Gertrude Himmelfarb 1922-
American essayist and historian.
The following entry provides criticism on Himmelfarb's career through 2002.
Himmelfarb is a distinguished American historian specializing in the Victorian era. She has gained a reputation as a neo-conservative polemicist, espousing the values of character and morality as an antidote to twentieth-century developments in liberal thought and politics. In works of intellectual history such as The Idea of Poverty (1984) and Poverty and Compassion (1991) she examines the “moral imagination” of Victorian England, and views it as a positive alternative to modern liberal values. In essay collections such as The New History and the Old (1987) and On Looking into the Abyss (1994) she criticizes recent liberal developments in academic scholarship, particularly postmodernist theory. In The De-Moralization of Society (1995) and One Nation, Two Cultures (1999) Himmelfarb questions current liberal trends in American political thought and social policy.
Of Jewish descent, Himmelfarb was born on August 8, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from high school in 1939 and attended Brooklyn College, graduating with a major in history and philosophy in 1942. That year, Himmelfarb married conservative critic Irving Kristol—who has come to be known in some circles as the “godfather of neoconservativism”—but retained her maiden name for professional purposes. She and her husband moved to Chicago, where Himmelfarb enrolled in the graduate program in history at the University of Chicago. Upon completing her master's thesis on the French revolutionary figure Robespierre, she received an M.A. in 1944. During World War II, Himmelfarb continued her doctoral studies while her husband served in the United States Army. Upon his discharge in 1946, the couple moved to England. At Cambridge University, Himmelfarb pursued research for her doctoral dissertation on political thinker and historian Lord Acton. After returning to the United States, she received her Ph.D. from Chicago University in 1950. For the ensuing fifteen years, Himmelfarb continued to write and publish as an independent scholar, unaffiliated with any academic institution, while raising her two children. In 1965 she was hired as a professor of history at Brooklyn College, a post which she held until 1978, when she took a position as professor of history at the City University of New York. In 1988, she retired and was named professor emerita of the City University of New York. Himmelfarb's son, William Kristol, has also gained prominence as an influential conservative thinker in his own right.
The Idea of Poverty traces changes in public perceptions of poverty and the poor that developed in England during the early Victorian era. Himmelfarb argues that the Industrial Revolution marked a shift from the Victorian idea of poverty as a “natural, unfortunate, often tragic fact of life, but not necessarily a demeaning or degrading fact” to the modern idea of poverty as “an urgent social problem.” Through an examination of economic, political, sociological, and literary discourse, she describes the cultural transformation that developed from the Elizabethan “poor laws,” to the 1834 New Poor Law, and on to the modern welfare state. In Poverty and Compassion, a sequel to The Idea of Poverty, Himmelfarb explores late Victorian attitudes about poverty. Here, she argues that the conditions of the poor in the nineteenth century were not nearly so bad as they are portrayed by many modern historians. She further analyzes the Victorian conception of poverty as a problem of moral character. For much of her discussion Himmelfarb draws on an influential 17-volume study of poverty written by Charles Booth, titled Life and Labour of the People in London (1889-1902).
The New History and the Old comprises a collection of ten essays, originally published between 1974 and 1986. In these essays Himmelfarb launches an indictment of a recent trend in historical scholarship known as the “new” history, or social history, which focuses on social and economic, rather than political, developments. Himmelfarb critiques various branches of the “new” history, such as psycho-history, sociological history, and Marxist history. She also criticizes what she calls “quanto-history,” which is based primarily on statistical evidence. Himmelfarb advocates a return to more conservative, traditional historical methodology as an antidote to the liberal agenda of the new history. The polemical tone of Himmelfarb's arguments in this volume is illustrated by her assertion that the new history “may signal the end of Western civilization.” In the seven essays of On Looking into the Abyss, Himmelfarb again critiques recent trends in liberal thought and scholarship, including such topics as Karl Marx and Georg Hegel, postmodern literary theory, philosophy and history, and John Stuart Mill's concept of liberty, as well as nationalism and religion.
In The De-Moralization of Society Himmelfarb advocates a return to Victorian concepts of moral “virtue,” which, she asserts, have been replaced in modern times by “values.” Himmelfarb contends that, while “virtues” are characterized by unwavering moral certainty agreed upon by society as a whole, “values” imply a moral neutrality and relativity that is mutable and individual. Victorian moral virtues, Himmelfarb explains, encompassed such fundamental concerns as hard work, thrift, self-discipline, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, patriotism, cleanliness, chastity, fidelity, valor, and charity. Himmelfarb asserts that the transition from “virtues” to “values” represents “the great philosophical revolution of modernity.” In support of this thesis, The De-Moralization of Society covers such topics as manners and morals, the concept of the home, Victorian feminism, the use of the word “poor,” philanthropy, and Jews in the Victorian age. In the final chapter of The De-Moralization of Society, Himmelfarb regards the current dominance of “values” as the cause of widespread social ills and advocates a return to Victorian moral “virtues” as an antidote to many problems within modern society. In One Nation, Two Cultures Himmelfarb argues once again that modern American values represent a decline in moral virtue. She views Americans as divided by two distinct cultures: the liberals, whose current incarnation is rooted in the radical 1960s, and the conservative traditionalists. This liberal-conservative “moral divide” in American thought and politics, sometimes referred to as the “culture war,” is the subject of Himmelfarb's polemic. Here, she asserts that the liberals, once relegated to the status of a “counterculture,” have “won” the culture war and have become the dominant force in American society, placing conservatives such as herself in the embattled position of “dissidents.” However, Himmelfarb asserts that the conservatives are a large and determined minority, and she expresses optimism that the tide will once again turn in their favor.
Himmelfarb's books and essays are regarded by supporters and detractors alike as thoughtful and provocative polemics. Thus, critical responses to her work are generally colored by the political leanings of the reviewer. Conservative critics tend to find her work sensible, persuasive, and important, while liberal critics tend to regard her tone as overly strident and dogmatic and her arguments as unconvincing. Reviewers agree that Himmelfarb is a gifted stylist who writes lucid, elegant prose. She is widely admired for her erudition and broad-ranging historical knowledge of the Victorian era. While many have praised her historical scholarship, others have contended that her arguments regarding historical theory and methodology are less sophisticated. Critics have often commented that Himmelfarb tends to oversimplify the arguments of those whose views she opposes, as well as oversimplifying the problems that face modern society. While reviewers from a variety of political perspectives have found many aspects of Himmelfarb's arguments compelling, many have also pointed out various flaws in her historical arguments and assessments of American society. However, there is a general consensus that Himmelfarb is among the most articulate voices of the late twentieth century to advocate a neo-conservative perspective.
Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (history) 1952
Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (history) 1959
Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition (history) 1968
On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (history) 1974
The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (history) 1984
Marriage and Morals among Victorians (history) 1986
The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals (history) 1987
Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (history) 1991
On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (history) 1994
The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (history) 1995
One Nation, Two Cultures: A Moral Divide (history) 1999
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SOURCE: Durbin, Elizabeth. Review of The Idea of Poverty, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. History of Political Economy 17, no. 4 (winter 1985): 657-59.
[In the following review, Durbin asserts that Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty is an important contribution to the history of political economy on the subject of poverty.]
In her projected two-part study, Gertrude Himmelfarb intends to trace the evolution of various conceptions of poverty in England from the Industrial Revolution, when the Elizabethan poor laws still held sway, to the modern welfare state. In this, the first volume [The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age], she takes her story from 1850 to 1950, a time of “intensive economic and social change” and of “social experiments, ideologies, and policies” designed to cope with the problems of the poor; she chose England because it served as a “social laboratory” for other countries. Rejecting a Whig interpretation of its history of social legislation, she explores the complex set of ideas which contemporaries brought to their understanding of social problems: “ideas about what constituted poverty and what made it a problem requiring remedy or solution.” Her aims are twofold: (i) to elucidate the problem of poverty and the policies designed to ameliorate it by posing the Coleridgean question “What is the meaning of it?” and “by adding another...
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SOURCE: Humpherys, Anne. Review of The Idea of Poverty, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Victorian Studies 28, no. 4 (summer 1985): 678-80.
[In the following review, Humpherys asserts that The Idea of Poverty is an important study both beautifully written and impressive in scope. Humpherys, however, raises questions about Himmelfarb's methodological and theoretical approach to her subject.]
[The Idea of Poverty,] is an important study of a central idea in modern culture written by a distinguished scholar. The scope of the book is impressive, ranging over dozens of texts in a two hundred-year period. It is also beautifully written, and for this reason alone is a pleasure to read. No literary scholar or historian will be able to ignore The Idea of Poverty; it will be quoted, added to, and argued with, but the inclusiveness of the research and the detail of the analysis guarantee its eminence for the foreseeable future.
