Gertrude Himmelfarb, known to her friends as Bea Kristol, was widely considered the leading twentieth-century authority on the culture of Great Britain in the Victorian era. She was the second of two children born into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York on August 8, 1922. She attended New Utrecht high school, formerly New Utrecht Training School, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, and then Brooklyn College, from which she graduated in 1942. During her time as a college undergraduate, Himmelfarb also immersed herself in the study of Jewish history and belief at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
In the year of Himmelfarb’s college graduation, she married Irving Kristol. He spent the next three years serving in an American infantry brigade fighting the Nazis in Europe. Himmelfarb left New York to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. There she received her MA and PhD. The focus of her dissertation was the life and ideas of the liberal Catholic historian John Dalberg-Acton, the British aristocrat who helped develop the Whig school of historical interpretation.
Following Kristol’s return from the Second World War, the couple moved to Britain, where Himmelfarb furthered her research on Acton at Girton College, Cambridge. These inquiries were preparatory to the publication of her much praised biography and intellectual history, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952).
Himmelfarb’s study of Acton was the first of sixteen books. She also wrote a great many uncollected essays and shorter pieces and edited more than a half-dozen volumes. Among them is a posthumous collection of her husband’s essays, as well as a collection of writings by her brother, Milton Himmelfarb (1918-2006). The latter was the long-time Director of Information and Research Services at the American Jewish Committee and was frequently cited for his research on patterns of Jewish demography.
In 1952, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb returned to England when Kristol co-founded, with poet Stephen Spender, the literary and political journal Encounter. Himmelfarb used this time fruitfully: during the next half-dozen years, she made a close examination of Charles Darwin’s personal papers. These provided her with the background for her next major work, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, which was published in 1959. Also during this time, Himmelfarb became the mother of two children: William Kristol, the future editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard, born in 1952, and his sister Elizabeth Nelson, born in 1957.
Himmelfarb was an independent scholar (not associated with a university) in the 1950s. Following the Kristols’ return to the United States, she accepted a position as professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and ultimately continued to serve as professor emerita there. Himmelfarb has received many awards and distinctions. Among these are the National Humanities Medal, and status of Fellow of the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Historical Society, and the Society of American Historians. She served on the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, and the Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute. She received honorary degrees from many institutions of higher learning, including Yale University and Smith College.
Himmelfarb published two book-length works while her children were growing up and she was teaching at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The first was a general survey of nineteenth-century British thought entitled Victorian Minds (1968). The second was a detailed study of the life and ideas of John Stuart Mill, published in 1974.
As Himmelfarb had by this time produced four major works, one might have concluded that her career was coming to an end. However, having reached her early sixties—a time when most academics are winding down their professional careers—she began writing much more actively. Much of her work during this period dealt with aspects of Victorian life and culture in relation to the problems faced by the United States and other Western democracies in the present day.
Among the most expansive of these was The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments, published in 2004. It is a consideration of the ways in which differing strands in modern philosophy influenced each of these countries and how this led to radically different outcomes in their political histories and fortunes. The book notably distinguishes the Anglo-American “empiricist” tradition, embodied in writers and thinkers like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, from the determinedly anti-traditionalist ideology of so-called “rationalist” continental thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Himmelfarb is known not only for her elevated writing style but also for her ability to draw together politics, literature, ethics, and the law in addressing historical questions. One of her major intellectual influences was her friend the writer and scholar Lionel Trilling, who shared her interest in Victorian literature.
Himmelfarb criticized fashionable trends in historical methodology. This was the subject of her The New History and The Old (1987), which offered critical takes on Marxist, structuralist, and post-structuralist historiography, and on so-called “psychohistory.” Himmelfarb also wrote about the place of Jews in Victorian society and culture. This was the subject of her The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009) and The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill (2011).
Himmelfarb’s final work, Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists, collected previously published essays, many of them extensively revised. It focuses on the connection between eminent British and American political and philosophical figures from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, showing their connection to the issues of the present day. Published in 2017, it came out a few months prior to her 95th birthday. Himmelfarb died on December 30, 2019.