Birth of conservative intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb, who was born on August 8, 1922, has made her career as an intellectual historian, but she has perhaps made her larger mark on the world as a conservative public intellectual. Raised in Brooklyn, Himmelfarb earned her B.A. from Brooklyn College before studying at the University of Chicago. At Chicago, beginning in 1942, she studied with a group of predominantly Jewish, immigrant, and conservative thinkers who were in the process of reformulating Western political thought. Their approach to history and politics profoundly shaped Himmelfarb's own thinking. She earned her Ph.D. in history in 1950, and later published her dissertation, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952).
Beginning with that dissertation, which focused on a Victorian-era British parliamentarian, Himmelfarb has devoted her scholarly career to studying the Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic. As she wrote about Acton, she consistently found the Victorian era to be "highly relevant for the post World War II world." In most of her writings, she has advanced the argument that a modern decline in emphasis on personal morality is at the root of political and social problems of the late twentieth (and early twenty-first) century. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984) favorably examined Victorian treatment of the poor, while Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (1986) and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991) both described Victorian dedication to traditional social mores as superior to the "value-free" relativism that succeeded it.
Himmelfarb's sense that the past was superior to the present extended to her assessment of historical methodology. When she joined the faculty of the City University of New York in 1965, the "new social history," which emphasized the experiences of "ordinary" people over the traditional political narrative, was just taking hold. The "new social history" also emphasized quantitative methods and borrowed heavily from psychology, sociology, and Marxism. Himmelfarb condemned all of these innovations, arguing that they "belittle[d] the will ... and freedom of individuals." Later, she was equally harsh in her critique of postmodernism and multiculturalism in history.
More recently, Himmelfarb has turned her pen directly to the travails of modern society. In two books, The De-Moralization of Society (1995) and One Nation, Two Cultures (1999), she argues that a lack of moral courage is at the root of modern social ills. In the earlier volume, she contrasts modern America to the Victorian age and argues that reinstating social stigmas on out-of-wedlock births and welfare recipients, for example, could help to eliminate dependency and illegitimacy. In the later volume, she argues that the counterculture of the 1960s represented a break with a long-standing earlier social system, and that what she regards as modern social pathology (premarital sex, confessional memoirs, profanity, divorce) has its roots in that break. Her more recent books include The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2004), The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling (2006), and The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009).
Although a New York Times reviewer called One Nation, Two Cultures "not convincing," Himmelfarb has received significant recognition for her work. She has won fellowships from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Wilson foundations, and ten honorary degrees. In addition, through essays in Public Interest, Commentary, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Times, she has reached a public well beyond the academy. A 1999 New York Times essay on "compassionate conservatism," for example, showcases her voice as an influential conservative public intellectual. Himmelfarb's neoconservative identity is bolstered by her personal connections to husband Irving Kristol, editor for forty years of the journal The Public Interest, and son William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. Himmelfarb is currently a professor emerita at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 634-636; New York Times, July 28, 1999, December 19, 1999.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of conservative intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb." (Viewed on December 10, 2016) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/08/1922/gertrude-himmelfarb>.