Gertrude Himmelfarb has dedicated her long and noted career as a historian of ideas to the study of nineteenth-century Britain, an intellectual commitment that has been guided by a profound identification with the moral atmosphere of the Victorian era. Since earning her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1950, Himmelfarb has maintained that the Victorian experience offers unique insights and lessons, immediate and even imperative, for the problems that haunt the modern world. In the 1950s, it was the specter of totalitarianism; in the 1990s, the plight of American inner cities.
A professor emeritus at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Himmelfarb has become one of the most eloquent advocates, albeit increasingly controversial, for the reintroduction of traditional values (she prefers the term “virtues”), such as shame, responsibility, chastity, and self-reliance, into American political life and policy-making. Gertrude Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 8, 1922, second child of Bertha and manufacturer Max Himmelfarb. She attended New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and then earned a B.A. from Brooklyn College, while also taking courses in history, scripture, and Judaic literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The years that Himmelfarb spent at the University of Chicago, where she embarked on doctoral studies in 1942, had the most profound influence on her political approach, style of scholarship, and, no less important, her belief in the usefulness of historical research. The University of Chicago was then a breeding ground for innovative reformulation of Western political thought as a counterweight to the threats of fascism and communism that ravaged Europe. This effort, high-minded and deeply informed by classical and modern philosophy, was led by European, mostly Jewish, thinkers. It also had a decidedly conservative bent. Under the supervision of Louis Gottschalk, Himmelfarb wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the British parliamentarian and historian Lord Acton, which she later published as Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Himmelfarb found Lord Acton’s ambivalent blend of liberalism and pessimism, ideas of progress, and notions of human sinfulness, as well as his advocacy of a “judicious mix of authority, tradition, and experience, to be highly relevant for the post World War II world.” Even in this early work, she discerned a connection between the modern neglect of personal moral character and the political catastrophes of the twentieth century, including the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.
In the following decades she continued her exploration of politics, morality, and history in books and articles on leading intellectuals of the Victorian period, most notably John Stuart Mill, whose works she also edited, and Charles Darwin. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984) examined the rise of poverty as a social problem and was her first direct attempt to exonerate the early Victorian treatment of the poor. This was followed by the anthology Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (1986) and her exploration of late Victorian attitudes toward social issues in Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991). In both books, she seems to lament the replacement of Victorian moral nerve with Edwardian aestheticism and “value-free” relativism.
Himmelfarb’s husband, Irving Kristol, and her brother, Milton Himmelfarb, are also well-known conservative essayists. She has two children, William and Elizabeth. William Kristol was Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff and is now editor of the Washington, D.C.–based Weekly Standard.
Despite the prestigious awards that she has received during her prolific career (among them, fellowships from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Wilson foundations) and ten honorary degrees (from institutions such as Yale, Williams College, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Smith College), Gertrude Himmelfarb has always been somewhat of an outsider in the historical profession. She had engaged in independent research for fifteen years before joining the City University of New York in 1965. By then, history departments were increasingly influenced by methodologies and insights borrowed from the social sciences. Himmelfarb criticized harshly the departure from traditional models of historical scholarship and argued that the dominance of the new social history “belittles the will, ideas, actions, and freedom of individuals.” The New History and the Old (1987) was an outright attack on Marxist determinism, quanto-history, and psychohistory as well as other types of narrativeless “history with the politics left out.” As in her political critique, she reproached academic historians for their alleged moral relativism, for their disregard for human achievements (“greatness”), and their refusal to identify heroes and villains in their writings. When postmodernism became the academic vogue, its manifestations in historiography (especially in feminist history) did not escape Himmelfarb’s ire. Postmodernist history, she wrote, “recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle—history at the pleasure of the historian.” She also argued against multiculturalism in history, asserting that such an approach trivializes history and renders it meaningless and that it “demeans and dehumanizes the people who are the subjects of history” by denying the “common (generic) humanity of all people, whatever their sex, race, class, religion and the like.”
