Gertrude Himmelfarb

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Elizabeth Durbin (review date winter 1985)

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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 dimension to the social reality,” that of changes in the “moral imagination” used to interpret reality; (ii) to study the idea of poverty as “a microcosm of the history of ideas,” recognizing that it is a “hybrid subject,” a cross between social and intellectual history.

To accomplish her ambitious task Professor Himmelfarb examines four kinds of contemporary sources—the economic, the political, the sociological, and the literary. Each section of the book analyzes the important developments in these perceptions of the issues with meticulous scholarly care, with elegant style, and with rare insight. In each case the author selects the most influential writers and writings, expounds their mode of thinking, and assesses their contribution to discussions of poverty in their generation. The account would be helped by a brief conventional review of the historical record, particularly the parliamentary debates on the issues, and of what was known then and is known now about actual conditions. Nevertheless, the approach yields a rich and rewarding tapestry of the intellectual thought, moral passion, and social concern surrounding England's passage from agrarian semi-feudalism towards industrial market democracy, from the Elizabethan poor laws through their 1834 reform, the expansion of the electorate, and the beginnings of social legislation.

In Professor Himmelfarb's view, economic thought played a central role in the redefinition of poverty, as it evolved from moral philosophy to political economy, from Adam Smith through “an odd lot of disciples” (Edmund Burke, William Pitt, Frederick Eden, Jeremy Bentham, and Thomas Paine) to the Reverend Malthus. At first poverty was seen as an inevitable part of the social order, giving rise to a public and private moral responsibility for its relief. However, Smith with his new system of natural liberty and Burke with his concern to distinguish the ‘labourer’ and the ‘poor’ provided a new analytic framework and a new conception, “the mischievous ambiguity of the word poor,” which dominated discussions of poverty in the early nineteenth century and have plagued efforts to alleviate it ever since. It remained for Malthus to complete the ‘de-moralization’ of the poverty problem, for in his schema it was subject only to the laws of food production and population growth.

As a student of poverty in the twentieth century, I found Parts II and III the...

(This entire section contains 1219 words.)

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most fascinating and original contributions. Against the background of the 1834 poor law, which institutionalized Burke's distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, Professor Himmelfarb analyzes the Tory opposition to the new order, the radical Toryism of Carlyle, the radical populism of Cobbett, the New Radicalism reflected inThe Poor Man's Guardian, the politicization of the poor in the Chartist movement, and the development of the language of class. (She also rather mysteriously includes Engels and the proletarianization of the poor, since she acknowledges it had no impact in Britain until the 1880s and arose from a continental perception of revolutionary potential not relevant to the calmer English scene.) In Part III she explores the “undiscovered country of the poor” revealed by Henry Mayhew's reports of “street folk” and by the contemporary discussions of “ragged” and “dangerous” classes. It is especially instructive for the modern analyst to reconsider current debates in the light of this earlier ferment of ideas. Professor Himmelfarb draws penetrating analogies—for instance, between de Tocqueville's perceptions and the ‘relative deprivation school of thought—and underscores themes which are just as relevant today—the interplay between political philosophy and political reality, the conflict between compassion for suffering and fear of criminality and mass revolt, and the uses and abuses of stigma as a means of social control.

Despite an interesting discussion of the relationship of literary imagination to the history of ideas, I felt that the fictional representations of the poor presented in the last section were less relevant to the general purposes of the study; it was not clear to me that they added a dimension independent of the other three. Furthermore, since Professor Himmelfarb does not articulate a systematic view of the relationships between the different kinds of sources, the cumulative impact of her account is somewhat inconclusive. In one sense, of course, this is inevitable, because she has not finished her study. In another sense it flows from her own messages, that ideas overlap and evolve, that the most recent ideas are not necessarily the best, that older visions of moral responsiveness get lost in the search for objective scientific determinants.

However, I also think that to say something conclusive about ideas of poverty, either as reflections of social philosophy or as a microcosm of the history of ideas, requires fuller explications than are provided in this book of the way each discipline looks at the question of poverty, and of how the disciplines themselves have evolved in response to changes in perceptions. For instance, economists consider the question of poverty from two separate and not necessarily compatible view-points—changes in the average levels of income versus changes in the distribution of factor payments and of family incomes. In economic terms it was analytic differences about the interaction between growth and distribution which distinguished Smith's vision of the economic system from Malthus and Ricardo, not differences in their views about the poor or the poor laws, or even in their moral imaginations. Or, from the sociological point of view, T. H. Marshall has demonstrated that different approaches to the poverty problem are linked to different models of stratification. He concluded that “the poor are too heterogeneous” to be uniquely classified or to have their problems properly diagnosed by any one discipline.

In the perspective of the history of economic thought, Professor Himmelfarb makes no claims as a professional historian of the subject; thus, she has little to add to the history of economic analysis in Schumpeter's sense. However, the breadth and depth of her knowledge makes this study an important contribution to the history of political economy on the subject, which, Samuel Johnson believed, was “the true test of civilization.” Her lucid and lively accounts vividly convey the intellectual “spirit of the times.”

