R.I.P. Gertrude Himmelfarb

Ahmari, Sohrab, "R.I.P. Gertrude Himmelfarb," New York Post, December 31, 2019.


Gertrude Himmelfarb, a giant of 20th-century American letters, died Monday; she was 97. Reviewing her 1968 masterpiece, “Victorian Minds,” in Commentary, the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote: “Doubtless, God could create a better interpreter of the English 19th century, but doubtless, God hasn’t.” Amen.

Her specialty was the Victorian period and what came to be known as “Victorian values”: “work, thrift, prudence, temperance, above all self-reliance and personal responsibility,” as she summed them up in a 1989 essay.

Like all great historians, she studied the past to guide the present and the future. To wit, Himmelfarb sought to shield the idea that there is such a thing as moral truth, true for all ages and classes — against the fashionable Marxist notion that moral truth is how the powerful dupe the weak.

Born in Brooklyn in 1922, she received her bachelor’s from Brooklyn College and went on to graduate study at the University of Chicago, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Cambridge University. At age 20, she married Irving Kristol, one of the founding neoconservatives, the group of mostly Jewish intellectuals who migrated from left to right during the Cold War.

They remained husband and wife, and true intellectual partners, through the ideological turbulence of the postwar period and the vagaries and infighting of the smoke-filled, disputatious world of the New York intellectuals. Kristol died in 2009 (Himmelfarb was also known familiarly as Bea Kristol).

For Himmelfarb the academic, history had vital lessons that could be grasped by studying the lives and minds of the men and women who made it. Hers was the kind of history-writing that most “sophisticated” types believed should have been left buried along with her Victorian heroes. It is our good fortune that she refused to go along.

She admired and defended the Victorian era’s social reformers and their efforts to “moralize” the problems created by rapid industrialization and the rise of capitalism: drinking, wife-beating, sexual degeneracy and so on. For the Marxist historians, the moral aspect of the Victorian reform was just a way of strengthening capitalist “social control.”

New York Post