One of our recommended books is Necessary Trouble by Drew Gilpin Faust


Growing Up at Midcentury

A memoir of coming of age in a conservative Southern family in postwar America.

To grow up in the 1950s was to enter a world of polarized national alliances, nuclear threat, and destabilized social hierarchies. Two world wars and the depression that connected them had unleashed a torrent of expectations and dissatisfactions—not only in global affairs but in American society and Americans’ lives.

A privileged white girl in conservative, segregated Virginia was expected to adopt a willful blindness to the inequities of race and the constraints of gender. For Drew Gilpin, the acceptance of both female subordination and racial hierarchy proved intolerable and galvanizing.

more …

A memoir of coming of age in a conservative Southern family in postwar America.

To grow up in the 1950s was to enter a world of polarized national alliances, nuclear threat, and destabilized social hierarchies. Two world wars and the depression that connected them had unleashed a torrent of expectations and dissatisfactions—not only in global affairs but in American society and Americans’ lives.

A privileged white girl in conservative, segregated Virginia was expected to adopt a willful blindness to the inequities of race and the constraints of gender. For Drew Gilpin, the acceptance of both female subordination and racial hierarchy proved intolerable and galvanizing. Urged to become “well adjusted” and to fill the role of a poised young lady that her upbringing imposed, she found resistance was necessary for her survival. During the 1960s, through her love of learning and her active engagement in the civil rights, student, and antiwar movements, Drew forged a path of her own—one that would eventually lead her to become a historian of the very conflicts that were instrumental in shaping the world she grew up in.

Culminating in the upheavals of 1968, Necessary Trouble captures a time of rapid change and fierce reaction in one young woman’s life, tracing the transformations and aftershocks that we continue to grapple with today.

less …
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • August 2023
  • 320 Pages
  • 9780374601805

Buy the Book

$30.00 indies Bookstore

About Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust is the author of Necessary TroubleDrew Gilpin Faust is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. She was Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2001 to 2007, and after twenty-five years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, she served as Harvard’s president from 2007 to 2018. Faust is the author of several books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; and Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, which won the Francis Parkman Prize. She and her husband live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


“In a powerful new memoir, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust details her experiences shedding the expectations of her insulated upbringing and the thoughtful courage it took to transcend the antiquated racial and gender biases of the time. This intricate narrative encapsulates the not-so-pleasant conflicts many struggled to overcome during the turbulent post-World War II period. Few overcame as successfully as Dr. Faust, and this publication should inspire those of us confronting similar challenges in today’s America.” Congressman James E. Clyburn

“Such a wonderful book. I can’t wait to give copies to my daughters. All young women should read this book. And everyone else, too.” —Sally Mann, author of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

“Faust nimbly blends the personal and the political in this affecting memoir . . . Faust pulls off a brilliant synthesis, grounding the macro stresses of the period in her quest to distance herself from her culture of origin and sharpen her political sensibilities.”Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

Necessary Trouble is a beautifully rendered coming-of-age narrative of a sensitive young woman—raised in a conservative white family of privilege in rural Virginia horse country—whose growing awareness of the suffocating conventions of gender gradually awakens her to the inequities of race. Through superb storytelling and delightfully lyrical prose, Drew Faust demonstrates, day-to-day, the inextricable interplay of class, gender, and race in mid-twentieth century America far more effectively than a scholarly treatise could ever achieve. Necessary Trouble is destined to be a classic of American memoir.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

“This gem of a memoir is a triumph. Drew Faust’s rich portrait of the South she grew up in and how she and it went through radical transformation is a necessary book for our times.” —Walter Isaacson, author of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

“An inviting, absorbing look at a privileged childhood in the segregated South and the birth of a questioning spirit.”Kirkus Reviews



Christmas 1966

When grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal.


I still have the bracelet, and I still feel it is somehow not rightfully mine. Under ordinary circumstances I suppose I might eventually have inherited it. But my mother never even saw it. When she died on Christmas Eve, her parents gave what they intended to be her gift to me instead. I would wear it day and night for months—my own version of a traditional mourning band. We woke up that next day in a house overflowing both with presents and with stunned, disbelieving grief. My mother had wrapped most of them, and as we eventually opened each package, they seemed less objects than posthumous messages, representations of what she thought had mattered to us, a final gesture of love.

