A pretty good indication of whether an academic’s book is worth reading, if its subject sounds sort of flaky, is to check who the publisher is.
So say you have a book called This Republic of Suffering, which advertises itself as a history of the Civil War told through the lens of death and dying and whose back-cover description ends on this note: “Were he alive today, This Republic of Suffering would compel Walt Whitman to abandon his certainty that the ‘real war will never get in the books.’”
Now this could be a really, really bad read, brim-full with jargon and dense prose, the type of thing for which the academy is justifiably ridiculed. Turn, please, to the inside cover. Does it say University of Indiana Press? Or, Knopf?
Drew Faust, the president of Harvard, had This Republic of Suffering published by the latter. Today, it received a fairly gushing review at the hands of the Washington Post, though like all things Drew Faust, probably including her publishing contract, that has more to do with her present office. In the words of Louis XIV (or at least Mel Brooks’ rendition of him): “It’s good to be the king.”
Anyways, I’m curious to read it; by all accounts, it is more accessible than her previous work, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, which according to Publishers Weekly:
[M]akes a major contribution to both Civil War historiography and women’s studies in this outstanding analysis of the impact of secession, invasion and conquest on Southern white women. Antebellum images based on helplessness and dependence were challenged as women assumed an increasing range of social and economic responsibilities. Their successes were, however, at best mixed, involving high levels of improvisation.
If This Republic of Suffering is an escape from the sweet nothings of gender history (“images of helplessness and dependence were challenged”?), then it is, prima facie, an accomplishment for Faust, the importance of whose academic career has thus far been delimited by and for gender, in the South, in the 1860s. If it aspires further, to be a book that ordinary people can pick up and read and get something from, even if their original motivation more concerned her status rather than the book’s, then perhaps Drew Faust is coming into her stride.