Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury
- By Drew Gilpin Faust
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 306 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis
- August 21, 2023
An historian/academic reflects on the tumultuous 1960s.
Necessary Trouble is both an engaging memoir and an essential social history. Readers will find it a book well worth reading on both counts. Author Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female president of Harvard, began her academic career as an historian, an area of interest that perhaps was inevitable. A sense of the past permeated every aspect of her childhood in Virginia horse country. “I knew I lived in history,” she writes. “Nearly a century after Appomattox, Virginia was still breathing the air of war and defeat.”
Her family belonged to an elite social strata that adhered to an implicit but ironclad set of mores and constraints — mores and constraints her mother wholly embraced but Gilpin Faust rebelled against, especially since they didn’t apply to any of the author’s three brothers. What ensued was a yearslong mother-daughter “argument that was what we had instead of a relationship.”
In December1966, Gilpin Faust, then a junior at Bryn Mawr, comes home to Lakeville, the family farm, expecting to resume and perhaps resolve the argument. But she never gets the opportunity. On Christmas Eve, her mother dies. Gilpin Faust’s descriptions of that day’s blizzard, of playing board games to distract her younger brother, and of her maternal grandmother, Isabella Tyson Gilpin, arriving from a dinner party “dressed in a floor-length green satin gown” are as moving and vivid as any skilled novelist’s.
But Gilpin Faust is an historian, and she situates her profoundly personal loss within the broader cultural context, focusing on how the generations immediately preceding hers were defined by war.
“They were impelled by the inevitability of conscription,” she writes of her family’s men, “but they were motivated more powerfully by deeply held convictions about who they must be as men and about the existential link between manhood and war.” Her father, McGhee Tyson Gilpin, was named for an uncle he never met. Charles McGhee Tyson died in the North Sea when his plane crashed exactly one month before the World War I armistice. He was 29 years old. At the time, young Charles’ father, General Lawrence Davis Tyson, was commander of the 59th Brigade, 30th Division.
Two decades later, General Tyson’s grandson, Gilpin Faust’s father, would be called to serve in World War II. Immediately after D-Day, he landed in France, served in Patton’s army, was wounded, received the purple heart, and on V-E Day marched down the Champs-Elysées. But he came home a spent man, unable to fulfill the brilliance he had evinced at Princeton, and attempted one misbegotten venture after another while he argued with Gilpin Faust’s spendthrift mother. The war, in effect, came home with him.
Three days before her 13th birthday, Catharine Drew Gilpin left Lakeview for boarding school in Massachusetts. The Concord Academy wasn’t “strict” in the sense that its students had to observe many rules — in fact, they were free to go to downtown Concord, take the bus to Cambridge, or spend weekends away from campus. But it was a “hard” school when it came to academic rigor. It was also a school with a strong sense of purpose, which proved essential to Gilpin Faust’s own moral underpinnings. “Concord would hold us to the highest standard, not of individual achievement, but of values and service. It was our job to make a better world,” she observes.
Even as a young child surrounded by Black cooks and caretakers, Gilpin Faust was aware of racial inequities, but she became truly inspired the night Concord Academy students were invited to Groton to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. “In less than an hour, King not only explained the political, philosophical, and religious foundations of the civil rights movement but also charged us to join him,” she writes. By the time she entered Bryn Mawr, she was ready to take up King’s charge.
Throughout college, Gilpin Faust was an ardent civil rights and anti-war activist — her memoir’s title comes from an exhortation from John Lewis, the civil rights icon, “to get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” She spent one summer on a trip sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and traveled throughout the South engaging with people holding views vastly different than her own — an activity she now admits was “astonishingly naïve.”
She traveled to Prince Edward County in her home state to meet with white leaders in an effort to persuade them to reopen the public schools they’d closed in the face of integration. She skipped her midterm exams to travel to Selma, Alabama, and march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the second wave of protesters. But by then, the Civil Rights Movement was splintering; eventually, it would be overtaken by protests against the Vietnam War.
One of the great contributions that Necessary Trouble makes to history is that it is both a personal accounting and an analysis of how one movement morphed into another. Too frequently, historians study the Civil Rights and anti-war movements as distinct phenomena, but in actuality, they were successive waves on the same seething sea.
The huge marches and protests that had been effective in the Civil Rights Movement, however, had little impact on American foreign policy. “We fasted, we protested, we held Vietnam weeks filled with speakers and seminars, and we tried to spread anti-war sentiment with the community-organizing drive of 1967’s Vietnam Summer,” Gilpin Faust writes. The war dragged on, however, and activism grew increasingly violent, eventually devolving into a drug-addled demi-monde. By the time the author graduated in 1968, King had been assassinated, and movement organizers were growing as spent as Gilpin Faust’s father had been when he came home from WWII.
By the book’s final chapter, Gilpin Faust is working and living on her own. She returns home to do something she’d been too young to do throughout her years of activism in college: vote. While her reflections on the various dimensions of freedom are interesting, this reviewer would have welcomed a more personal, contemplative conclusion to the memoir that examined what she felt being back in Virginia — the place she had to leave in order to become the remarkable woman she eventually became.
Patricia Schultheis is the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2007, and of St. Bart’s Way, an award-winning story collection published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 2015. Her latest book is A Balanced Life, published by All Things That Matter Press in 2018.