Mounds of newly fallen snow, left by the previous day’s blizzard, surrounded the house, making it difficult to get in or out of the long driveway and muffling any sound from the farm animals huddled around the barn or from cars on the highway beyond the woods. We spoke in whispers as well, astonished by the strange white world that enveloped us and by the strange new motherless world we inhabited.

My father and mother had set off early the day before as the snow was just beginning to fall. My mother had been ill for several days, with symptoms that puzzled our local doctor, who decided that she should be taken to the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville, a hundred miles away. By midday Christmas Eve, as the flakes began to intensify, my father called to say she would be having surgery. He made it clear to me and my brother Donald, at sixteen three years younger than I, that her condition was extremely grave, but we couldn’t believe that our mother’s life was actually in danger. We decided our ten-year-old brother didn’t need to know, so we spent much of the day endeavoring to divert him with snowball fights and cards and board games. When the local minister arrived to pray with us, our ruse was up. Lou insisted he be told what was going on.

The afternoon darkened early as the storm grew stronger, and we played every game we could think of: poker, hearts, Monopoly, Sorry, Clue. Every so often a phone call would break the quiet. Our older brother, Tys, had secured holiday leave from the navy and was making his way to Union Station in Washington to rendezvous with my mother’s parents, who had long planned to come from New Jersey to join us for Christmas. Newscasters reported rapid accumulations of snow, and trains and planes ceased to operate as totals mounted. But it was much more than just the storm’s upending of travel plans that became a matter for concern. News from Charlottesville was not good. She had survived the surgery but had experienced an interruption of blood flow to her brain. Her prospects for survival were unclear; her prospect for survival with full mental function seemed slim. We waited.

Dice, cards, Monopoly houses and hotels, the lead pipe and the candlestick from Clue were scattered around the den. I moved from sitting cross-legged on the floor to sprawling in the red leather armchair. My brothers arm-wrestled. No one had the energy to light a fire even though the snowy Christmas Eve would have seemed to mandate it. Suddenly I heard a rustle of cloth and quiet footsteps. In swept my father’s mother, who lived about three miles down the road. Dressed in a floor-length green satin gown, she had come from a holiday dinner with my uncle and aunt, who followed her into the room. I remember no words, but none were required. Yet I know I needed words and struggled to find them hours later when Tys and my mother’s parents at last arrived through the blizzard, still unaware she had died. We had been watching for them for what seemed like hours, and at last the headlights grew larger and larger as their car crept up the driveway through the whirling storm. I can hear the sound of the weather stripping on the back door as it opened and the stomp of their boots on the kitchen linoleum as they tried to shake off the snow. Their eyes darted from me to each of my younger brothers as they eagerly awaited news. Our reluctance to speak was message enough.

I had returned home from college only a few days before, prepared for the confrontation with my mother that I knew was inevitable. We had had a terrible fight about whether I could go visit a friend in Connecticut before I came to Virginia for the rest of the holidays. She insisted she had to have a letter of invitation from his parents before I would be permitted to go. I thought this preposterous, accused her of living in the Middle Ages, and went to Connecticut. I don’t think I even told her that my friend was Black and that I had met him as part of a civil rights initiative in Birmingham, Alabama, two summers before. It could only have escalated the battle. But by the time I got home to Virginia, she had no fight in her. She was in bed, and I remember crouching down beside her to talk about plans for Christmas. She barely responded. We never settled the argument.

And we never settled the larger argument that was what we had instead of a relationship. At a reception after her funeral, a neighbor approached me and grabbed a handful of my long straight hair—which had served as grounds for many of our mother-daughter fights. “You killed her, you know,” she spat. I smiled politely and turned away as she returned to the bar. But I thought to myself, “At least I didn’t kill me.” I knew I had had no choice. I had had to fight with my mother in order to survive. And I knew, too, that in some way her failure to fight for her self—for a self—had contributed to the tragedy that was her life.