I want to stress my respect for Gertrude Himmelfarb's overall achievement, because I do not intend to spend much time detailing the virtues of the book. It has been widely reviewed and praised by now, and rather than simply adding to the chorus, I would like to take up a few questions the book raises about the differences between ways literary critics and historians “read” texts these days.
To begin with methodology, Himmelfarb in...
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SOURCE: Stone, Lawrence. “Resisting the New.” New York Review of Books 34, no. 20 (17 December 1987): 59-62.
[In the following review, Stone asserts that The New History and the Old is a persuasive, intellectually brilliant, and stylishly written work. Stone, however, faults Himmelfarb's methodology and comments that she repeatedly overstates her case and that her tone is both strident and bitter.]
The important subject of Gertrude Himmelfarb's passionately written and intelligent book [The New History and the Old] is the transformation of the methods, objectives, and content of much of current historical writing over the past forty years. Professor Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian of political ideas in Victorian England, is shocked by the alleged dominance of what is called “new history,” for her a large category in which she includes the work of Fernand Braudel, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Theodore Zeldin, E. P. Thompson, Peter Laslett, among many others. She charges that by concentrating on social and economic history the new historians ignore or downplay the significance of political history; that they despise the ideas of great thinkers in favor of those of the inarticulate masses; and that they substitute analysis for narrative as the natural mode of historical writing.
In her response to these new trends she seesaws between two different positions....
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SOURCE: Clarke, Peter. “Group Dynamics.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4424 (15 January 1988): 52.
[In the following review of The New History and the Old, Clarke asserts that, while her essays are stimulating, Himmelfarb's arguments are flawed and uneven.]
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Macaulay hoped that his work would be remembered in the year 2000; towards the end of the twentieth, historians nourish precisely the same ambition. As history has become trendy, historians have become uneasily aware that there is nothing so outmoded as a trend whose time has gone. “Who now reads Macaulay?” Gertrude Himmelfarb demands (ironically) in one of the stimulating essays reprinted in The New History and the Old—pausing, like the good scholar she is, to recall that her rhetorical question echoes not only Edmund Burke (“Who now reads Bolingbroke?”) but also Alexander Pope (“Who now reads Cowley?”) In her struggle to defend the old history from the ruthless encroachment of the new, she finds a stalwart ally in Sir Geoffrey Elton. Yet Elton himself has become notorious for his dismissive iconoclasm about the best-known Tudor historian of the previous generation, in effect reiterating, “Who now reads Neale?”
It is, of course, not new history as such that arouses Himmelfarb's scepticism, any more than Elton's, but the New History as practised by a...
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SOURCE: Coser, Lewis A. Review of The New History and the Old, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 3 (May 1988): 311-12.
[In the following review, Coser is highly critical of The New History and the Old, asserting that it “has hardly any redeeming intellectual significance.”]
A specter haunts these pages: the specter of Social History. In her passionate and dyspeptic book, [The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals] Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished historian, is obsessed with the alleged dangers of the new social history, psychohistory, and economic history which, in her view, “devaluate not only political history but reason itself, reason in history and politics” (p. 18). Whether it be the French Annales school of Fernand Braudel and his successors, the work of E. P. Thompson and his disciples in England, or the writings of historical demographers such as Peter Laslett, all of them, Himmelfarb argues, are enemies of the promise of reason in that they impose a rigid deterministic scheme on historical explanation, thus denying human freedom.
Himmelfarb has an easy time picking up silly instances in the writings of scholars associated with the new history, as when the late Warren Susman writes that “Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt” (p....
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SOURCE: Handlin, Oscar. Review of The New History and the Old, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Academic Questions 1, no. 4 (fall 1988): 90-1.
[In the following review, Handlin recommends The New History and the Old to a general as well as an academic readership. Handlin applauds Himmelfarb's confrontation with serious problems in the field of history, but points out several flaws in her arguments.]
This volume [The New History and the Old] assembles ten essays, all save one previously published, but all edited and rewritten. A brief, pungent introduction supplies a theme that holds them together. The author's critical acumen, wide learning, and flashes of wit shine through these pages, which deserve a general as well as an academic audience.
Two essays stand apart, dealing as they do with the philosophy rather than the practice of history. The effort to integrate an analysis of the idea of progress with the work of the sociologist Robert Nisbet falls short of coping fully with either subject. By contrast, the concluding essay, “Does History Make Sense?” while focused on Michael Oakeshott, takes off into a wide-ranging, thoughtful, and affirmative analysis.
A long, detailed account of The Group exposes the fashion in which Marxists, almost all of them Stalinists, made a special niche for themselves in British academia, with connections that reached the...
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SOURCE: Henretta, James A. “Lost Utopias and Present Realities.” American Quarterly 40, no. 4 (December 1988): 537-43.
[In the following review, Henretta discusses The New History and the Old along with other books by various authors on similar topics. Henretta asserts that Himmelfarb's criticisms are frequently accurate, but comments that her arguments are often unconvincing and overly dogmatic.]
Once upon a time history mattered, and historians stood proud. “They felt themselves to be sages and prophets,” Theodore Hamerow tells us [in Reflections on History and Historians], because of a widespread belief that their discipline “held the key to an understanding of the past and a vision of the future.” Then, amidst the uncertainties of the post-World War II world, society and historians alike lost faith in history as a reliable guide. Simultaneously, economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology appeared “more precise, scientific, reliable, and reassuring than history,” usurping history's central place in the public mind and the college curriculum (11).
This “grave crisis” sparked a revolution in historical scholarship. To “escape from decline, neglect, and irrelevance,” New Historians adopted the approaches and methods of the social sciences. In the process, as Gertrude Himmelfarb continues the lament [in The New History...
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SOURCE: Hays, Samuel P. Review of The New History and the Old, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Journal of Social History 23, no. 2 (winter 1989): 395-96.
[In the following review of The New History and the Old, Hays asserts that Himmelfarb's arguments are coherent and lucid, but comments that she fails to provide constructive ideas about how to bridge the gap between social and political history.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb is well known as one of the most trenchant critics of the “new social history.” This book [The New History and the Old] gathers in one volume a number of her previous essays, somewhat revised, and provides the reader with a coherent view of her arguments.
Her essays are usually vigorous and uncompromising. At times they soften when she insists that she is not criticizing social history but its “dominant role” in contemporary historical writing. Throughout the essays there is a tendency not to sort out the desirable from the undesirable in social history, but to concentrate on aspects of it, such as psychohistory or quantitative history; the choices seems to be less because the subjects are representative and more because they arouse her special antipathy.
More important than what Himmelfarb attacks is the kind of history that she advocates. It almost gets lost amid her assault, but it shapes that assault, and is far more fundamental...
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SOURCE: Kiernan, Victor. Review of The New History and the Old, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. History 74, no. 240 (February 1989): 85-6.
[In the following review, Kiernan offers a mixed assessment of Himmelfarb's The New History and the Old.]
Ten essays are collected in this volume, [The New History and the Old] all but one of them in revised form. They are all concerned with the regrettable dominance which Professor Himmelfarb believes to have been established by the ‘New History’ and its practitioners; history-writing, that is, concerned with small subdivisions of the past, and with minutiae of social life to the exclusion of politics and thereby of all large, significant problems of man's past. This trend she sees as having gone so far as to threaten History with a complete loss of meaning. Some of the Annales school ‘are beginning to suspect that they have unleashed a force they cannot control’ (p. 8). She finds the same doubts showing themselves in some essays by Lawrence Stone, one of the fathers of the new trend, who has lately expressed a reviving interest in narrative as distinct from analysis. She joins him in dismissing psychohistory, which is as she says not real history at all, but guesswork; and also the ‘quanto-history’ methods championed by Fogel and others. Reliance on quantitative methods is unsatisfactory not only because statistical data are always...
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SOURCE: Kelley, Donald R. Review of The New History and the Old, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Historian 51, no. 2 (February 1989): 311-12.
[In the following review of The New History and the Old, Kelley asserts that Himmelfarb's arguments are not relevant to current historical scholarship.]
This slim volume [The New History and the Old] contains ten essays, many previously published, about historiography and its discontents. Although concerned, critically and sometimes condescendingly, with a so-called “new history,” the preoccupations seem dated. Written in the eighties, the essays seem—in terms of “mentalité”—a product rather of the fifties, and the author's horizons are for the most part limited to historians important enough to achieve notice in the New York Review of Books and questions important enough, i.e., political enough, to warrant discussion at gatherings of urban, and especially anglophile, intellectuals who would like to walk the corridors of power, or at least talk about doing so.