Anne Humpherys (review date summer 1985)

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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 her introduction tells us that she uses some of her sources (mainly Henry Mayhew) less for their “manifest content” than for their “latent content,” always, however, intending to keep that latent content firmly fixed in its contemporary context. Much of Himmelfarb's resulting analysis is of the “meaning” that is conveyed through language, revision, omission, contradiction, and so forth in the writings on poverty. Thus she frequently approaches her texts somewhat as literary critics do. Her interest in latent meanings involves a persistent concern with decoding the shifting linguistic descriptions of her subject.

As for perspective, the idea of poverty under consideration here is the one “from above”—the book is concerned with the way predominantly establishment writers thought about poverty and not about how the poor themselves either thought about it or experienced it. Himmelfarb deplores the unavailability of evidence from the poor themselves, but she does not accept the traditional ways we have tried to get at the view of the poor. Relying upon working-class newspapers like the Poor Man's Guardian and Chartist publications in the context of establishment attitudes, she also discounts the usefulness of Henry Mayhew's reported interviews.

The text that results from this method and perspective can itself be read as a drama. The plot begins with the exposition of the Elizabethan poor laws and their lack of boundary between “labor” and the “poor”; poverty is a natural but not degrading condition and relief should be natural, too. By the end of this part of the story (there is to be a sequel), the poor have become a problem because they are perceived as a “race apart” with the culture of their own. Himmelfarb's objective is to elucidate how this happened.

Adam Smith, with a moral vision integrating the poor into society economically and politically, is the hero. His antagonist is Thomas Malthus or “Malthusianism” (as modified by David Ricardo), which subverts Smith's optimistic idea of progress and severs the link between ethics and economics with disastrous results for the poor. Though the sources are earlier than Malthus (and one of the virtues of Himmelfarb's study is the way she traces sources and influences backwards and forwards in time), his is the popular vision that leads to the distinction between “pauper” and “poor” (and later “deserving” and “undeserving” poor), a distinction which dominates the discussion of poverty in the nineteenth century. While the rising action in this drama is provided by the conflict between Smith's optimistic view and Mathus's pessimistic one, the climax is reached in the work of Henry Mayhew, whose vision of the streetfolk as a “race” apart affects the whole of the poor by giving them a “culture” which cuts them off from the main body of the polis. Most of the other writers and texts discussed she arranges on the spectrum formed by her reading of the work of these three figures—Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Henry Mayhew.

My metaphor of Himmelfarb's intellectual history as itself a literary construct with its own latent plot adumbrates what I see as one of the more interesting issues raised by the book. When Himmelfarb says she is most interested in the “latent” content in texts, she adopts a critical perspective that seems to assure the discovery of historical “truth.” The metaphor of “surface” and “depth” is one that comes ultimately from those two great nineteenth-century figures Marx and Freud, particularly from Marx's distinction between a superstructure and an infrastructure (though the last thing Himmelfarb could be accused of is being Marxist). But deconstructionist thought, while accepting this metaphor of verticality, has denied the implication that “surface” can find any firm grounding, however “deep” the reader delves. In fact, if we keep at the process persistently, we must inevitably be led to be suspicious of our own texts: the process becomes infinitely regressive.

So while Himmelfarb's method in The Idea of Poverty is in tune with current literary theory, it raises questions about her resulting historical text. And while I find her scope of investigation makes her overriding thesis compelling, I am left quite uncomfortable by some of her conclusions about the texts that I know best, namely those of Mayhew, G. W. M. Reynolds, and Charles Dickens. It is not just that she and I disagree about some of the “facts”: I do not, for example, accept her contention, based on circulation figures, that Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor was more influential on Victorian public opinion than his “Labour and the Poor” articles for the Morning Chronicle. The opposite seems clear to me, based on the more extensive reprinting and quotation of the earlier series in newspapers and journals across the country and across class lines. More importantly, it seems to me that Himmelfarb stopped being suspicious of the “manifest content” of Mayhew's work too soon. In the regressive peeling back of layers of meaning, she stopped before she came to the bottom of Mayhew's text (let alone of the latent meaning in her own language and text).

Himmelfarb argues that with the best intentions in the world, Mayhew's comments and descriptions had a negative effect because they conveyed a picture of the poor as a savage race different from the rest of society. She supports this view through analysing contemporary reactions to his work for the repetition of the “race apart” notion. But both Mayhew's text and contemporary responses are capable of further meanings. It is possible to read in those contemporary reactions not only a sense of alienation from the poor but in addition a wonder that the inhabitants of the poor man's land are just like ourselves. More important is the role the reported interviews in Mayhew's work play in creating latent meaning. I have argued elsewhere that his intended picture of the poor as a “race apart” is itself subverted by a common humanity projected by the dozens of reported interviews which dominate his text. Himmelfarb does not quote these reported interviews, seeming to dismiss them as insignificant and at the same time conflating them with Reynolds's quite different polemical and fictional “life histories” in The Mysteries of London. Not only does this approach obscure important differences in intention and method between these two writers, but it also eliminates what was most powerful in the reading for both Mayhew's contemporaries and ourselves. His work would not have had the same effect on its readers, however one reads that effect, if it were not for the reported interviews. Similarly, the “meanings” Himmelfarb finds in the social novels of Reynolds, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Benjamin Disraeli will probably strike a literary scholar as rather “manifest”: there is no discussion of the possible content conveyed by subtexts created through language, grammar, structure, and form.