I remember parts of the days after her death as if they just happened; other parts I don’t remember at all. In the years since, I have been told by medically sophisticated interlocutors that our family narrative about the cause of my mother’s death makes no sense. My Virginia grandmother, my father’s mother, whom we called Granny, wrote that it was a “massive embolism of the aorta”; my mother’s own mother, Nan, never spoke of a reason or cause at all. I wonder, thinking back, if she might have simply believed that there could not be any good reason for this to have happened to her daughter. My understanding was that colitis had led to a perforated intestine, which resulted in blood clots that required surgery she did not survive.2

The reality is that my mother had long been very sick, but we children at least had grown so used to her emaciated frame and her lack of appetite that we had come to take it for granted. She herself never complained or made any overt reference to her health. I look now at photographs of her and wonder what we could have been thinking—and what my father could have been thinking—not to have done more to intervene. As a close friend of Granny’s wrote from Richmond upon hearing of her death, my mother had been “so obviously far, far, from well,” when she had last seen her two years before. “There was no happy future for her.”3 But what was so plain to a friend at a distance was all but invisible to us. We were a family in which anything difficult or unpleasant was avoided and denied, rather than recognized or addressed. I can remember my alcoholic New Jersey grandfather collapsing in his soup at dinner and simply being quietly removed from the room with no commentary or explanation to the bewildered and frightened grandchildren seated on either side of him at the table.

I wonder now if my mother was an adult anorexic—at the time of her death, she was five feet nine inches tall and weighed no more than ninety pounds—although neither the word nor the concept of anorexia existed in our minds in 1966. She hardly ate, chain-smoked Camels, and consumed what must have been a significant proportion of her caloric intake in whiskey—ritual old-fashioneds before and after dinner. But apart from tobacco and alcohol, she seemed determined to deny herself all pleasures, to make it her purpose to sacrifice herself for children and marriage. She had been a legendary horsewoman—she cut a figure mounted sidesaddle and met my father riding to hounds. There are glorious photographs of them side by side on horseback early in their marriage—she turned out in full riding habit and the two of them almost glistening, just as the horses and even the saddles and bridles shone. But my brothers and I have no memory of ever seeing my mother on a horse. She gave it up—along with tennis and sailing and so many other pursuits she had enjoyed—as she focused increasingly on us.

My mother and father riding to hounds with my father’s little sister Bettie in the foreground, late 1940s. My mother, as always, is mounted sidesaddle.

As we entered our teens, we three older children wished avidly that she would find some outlet to replace her all-absorbing interest and interventions in our lives. But for my mother there was no ready alternative. I remember discussing with my older brother, Tys, whether we might persuade her to get a job. But 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 home. The conventions that shaped her upbringing and the social constraints on middle- and upper-class women of the 1950s had left her living her life through her children.

My mother with her father, Roger Mellick, not long before he was shipped overseas, spring 1918.

My mother, Catharine Ginna Mellick, was born in 1918 in Plainfield, New Jersey. During her earliest months, her father was in the army, serving overseas for nearly a year. With the end of World War I, he returned to civilian life and a very remunerative position in the family’s odd-lot business on the New York Stock Exchange. In the 1920s, the family moved to the countryside in nearby Far Hills, where my mother enjoyed a childhood of ponies, dogs, excursions to New York City, summers by the sea, and not much education. In 1931, Cath’s mother wrote to an old family friend, Mira Hall, founder and headmistress of a school for girls in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, seeking admission for Cath. Their correspondence makes clear that the families were very close, and I remember seeing as a child a photograph of Miss Hall and my great-grandmother each atop a camel in front of the pyramids. My mother’s letter of acceptance, dated January 1932, is signed “With much love to you all, I am Affectionately yours,” but it also makes clear that admission was contingent upon Cath’s passing “our elementary entrance examinations.”4 This would prove no small obstacle.

