Gertrude Himmelfarb, a historian who helped resuscitate the reputation of the Victorians and a public intellectual who shaped neoconservatism, died this week at the age of 97.In a writing career astonishingly long—some seven decades separate her first and final publications—Himmelfarb revealed the complicated ways in which ideas and culture influence one another. And, as she showed in profiles of such figures as Burke and Bagehot, Malthus and Mill, often the best way to understand ideas and culture is through biography, with its untidiness of context and character and contingency.
The revisionist portrait of the Victorians that Himmelfarb painted was far subtler than the popular caricature. We tend to think of the Victorians as pompous prudes. Or as the vain hypocrites whose pretensions Lytton Strachey punctured. Or as the denizens of Dickens’s grim, gray London. But Himmelfarb’s Victorians were passionate seekers, arguing and stumbling their way toward answers to difficult questions: How can we best care for the needy and the sick? How should we prevent crime and punish criminals? How can we cope with the social and economic consequences of rapid technological change? How should the sexes live together? How can we work out the tensions between liberty and democracy? How, in the face of unsettling scientific discoveries, are we to understand ourselves and our place in the world?
All these moral and political questions demand answers of us, too. By explaining the Victorians’ attempts to answer them, Himmelfarb’s many books and essays help us to think more clearly about both the questions and our own answers.
Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn in 1922, the second child of Russian Jewish immigrants most comfortable speaking Yiddish. “My parents had no formal education at all, but it was understood from the very beginning that both my brother and I would go to college,” she said in a 1995 C-SPAN interview:
It was an enormous respect for learning . . . an enormous respect for the book. There was a tradition among Jewish families, and mine was a rather observant Jewish family . . . that when a book of the Bible or the prayer book fell on the floor, you kissed it when you picked it up in order to preserve its kind of purity. I must say, that respect for the book transferred itself to secular books as well. I’m not suggesting that we kiss secular books when we—we’re rather hard on books, in that we annotate them wildly and so on—but there was that respect for the book. There was a respect for learning.
She studied history, philosophy, and economics at Brooklyn College, while also taking classes—as her older brother Milton Himmelfarb had—in Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 1940, she met Irving Kristol, also a Brooklyn-born child of Russian immigrants, at a gathering of the Young People’s Socialist League. She was 18; he was 20; they were both Trotskyists. Kristol described their courtship in a 1995 autobiographical memoir:
At these meetings I noticed a girl . . . who sat quietly at the other end of the small room. Her name was Gertrude Himmelfarb, but she was called “Bea.” She had a trim figure and a strong, handsome face that radiated intelligence and sensibility. I noticed her for some weeks before approaching her and asking her out. In truth, I was already in love with her without even knowing her. She said “yes” quietly. And so we “went out,” which is to say we went to the Saturday night movies . . . and saw only foreign movies since we were cultural snobs. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The Historian of Moral Revolution
The Atlantic, Dec. 31, 2019
Economists measure economic change and journalists describe political change, but who captures moral change? Who captures the shifts in manners, values, and mores, how each era defines what is admirable and what is disgraceful? Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died at 97 last night, made this her central concern. She was a physician for the national soul.
Himmelfarb was born in 1922 and grew up with her parents and brother in a one-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her parents immigrated from Russia and spoke Yiddish at home. Her father cut glass and sold engraved saucers and jars to department stores, going bankrupt a few times during the Depression. She made it into Brooklyn College, where she amassed enough credits to have majored in history, economics, and philosophy, while taking the subway at night up to the Jewish Theological Seminary and earning a simultaneous degree there. At a Trotskyite gathering, she met her husband, Irving Kristol.
She went to the University of Chicago for graduate school and was told that she would never get an academic job. She was a woman, a Jew, and a New Yorker. She didn’t care. World War II was raging; the Holocaust was her daily obsession and horror; the atmosphere was apocalyptic. “The future was not something I worried about, because I wasn’t sure I was going to have a future,” she told The University of Chicago Magazine decades later. Kristol, who’d trailed out to Chicago with her, was drafted into the Army. So, she found some roommates, including Saul Bellow.
After the war, she and Kristol went back to New York and joined the New York Intellectual set that surrounded Partisan Review, the small powerhouse magazine that published figures such as James Baldwin, W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Norman Podhoretz, T. S. Eliot, and Hannah Arendt.
Intellectuals played a different role then. They were more of a secular priesthood than today. The intellectual vocation, Irving Howe wrote, meant standing up for values that have no currency in commercial culture. It meant wrestling with the big questions, upholding the high ideals, and using the power of ideas to shape the mental life of the nation. Himmelfarb and Kristol were part of all that—the earthshaking essays, the feuds, public statements, and cocktails. Himmelfarb was one of the last remaining members of that set, and her passing marks the dusk of what was arguably the high-water mark of American intellectual life.