This is not to say that the meanings Himmelfarb gives us are not valuable even when they are provocative. They are just incapable of being final. (Isn't a problem for all scholars dealing with language the almost unconscious temptation to stop peeling back the layers of “latent meaning” when we have found a view that is congenial with our own?) It is issues like these in addition to the sweep of its content and the grace of its expression that make Himmelfarb's contribution so important. Given that importance, incidentally, I regret the absence of an analytical index. Entries are limited to proper names of individuals; terms such as “Reform Bill” or titles such as Northern Star are omitted. Further, since the endnotes are not indexed at all, there is no access to the information in them, nor to Himmelfarb's more acerbic comments about other scholars, which are for the most part located there. The index is thus not very helpful to someone who wants to use the book after reading it.

Lawrence Stone (review date 17 December 1987)

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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. Sometimes her objection is to the dominance of the new history, “the decisive role it has assumed, and the superior claims made on its behalf.” In this mood, she asks only for a change in the hierarchy of historical modes, to restore national politics and political and constitutional ideas to their rightful place at the center of the discipline. At other times, however, she talks in a more apocalyptic manner, as if the new history were a major threat not only to history but to the intellectual foundations of Western civilization.

To understand Professor Himmelfarb's impassioned criticism of modern trends in history, one must realize that it is based on some deep moral and philosophical convictions. They are convictions that are shared by some liberals of the World War II period who were traumatized by the struggle against dogmatic Marxism during the cold war and became the neoconservatives of the Reagan era. One of Himmelfarb's beliefs is that man is free to make his own destiny, which is why she reacts so strongly against intellectual positions such as Marxism and, worse still, social history, which she regards as “deterministic,” making man the mere passive product of his environment. Thus she condemns Braudel because he “denied both the efficacy of individuals and the possibility of freedom.” Another belief is that man is rational, capable of calculating what is morally right and what is in his best interests. The third is that man is, as Aristotle claimed, a political animal, whose highest form of activity is in the polis.

These three ideas come together in the concept that “rationality is the precondition of freedom,” and that “the political realm is more conducive to rational choice, compared with the social realm which is governed by material and economic concerns.” Since “it is in politics that the potentiality for freedom lies,” Professor Himmelfarb is in bitter opposition to the neglect of the political sphere by so many of the new historians.

In her more pessimistic moments, she senses the new history as a threat to all these good things. She twice quotes a deliberately provocative remark of Peter Stearns, the editor of The Journal of Social History, that “when the history of menarche is widely recognized as equal in importance to the history of monarchy, we will have arrived”; and she quotes another remark by the late Warren Susman, who taught American History at Rutgers, that “Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt.” To Professor Himmelfarb (and indeed to me) observations such as these are like red rags to a bull. Inflamed by these taunts, she sees no hope of reconciliation. “The two modes of history reflect … different conceptions of history”; “the ‘total’ history that some new historians pride themselves on might turn out to be a total dissolution of history.”

Professor Himmelfarb does not content herself with the thought that “social history, in devaluing the political realm, devalues history itself.” She goes on to argue that “the truly radical effect of the new enterprise is to devalue not only political history but reason itself, … the reason embodied in the polity.” “This rationality is now consciously denied or unconsciously undermined by every form of the new history.” This is because politics has become a mere “superstructure,” and history now concerns itself exclusively with the social, economic, or mentalité infrastructure.

She lists the types of new social history, with an acerbic running commentary. Anthropological history, she suggests, concerns itself merely with mating or eating habits. Psychohistory is preoccupied with irrationality and the unconscious. It produces Freudian interpretations of the effect of the Oedipus complex upon figures in the past about whose relations with their parents no evidence whatsoever survives. She mocks Erik Erikson's fascinating but wholly speculative work on Luther, and two psychohistories of great political theorists, one on Edmund Burke by Isaac Kramnick and the other on James and John Stuart Mill by Bruce Mazlish. She dismisses the results not only as unscholarly since lacking in historical evidence, but also as the product of “determinism” and “insidiously anti-intellectual.” She attacks the demographic historian Peter Laslett for combining, in The World We Have Lost, statistics with a fantasy of a golden age in the past. She gleefully quotes his sentimental talk about the time when “the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size.” She tersely concludes that Laslett “invokes the authority of science while indulging in the rhetoric of nostalgia.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb is morally repelled by quantification, which she claims is “deterministic and mechanistic,” as well as likely to lead to trivial results. She reminds us that Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a famous French leader of the Annales school in Paris, said in a rash moment that “history that is not quantifiable cannot claim to be scientific,” only to produce a few years later a wholly nonquantified reconstruction of life in a medieval village, the brilliant best seller Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error.

