Biography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of the most renowned intellectual historians of her generation, grew up in New York City. She studied history and philosophy at Brooklyn College, where she earned a B.A. in 1942. That same year she married the writer and editor Irving Kristol, with whom she had two children, William and Elizabeth. Himmelfarb pursued further studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Girton College, Cambridge, and at the University of Chicago, where she studied with Louis Gottschalk, a historian of the French Revolution and biographer of the Marquis de Lafayette. Gottschalk, who had himself studied under Carl Becker at Cornell University, offered his students rigorous and demanding seminars on historical method. Himmelfarb earned a Ph.D. in 1950, and she revised her dissertation on Lord Acton for publication two years later.

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Himmelfarb went on to teach at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she was named Distinguished Professor in 1978. In the 1960’s Himmelfarb produced intellectual biographies of noted Victorians and essays on key Victorian topics such as Darwinism and parliamentary reform. Many of these were published as parts of anthologies or in The New York Review of Books. After extensively revising some of these essays, she republished them in Victorian Minds, the book that fully established her reputation as an intellectual historian. This work included two very different sketches of Sir Edmund Burke, one denigrating him as a philosopher and another, written a decade later, praising his work in this field; a comparison of these two essays reveals how Himmelfarb’s thought evolved. Victorian Minds includes a new view of John Stuart Mill’s life, as well, arguing that for much of it he was dominated by Harriet Taylor, his intellectual soulmate and, eventually, wife. Himmelfarb also reveals a previously ignored aspect of Jeremy Bentham, his advocacy of the “Panopticon,” a bizarre and frightening model for prisons and poorhouses that never became a reality. Victorian Minds concludes with essays about the role of evangelicalism in the formation of the Victorian mentality and on the Reform Bill of 1867.

After Victorian Minds Himmelfarb continued her work on the intellectual history of the Victorian age and broadened its scope by discussing how it related to social issues of that era and her own. She expanded her previous work on Mill and published it in 1974 as On Liberty and Liberalism. She then examined how Victorians reflected on the plight of the less fortunate in her next major work, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. Here, Himmelfarb discusses how Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus viewed the poor, and how Malthusian thinking, which treated political economy as a science freed from the constraints of moral philosophy, shaped the controversial Poor Law Reform of 1834. Himmelfarb notes that the reaction against this reform came from both the conservative and radical camps. She concludes the book with an examination of how Friedrich Engels viewed the poor in his works and how Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli treated them in their novels.

Like Victorian Minds, The Idea of Poverty is well researched and splendidly written. Though no popularizer, Himmelfarb, through her excellent style, gained an audience extending beyond specialists in her field and the academic world itself, and her works were widely reviewed.

After retiring from the City University of New York in 1988, Himmelfarb moved to Washington, D.C., where she continued to write and publish. In 1991 she gave the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). That year, an issue of the NEH journal, Humanities, was dedicated to discussion of her work. She then published On Looking into the Abyss and The De-Moralization of Society, both of which tie the history and thought of Victorian England to social problems of Himmelfarb’s own day. In these works Himmelfarb expresses concern about the decline of morals and virtue in public life, a concern echoed in One Nation, Two Cultures. The latter book, however, aroused much controversy as yet another entry in the “culture wars” of the 1990’s in her division of American society into a virtuous, republican strain and a liberal, counterculture strain.

Himmelfarb has received many awards for her work. She was granted honorary degrees by Rhode Island College (1976), Smith College (1977), Lafayette College (1978), and the Jewish Theological Seminary (1978). She was chosen a fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Society of American Historians. She served on the editorial boards of numerous journals, including the American Historical Review and the American Scholar, and she has served on the board for the National Endowment of the Humanities and on the Council of Scholars for the Library of Congress.

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Critical Essays