Gertrude Himmelfarb Essay - Critical Essays

Himmelfarb, Gertrude


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Elizabeth Durbin (review date winter 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 1219 words.)

Anne Humpherys (review date summer 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)

Lawrence Stone (review date 17 December 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 4737 words.)

Peter Clarke (review date 15 January 1988)

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 entire section is 938 words.)

Lewis A. Coser (review date May 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

Oscar Handlin (review date fall 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

James A. Henretta (review date December 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 2579 words.)

Samuel P. Hays (review date winter 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Victor Kiernan (review date February 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Donald R. Kelley (review date February 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Sean Wilentz (review date spring 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 5334 words.)

Joan W. Scott (review date June 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

James Bowman (review date 21 October 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1516 words.)

Alan Ryan (review date 7 November 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 4535 words.)

Harold Perkin (review date 22 November 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)

Roy Porter (review date 25 November 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 2586 words.)

Peter L. Berger (review date December 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)

Wilson Carey McWilliams (review date 14 February 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

H. L. Malchow (review date spring 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 4035 words.)

Standish Meacham (review date October 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 867 words.)

Lewis S. Feuer (essay date March 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 8822 words.)

Victor Bailey (review date fall 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)

John Gross (review date April 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)

Colin Welch (review date 18 April 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

Terry Teachout (review date June 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1407 words.)

Lee Congdon (essay date July 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 2727 words.)

Alan Ryan (review date 5 August 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Paul Hollander (review date fall 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 3005 words.)

David Kirkwood Hart (review date November-December 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 2669 words.)

Paul E. Gottfried (review date November-December 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)

Wilson Quarterly (essay date winter 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 14 February 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 751 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 19 February 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

James Bowman (review date March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

James J. Sheehan (review date April 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Christie Davies (review date 3 April 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

Peter L. Berger (review date May 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1534 words.)

Raymond Carr (review date 13 May 1995)

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,...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

David Bromwich (review date 15 May 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 6038 words.)

David R. Henderson (review date June 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1419 words.)

Richard Hoggart (review date 23 June 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1105 words.)

Carson Daly (review date July 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 2255 words.)

Alan Jacobs (review date autumn 1995)

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...

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James W. Tuttleton (review date autumn 1995)

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...

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Ann Robson (review date June 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

John F. Quinn (review date summer 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1523 words.)

Robert Beum (review date spring 1997)

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...

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John Brown (review date July 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Terry Teachout (review date 22 November 1999)

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...

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Tamar Jacoby (review date 13 December 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)

Paul Johnson (review date January 2000)

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...

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Alan Brinkley (review date 21 January 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (review date 10 March 2000)

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...

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Edward S. Shapiro (review date May 2000)

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),...

(The entire section is 1898 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date autumn 2000)

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...

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Wilson Quarterly (essay date winter 2002)

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...

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Alan Woolfolk (review date January-February 2002)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 202 words.)