If some quantifiers may later recant, hard-line American cliometricians such as Robert Fogel she believes to be beyond redemption since they use a style that “often requires the suspension of verbal discourse,” and constitute a school of history “as nearly devoid of moral imagination as the computer can make it.” She banishes them to a circle of Hell very close to that to which she consigns those arch determinists the psychohistorians and the Marxists. In her criticism of psychohistory and “quanto-history,” she is as relentlessly savage as was Jacques Barzun a few years ago in his book Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History and History.

She also sees the new social history as “factional and parochial,” hopelessly split up into tiny, separate specialties—economic history, transport history, urban history, labor history, class history, population history, family history, women's history, black history, literacy history, crime history, sex history, the history of mobs and riots, the history of popular myths and fairy tales, and so on. She argues that as a result historians cannot communicate with one another anymore: having abandoned politics, political theory, and elite culture, they have nothing to hold these different strands of the new history together. The new historians have, she claims, even abandoned national history as “part of the aversion to political history,” falling back instead on village history, local history, social history in its endless variety, or else the windy platitudes of universal history.

In all this, Professor Himmelfarb sees evidence of a deep moral crisis that “may signal the end of Western civilization.” She not only perceives, with Robert Nisbet, a mood of “disbelief, doubt, disillusionment and despair,”1 but also “a distrust of ourselves, a discontent with what we have achieved, a disrespect for our principles and institutions, a debasement of our culture.”

This summary of Professor Himmelfarb's views has been extracted only with some difficulty. The difficulty arises from the fact that her book is composed of a set of essays, written for different sets of readers during a ten-year period. Only the introduction engages the general question of historiography head-on. The first chapter contains a smashing attack on two of the most vulnerable aspects of the new history—psychohistory and the more mindless excesses of quantification. There follows a neat dissection of an obscure article by the late R. S. Neale, an Australian Marxist social historian, which used an elaborate sociological model. She points out that the model is entirely superfluous to the argument, model-building being, to her, “the ne plus ultra of the sociological imagination” that she so much dislikes. She criticizes Neale's model for its lack of “a strong moral component,” as well as sociology's “egregious fallacies of misplaced precision, excessive abstraction and obfuscatory language.” But the criticism is unfair, since Neale's model, whatever its other defects, is built around intellectual categories of deference versus independence, so that it displays no lack of “moral imagination.”

There follows a review of a book about the small group of extremely talented English Marxist historians whose achievements have gained world recognition, the best known being Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E. P. Thompson. She accuses them of using history to prove an a priori theory; of adopting an all-embracing deterministic model of Marxism in history, based on control of the means of production; and of sacrificing the search for truth to Communist party loyalty.

The next chapter discusses two social historians. One of them is this reviewer, who gets off fairly lightly, being treated as a “chastened father” (not yet a prodigal son). The other is Peter Laslett and his famous book The World We Have Lost. Professor Himmelfarb then circles back again to psychohistory, with a devastating critique of the two books I have mentioned in this unsatisfying genre, by Erikson and Mazlish. Here she is right on target, as most “new historians” would agree. Her essay “Is National History Obsolete?,” on the other hand, which takes Theodore Zeldin's France 1848-1945 as an example, seems vastly exaggerated. She fails to acknowledge Zeldin's brilliance in evoking the texture of ordinary French life, despite his book's manifold defects, especially in its treatment of change over time in political institutions; and she seems to assume that his pronouncements that national history is dead and his denial that there is such a thing as national identity are widely shared. I doubt if there are more than a dozen or so “new historians” in the profession who would agree that national history is obsolete, even if many of them prefer to study smaller units of institutions and social groupings.

The New History and the Old peters out in three final, rather marginal, chapters: one lamenting the alleged fact that no one now reads Macaulay's History of England despite his insistence on the great truth of the story of liberty based on historical precedent—“the liberal descent”; one a cautious and carefully restricted defense of Robert Nisbet and his History of the Idea of Progress, now a concept unfortunately so unfashionable as to seem almost ridiculous; and lastly a rather obscure article on the English conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

What is one to make of this well-written, passionate, and highly polemical book? Is it merely the work of a disgruntled student of political theory, embittered by the suspicion that her field of study is no longer in fashion, displaced by the flashier products of the “new historians”? Is it driven by the extreme antipathy to Marxism of the cold-war liberal intellectuals of the 1940s and 1950s? Some evidence to support this hypothesis is provided by Professor Himmelfarb's reiterated complaints about the neglect by most new historians of politics and political theory and by her own total failure to mention their equally serious neglect of religion and theology. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that if we remove the excited rhetoric and the exaggeration, there is a considerable amount of truth in what Professor Himmelfarb has to say.

History as a professional discipline based on archival study and rigorous methodological training began in the nineteenth century. Whether in the work of Michelet, Ranke, Macaulay, or the university scholars influenced by them, historical writing was primarily concerned with the nation states in the West, their political and administrative development, and their military and cultural expansion. In the Anglo-Saxon world, stress was put on political ideas of liberty, and the constitutional limitations imposed upon the expansion of state power; upon the state's rocky relationship with its ancient medieval rival, the Church; and upon the military and diplomatic activities of the leaders of those societies, that is, the top 1 percent of the male population. A small number of historians also studied the ideas of elite thinkers, from Plato to Durkheim, that provided the intellectual fuel for the civilization of the West. Other civilizations were ignored, and indeed in each country most research and teaching was concerned with its own national history.