“History with the Politics Left Out” invokes Trevelyan and, despite a foot on the Annales, remains on a level of unreflective generality. “Clio and the New History,” following but not improving on Jacques Barzun, complains about the distortions of psychohistory (man's intellectual inhumanity to man—Freudianism with the therapy left out) and...
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SOURCE: Wilentz, Sean. “The New History and Its Critics.” Dissent 36, no. 2 (spring 1989): 242-49.
[In the following review, Wilentz asserts that Himmelfarb's arguments in The New History and the Old are representative of neoconservative trends in historical scholarship. Wilentz goes on to provide a historical overview of the development of the new social history which Himmelfarb criticizes in her essays.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb's engaging, censorious collection of essays [The New History and the Old] brings to mind how little the neoconservatives have affected American historical writing. Surely no one could have predicted this failure, given both the resources at the neocons' command and history's notorious exposure to shifting political winds. Recent conservatizing trends have certainly touched historical scholarship in other Western democracies. Yet in the United States, it has fallen to economists, philosophers, and political scientists to fashion an academically plausible neoconservativism. Among popular and academic historians alike, liberals, radicals, and old-line conservatives—not the reborn neocons—have produced the most influential and widely read work of the last fifteen years. After eight years of Reagan, the most conspicuous neoconservative historical genre remains the tub-thumping diatribes in Commentary, the New Criterion, and the American...
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SOURCE: Scott, Joan W. Review of The New History and the Old, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (June 1989): 699-700.
[In the following review of The New History and the Old, Scott asserts that Himmelfarb's arguments lack depth and that she oversimplifies ongoing debates within the field of history.]
In these essays [in The New History and the Old,] published as individual pieces between 1974 and 1986, Gertrude Himmelfarb reasserts familiar conservative arguments in support of “traditional” history. That history, she says, takes politics as its subject, narrating the progress of “man's” reason as expressed in his creation of the laws, constitutions, governments, and nations, which through “the rational ordering and organization of society” (p. 21) “promote the public weal and the good life” (p. 18). Traditional history, in her account of it, accommodates change without disruption precisely because change is made part of a continuous story. It is, moreover, a history that grants the reality and know ability of the past, seeks to describe it objectively and to transmit a “patrimony” that, from one generation to the next, secures the continuity not only of national identity but also of Western civilization. This history constitutes the right way of telling the human story, Himmelfarb suggests, because it accurately describes the way things...
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SOURCE: Bowman, James. “The Great Divorce.” National Review 43, no. 19 (21 October 1991): 37-8.
[In the following review, Bowman asserts that Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion is a brilliant, lucidly written, exhaustively researched, and important book.]
The trouble with socialism, T. S. Eliot said, is that it's an attempt “to design a system so perfect that no one will have to be good.” Whatever may be the strictly economic and practical shortcomings of the various systems designed with that end in view, Eliot points us in the direction of their common conceptual flaw. It is a kind of intellectual hubris (even if it were not also folly) to suppose that moral responsibility is so readily derivable from the proper material conditions.
But it is important to recognize that Eliot, the modernist, was reacting against a peculiarly modernist version of socialism. Gertrude Himmelfarb's lucidly written, exhaustively researched follow-up to The Idea of Poverty [Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians] shows that the Victorians, with whom Eliot had such ambivalent relations, understood the term very differently. For them the word “socialist” was commonly used to mean little more than vaguely reformist. And the one thing that nearly all socialists had in common both with each other and with the “individualists” who opposed them...
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SOURCE: Ryan, Alan. “Do-Gooders.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 18 (7 November 1991): 3-6.
[In the following review, Ryan comments that Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion is uneven in quality and lacks a unifying argument.]
Like the twentieth-century United States, Victorian England was a society that combined an average level of prosperity far above anything the world had ever seen with pockets of poverty and misery that periodically became the occurrence of a high level of moral, intellectual, and political anxiety. In neither case was it the bare fact of inequality that provoked the anxiety. The middle- and upper-class academics, investigators, and social workers who debated the issue of poverty and its resolution in Victorian England did not think Christ had meant them to ignore the inhabitants of London's East End slums when he said, “The poor you have always with you,” but they rarely doubted that there would always be a social, economic, and political hierarchy of some kind.
Their American contemporaries and successors, too, have numbered far more welfare-state liberals among their ranks than principled egalitarians. Nor is this surprising, since it is the sharp contrast between top and bottom that catches the eye of most liberals, not the gradations of lesser and greater affluence. These similarities lend the social history of Victorian England a decided...
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SOURCE: Perkin, Harold. “Interfere! Don't Interfere!” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4625 (22 November 1991): 25.
[In the following review, Perkin asserts that Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion is a masterful sequel to The Idea of Poverty.]
Twenty years ago, the Welfare State had achieved a level of consensus which promised “the end of history” in social policy. Since then, Thatcherism and Reaganomics have come and gone, challenging the assumption that poverty could and would soon be abolished, and being challenged in turn in their assumption that tax concessions to the rich would “trickle down” in benefits to the poor. On either front, instead of progress slowly escalating from poverty to affluence, we have Albert Hirschman's repeated swing of the pendulum between public action and private interest, between government intervention and reaction against the spendthrift state. More recently, Ralf Dahrendorf has identified The Modern Social Conflict (1991) between “provisions” (economic growth) and “entitlements” (benefits as of right). In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It is déjà vu all over again.”
The most famous example of this endless cycle in social policy is the swing from laissez-faire to collectivism in nineteenth-century Britain. In [Poverty and Compassion,] this masterly sequel to her impressive study, The...
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SOURCE: Porter, Roy. “Charitable Contributions.” New Republic 205, no. 4010 (25 November 1991): 34-7.
[In the following review, Porter asserts that Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion lacks a cohesive, unifying argument, and that it fails to live up to the high standard of scholarship established in The Idea of Poverty.]
Since the 1950s Gertrude Himmelfarb has built a formidable reputation as an explorer of the nineteenth-century mind. A ruthless debunker of shoddy reasoning and double-speak, past and present, Himmelfarb has made it her mission to lay bare the prejudices of the founding fathers of modernity; her forte is exploding their pretensions with deadly elegance. The shallow, rationalist materialism of Jeremy Bentham and his haunted house of Utility; the vaunted liberalism of John Stuart Mill, which turns out to be exceedingly illiberal; the soulless scientism of Darwinian evolution, a creed that, for all its emancipatory boasts, left its author emotionally desiccated and mankind adrift: time and again Himmelfarb has delighted in showing that the prized systems of progressives were jerry-built, their grand truths crudely self-serving, too frequently the work of decidedly queer ideologues.
Always wary of trendy intellectual agendas, as in her The New History and the Old (1987), Himmelfarb became the scourge of the smug, liberal intelligentsia so sure of its...
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SOURCE: Berger, Peter L. “Revising the Victorians.” Commentary 92, no. 6 (December 1991): 62-4.
[In the following review, Berger calls Poverty and Compassion a superb study of great social and moral importance.]
Ever since Lytton Strachey's 1918 hatchet job, Eminent Victorians, the Victorian age has had a bad press among bien-pensant intellectuals: the very adjective has come to be synonymous with all that is repressed, hypocritical, moralistically meddlesome. The same view holds in the area of social reform: the Victorians oppressively imposed their bourgeois values on a reluctant working class, and were particularly addicted to the habit which American liberals now call “blaming the victim.”
This disagreeable stereotype has been challenged before, but never in a more exhaustive and sustained fashion than by the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. In book after book she has brilliantly illuminated the Victorian period of British history—to the point where those who have followed her career have begun to think of that period as the Himmelfarbian age—and in the process she has demonstrated just how short the stereotype falls of complex reality. The present book [Poverty and Compassion] picks up the story at the point where Miss Himmelfarb left it at the end of The Idea of Poverty (published in 1984). There she dealt with the social...
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SOURCE: McWilliams, Wilson Carey. “When Everyone Was a Liberal.” Commonweal 119, no. 3 (14 February 1992): 24-5.
[In the following review of Poverty and Compassion, McWilliams observes that the strength of Himmelfarb's work lies in highlighting the ways in which history serves as a lesson for current societal problems.]
For centuries, the poor were always with us, a normal and expected feature of the political landscape, until late nineteenth-century reformers redefined poverty as a problem to be ameliorated or solved. We are still at it, fitfully, and the controversies of the late Victorians are family arguments for us, very much at issue in our political life.