Miss Hall’s was hailed by Fortune magazine in 1932 as one of the nation’s ten best private girls’ schools. But Cath was far from an accomplished student. A tutor delegated to prepare her for the exams noted, “She is reviewing English grammar, as we found that she knew practically nothing about it. She is also reviewing Geography as she failed a very elementary test in it at the start of the year. We started Algebra, Latin and French but had to give up Algebra and Latin as she did not seem to remember anything of Arithmetic.” The tutor informed Miss Hall that he was not giving her grades, as they would only discourage her. Although she was fourteen, she was doing “Fourth and Fifth Grade work.”5

With intensive effort and supervision, Cath at last managed to pass the English exam—although she never did get through spelling. Nevertheless, Miss Hall permitted her to enroll, registered in the general course, not the college preparatory curriculum. In a letter of recommendation, Miss Hall later characterized her as a student of “mediocre ability,” “not superior academically” but “rather outstanding in other qualities.”6 Cath completed only three years at the school, departing before graduation and before, it later turned out, accumulating sufficient credits to qualify for further study at Finch Junior College, where she applied and was rejected in 1937.

Perhaps her weak academic record had made further time at Miss Hall’s seem pointless, or perhaps it was simply the lure of study abroad that led to her enrollment at Villa Collina Ridente in Florence in the winter of 1936. “I’m out,” Cath wrote, “to become a lady.” Edith May, a Wellesley graduate who had worked in post–World War I rehabilitation efforts in Europe, had founded the establishment with an eye to providing women college graduates the opportunity to engage with international problems and perspectives. But by the mid-1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, May seems to have been compelled to shift course, turning to younger girls from prosperous families who needed to be occupied in the years between school and marriage. My mother often referred to her experience as “finishing school”7—a distant prospect from what May had originally intended.

Through the winter and spring, Cath and seventeen other young American women were escorted by a phalanx of chaperones—the ratio was five chaperones for eighteen girls—to concerts, museums, and a variety of academic lectures on subjects ranging from the League of Nations to Anatole France to Botticelli. “It is exciting to be right here in Europe where … history is being made by the minute,” Cath wrote her parents. She was fascinated by Mussolini and kept wishing he would appear at one of the musical or theatrical events the young women attended. “What I wouldn’t give to see that gentleman.” To fulfill her one major academic assignment, Cath composed a lengthy and unnervingly sympathetic essay on fascism. “I am really beginning to be a loyal Fascist,” she wrote her parents, “and don’t think he’s half as bad as he’s made out to be.”8 But the European sojourn and her infatuation with Mussolini were brief. She rendezvoused with her parents in Paris in May and, after a short visit to England, returned to the United States. She would have no more formal education.9

It would be six years before she married my father. Her surviving correspondence from that period suggests that she spent her time engaging in one activity after another, searching for something meaningful to do. Parties, friends’ engagements and weddings, horses, family, all occupied her attention. But gathering rumors of war and emerging realities of international conflict cast lengthening shadows over what I read as a forced and hollow gaiety of unquestioned privilege among her circle of family and friends. In an increasingly serious world, these young women had never been asked or expected to be serious. A friend from the Villa Collina, an American who in 1938 married an Argentine diplomat, wrote Cath in 1940 from a perspective informed and expanded by her international residence and travel: “Our world is going to change radically, I’m afraid, Cath. Our background, education, cultural interests and refinement are going to stand us of little use … The things we subconsciously looked forward to are being swept away.”10

But among the activities Cath undertook during these years, one did capture her interest and engagement far more deeply. It became a touchstone that she spoke of with nostalgia for the rest of her life, and it always made me think that she longed for something more than the 1950s domesticity to which she would ultimately be consigned. It called on her skills as a horsewoman, directed them toward service to others who lacked the comforts and advantages she had always enjoyed, and placed her in a community of powerful and effective women.