This was a narrow, but not an unreasonable, way of creating a usable past, and at the same time of giving the citizens of each nation a sense of pride in their national heritage and, it was hoped, a feeling of loyalty toward the current establishment. This was roughly the state of affairs in the late 1930s when I first became aware of history.

As almost everyone knows, the last forty years have seen an astonishing explosion of the so-called “new history.” It is new in two senses. First, it has opened up new fields. Historical demography has been invented from scratch, and has already become a mature profession. In England economic history has become so successful at analyzing patterns of property-holding and tracing the rise of industrialization that every university has a special department devoted exclusively to it. In America, economic history has followed a different route, being housed in economics departments and run by cliometricians, who speak their own arcane language and tend to claim infallibility. Huge volumes have been written about the social history of every class from aristocrat to peasant, a development that has now spread to include more esoteric groups. Oppressed minorities, such as women, blacks, and homosexuals, and deviants, such as prostitutes and criminals, have all become popular subjects for research. The history of mentalités, that is, popular systems of values, has come to rival the history of high culture. Second, large borrowings have been made from the social sciences: first from economics, then sociology, and more recently anthropology, with a tiny but devoted minority drawing inspiration from Freudian psychology. As a result, the new social history has become intellectually chic.

There can be little doubt that for a while all this activity produced something of a golden age of historical writing. Young students were suddenly liberated from the shackles of traditional diplomatic, military, or constitutional history, and took off into the unknown to discover new frontiers. Some of the greatest historical writing came out of this period. In their quest for new worlds to conquer historians were driven by a passionate desire to discover and analyze the forces—economic and demographic, then social, and lastly cultural—that were thought to be the prime causes of historical change.

The study of the early modern period was revolutionized by works from France, such as Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (although the book did not provide the archetypal model it is usually touted as providing, since few have subsequently adopted his materialist determinism, heavily based on geography). There also appeared path-breaking local studies like Pierre Goubert's demographic analysis of life and death in Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730, and Le Roy Ladurie's broader study, The Peasants of Languedoc. Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood and Western Attitudes toward Death provided entirely new historical perspectives. Our understanding of the social setting of classic antiquity was transformed by Moses I. Finley's The World of Odysseus, Kenneth J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality, Ronald Syme's Roman Revolution, and Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity.

Between 1912 and 1925 two seminal books about early modern English and social history appeared in England: R. H. Tawney's Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and M. G. George's London Life in the Eighteenth Century. After the war they were followed by E. P. Thompson's dazzling The Making of the English Working Class; Christopher Hill's discovery of the fundamentalist radicals in the mid-seventeenth century in The World Turned Upside Down; Eric Hobsbawm's original work on primitive rebels; Keith Thomas's magisterial exploration of the popular religious mentalité in Religion and the Decline of Magic; and the monumental but esoteric study by E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871. Italian scholarship was also affected by the drift to the study of mentalité, producing a fascinating work in Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms.

These currents from Europe soon found their way to America, resulting in such diverse books as Bernard Bailyn's Education in the Forming of American Society and The Peopling of British North America, Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, John Demos's A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, Carl Degler's At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present, Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750-1925, and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's controversial essay in cliometrics, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. This list could be extended indefinitely, but enough material has been cited to demonstrate the amazing range of new subjects opened up, new hypotheses advanced, new methods applied, new raw data discovered in the archives. Taken together, the output represents the most stunning explosion of the historical discipline since it first began in the early nineteenth century.

If Professor Himmelfarb concentrates exclusively upon the defects of this outburst of energy, and gives a drastically limited picture of the historical work that has been done, this does not alter the fact that there is considerable truth in a lot of what she has to say. Many of the new social historians have indeed been over-assertive, arrogant, and unreasonably contemptuous of the activities of the old political historians. She is right to complain that they have tended to ignore problems of political power, political theory, and the political process.

There is also no doubt that for a while too much of the new history was excessively determinist, in the sense that it left little or no scope for the free will of the individual, for the intervention of sheer accident, for the working out of unintended consequences, and for the haphazard flow of day-to-day events. This position is all the more surprising since the new history sprang up during and immediately after World War II, in which the critical role in history played by powerful leaders, such as Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, was plain for all to see. Braudel openly declared history to be determined by long-term trends in material forces, with the individual “imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand,” and Le Roy Ladurie boldly entitled a section of a book of essays “History Without People.” Crude Marxism, as still practiced some thirty years ago, denied much of a role to the individual, as do current studies of climate or demography.

Professor Himmelfarb may also be right to suggest that the new history has had the effect of turning out a generation of historical illiterates. As the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution approaches, President Mitterrand has openly expressed his anxiety that French schoolchildren today know nothing about the month-by-month story of that great upheaval. There is also justice in her complaint that much of the more ambitious use of cliometrics has a tendency to elevate method over substance, and that more and more social history is degenerating into trivia, or the pursuit of such trendy subjects as sex and gender.

