and that was the issue at the heart of the book.

MC: Are there books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

DGF: There are many great books about war that served as inspirations. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory is a magnificent rendering of how war can change assumptions and values. Jay Winter disagrees with much of Fussell’s argument yet his books were important influences on me as well. When I first read Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg, my reaction was “I wish I had written this book!” These are nonfiction works of historical analysis, but I also had very much in mind the traditions of war fiction which have claimed for literature perhaps the most powerful portrait of war and its effects on human consciousness. From the Iliad to Tolstoy to Pat Barker to Tim O’Brien and Bao Ninh, writers through the ages have shaped how I think about war.

MC: How does your experience outside the literary world of nonfiction inform your work as a non fiction writer? How has it informed this particular book?

DGF: Many years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, which thankfully is now completely cured. I found that when you are forced to think about death, life comes into very sharp focus. So death gives you a particular window on the world around you. Nineteenth century Americans believed, and this was part of their notion of a good death, that you lived a better life if you were always thinking that it would have an end. It sharpened your experience of the world. Twentieth and twenty-first century Americans try not to think about death. After my experience with illness, I recognized something of the meaning of the nineteenth century viewpoint, that thinking about death can enrich your life, not detract from it. So in some ways I moved toward a more nineteenth century view of death than perhaps is common among my colleagues and friends.

There is a recent poem about death by Donald Hall, the last line of which declares “it is fitting/ and delicious to lose everything.” Hall recognizes that things aren’t eternal, and that the fact you do not have them forever enhances their value. That is the perspective that the nineteenth century view of death can offer us, even in these very different times.

MC: If you could choose one person to read This Republic of Suffering, who would it be, and why would you want that particular person to read it?

DGF: It would be my father, who died in 2000, to whom the book is dedicated. He was a Captain in the Army in World War II and was wounded in France and awarded the Purple Heart and the Croix de Guerre. I have a photograph of him standing on the steps of Notre Dame during the liberation of Paris. I always felt that war had shaped him in ways I never quite understood, that war had been the defining experience of his life, that the rest of it was an afterthought. But he never talked about the war much. If he had lived to read this book, perhaps we could have had that conversation.

MC: What is one moment from the process of working on this book that you’ll never forget?

DGF: One of the most memorable moments for me as I worked on this book was coming across a letter a soldier wrote to his father as he was dying. The manuscript is stained with his blood. I felt such a powerful connection with that soldier, James Montgomery, for there were not just his words, but an actual part of him before me as I sat in the library at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. I felt very directly connected him and to the others of the more than 600,000 who died; it made the century and a half between us seem for a moment to disappear. And his words alone were powerful enough. A Confederate private, wounded in 1864 at Spotsylvania, Montgomery explained to his father “I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son.” “Delighted” seems such an odd word here until we remember that hundreds of thousands of soldiers died without names, leaving families who never knew their fates. Montgomery’s father was in that sense one of the lucky ones.

MC: At this disturbed cultural and political moment—reading is in crisis, the economy is in crisis, our country is at war—how do you see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work on this book as an engagement with that role?

DGF: My book is very much focused on the experience of the nineteenth century. I make some comparisons with the present, but do so more with the end of illuminating the nineteenth century than with suggesting specific insights into our own time. Why did I do that? Why did I stay so much in the past rather than trying to talk explicitly about the meaning of death in more recent wars or eras? Part of the reason derives from a more general attitude I have about history, which is that if we can learn to look at the world through someone else’s eyes, if we can learn to travel across time to live in their era and their skin, then inevitably when we come back to our own lives, our lenses of vision will have been changed. We will ask new and different questions about how we live. I wanted to set the stage for that transformation of vision, one that can unsettle our assumptions, destabilize the taken-for-grantedness of our lives. For me that is the most meaningful use of history, for it provides a sense of changed possibilities.

Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor Fellow at Colgate University.



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