Gertrude Himmelfarb has her own ideas, heaven knows, about the proper approach to poverty, and—a good fighter—she brings a special zest to her criticism of various Marxists and partisans of “value free” social science. The grace of Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion, however, proceeds from her conviction that the past has something to teach the present. No one has a better ear for the late Victorians; she lets us hear them speak in their own voices and on their own terms, and in her writing intellectual history becomes a dialogue between the times.
Himmelfarb's subjects are a gorgeously diverse lot—Charles Booth, a businessman turned researcher and reformer; T. H. Green and John...
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SOURCE: Malchow, H. L. “A Victorian Mind: Gertrude Himmelfarb, Poverty, and the Moral Imagination.” Victorian Studies 35, no. 3 (spring 1992): 309-15.
[In the following review of Poverty and Compassion, Malchow comments that Himmelfarb's arguments are shrewdly observed and argued, but observes that they are marred by ideological stridency.]
The publication of Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians is the culmination of a major endeavor in intellectual history—one that has spanned the 1980s, and is, to use a Germanism of which Beatrice Webb was fond, itself a monument to the “Time-Spirit” of that decade. With this substantial book, Gertrude Himmelfarb, perhaps the best-known, certainly the most combative historian of nineteenth-century ideas, closes a study of well over 1,000 pages. Poverty and Compassion follows and complements her earlier volume, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. This work attempts to take a major consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the heightened awareness among the educated classes in Britain of a “problem” of poverty, and to trace its evolution through the course of a century. It is, insistently, not a study of poverty itself, but of the idea of poverty, and as such seeks to affirm the validity of a history of ideas and the need to rescue this particular idea from what seem to...
(The entire section is 4035 words.)
SOURCE: Meacham, Standish. Review of Poverty and Compassion, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. American Historical Review 97, no. 4 (October 1992): 1219.
[In the following review, Meacham asserts that Poverty and Compassion is a worthwhile work, but comments that Himmelfarb oversimplifies the issues in order to support her own arguments.]
Like E. P. Thompson, a historian for whom she has little use, Gertrude Himmelfarb is an enemy of historical condescension. Thompson, in The Making of The English Working Class (1963), asked his readers to take the radicals and visionaries he discussed with the seriousness their convictions deserved and to take them on their own terms. So with Himmelfarb. She insists, in this work [Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians], that late-Victorian philanthropists and social theorists had important things to say and that their deeds produced ameliorative social change of considerable magnitude.
Her quarrel with Marxists—Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Gareth Stedman-Jones, and others—is that their dedication to the construct of class and class consciousness has compelled them to interpret her reformers as little more than the predetermined and reflexive voices of economic structure. Her equally serious quarrel with historians of the British welfare state—Bentley Gilbert, for example—is that their Whiggish...
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SOURCE: Feuer, Lewis S. “Gertrude Himmelfarb: A Historian Considers Heroes and Their Historians.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 23, no. 1 (March 1993): 5-25.
[In the following essay, Feuer examines the central tenets of Himmelfarb's philosophy of history, as put forth in her books and essays.]
This essay discusses the views of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who sets forth that democratic societies tend toward a determinist outlook; she fears that the weakened belief in free will and its heroes endangers a democratic society. She regards H. G. Wells as the founder in 1920 of the “new history,” with its antiheroic bias. She welcomes therefore the television series The Civil War for having achieved “a history from above and history from below,” with its heroes among common soldiers as well as the generals and statesmen. Himmelfarb criticizes the “debunking” historians who not only belittle the significance of heroes but find in “small causes” (e.g., the origins of Hitler's obsessive anti-Semitism) a basis for large-scale events (e.g., the Holocaust). Himmelfarb finds that H. G. Wells's Outline of History was intended not only to displace military conquerors as the heroes of history but to elevate the scientific elite in their place as history's truly constructive people. Americans, however, were, earlier, first introduced to another variety of “new...
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SOURCE: Bailey, Victor. Review of Poverty and Compassion, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Journal of Social History 27, no. 1 (fall 1993): 194.
[In the following review, Bailey asserts that, while Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty was “original, striking, and challenging,” Poverty and Compassion is “derivative, fragmentary, and predictable.”]
With Poverty and Compassion, Professor Himmelfarb concludes her remarkable two-volume assessment of the Victorian responses to poverty. The entire project now ranges from Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus in the 1780s to T. H. Green, Alfred Marshall and Charles Booth in the 1880s. The first volume, The Idea of Poverty (1983), was rightfully acclaimed as an original, challenging and sympathetic reconstruction of the history of those who thought about poverty in the early industrial age. In what essentially was a series of individual biographies, introduced by an intriguing re-appraisal of the economist Adam Smith, Himmelfarb insisted that what led Victorian writers and thinkers to perceive poverty as a problem, and to offer support to Smith's Invisible Hand, was not the fear of Chartism and revolution (as Frederic Engels claimed) but the prevailing “moral imagination” concerning the poor. In keeping with this preoccupation with the “pressure of ideas,” the companion volume explains the transition from laissez-faireism to...
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SOURCE: Gross, John. “Confronting the ‘Isms’.” Commentary 97, no. 4 (April 1994): 63-4.
[In the following review, Gross calls On Looking into the Abyss a timely work of lucid intelligence, wide-ranging scholarship, and penetrating judgment.]
The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest collection of essays [On Looking into the Abyss] displays all the virtues that readers have come to expect from her—lucid intelligence, wide-ranging scholarship, penetrating judgment. Good manners, too: she remains, as she has always been, a restrained and courteous controversialist. Yet one can also detect, however much it is kept under control, a new note of exasperation, even at times a hint of outright disgust.
Such sentiments are entirely in order, since almost all the essays deal with the disasters that have overtaken intellectual life in recent years. Three in particular tackle prevailing fashions head-on. The title essay, “On Looking into the Abyss,” considers deconstruction and related ailments, especially as they have affected literary criticism, philosophy, and the study of history. “Postmodernist History” is about just that. “Heroes, Villains, and Valets”—which originally appeared in Commentary (June 1991)—sets in perspective contemporary attempts to undermine the idea that some books or ideas or events or personalities are more significant than...
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SOURCE: Welch, Colin. Review of On Looking into the Abyss, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. National Review 46, no. 7 (18 April 1994): 48.
[In the following review, Welch offers high praise for On Looking into the Abyss, calling it a splendid book of formidable erudition and wide scope.]
Fortunate he who, peering apprehensively into the dread Abyss, finds beside him, peering too and holding his hand, the intrepid, benign, and reassuring figure of Professor Himmelfarb. What better guide and comrade could he have? Who better to accompany him into this horrible place?
Some years ago I reviewed a previous book by Professor Himmelfarb. We'd known her here in London, where her husband, Irving Kristol, edited the magazine Encounter, of blessed memory. She was and is affectionately known as Bea, less of a mouthful than Professor Himmelfarb. May I use this pet-name? My review turned irresistibly into a paean of praise for Bea, of admiration and respect for her intelligence and good rather than common sense, for her integrity, her firm and upright character. She was, I'm told, to her great credit, disgusted. Such a tasteless rhapsody doubtless offended her innate modesty.
I must try to avoid giving offense again; but seriously I don't find it easy. Reviewing these present splendid essays [On Looking into the Abyss], I could start by testifying to their...
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SOURCE: Teachout, Terry. “The Abyss Stares Back.” New Criterion 12, no. 10 (June 1994): 70-3.
[In the following review, Teachout offers high praise for On Looking into the Abyss, calling it a “lucid and compelling contribution to the ongoing debate over the future of American culture.”]
Those who casually dismiss Holocaust deniers as psychotic are missing the point. Outright denial is merely the most straightforward of a variety of unsavory responses to the Holocaust that have emerged in recent years. The Holocaust, after all, is the most awkward fact in twentieth-century history. All roads lead to it, and many go no farther. Economic determinism, the aestheticization of history, the denial by liberals of the existence of evil, even the very idea of progress itself: such shibboleths of modern thought look uniformly and unutterably foolish when weighed in the balance with the burnt corpses of six million Jews. For anyone who nonetheless persists in espousing such stylish notions, the Holocaust is, to borrow from the phrasebook of the KGB, an “unwanted witness.”
Small wonder, then, that those who find the reality of the Holocaust impossible to square with their own views should seek to do to it what the KGB did to its own unwanted witnesses (and what many Western intellectuals labored mightily to do to the memory of the forty million people murdered by the KGB). Hence...
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SOURCE: Congdon, Lee. “History and the Moral Imagination.” World & I 9, no. 7 (July 1994): 306.
[In the following essay, Congdon discusses the concepts of liberty and morality in historical scholarship, with particular focus on Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion and On Looking into the Abyss.]