All this granted, however, the fact remains that Professor Himmelfarb repeatedly overstates a good case. In the first place she fails entirely to acknowledge the astonishing advances made in so many fields of historical inquiry by the new historians. Secondly she greatly exaggerates the degree to which the new history has taken over the discipline and reduced traditional political historians to a defensive minority. In fact most professional historians have always worked in political history. In England and America, the commanding heights of the profession are still overwhelmingly in the hands of traditional historians of politics and political ideas. In England the British Academy is overwhelmingly composed of traditional historians, who also fill the faculties and chairs of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Only one pure “new historian,” Natalie Zemon Davis, has so far been elected president of the American Historical Association. (Carl Degler and Bernard Bailyn, former presidents, have worked in both the old and the new genres.) The history departments of Harvard, Yale, and Columbia are almost entirely staffed by “old historians,” as are those of Chicago and Stanford. Thus outside France, the “dominion” of the new historian is something of a myth, despite the high prestige and high visibility of a handful of well-known practitioners in the field.

Thirdly, there is no truth to Professor Himmelfarb's claim that the study of political thought has for forty years fallen into neglect and contempt. To prove this point, one need only mention the names of such distinguished scholars as Isaiah Berlin, Felix Gilbert, Franco Venturi, Bernard Bailyn, Edmund Morgan, Quentin Skinner, and J. G. A. Pocock.

Fourthly, Professor Himmelfarb seriously exaggerates the influence of Marxism on the new historians, most of whom are non-Marxist liberals like herself. Except in England, Marxists have been significant but by no means predominant in the new history. There, the early social historians were socialist but not Marxist. R. H. Tawney never called himself a Marxist, and the central role of primitive Christianity in his thinking has now become clear, thanks to the publication of his diaries and other materials. It is certainly true that during the 1950s and 1960s some of the leading scholars of the new history in England—R. H. Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and E. P. Thompson—were not only devout Marxists but loyal Communist party members. But all but one left the Party in 1956, and since then the influence of Marxism on their writings has significantly diminished. Thus as Professor Himmelfarb admits, E. P. Thompson is now an active (and boring) polemicist against hard-line structuralist Marxism of the Althusserian variety. Meanwhile a new generation of English social historians has grown up, most of whom are largely untouched by Marxism, at any rate in its cruder manifestations.

In France the first generation of new historians—Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel—were not Marxist at all. Many of the best of the next generation certainly became members of the Communist party immediately after the war; but they all soon left the Party and abandoned Marxism. Many of them, such as Le Roy Ladurie and Furet, have for two decades now been as fiercely anti-Marxist as Professor Himmelfarb herself. Only the chair in the history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne has remained a Marxist monopoly.

The situation is more ambiguous in America, where very few of the older generation were openly Marxist. In the 1960s, many of the young were certainly influenced by neo-Marxism of a Gramscian variety, but this sophisticated version of the old dogma makes their writings almost indistinguishable from those of liberals.

The undoubted Marxist tinge to a minority of the new historians has led Professor Himmelfarb, and others, to confuse the intellectual debate among historians about social history and the political debate among intellectuals in general about Marxism. Perhaps it is this confusion that leads her to attack the new history with a bitterness and passion that go far beyond what the positions of most of its leading practitioners will really warrant—however dogmatic and opinionated the writings of some of them may be. Professor Himmelfarb seems to find it hard to admit that only a small number of social historians are, or ever have been, Marxists. All Marxist historians are, and always have been, social historians, but this is not at all the same thing.

Professor Himmelfarb herself admits not only that “all historians reflect in their work a political bias of some sort,” but also that the Marxist historian, unlike the Whig or the bourgeois, is “candid about his bias.” But having made these important and very true concessions, she promptly forgets to apply them to herself, and blithely renews the polemic. There was a time when European and American Marxist historians exhibited some of the failings of which Professor Himmelfarb is still accusing them: rigidity, dogmatism, historical determinism, and a willingness to suppress truth in the interests of Communist party discipline. But that was thirty years ago. Those days are happily now long past, and only a handful of dinosaurs remain. In her anti-Marxist zeal, Professor Himmelfarb is flogging a dying horse, if not a dead one.

Professor Himmelfarb can also be faulted on methodology. Her tactics are to pick out an extreme case of some type of new historian, take him (never her) as typical of all those working in the field, set him up as a straw man, and then knock him down with a sledgehammer. The reader is left with no perception of the enormous range among new historians in literary and scholarly skills, intellectual sophistication, and breadth of historical imagination, as displayed in the works already cited as evidence of a “golden age” of historiography. Nor is he given any hint of the very wide differences between different branches of the enterprise, and the arguments between them. For example, there is no mention either of the active debate over the appropriate use of anthropological methods, or of the fundamental conflict between the older economic quantifiers, and the newer historians of culture.

Finally I believe that Professor Himmelfarb is mistaken in seeing a fateful struggle for the mind of the West between two polar opposites. She says that

the new historian cannot concede the preeminence of politics in the Aristotelian sense, which supposes man to be a “political animal”; and the old historian cannot admit the superiority, let alone totality, of a mode of history that takes man to be a “social animal.”