Himmelfarb’s great hero, and in some ways the de facto leader of that circle, was Lionel Trilling, the one Jew in Columbia University’s English department. Trilling believed that the manners, mores, and morals of a nation touch people everywhere, while politics touches people only in some places, and so morals are more important than day-to-day politics. To understand a nation, you have to understand its literary and moral imagination—the way artists and writers reflect the times, the way the greatest minds of the day express their ideals and spread beliefs. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb & the Enlightenment
New Criterion, February 2020
When Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote about the abyss that was consuming the intellectual and moral traditions of her own time, she was one of the first to recognize how seductive was its appeal and how depraved its outcome. In her book On Looking into the Abyss, she attributed the original insight to the critic Lionel Trilling, who detected it in the early 1960s in the underbelly of the modernist movement that had dominated literature and the arts since the early twentieth century. Himmelfarb, however, came to her own recognition from another direction entirely, partly from her study of the history of ideas in Britain’s Victorian era, but also from the apparently unlikely field of the history of social policy and of the ideas that led the Victorians to define poverty as a social problem. As she produced insightful books and essays, almost until her death on December 30 last year, aged ninety-seven, those who knew her work came to regard her as not only one of the great American historians of her time, but also one of this nation’s most compelling moral critics.
Modernists, from their earliest public manifestations in London’s Bloomsbury, had regarded the Christian morality of the English-speaking world as the greatest obstacle to the “free thought” and “free love” they craved. They cleverly redefined the prevailing moral environment as “Victorian,” which, after the death of the Queen in 1901, they declared out of date and out of place in the new, modern twentieth century. By the time Himmelfarb began postgraduate studies in the 1940s, this was the assumption of almost all who saw themselves as progressives, not only in universities but also in newspapers, literature, the arts, and the entertainment industries. It largely remained so until she contested the ground on which it stood with a series of essays and books from the 1970s to the 1990s that urged reconsideration of the modernist vision and its postmodern descendants.
In 1983, Himmelfarb published The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, and in 1991 the sequel Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, arguing that, instead of imposing unregulated Dickensian institutions and dark satanic mills on the lower orders, the Victorians had redefined poverty as a moral issue that demanded both compassion from society at large and a sense of responsibility from the poor themselves. In describing the latter, she made an important intervention in the language of morality. She did not use the term “Victorian values,” as almost every historian of the subject did at the time. The Victorians themselves, she pointed out, did not use the word “values.” This anachronism only arose in the mid-twentieth century as a way to relativize morality. It implied that anyone’s values were the moral equivalent of anyone else’s. Some values could not be better than others, only different. Instead, she insisted on using the term “virtues.” In a much-quoted passage Himmelfarb wrote:
Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Into the Abyss
Washington Examiner, July 20, 2015
The Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner case has engendered if not a new subject at least a newly publicized and sensationalized one. For an old-timer like myself, transgenderism is reminiscent of the postmodernism that swept the universities several decades ago. Indeed, transgenderism now looks like a more dramatic, audacious, and, it may be, perilous form of postmodernism. Like postmodernism back then, so transgenderism today is moving very far, very fast. Before it goes much further, one might look back upon its predecessor as a cautionary tale, recalling its aspirations but also its tribulations.
A passage from an article I wrote almost 20 years ago may help put the current issue in historical perspective.
Imported from France (which had acquired it from Germany), postmodernism made its appearance in the United States in the 1970s, first in departments of literature and then in other disciplines of the humanities. Its forefathers are Nietzsche and Heidegger, its fathers Derrida and Foucault. From Jacques Derrida postmodernism has borrowed the vocabulary of deconstruction: the “aporia” (the dubious or enigmatic nature) of discourse, the “indeterminacy” of language, the “fictive” nature of signs and symbols, the self-referential character of words and their dissociation from any presumed reality, the “problematization” of all subjects, events, and tests. From Michel Foucault it has adopted the focus on power: words and ideas as a means of “privileging” the “hegemonic” groups in society, and knowledge itself an instrument and product of the “power structure.” Thus, traditional discourse and learning are impugned as “logocentric” (dominated by the word), “phallocentric” (dominated by the male), and “totalizing” or “authoritarian” (in the presumption that reality can be contained and comprehended).
In literature, postmodernism entails the denial of the fixity of any text (not only the immutability of meaning but the immutability of the text itself); of the authority of the author over the critic or reader in determining the substance and meaning of the text; of any canon of great books and, more significantly, of the very idea of greatness. In philosophy, it is a denial of the constancy of language, of any correspondence between language and reality, of any proximate truth about reality, indeed, of any essential reality. In history, it is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth as something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
Gertrude Himmelfarb Quotations: Quotetab — Gertrude Himmelfarb, also known as Bea Kristol, is an American historian. She has been a leader of conservative interpretations of history and historiography.
WATCH: Bill Kristol on Gertrude Himmelfarb: C-Span, Mar. 27, 2006 — Clip of Q&A with William Kristol
The Historian as Moralist: Yuval Levin, National Review, Dec. 31, 2019— he passing of Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died on December 30th at the age of 97, is a loss felt keenly by all who had the good fortune to know her.
The Achievement of Gertrude Himmelfarb: Brian Murray, Law & Liberty, Nov. 20, 2017 — In her new essay collection, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb offers this confession: “I am sufficiently stimulated by the past to relate it to the present.”
The Himmelfarb Declaration: David Frum, Commentary, December 2011 — These are tough economic times, so everyone should appreciate that Gertrude Himmelfarb has frugally packed two important books into one compact volume entitled The People of the Book.
This week’s French-language briefing is titled Communiqué -Mahmoud Abbas parle de paix, mais la veut-il réellement? (Fev. 7,2020)