In The Liberal Imagination, a masterly collection of essays he published in 1950, Lionel Trilling warned his fellow liberals not to be so mesmerized by clear and simple principles that they lose all feeling for the “imagination”—those sentiments, attitudes, and implicit beliefs that temper pure reason and take the social form of manners. To exhibit a lofty contempt for habit and tradition by subordinating them to abstract moral principles invites misadventure. For some paradox of our natures leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination.
Trilling's concept of the moral imagination as a judicious blend of intellect and emotion, the rational and the sensible, exerted a profound influence on the mind and imagination of Gertrude Himmelfarb, a young friend...
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SOURCE: Ryan, Alan. “The Two Himmelfarbs.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4766 (5 August 1994): 7.
[In the following review of On Looking into the Abyss, Ryan asserts that, while Himmelfarb is an admirable historian, she is less skilled as a philosopher of history.]
On Looking into the Abyss reprints half a dozen of Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent essays and lectures. The collection is in essence Professor Himmelfarb's contribution to the “culture wars” that enlivened the American academy during the late 1980s, and the prevailing tone is the outraged and alarmed tone of New Criterion cultural conservatism. The lectures were delivered over the past decade to a variety of audiences, and range from attacks on recent fashions in historical writing and literary criticism to reflections on the recent triumph of the long-dead Hegel over the even more dead Marx and some thoughts on the inferiority of John Stuart Mill's liberalism to that of Tocqueville and Lord Acton. Himmelfarb also reprints here a splendid essay on the decline and fall of the footnote which is worth the price of the whole collection.
Gertrude Himmelfarb has for thirty years argued that there are two John Stuart Mills. Mill the simple-minded radical wrote On Liberty to defend the “one very simple principle” that society could only coerce its members to prevent “harm to others” and is...
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SOURCE: Hollander, Paul. “The Attack on Science and Reason.” Orbis 38, no. 4 (fall 1994): 673-79.
[In the following review, Hollander discusses the “attack on science” put forth by some prominent thinkers, and reviews recent books defending science against this attack. Hollander asserts that On Looking into the Abyss provides profound insights into problems facing American society and culture at the end of the twentieth century.]
The American role in world affairs has always been in large measure determined by domestic conditions, not just economic and political ones but intellectual and cultural ones, too. That is especially the case in the present post-cold war period; with obvious and direct external threats no longer exerting compelling pressures, domestic factors have become more consequential. Under these conditions, prevailing levels of social cohesion, the cultural climate, the nature of domestic social and political conflicts, the beliefs of American elite groups, the attitude of intellectuals, and the vitality of American society as a whole become especially important in shaping the American role in global affairs both for now and, more important, for the future, when the foreign pressures weighing upon us may be greater.
Although their ostensible subjects are fairly narrow, the two very different books here reviewed provide profound insights into the state of...
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SOURCE: Hart, David Kirkwood. Review of On Looking into the Abyss, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Society 32, no. 1 (November-December 1994): 78-83.
[In the following review, Hart praises On Looking into the Abyss as “a powerful critique of our American academic culture.” Hart provides an overview of Himmelfarb's arguments against postmodern theory, and explains her focus on the importance of morality and virtue to the study of history.]
The eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has assembled seven of her recent essays into a powerful critique of our American academic culture. The result is a superb book [On Looking into the Abyss], and while she attends primarily to her own discipline, which is history, it will be of considerable interest to anyone concerned with the humanities or the social sciences. The essays complement her earlier collection, The New History and the Old (1987), and they further enhance her reputation as one of the most distinguished defenders of “traditional history,” in contrast to psychohistory, quantohistory and, now, postmodernist history. Whether one agrees with her basic position or not, the quality of her scholarly output in the past four decades has earned Himmelfarb the right to serious attention.
When reading a collection of essays, the first question should properly be: What ties the individual pieces together? At first...
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SOURCE: Gottfried, Paul E. Review of On Looking into the Abyss, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Society 32, no. 1 (November-December 1994): 83-4.
[In the following review of On Looking into the Abyss, Gottfried observes that the central argument unifying the essays in this volume is Himmelfarb's defense of old historical tradition against postmodern theories.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest anthology of essays [On Looking into the Abyss] contains no revisionist surprises; nor do the responses to it suggest that either her critics or well-wishers have fallen out of step. Having established a well-documented reputation as a scorner of postmodernist history and as an admirer of Victorian biographical approaches to her subject, Himmelfarb does not give ground here. Feminist, “value-free,” and deconstructiontist historians all receive elegant whacks; and blaming them as people who should know better, Himmelfarb also investigates critically the French Annalistes, particularly the late Fernand Braudel. The unwillingness of the Annalistes to recognize great individuals and religious ideas as agents of historical change occasions some of Himmelfarb's most caustic comments. It is claimed that academic historians do not listen to critical observations from Himmelfarb or from others similarly disposed, and because of this they produce boring, tendentious texts that nobody but other academics even...
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SOURCE: “Middlemarch down the Aisle.” Wilson Quarterly 19, no. 1 (winter 1995): 147.
[In the following essay, the author provides a brief summary of Himmelfarb's essay “George Eliot for Grown-Ups,” published in the American Scholar, autumn 1994.]
What a disappointment it was for many viewers of the recent PBS television series based on Middlemarch (1871-72), not to mention generations of readers, when the high-minded Dorothea wed the morally flawed Will Ladislaw. The idealistic Dr. Lydgate (who, inconveniently, was already married) seemed so much more suited to her. But even a marriage to Lydgate—had author George Eliot (1819-80) contrived to make him available—would have had some feminists gnashing their teeth. To them, Eliot (whose real name was Mary Ann Evans) is a feminist role model who defied the bourgeois, patriarchal convention of marriage by living in sin with the man she loved. Why, then, in her greatest novel, could she not create an equally independent spirit in Dorothea?
“The simple answer,” writes Himmelfarb, the noted historian, [in “George Eliot for Grown-Ups”] “is that Eliot herself was not a feminist in the modern sense.” Indeed, she honored the bourgeois virtues even in the breach. Yes, she defied convention by living with George Henry Lewes without marrying him, but “she did not willfully choose that role; she had no...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Victorian Era Offers Model, Not Solution for Today.” Christian Science Monitor 87, no. 55 (14 February 1995): 13.
[In the following review, Rubin asserts that Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society lacks a coherent unifying thesis.]
Few would deny that most of us living today could do a lot worse than look to the once-ridiculed Victorians for role models. Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian who has written lucidly and provocatively about 19th-century England over the past five decades, is too sensible to propose a wholesale return to a bygone age. But she strongly believes we could learn a lot from taking a fresh look at formerly mocked Victorian virtues.
Her latest book, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, contains the kind of perceptive insights about 19th-century manners and mores we have come to expect from her, along with somewhat nebulous, inadequately thought-out suggestions about restoring a sense of virtue to modern life.
Not to mince words, this is a disappointing book. Despite the intelligence the author brings to portraying the Victorians and their ideals, when it comes to examining today's world, the book has little more to offer than the usual warmed-over neoconservative nostrums.
Himmelfarb rightly takes issue with left-wing academicians for...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “In Praise of the Old Order.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 8 (19 February 1995): 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers high praise for Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society, calling it a splendid book.]
“Values,” since the 1960s scarce indeed in American society and culture, all of a sudden are not merely all about us but too much with us. From the bestseller lists to the congressional caucuses to the television talk shows, the chatter level on the subject of “values” has reached full-magpie density. Americans seem to understand, however vaguely and uncertainly, that they have lost the sense of moral consensus and imperative that any healthy society requires; characteristically, they are doing very little about the problem but talking it to death.
The difference between Gertrude Himmelfarb and all but a handful of those engaged in this discussion is that Himmelfarb actually knows what she is talking about. As this country's leading authority on Victorian society and ethics, she is almost uniquely qualified to place the moral disarray of the late 20th century in historical perspective. This she does at the very outset of her splendid new book, The De-Moralization of Society, when she contrasts the sturdy certainty of the “virtues” that the Victorians sought to achieve—among them “hard work, thrift,...
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SOURCE: Bowman, James. Review of The De-Moralization of Society, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. New Criterion 13, no. 7 (March 1995): 79-80.
[In the following review, Bowman contends that The De-Moralization of Society is a well-informed and convincingly argued polemic.]
The lurking modern presence which haunts Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest exploration of Victoriana [The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values] is that of Margaret Thatcher, who coined the phrase “Victorian values” (as it is generally rendered) in the 1983 British general election campaign. Only Beatrice Webb and John Stuart Mill, each with one index citation more, are mentioned more often than the Iron Lady, and their claim to authority on the subject of Victorian virtues is rather better established. But the former prime minister represents to Miss Himmelfarb the hope that our de-moralized society might somehow be re-moralized along Victorian lines, and her recurring presence thus signals the author's polemical intent.