I believe that it is already clear that the two can and do now live in harmonious, fruitful, and respectful cohabitation. The new social history and the old political history are already coming together, so in a sense her criticism is out of date. Thanks to her strictures on the more absurd aspects of the new historians, this trend will, I hope, continue, with the new historians drawing back from the excesses to which she has drawn attention, and continuing to show increasing interest in and respect for politics, religion, and high culture. But for these trends to succeed, reciprocal concessions of respect and partnership must be made by the old political historians.

Some years ago I warned that the vessel of the new social history was leaking water, and advised all sensible rats to make for the shore, especially if the crew decides to take on ever more esoteric cargo from the social sciences. By her strong, incisive, and to a considerable extent persuasive attack, Professor Himmelfarb has reinforced the warning. But in my view she has gone much too far, perhaps because she is not, on the evidence of her book, closely familiar with much recent social and economic history of immense value, as well as penetrating studies of mentalités. She is also unwilling to realize that her description of a titanic struggle for dominance between two wholly irreconcilable intellectual camps bears little relation to reality. As a result, the great virtues of the book—its stylish prose, its intellectual brilliance, and its polemical force—are offset by exaggeration and a stridency and bitterness of tone. The New History and the Old lacks something of both balance and charity.


  1. Robert Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (Basic Books, 1966), p. 268.

Peter Clarke (review date 15 January 1988)

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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 generation of social historians whose approach has often been marxisant if not formally Marxist. In the process, it is alleged, social history has indeed come to approximate to Trevelyan's much-derided definition as “history with the politics left out”. Himmelfarb's denunciation created quite a stir when it was originally published some three years ago, and it is reprinted unchanged except for an unapologetic postscript responding to her critics. She denies that she was “pronouncing an interdiction on all of social history”, insisting that “in the course of the paper I said, no fewer than seven times, that my objections are not to social history as such but to its claims of dominance, superiority, even ‘totality’—not to social history as it may complement or supplement traditional history but to that which would supplant it”.

The threat which she perceives may have had some verisimilitude in American universities in the 1970s. In British universities in the 1980s, it must be said, most historians are more scared of external threats than of this particular enemy within. Meanwhile, political history seems to flourish despite all attempts to brand it as old-fashioned or élitist. Himmelfarb's own response to the latter charge is an ambitious outflanking strategy. She argues that ignoring the great men of any era involves defaming also “all the anonymous people who bought their books, listened to their speeches, and otherwise accorded them the title of greatness”. In ignoring this, the New History becomes “the most insidious kind of élitist history”. As a populist defence of the Old History, this might be more forceful if it were rephrased as an injunction to restore the appropriate historical context to the great books or great men she wishes to rehabilitate.

A related focus of interest in the book is the essay on “The ‘Group’”—the British Marxist historians who originally came together in the Communist Party Historians' Group in the 1940s and who were instrumental in founding the journal Past and Present in the 1950s. The work of Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and E. P. Thompson, with others, is put in this context with notable economy. Indeed economy runs to reductionism when, for example, Thompson's rich-textured and thought-provoking exploration of early nineteenth-century Methodism is despatched with the comment that “his account is only a more sophisticated version of the ‘opium of the masses’ theme’. She reproaches Thompson for not writing “a candid memoir of his experiences in the party”, yet her own use of such autobiographical fragments as have been published by members of the Group hardly make the invitation attractive. Hobsbawm's retrospective admission, that in the early 1950s he fell into the temptation to invoke arguments which were “sometimes designed a posteriori to confirm what we already knew to be necessarily ‘correct’”, is quoted (omitting “sometimes”) as though it were a confession of his current precepts. Happy is the historian who has no skeleton in his cupboard; but unwary is the historian who candidly unlocks the door.

Himmelfarb's acuity in discerning the self-serving and self-deceiving nature of our ideological preconceptions seems strikingly uneven in insight. It is as though a one-way mirror stands between her and the Group; she can see them for what they are with perfect clarity but she is confident that they cannot see her. Thus she goes so far as to acknowledge that Marxists say—“and quite rightly”—that all historians have values which preclude total objectivity. Yet her only riposte is a bland assertion that the “eclectic” or “empirical” historian “tries to understand each subject in whatever terms seem appropriate to it”, whereas “the Marxist historian is bound by a predetermined schema that applies to all periods and events”. Only by setting up and knocking down the straw man of party-line determinism could such a sophisticated intellectual as Gertrude Himmelfarb prepare us for this touching declaration of faith in naïve empiricism. Her final sally in this essay, however, surely deserves a retort culled from the platitudes of the Old History itself. She arraigns the members of the Group—Hilton, the medievalist; Hill, the authority on the seventeenth century; Thompson, the expert on the eighteenth; Hobsbawm, the specialist on the nineteenth—for the lack of “a scholarly work on twentieth-century Communism”. Someone should whisper to Himmelfarb, above the last fusillades of the cold war, that actually it's not their period.