For six weeks in the fall of 1940 and again in 1941, Cath served as a courier in the Frontier Nursing Service in Leslie County, Kentucky. The FNS was founded in 1925 by Mary Breckinridge to provide health care for families, particularly mothers and babies, in the Appalachian hollows of eastern Kentucky. From a prominent Kentucky family, Breckinridge had undertaken nursing and relief work in France at the end of World War I and had struck upon the idea of bringing trained English midwives—like the ones she had encountered in Europe—to deliver care on horseback in the desperately poor and all but inaccessible mountain communities of her home state. She also determined to enlist young American women from privileged families to use their equestrian skills to serve as volunteer couriers, tending to the FNS horses and accompanying and assisting nurse-midwives on their rounds to remote cabins and villages to deliver babies. Frequently—and conveniently for the FNS—the wealthy families of these couriers also became advocates and fundraisers for the enterprise in cities across the nation.11

Soon after her arrival, Cath wrote home: “It’s the first place I’ve ever helped in where, as a volunteer worker, you feel you are really needed.” Within a week, she was riding alone twenty-four miles through the mountains over two days and a night, from Hyden to Brutus, via Hell for Certain, in order to retrieve a horse from an outlying clinic. “I never thought I would be able to find my way,” she wrote, but her experienced mount and the “terribly friendly and pleasant” mountain people enabled her to complete her assignment. Not knowing what she or a midwife might be called on to do next kept her “in a state of excitement every hour of the day and night … It is wonderful … to see an organization like this not run by the Social Register for want of something better to do, but accomplishing so much … It really does make you look forward to tomorrow … It is like nothing I’ve ever seen or done anywhere before. I really do love every bit of it.”12

By fall 1941, a new name had begun to appear in her letters home. A full-blown romance was well under way and taking on increasing urgency with the approach of war. Tyson Gilpin had grown up in Virginia in a family even more consumed by horses than Cath’s. His father bred Thoroughbreds and bought and sold racehorses, in addition to riding and hunting himself. For the Gilpins, horses were a matter of business as well as pleasure. Tyson was enrolled at Princeton, where he was an outstanding student—ranked in the top dozen of his class. He was also stunningly handsome. When Esquire sent a staff photographer to Princeton for an article on collegiate fashion for the September 1940 back to school issue, he posed Tyson along the university’s legendary Prospect Street and published a shot of him in the “new four-button jacket” with “broad shoulders and flapped chest pockets.”13 Tyson looked as if he had been invented by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

My father photographed by Esquire on Prospect Street in Princeton, fall 1940.

Cath and Tyson had met early in his college career when he came to join her brother Drew foxhunting in Far Hills, an easy drive from the university. Cath’s prowess on horseback—her complete mastery over her mount, her fearlessness riding sidesaddle over ditches, walls, and fences—soon made her the focus of Tyson’s attention and admiration.

By the time Cath returned from Kentucky in early fall 1941, Tyson was already planning to accelerate his graduation so he could join the army. His draft board in Virginia had called him for a physical in July, and he was eager to volunteer before he was conscripted. By early winter, he was in uniform, and by late the next summer, expectations that he would soon be sent abroad fueled the intensity of their courtship. In early October 1942, the young couple informed their parents that they intended to marry as soon as possible. A whirlwind of hasty preparations ensued—seamstresses summoned to produce a wedding dress, ceremonies and celebrations hurriedly planned, and a photographer already shooting the hunting field deputized to take a picture for the engagement announcement. There would be no equivalent of elegant posing on Prospect Street. The photographer caught her, Cath long complained, just after she had been thrown from her horse, which had then rolled over her. The engagement announcement preceded the wedding by only two days.

On October 23, 1942, Lieutenant Gilpin and Catharine Mellick were married. My father, his father, his uncle, and his new brother-in-law were all in uniform, just as his own father and all his groomsmen had been at his parents’ wedding in 1918. For a year and a half after her marriage, my mother shuttled between her parents’ home and her husband’s various army training camps. Thirteen months after the wedding, my brother Tyson Jr. was born. Often Tys was deposited with a baby nurse at my maternal grandparents’ home in New Jersey while Cath followed her husband’s army assignments. Soon, however, like their parents before them, Tyson and Cath would be separated by war. In spring 1944, Tyson shipped out to England, and just after D-Day he landed in France with Patton’s Third Army. His service in the course of the next year would earn him a Purple Heart and a Croix de Guerre. “The biggest experience of my life was WW2,” he reflected on a Princeton 50th Reunion questionnaire.14 Cath, meanwhile, waited at home with parents and child.