And why not? Miss Himmelfarb is a well-known authority on the Victorians (her books about the period include the monumental Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, published in 1984, and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, published in 1991), and in her earlier works an obvious sympathy for...
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SOURCE: Sheehan, James J. Review of On Looking into the Abyss, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (April 1995): 483-84.
[In the following review, Sheehan provides a brief gloss on each of the seven essays collected in On Looking into the Abyss. Sheehan asserts that Himmelfarb's arguments are not persuasive, and that she distorts the views of those whom she opposes.]
This book by Gertrude Himmelfarb [On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society] consists of seven essays that began as lectures and occasional pieces; all have been published before. As is common in collections of this sort, the essays vary in subject matter and weight. “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?”, which the author describes as a jeu d'esprit, laments the decline of the footnote in scholarly publications. (The footnote, I must say, is not an endangered species in most of the books I read.) “From Marx to Hegel” celebrates the belated triumph of Hegel over Marx, which Himmelfarb illustrates with Václav Havel's statement to the U.S. Congress that “Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.” (I hope those members of Congress who so enthusiastically applauded Havel are prepared to help prevent Eastern Europe's material realities from returning to overwhelm its spirit.) In “The Dark and Bloody Crossroads...
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SOURCE: Davies, Christie. “What Made Them Moral?” National Review 47, no. 6 (3 April 1995): 63-4.
[In the following review, Davies praises Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society as a sensible, insightful, and erudite book.]
[In The De-Moralization of Society] Gertrude Himmelfarb has given us an excellent, detailed, and insightful account of the creation, maintenance, and (in our time) decline of the Victorian virtues of work, thrift, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, and patriotism. These virtues defined the character and ethos of the Victorian age in Britain and, with certain variants, in America and were upheld or at least aspired to by members of all social classes. Indeed, one of Professor Himmelfarb's key points is that these virtues were indigenous not only to the middle classes but also to large sections of those at the very bottom of the social order, who realized that the mundane virtues of respectability—such as sobriety, prudence, and frugality—did not require status or lineage or wealth or wisdom but were available to all. Even the humblest could come to see themselves, and come to be seen by others, as free moral agents capable of self-control.
Professor Himmelfarb rightly acknowledges the religious origins and underpinnings of Victorian virtue. Where I am inclined to disagree is over her argument that Victorian morality survived a...
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SOURCE: Berger, Peter L. “The 19th Century and After.” Commentary 99, no. 5 (May 1995): 66, 68-9.
[In the following review of The De-Moralization of Society, Berger applauds Himmelfarb's assessment of a moral crisis in today's society, and commends her advocacy of a return to Victorian moral virtues.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb is probably the most distinguished American historian working on 19th-century England. In recent years she has also written as a critic of miscellaneous social and cultural developments in today's Western world. The present volume [The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values] continues both activities. It will interest those who like to read about the last century, and those who worry about the current one.
Himmelfarb returns here to a subject she has dealt with extensively in earlier works: the moral fabric of Victorian society and the undeservedly bad press it has received from later commentators. Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) can be seen as the prototype of the sour view of that period of English history, supposedly marked by social oppression and moral hypocrisy. As a result of such pejorative interpretations, the very term “Victorian” is still widely used today to indicate repressed sexuality, bourgeois stuffiness, and a generally retrograde world view. Himmelfarb is a “revisionist” with...
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SOURCE: Carr, Raymond. “Morality Is Unspeakable.” Spectator 274, no. 8705 (13 May 1995): 43-4.
[In the following review of The De-Moralization of Society, Carr discusses Himmelfarb's perspective on Victorian moral virtues.]
This [The De-Moralization of Society] is a tract for our times written by a distinguished historian with a rare gift for clear and elegant exposition. Its polemical intent is clear. It is published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, the free market think tank; Lady Thatcher, as a defender of the Victorian family values of hard work, self-reliance and living within one's income, rates more references than any other public figure, alive or dead.
Neil Kinnock thought he had rebutted Lady Thatcher's Victorian revivalism by asserting ‘the Victorian values that ruled were cruelty, squalor and ignorance’. It is Kinnock who is ignorant, in presenting this travesty of Victorianism. He confuses moral values with social realities. Professor Himmelfarb is well aware of the harsh realities of Victorian England. But Victorians did not espouse cruelty or ignorance as a value, and their record as reformers is impressive, while the fact that eminent Victorians often failed to live up to the values they professed to uphold does not necessarily turn them into a race of hypocrites. They agonised over their lapses from virtue as Gladstone did in his struggle...
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SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “Victoria's Secret.” New Republic 212, no. 20 (15 May 1995): 28.
[In the following review, Bromwich observes that the chief scholarly interest of The De-Moralization of Society is in Himmelfarb's polemic against historians who “denounce Victorian society for its coercive ideology.” Bromwich, however, comments that Himmelfarb oversimplifies the issues she raises.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb believes American society is close to a crisis of disorder, and this state of things demands that we take manners seriously. In a tranquil time, manners, which Hobbes called “small morals,” do not require much reflection; but good manners are never their own reward, and bad manners are never their own punishment. They are the motion on the surface that tells of a life beneath. That a racist remark among educated persons is felt to be low may be an achievement of manners only, but the achievement has a power over conduct that could hardly be equaled by a law prohibiting the remark. Nor is the influence of decayed manners less significant than that of improved manners. The fact that thousands daily share the intimacies of their lives on television and radio probably assures that such confessions will not soon become an indictable offense; but the widening appeal of this way of talking, and its gradual passage into habit, have a corrosive effect on shame that no law could offset....
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SOURCE: Henderson, David R. “Value Judgments.” Reason 27, no. 2 (June 1995): 52.
[In the following review of The De-Moralization of Society, Henderson agrees with Himmelfarb's distinction between virtues and values, and advocates abolishing government welfare programs.]
In the early 1970s, I was a graduate teaching assistant at UCLA in an undergraduate course taught by Charles Baird, a free-market economist. After explaining to the class the problems with the current welfare system—its disincentive to work, the amount of life-arranging (his word) that social workers do, etc.—Baird proposed as an alternative Milton Friedman's idea of a negative income tax.
Under Friedman's plan, the panoply of different government aid programs would be replaced by a simple cash giveaway, administered through the tax system, with no money specifically earmarked for certain items, as with food stamps, and no pesky social workers trying to manage your life. Poor people would be able to spend their welfare payment on anything they wanted.
Shortly after the class, an undergrad—one of the more promising and apparently idealistic ones, I might add—came by to discuss the Friedman proposal further. I expected him to focus on the proposal's effect on the poor. Instead, he considered solely its effect on himself.
He had calculated that under the Friedman plan...
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SOURCE: Hoggart, Richard. “The Value of Virtue.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4812 (23 June 1995): 15.
[In the following review, Hoggart asserts that The De-Moralization of Society is valuable reading for those on both sides of the political spectrum, provides discussion of Himmelfarb's distinction between virtues and values.]
To a rootedly left-of-centre individual, a new book from the Institute of Economic Affairs promises little pleasure. So it had best be said straight away that this [The De-Moralization of Society] is an admirable study which could be read with great profit by left and right. At first the subtitle—From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values—seems to promise some Thatcherite-cum-Keith Joseph, reach-me-down philosophizing. Not so; Gertrude Himmelfarb validates the distinction. The essence of her case is that “values” are without significance unless they express themselves as socially shared meanings; that is, agreed virtues. As in, at their best, the Victorian virtues of self-reliance, philanthropy (from the Greek: the love of one's fellow men), probity and the rest. The author does not underestimate the degree to which many Victorians fell down on these virtues. But that was a falling-down from a publicly recognized norm.
“Values”, as the word is commonly used today, are specifically not social. People have their own “values”...
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SOURCE: Daly, Carson. “Victorian Solutions to Modern Problems.” World & I 10, no. 7 (July 1995): 262.
[In the following review, Daly comments that The De-Moralization of Society is persuasively argued, providing discussion of Himmelfarb's perspective on Victorian society and the distinction she makes between virtues and values.]
If the Victorians were so inhibited, repressed, and old-fashioned, why did they manage their social problems much better than we do?
