Gertrude Himmelfarb

The American professor, writer, and scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb (born 1922) was noted for her work on Victorian intellectual history and for her conservative point of view.

Gertrude Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 8, 1922, the daughter of Bertha and Max Himmelfarb, a manufacturer. She graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn in 1939 and attended Brooklyn College, studying history and philosophy. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1942 and in the same year married Irving Kristol but retained her maiden name for professional purposes. In the late 1990s, one writer wrote: "No family has had a greater impact on today's conservatism than the Kristols, " writes Jacob Weisberg in the New Yorker of [then] editor Bill; his mother, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb; and his father, public philosopher Irving.

The young couple moved to Chicago, where Himmelfarb began graduate work in history at the University of Chicago. Himmelfarb wrote her Master's thesis on Robespierre under the direction of well-known historian Louis Gottschalk and received her MA in 1944. She continued her graduate studies while Kristol served with the U.S. Army. After Kristol's discharge in 1946, they went to England, where Himmelfarb had been awarded a fellowship to Girton College, Cambridge University. At Cambridge she continued her doctoral research on Lord Acton, a fascinating and paradoxical Victorian figure, both European and English, a political thinker and historian.


First Book

Back in the United States, Himmelfarb published her first book, an edition of Lord Acton's Essays on Freedom and Power, in 1948. In 1950 she received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. During the late 1940s and early 1950s Himmelfarb wrote several articles and began to establish her area of expertise in Victorian intellectual history. In 1952 her book Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics was published and received high praise from reviewers.

Between 1950 and 1965 Himmelfarb was an "independent scholar" with no official academic affiliation. Her work attracted sufficient interest, however, for her to be awarded several prestigious grants, including two Guggenheim fellowships. This independence further allowed her to spend several years in London, where Kristol was serving as the co-editor of the intellectual journal Encounter.

In 1959 Himmelfarb's second monograph, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, was published. The book was a study of the influence of Darwin's theory of natural selection on his contemporaries, particularly those concerned with politics and religion, and like its predecessor was widely praised. Himmelfarb published an edition of Thomas Malthus' On Population in 1960 and an edition of John Stuart Mill's Essays on Politics and Culture in 1962.

Her long academic "holiday" ended in 1965, when she was appointed professor of history at Brooklyn College. In 1978 Himmelfarb was named distinguished professor of history at the graduate school of the City University of New York.


Politics, Religion and Moral Values

Himmelfarb was an individual with strong ideas on a variety of topics. She believed that among mankind's most important ideas are those relating to politics, religion, and moral values. In her youth a classic liberal, she became increasingly appreciative of the conservative point of view. In this process she was joined by her brother, Milton Himmelfarb, and her husband, both eminent "neo-conservative" thinkers and writers about American political and intellectual life. Her opinions had an obvious impact on her work as an historian, and among other things helped determine who would be her heroes (i.e., Edmund Burke and Adam Smith) and her villains (i.e., Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx). Her political views were well-known and gave rise, in particular in the 1960s and 1970s, to criticism, much of it unwarranted, of her work as an historian.

In 1968 one of Himmelfarb's most important works, Victorian Minds, was published. The book is a series of essays on Victorian men of ideas ranging from Edmund Burke (to whom two very different essays, indicative of Himmelfarb's changing views of the great conservative theorist, are devoted) to J.S. Mill to Leslie Stephen to John Buchan. One essay is devoted to the "Victorian ethos, " the changing and inclusive community of ideas and values shared by the majority of Victorians. Victorian Minds attracted much critical attention, both negative and positive, but all critics were aware of Himmelfarb's massive research and the book had a large impact on Victorian studies.

Two books on John Stuart Mill appeared in 1974. The first was an edition of Mill's On Liberty. The second book, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, was an exploration of the "two" Mills—the one who wrote On Liberty and the one who wrote Mill's other works. There is, Himmelfarb stipulated, a qualitative difference between the writings of the two, the former being strongly influenced by his long-time companion and later wife, Harriet Taylor, and the latter, whom Himmelfarb clearly preferred, belonging "to an older liberal tradition."

The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984) was the first of two projected volumes. Comprehensively researched using economic, political, sociological, and literary sources and brilliantly written, the book describes changes in what late 18th-and early 19th-century people actually meant by the terms "poverty" and "the poor" and what these contemporaries thought should be done about both. According to Himmelfarb, the Industrial Revolution saw a change in the idea that poverty was a "natural, unfortunate, often tragic fact of life, but not necessarily a demeaning or degrading fact" to its portrayal as "an urgent social problem" that threatened the fabric of society and must, at all costs, be abolished. The Idea of Poverty received widespread applause from the historical profession and from the more general reading public.

In 1986 Himmelfarb's Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians was published. A series of essays which, she said, "reflect a sense of the intellectual and moral nature of the Victorians, " the book is largely concerned with the Victorian "moral imagination, " an offshoot of the Victorian ethos. Himmelfarb wrote in tribute to Victorian morality and to Disraeli's "Tory Imagination" while harshly criticizing the methodology of a contemporary study on Victorian marriage as well as the morals of the literary and artistic Bloomsbury Group.