In The De-Moralization of Society (1995), Himmelfarb compared Victorian societies on both sides of the Atlantic to modern America and found the latter lacking. The Victorians were highly successful in curbing social ills such as crime, illegitimacy, poverty, and illiteracy by making morality “a conscious part of social policy.” Conversely, the constant deterioration of the American social condition, argued Himmelfarb, is rooted in a climate of moral relativism, skepticism, and “de-moralization.” Following the nineteenth-century British writer Thomas Carlyle, she maintained that social problems cannot be reduced to economical calculations and material gains. As important is the insistence on the moral disposition of the weakest echelons of society, their sense of right and wrong. The re-moralization of society would necessitate assigning social stigmas to practices such as illegitimacy, as well as reshaping dependency on public welfare. Thus Himmelfarb found the Victorian distinction (derided by generations of historians) between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor to be particularly inspiring, as she did the idea of “less eligibility” institutionalized in the first Victorian welfare reform (the Poor Law Act of 1834) to discourage the condition of “able bodied paupers.” She also found merit in House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich’s proposal to resurrect old, discredited Victorian institutions such as orphanages. In her view, these institutions were highly effective and certainly more humane than one may gather from Dickensian “exaggerations.” The De-Moralization of Society and much of her writing in the preceding decade met with controversy, both political and scholarly. The dispute over her work, which in the past was praised for its prodigious scholarship and lucidity, grew as Himmelfarb’s writings increasingly focused on the present rather than on the past and as her tone became more “bellicose.” One critic even accused her of writing a “revisionist history” for the Republican party.
In One Nation, Two Cultures (1999), subtitled “A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of our Cultural Revolution,” Himmelfarb posits that the counter-culture of the 1960s has become the dominant culture of today—particularly in the echelons of the media and the university—but that a “dissident culture” continues to promote such values as family, civil society, patriotism and sexual morality. It is to the credit of America, she says, that we remain “one nation” even as we are divided into “two cultures.”
Himmelfarb has been greatly involved in Jewish conservative intellectual circles. In De-Moralization of Society, she dedicates a chapter to the “Jew as a Victorian.” The assimilation of Jews, she maintained, was one of the clearest indications of the openness and social advancement of the Victorian era. Moreover, she argued that the Jewish community perhaps more than any other segment of the British population epitomized a host of Victorian values: self-reliance, free-market meritocracy, philanthropy. In a symposium on “Liberals and the Jews,” published by Commentary in January 1980, Himmelfarb contended that the traditional Jewish affiliation with liberalism has been maintained by a “nostalgic commitment” to the old nineteenth-century liberalism that accepted Jews as individuals and as a group. But “latter-day liberalism,” with its support of discriminating quotas, rejection of individualism, and hostility to Israel, is, according to Himmelfarb, inhospitable to Jews. “We may conclude,” she said, “that a quite different philosophy is required if we are to survive in the modern world, survive as individuals and Jews.”
Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959); The De-Moralization of Society (1995); “A Demoralized Society—The British American Experience,” Public Interest 117 (Fall 1994): 57–80; “George Eliot for Grown-Ups (Middlemarch and Morality),” American Scholar 63, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 577–581; The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984); Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952); Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (1986); The New History and the Old (1987); “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets,” Commentary 91, no. 12 (June 1991): 20–26; On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (1974); On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994); One Nation, Two Cultures (1999);“The Politics of Dissent,” Commentary 98, no. 1 (July 1994): 32–37; Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991); The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (2004); “Supposing History Is a Woman—What Then?” American Scholar (Autumn 1984); “Telling it as You Like it—Post-Modernist History and the Flight from Fact,” Times Literary Supplement 16 (October 1992): 12–15; Victorian Minds (1968); “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone,” NYTimes Book Review (June 16, 1991).
Acton, Lord. Essays on Freedom and Power (1948. Reprints, 1955, 1984); Malthus, Thomas Robert. Essays on Population (1960); Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Politics and Culture (1962. Reprints, 1963, 1971); Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty (1974).
Contemporary Authors (1975); Current Biography (1985); World Authors 1980-1985 (1991); The Writers Directory (1988–1990, 1988).
How to cite this page
Frankel, Oz. "Gertrude Himmelfarb." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/himmelfarb-gertrude>.