“Victorian”: The very word is a condemnation. In modern parlance, it conjures up a host of images—all of them bad. One thinks of begrimed urchins roaming the streets of London and the rural poor turned out of work, while complacent capitalists dine on turtle soup. One envisions large, dark rooms full of heavy furniture—rooms stuffed with bureau scarves, antimacassars, and samplers—spelling out pious platitudes in cross-stitch. One imagines a whole nation laboring under the tyranny of innumerable rules and regulations, strangled by tight cravats and constricted in remorseless corsets. And presiding over it all one pictures the great queen herself—old, ungainly, double-chinned, censorious, and swathed in mourning—the perfect representative of the lugubrious age to which she lends her name.
Virtually no other historical period elicits such a negative response. Elizabethan, Jacobean,...
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SOURCE: Jacobs, Alan. “Family Virtues.” American Scholar 64, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 630.
[In the following review, Jacobs comments that Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society is convincingly argued and highly provocative.]
Some years ago the popular historian Barbara Tuchman published A Distant Mirror, a book that claims that in the struggles of the fourteenth century we can discern the outlines of our own time's conflicts. In The De-Moralization of Society a much finer historian produces a highly provocative exercise in the same genre. For Gertrude Himmelfarb, the Victorians, though much closer to us than the medievals not only in time but also in the particular social problems with which they were confronted, are of special interest because they responded to those problems so differently—and with so much more success.
Himmelfarb's forte has always been intellectual history, and each of her books on Victorian thought and culture has been notable for its refusal to accept the glib, reductive cliches from which the Victorians have suffered more than any of our other ancestors. The De-Moralization of Society indicates that the longer she studies Victorian society, the more she respects its inhabitants, not only for their good intentions but also for their real—and, to the unbiased eye, striking—achievements in social reform. In essence, Himmelfarb...
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SOURCE: Tuttleton, James W. “Rehabilitating Victorian Values.” Hudson Review 48, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 388-96.
[In the following review of The De-Moralization of Society, Tuttleton comments that Himmelfarb's historical analysis is effective, but notes that she fails to provide solutions to today's social problems.]
I had not realized—until I read Gertrude Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society—how thoroughly Victorian my parents happened to be. Both were born at about the turn of the century and came to their majority in the twenties and so technically were children of … well, the Jazz Age. But Modern Times must have arrived later in the Midwestern farm community where they were born because, so far as values were concerned, they were (in Gertrude Himmelfarb's definition) perfect Victorians.
Ms. Himmelfarb, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita of the Graduate Center of CUNY, is well equipped to define Victorian values for contemporary readers. Aside from books on Darwin, Lord Acton and John Stuart Mill, she has also written widely about the such topics as Victorian Minds (1968), The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984), Marriage and Morals among the Victorians (1986), Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991), and, most recently, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely...
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SOURCE: Robson, Ann. Review of The De-Moralization of Society, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (June 1996): 810.
[In the following review of The De-Moralization of Society, Robson applauds Himmelfarb's examination of Victorian morality as a lesson for modern times.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb's book [The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values] is as much about her own society as about Victorian England. A superficial judgment might describe it simply as a book in praise of the Victorians, but Himmelfarb does not write for the superficial reader. There is, indeed, much praise and understanding of Victorian ideals and achievements: the manners and morals they proclaimed (and mostly practiced) to make an urban society tolerable and increasingly civilized; the wholesome belief, almost a faith, in family and home; the high regard for women's particular qualities and a desire to preserve them; their approach to the problem of poverty; the significance of Samuel Smiles; and their attitudes to others in their society, especially Jews (a less successful chapter, based mostly on Beatrice Potter Webb's thoughts) and the new men and women.
Himmelfarb's thesis, however, is subtle: her underlying concern is not with Victorian virtues but with the failings of her own society—which she reveals by a comparison with Victorian...
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SOURCE: Quinn, John F. “Victoria's Virtues.” Review of Politics 58, no. 3 (summer 1996): 636-39.
[In the following review, Quinn praises Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society as a valuable, provocative, erudite, and elegantly written work.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb has never been the sort to shy away from controversy. In her previous works, she has taken to task social historians, radical feminists, deconstructionists and academics who refuse to use citations. In her latest effort, The De-Moralization of Society, she sets out to accomplish two tasks: to offer an objective account of the attitudes of the Victorians and to consider whether contemporary American and English policymakers could not learn some lessons from them. This decision of Miss Himmelfarb's to compare America and England of the 1990s with England in the 1890s—and her pronounced preference for the latter—insure that this work will receive more popular scrutiny than any of her earlier writings.
Much of the book is devoted to exploring Victorian views on women's roles, sexuality and marriage, religion and poverty. Here, as in earlier works, Himmelfarb is battling against Lytton Strachey, whose ill-informed, scornful work Eminent Victorians (1918) helped give the Victorians a bad name. Strachey penned portraits of four leading figures from the era—Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale,...
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SOURCE: Beum, Robert. “Gertrude Himmelfarb on the Victorians and Ourselves.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 2 (spring 1997): 260-66.
[In the following review, Beum discusses a recent reissue of Victorian Minds (originally published in 1968), as well as The De-Moralization of Society. Beum praises Himmelfarb's historical analysis, but faults her for failing to suggest adequate solutions to current social problems.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb probably knows more about Victorian England than anyone alive. She knows the era's many defamers no less intimately and has faced them all along as a scholarly magician pulling dumb-founding facts and logical chains out of their hats. The Victoriaphobes, at first a smart set taking their cue from Lytton Strachey, are now the not-so-smart set of the counter culture that has become the dominant culture. To them, in her most recent studies, Himmelfarb has turned devastating attention.
The recently reissued Victorian Minds (1968) collects thirteen essays published in the years when it was still possible to write on social and cultural issues in the confidence that common sense, illation, and a knowledge of the case might carry the day—and that these virtues themselves would need no defending even if the mores and literary tastes and assumptions of the 1860s did. All thirteen essays remain re-readable adventures in interesting particulars and...
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SOURCE: Brown, John. Review of The De-Moralization of Society, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. History 82, no. 267 (July 1997): 526-27.
[In the following review, Brown is highly critical of Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society, asserting that her historical analysis is marred by political rhetoric.]
Though its author is a well-known historian, it might be kinder to review this book [The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values] as a tract for the times. However, history is what it purports to be, and as such it can only be judged harshly. While it contains occasional passages of sophisticated historical analysis, as a whole it is bizarrely simple-minded, highly selective and partisan, and dispiritingly illustrates the pitfalls of trying to write history in the service of particular political positions and views. Mrs Thatcher is the heroine and patron saint of the project, praised in the opening paragraph for raising the need for a return to ‘Victorian values’, and the Thatcherite agenda in Britain—and the American right's crusade for a similar return to ‘family values’—are unhesitatingly and unquestionably taken to be serious attempts at a moral regeneration of society. The author argues that certain ‘virtues’—the word she prefers for what she regards as nineteenth-century moral qualities, though she uses it interchangeably with...
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SOURCE: Teachout, Terry. “We Lost. Now What?” National Review 51, no. 22 (22 November 1999): 51.
[In the following review, Teachout recommends One Nation, Two Cultures as an important book addressing the “culture wars” in America, praising Himmelfarb's optimism about the recurrence of conservative values in the United States.]
The Nineties are looking more and more like a stand-up monologue consisting exclusively of good news-bad news jokes. The Soviet Union went bust, but Bill Clinton was elected president; the Dow is up, but morality's down. The front-running presidential candidate is a Republican who first calls himself a conservative (sort of), then gives a speech in front of a roomful of conservative intellectuals in which he makes fun of Bob Bork. Ideologically speaking, the prevailing level of confusion has rarely been higher. Every time I open the paper these days, I think of poor old Mr. Jones, the upper-middle-class gent in the Bob Dylan song, who'd read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books and knew something was happening, but didn't know what it was.
So just what is happening? The simple answer—simplistic, really—comes from Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes, who was recently quoted as saying, “The right won the economic argument, and the left won the cultural argument.” Alas, conservatives who don't get culture (and their name is legion)...
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SOURCE: Jacoby, Tamar. “Unchangeable Absolutes.” New Leader 82, no. 15 (13 December 1999): 6-8.
[In the following review, Jacoby asserts that, while One Nation, Two Cultures is a provocative book, Himmelfarb's arguments are ultimately not persuasive. Jacoby further faults Himmelfarb for oversimplifying the complexities of modern life in her proposed solutions to current social ills.]
When acclaimed historian and social conservative Gertrude Himmelfarb surveys the moral landscape [in One Nation, Two Cultures], she comes away with exactly the kind of neat formulation a historian studying a distant period might hit upon. She sees America divided into what she calls “the dominant culture” and “the dissident culture.” Both cut across race, class and geographic lines.