Another volume of essays, The New History and the Old (1987), is a scathing critique of the "new" or social history and its methods. As a political conservative and a traditional historian (one does not necessarily imply the other), Himmelfarb was alarmed at the "hegemony" of the new history within the profession. Each essay deals with a specific type of new history—psycho-history, quanto-history, sociological history, Marxist history—or problem raised by the new history's methods. She was deeply concerned with the new history's belittlement of the importance of ideas, of politics, and of traditional narrative. This book received much attention from reviewers, who admired Himmelfarb's wit and writing skill. Reviews of the contents of the book, understandably, seem to be divided along party lines, with traditional historians applauding and new historians highly critical.

In 1987 Himmelfarb was honored when she emerged as a strong though unsuccessful candidate for the position of Librarian of Congress. In 1988 she retired from her job with the City University of New York and became a professor emerita at that institution.

After her retirement Himmelfarb continued to write a large number of articles on a variety of topics in both popular and professional periodicals, and her work continued to be informed by her conservative views. For example, she wrote opinion articles in the New York Times against changes in academic curricula, academic affirmative action quotas, and radical feminism. She pursued her interest in the Victorian moral imagination in articles in the Wilson Quarterly and in Commentary. And she furthered her examination of the new history in an important article in the American Historical Review (June 1989) that deplores historical deconstructionism. Deconstructionism, a theory which has come and gone, she said, in other disciplines, has been adopted by some historians "to liberate the study [of history] from the tyranny of facts."

Himmelfarb's critically well received 1991 volume Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians argues that the lives of the era's poor, while wretched by many modern standards, were not all that bad relative to the average Englishman's. They were also better than the lives of the poor in most of the European countries from which the critics came. She writes of the Victorians' realistic approach to helping the poor and the destitute, and for their determination to frame the issue of relief in moral terms. The evil of poverty, they held, resided less in material deprivation than in character deformation.

Her On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994) took its title from a remark Lionel Trilling made to his students to "look into the Abyss." Their pervasive nihilism, that threatens to engulf everyone, prevented them from grasping just how subversive, how hostile to civilization the assigned readings were. Though she does not say so, her subtitle comes from Nietzsche's Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (Untimely resections). In this way, she wished to signal her intention of pitting the moral imagination against the spiritual descendants of Bloomsbury, the active proponents of immorality and nihilism. Since the years when Trilling lectured to uncomprehending students, she writes, the abyss has opened wider. "The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of post-modernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity."

The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995) follows On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society, with further speculations on the effects on present-day society of the abandonment of Victorian standards of moral behavior. She devotes a chapter to crime statistics in England and in America and to levels of illegitimacy and single parenthood. She deduces from these that moral standards have changed for the worse, and questions what new standards, if any, have replaced the old. "The Victorian virtues were neither the classical nor the Christian virtues; they were more domesticated than the former and more secular than the latter, " but were believed to be perennial. "For Victorians, virtues were fixed and certain, not in the sense of governing the actual behavior of all people all the time … [rather], they were the standards against which behavior could and should be measured. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was judged in moral terms as bad, wrong or evil— not, as is more often the case today, as misguided, undesirable or (the most recent corruption of the moral vocabulary) 'inappropriate'." This is the major distinction between the Victorian age and our own, argues Himmelfarb.

In other words, Victorian virtues—which included work, discipline, thrift, self-help, self-discipline, cleanliness, chastity, fidelity, valor and charity—provided a continuity that unified society. Certainly there were "class distinctions, social prejudices, abuses of authority, [and] constraints on personal liberty" in England during the 19th century. But Victorians from royal dukes to stevedores and scullery maids were confident that being English and Christian was superior to being anything else.

Her call for a return to Victorian values coincided with a national debate about "family values" and a general national discussion regarding a rising crime rate, lower education test scores, single parenthood and so her work enjoyed more popular attention than her previous writings.

Gertrude Himmelfarb occupied a unique place in the historical profession and among American scholars. She was one of the few women of her generation to pursue graduate education and successfully complete a Ph.D. In addition, her political views and her work were often controversial and subjected to harsh criticism. She led a highly unconventional career, with 15 years as an "independent scholar" and marriage (and enduring "intellectual companionship, " according to Kristol) to a prominent political thinker and writer. Universally recognized and respected for the depth of her scholarship, her gift of analysis, and the incisiveness of her arguments, she was justly described by another eminent American historian of Victorian Britain as "the most eminent American scholar to have written acutely on the history of Victorian ideas."


Further Reading on Gertrude Himmelfarb

There are no full-length books about Gertrude Himmelfarb or articles devoted exclusively to a retrospective of her career. Nonetheless, as an important and controversial historian she has attracted much attention. A highly favorable but sensible review of Victorian Minds by John Gross in the Observer (October 6, 1968) provides an excellent introduction to Himmelfarb and her work. An interesting counter to this is Robert E. Bonner's review of Victorian Minds in the Carleton Miscellany (Fall 1968), which castigates Himmelfarb for her conservative views and finds much fault with her husband, Irving Kristol. A review of books by Himmelfarb and another historian by Bernard Semmel in Partisan Review (1985) enthusiastically discusses The Idea of Poverty and Himmelfarb's place among contemporary historians. Favorable but balanced views of Marriage and Morals are provided by Neil McKendrick in the New York Times Book Review (March 23, 1986) and John Gross in the New York Times (February 28, 1986).