Telegraph (UK) Obituary

Telegraph (UK) Obituary, December 31, 2019.

GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, the American historian, who has died aged 97, was known for her studies of the intellectual history of the Victorian era and as a conservative cultural critic, commenting in astringent terms on virtue, morality and modern values; she was an unlikely guru for a Labour prime minister, yet Gordon Brown cited her as a major influence.

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s great work, The Idea of Poverty, a pioneering study of attitudes towards the poor in Victorian England, was published in 1984, at a time when Margaret Thatcher and her ministers were calling for a return to “Victorian values” and being attacked by socialists for their pains.

Gertrude Himmelfarb showed how Victorian society sought to educate the poor out of their poverty in the belief that moral improvement would enable them to build a better and more prosperous society.

In The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995) Gertrude Himmelfarb showed that the Victorian recipe worked. When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, crime levels were high and remained a source of concern until the 1850s. But from then on, crime rates fell year upon year, even as the population increased. The reason for this was not more police, she argued, but morality.

The same years witnessed an astonishing growth among the poorer classes of a genuine belief in the work ethic, in respectability, orderliness, sexual propriety (reflected in a decline in births out of wedlock) and self-reliance. In other words the ethic of self-improvement, based largely on Wesleyan Methodism, brought remarkable social rewards.

In the rhetoric of Victorian public life, philanthropy, civility and charity were cherished, though charity was regarded as a means to discourage dependency, while providing at least minimal sustenance for the indigent. The Victorians, she wrote, worked “to help restore paupers … to the class of the working poor”.

Gertrude Himmelfarb felt that the great social and economic achievements of the Victorians had been undermined by the insidious moral relativism that had been encouraged by, among others, members of the Bloomsbury Group and spread through western society in the 20th century, particularly since the 1960s.

In recent decades, she argued, “we have so completely rejected any kind of moral calculus that we have systematically divorced poor relief from moral sanctions or incentives We are now confronting the consequences of this policy of moral neutrality.” What was needed was a “re-moralisation of society”.

One of the clich├ęs of the Left is that “respectable” moral values are just a means by which the middle classes assert their control over their social inferiors. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s claim that such values enable the poor to aspire to better things challenged the basis of late 20th century socialist demonology.

It was hardly surprising that she was quoted as an inspiration by neoconservatives such as George W Bush and Newt Gingrich, but when Gordon Brown paid tribute to her ideas, the Left-liberal press in Britain responded with a mixture of bafflement and horror. In fact it was not surprising that she won the admiration of a Calvinist son of the Manse who believed in the redemptive power of work.

Brown was said to have been particularly impressed by Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity (2004) in which she argued that the British – particularly the Scottish – Enlightenment was more admirable than the French because it emphasised the importance of moral values as well as reason.

Moreover, in her own way Gertrude Himmelfarb was a formidable critic of capitalism – at least in its 1980s “loadsamoney” form. The quest for self-fulfillment, she maintained, had led to an “economy of greed” which had fomented social discord. By contrast the Victorian ideal of civic duty had held unfettered capitalism in check.

Gertrude Himmelfarb was born on August 8 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, the child of immigrant Jewish parents. She went to New Utrecht High School and to Brooklyn College where she studied history and philosophy and became a Trotskyist.

It was at a Trotskyist meeting that she met the future “godfather of neoconservatism” Irving Kristol. They married in 1942 and moved to Chicago, where Gertrude took a master’s degree with a thesis on Robespierre.

In 1946 they travelled to England where Gertrude had been awarded a fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. There she completed a doctorate on Lord Acton, the Victorian historian and liberal political thinker. Back in America, she published an edition of Acton’s Essays on Freedom and Power in 1948. In 1952 her Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics was well-received.

Between 1950 and 1965 Gertrude Himmelfarb worked as an independent scholar and her work attracted a series of grants, including two Guggenheim fellowships. During this period, she and her husband spent several years in London.

Her monograph Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), a study of how Darwin’s theory of natural selection influenced his contemporaries, won high praise. In 1960 she published an edition of Thomas Malthus’s On Population, and in 1962 an edition of John Stuart Mill’s Essays on Politics and Culture.

In 1965 she was appointed Professor of History at Brooklyn College, where she remained until 1978 when she became Professor of History at the graduate school of the City University of New York.

By this time Gertrude Himmelfarb’s views had changed from classical liberal to conservative and her increasingly strident opposition to Marxism and its offshoots made her the target of Left-wing attacks. Victorian Minds, published in 1968, laid the foundations for her subsequent work and divided critical attention along predictable ideological lines.

This remained the pattern of much criticism of her work. In 1974 she published an edition of Mill’s On Liberty and On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, in which she differentiated the man who wrote On Liberty and the one who wrote Mill’s other works, which, she argued, arose out of an older (and superior) liberal tradition. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984) charted a change during the Victorian era from the concept of poverty as an unfortunate fact of life to the idea that it was an urgent social problem that must be addressed.

A volume of essays, Marriage and Morals among the Victorians (1986), was followed by The New History and the Old (1987), a scathing critique of intellectual fads such as structuralism and Marxism which had gripped American history faculties and which, she argued, belittled the importance of ideas, facts and traditional narrative.

In Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991), Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that the standard of living of the late Victorian English poor was not so bad relative to the average of the country as a whole and showed how the Victorians saw poverty as residing not so much in material deprivation as in moral degradation.

Her On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994) was an unfettered attack on the contemporary evils of relativism, nihilism and postmodernism, and in The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995) she speculated about the social effects of the abandonment of Victorian standards of moral behaviour.

Her call for a return to Victorian values coincided with rising concern among the American public about social breakdown and she played an active role in the debate during the reassessment of America’s welfare policies.

One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution (2001) explored the gulf between the elite, permissive culture that had grown up on the American East and West coasts since the 1960s, and the moral, mainly religious, culture of middle America, coming down firmly on the side of the latter.

“The intellect on display here is about the calibre of the village biddy who sticks her blue nose into everyone else’s business, offering opinions nobody asked for about how everybody else should live,” sniffed one critic. “What did conservatives do before they had the ’60s to blame?”

A book of essays, The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling (2006) was followed by The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009), The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill and Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists (2017).

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s husband Irving Kristol died in 2009. She is survived by their daughter and son, William Kristol, a neo-conservative political commentator and editor of The Weekly Standard.