The first, shaped in her view by corrosive ideas spread in the 1960s, is fatally relativistic, without respect for rules or authority, and therefore all too readily given to deviance and its consequences—everything from violent crime to divorce, drug use, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependency. Somewhere between half and three-quarters of Americans fall into this unhappy camp.
The second, a minority that is growing stronger as the '60s fade and in reaction to the dominant trend, is still convinced of the sanctity of traditional strictures. Besides differing from the majority on a...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Paul. “Creative Destruction?” Commentary 109, no. 1 (January 2000): 66-8.
[In the following review, Johnson offers high praise for Himmelfarb's One Nation, Two Cultures, calling it an important book about the moral condition of America.]
Of all those who write about the moral condition of America, Gertrude Himmelfarb is the best—partly because she is a historian, able to dip into deep reserves of knowledge to bring up parallels and precedents; partly because she has a strong taste for hard evidence and makes impressive use of statistics; partly because she is cool-headed and refuses to become hysterical about the awfulness of things; and finally because she writes well and succinctly.
In this 190-page essay [One Nation, Two Cultures: A Moral Divide], Himmelfarb covers a lot of ground: the moral consequences of capitalism, the diseases of democracy, civil society, the family and its enemies, the problems of legislating morality, religion as a political institution, and, especially, America's two cultures—the one hedonistic, the other puritanical—and the “ethics gap” between them. Anyone who is genuinely concerned about America's plight, or merely wants to talk about it, has no excuse for not reading this book. Himmelfarb has done the work, absorbed the evidence, marshaled the arguments, and produced, with modesty and sense, some tentative...
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SOURCE: Brinkley, Alan. “Victoria Revived.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5051 (21 January 2000): 6.
[In the following review, Brinkley observes that One Nation, Two Cultures is an important book for understanding the conservative perspective on problems facing American society. Brinkley concludes that, while Himmelfarb's arguments are intelligent and provocative, the book is historically short-sighted.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb, a respected historian of Victorian Britain, has become better known in recent years as an energetic conservative critic of modern American culture. Until now, she has directed her discontent mostly at her own profession. In a series of controversial articles and books, she has denounced the way in which modern historians have turned away from their traditional (and she believes ennobling) concerns—politics, leaders, great public events—and towards what she considers the trivial and even tawdry minutiae of everyday life.
In One Nation, Two Cultures, she looks beyond the historical profession to American society as a whole. Its culture, she argues, has undergone a fundamental transformation in the past forty years. Where once society organized itself around a cluster of powerful and widely shared values, many of them emphasizing restraint, self-discipline and personal responsibility, now it is dominated by a new and more permissive ethos that...
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SOURCE: Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. “Just Say No.” Commonweal 127, no. 5 (10 March 2000): 34-5.
[In the following review, Whitehead offers high praise for One Nation, Two Cultures, calling it an elegant, economical, and persuasive work.]
Recent events—such as last fall's furor over the publicly funded exhibit of a portrait of a dung-daubed Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum; the defeat of state gambling in Alabama; the support for teaching creationism by the Kansas School Board; the popular outrage over Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's attack on religion—focus fresh attention on America's culture wars.
Yet some question the very existence of the culture wars. In One Nation, after All (Viking, 1998), sociologist Alan Wolfe argued that such highly publicized controversies over cultural issues do not reflect the concerns of the middle-class suburbanites he interviewed. Quiet faith, and tolerance for almost everything, characterize their cultural outlook and, he implied, the outlook of most ordinary Americans.
In One Nation, Two Cultures, an elegant and beautifully economical essay, one of the nation's most distinguished cultural historians challenges this argument. Gertrude Himmelfarb says that the culture wars do exist, that they are deeply rooted in American political and religious tradition, and that they have had a largely salutary, if...
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SOURCE: Shapiro, Edward S. “A Modern Jeremiad.” World & I 15, no. 5 (May 2000): 275-79.
[In the following review of One Nation, Two Cultures, Shapiro asserts that Himmelfarb's depiction of the United States as deeply divided into two cultures is an exaggeration.]
Gertrude Himmelfarb, the wife of Irving Kristol, the so-called godfather of neoconservatism, is one of America's most distinguished and prolific intellectual historians. Her area of specialization is nineteenth-century England, and her books include Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952), Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), Victorian Minds (1968), On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (1974), and The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984). One Nation, Two Cultures is the latest in a series of volumes by her on the impact of moral thinking on society. These began with Marriage and Morals among the Victorians (1986) and include Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991) and The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995). One Nation, Two Cultures is her first book to focus on the United States, and it exhibits the same felicity of expression, sobriety, and intelligence as her previous works. She writes in the great tradition of republican...
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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “A Land Where Jollity and Gloom Still Contend.” Virginia Quarterly Review 76, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 744-49.
[In the following review, Pinsker asserts that One Nation, Two Cultures is a scholarly and engaging book that highlights the important differences continuing to divide American society.]
“The May Pole of Merry Mount,” Nathaniel Hawthorne's brooding tale about the opposition between Puritan rigor and sexual license, contains this striking sentence: “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire.” In Merry Mount, “jollity” takes the form of sexual orgy, with participants garbed as animals and a phallic May Pole at the ceremony's center. The resulting frenzies have more than a few touches of what we now associate with films directed by Federico Fellini. By contrast, the Puritan world, embodied in the stern, fun-busting Reverend Endicott, is defined by moral gravitas and a tragic sensibility. Genuine love, as the Lord and Lady of the May discover, is made of sterner stuff than long party weekends. Each is prepared to sacrifice for the other as Endicott deals out harsh punishments to their fellow Merry Mounters. In recognition of their un-Merry Mount-like commitment, they are spared, and leave the forest of endless revel without regret. What remains, however, in this complicated historical allegory is the abiding tension between the Puritan whipping post...
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SOURCE: “Philosophers vs. Philosophes.” Wilson Quarterly 26, no. 1 (winter 2002): 97.
[In the following essay, the author provides a brief summary of Himmelfarb's essay “The Idea of Compassion: The British vs. the French Enlightenment,” published in The Public Interest, fall 2001.]
We're too quick to associate the 18th-century Enlightenment with the French philosophes. There was a British Enlightenment as well, and for Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and the author, most recently, of One Nation, Two Cultures (1999), it was the more admirable of the two.
The third Earl of Shaftesbury was the father of the British Enlightenment. In 1711, he introduced the concepts that would be key to British philosophical and moral discourse for the rest of the century, including “social virtues,” “natural affections,” “moral sense,” “moral sentiments,” “benevolence,” “sympathy,” and “compassion.” That last concept played a far larger part than either self-interest or reason in the British Enlightenment. Indeed, it was the unique achievement of Enlightenment British-style to transform the religious virtue of compassion into a secular virtue. Unlike the French philosophes, British moral philosophers such as Adam Smith thought reason secondary to social virtues of the sort Shaftesbury...
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SOURCE: Woolfolk, Alan. “Two Cultures after All?” Society 39, no. 2 (January-February 2002): 83-8.
[In the following review of One Nation, Two Cultures, Woolfolk asserts that Himmelfarb tends to oversimplify the issues she discusses, and enumerates various flaws in her arguments.]
The first chapter of Gertrude Himmelfarb's One Nation, Two Cultures opens with a revealing quotation from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations describing the “two different schemes or systems of morality” that Smith contended prevail in all civilized societies: “In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people; the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion.”
Himmelfarb's reference to Smith is revealing for two reasons. First, it makes clear the theoretical assumption held by Himmelfarb, as well as by many other analysts of the American culture war in recent years, that our culture is best understood as comprised of two separate and competing systems of morality. Second, Himmelfarb's citation of Smith signals...
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Bauer, Laurel. “Gertrude Himmelfarb Ponders the Role of Liberty in a World that Courts Moral Chaos.” Chicago Tribune Books (27 February 1994): 5.
Asserts that On Looking into the Abyss is an expose of problems facing contemporary American culture regarding the concepts of liberty and morality.
Colegate, Isabel. “Moral Uncertainties: The Abandonment of Victorian Values.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 March 1995): 2, 11.
Contends that Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society raises important questions.
Coughlin, Ellen K. “In Jefferson Lecture, Historian Assails New Approaches to Studying the Past.” Chronicle of Higher Education (1 May 1991): A4, A8.
Provides an overview of Himmelfarb and her career on the occasion of her being chosen for the 20th annual Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Furbank, P. N. “Poverty and Compassion.” Raritan 12, no. 1 (summer 1992): 138.
Provides a review of Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion.
Hollahan, Eugene. “Himmelfarb's Culture of Poverty and Hopkins's ‘Poor Jackself’.” CLIO 25, no. 1 (fall 1995): 43-61.
Provides a discussion of The Idea of Poverty, from a literary...
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