Gertrude Himmelfarb Critical Essays

Introduction

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.