Lewis A. Coser (review date May 1988)

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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. 10). But similar statements, especially when taken out of context, can be found among all kinds of historians; it is irresponsible to make it appear as if such instances stand for the whole.

It may well be that Himmelfarb is right in diagnosing a deep moral crisis, one that may signal the end of Western civilization. But it is hard to understand how and why modern historiography has been largely responsible for this state of affairs. She avers that the new social history fails to account for human agency and hence presents a deterministic interpretation which denies human will and human responsibility. This, I submit, is hogwash. If historical demographers document shifts and changes in birthrates, age of marriages, and the like, they do not deny human agency but demonstrate its historically variable effect. When E. P. Thompson documents the rise of working-class consciousness in nineteenth-century England, he shows in vivid detail how previously inarticulate workers in class-rooted conflicts and associations slowly create new types of social formations where they become collective agents on the historical scene.

At bottom, Himmelfarb, who is a vociferous representative of neoconservatism, is not so much perturbed about the alleged absence of human agency in the new history as about the fact that this history is largely written “from the bottom up,” i.e., that it describes and analyzes the lives and behaviors of actors who have been neglected by the elite-oriented works of traditional historians. She gets hot under the collar when reading Eric Hobsbawm about primitive rebels, or Genovese about “The World the Slaves Made,” or about Christopher Hill's focusing attention on the radical wing of the English revolutionists in the mid-seventeenth century. Why concentrate on the mentality of Southern French peasants in the work of LeRoy Ladurie or the submerged historical presence of women and children in, among others, the work of Carl Degler and Philippe Ariès? Things were so much more pleasant when historians concentrated on the “rational” actions of their betters.

It may be a mistake to take this blast seriously at all, but then again social historians should scrutinize the pathetic rearguard hue and cry of the bow and arrow brigade venting their anger against the newfangled power of firearms. The fact of the matter is that even though plenty of traditional political or diplomatic history continues to be written, the last half-century or so has seen what Lawrence Stone has aptly called a “golden age of historical writing,” which is almost without precedent. Historical sociology in particular has had an amazing resurgence in the last few decades in the contributions of, among many others, Reinhard Bendix, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and Barrington Moore. Himmelfarb's neglect of such seminal work testifies to a willful distortion of vision.

A word needs to be said about Himmelfarb's red rag: the pernicious influence of Marxist thought on a large number of social historians. She reports in some detail about the well-known fact that many British historians, the founders of the journal Past and Present in particular, were in their younger years members of the Communist Party. The fact is that almost all of them left the Party in the fifties. That Himmelfarb feels the need to go into this matter at this late date cannot but astonish a reader who happens to know that a number of her close friends and even intimate associates were one-time Trotskyites. What is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander. A bit of reflective thought might have come in handy here.

All in all, this intemperate volume has hardly any redeeming intellectual significance. It irresistibly brings to mind Victor Hugo's splendid sentence, “The dogs bark, but the caravan passes by.”

Oscar Handlin (review date fall 1988)

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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 United States. Their politically motivated activities verged on the conspiratorial, and in some cases corrupted their research and writing. Interesting parallels could be drawn between their activities and those of the scientists around J. D. Bernal and the Apostles at Cambridge University. Dr. Himmelfarb exposes the distracting influence exercised by the Marxist historians in The Group, a sad case of talents wasted and readers corrupted. The damage was even greater in the United States, where some writers uncritically accepted the dogmatic propositions of E. P. Thompson and mindlessly applied them to American labor. The full story would hardly be worth telling except for its comic qualities. As it is, we must be grateful for the lucid account of the British experience in this essay.

Psychohistory deserves and gets extended treatment. By now, little remains of the tattered pretensions of that genre, except the residual wonder that sober historians should ever have taken it seriously. Still, it is gratifying to have a precise refutation of some of the facile associations once blanketed by Freudian references.

The provocative introduction poses a problem. In arraying the discussion in terms of a polarity—new, social, as against, old, political, history—it accepts the terms of debate set forth by those Dr. Himmelfarb attacks. She would have advanced her case more forcefully by a simpler dichotomy, good history as against bad (p. 5), measured in terms of competence in the use of evidence, a distinction of which she sometimes loses sight.

Most significantly, her criticism fails to recognize the importance of some of the issues social history raised. It is all very well to mock the concept of the tyranny of time; but chronology and periodization have always been problems for historians who wished to go beyond the listing of events by the calendar. And any effort to bring together cultural, intellectual, economic, and political developments encounters the same difficulties. Eighteenth-century writers like Voltaire wiggled away by organizing the narrative in terms of the reign of monarchs. Macaulay froze a section of time at 1685 while development proceeded in political terms; Henry Adams, J. H. Clapham, and C. M. Andrews, et al., did the same, while the History of American Life series chopped off segments within which it attempted to discover a common theme. None of these solutions avoided difficulties; but they reflected concern with a perennial historiographical problem.

There is also more to the issue of national history than Dr. Himmelfarb concedes. Certainly England, France, and the United States are meaningful constructs, if only because much of the evidence is so organized. Certainly, too, nationalism in modern history is an inescapable force with which historians must deal. But it is also true that the simple organization of the analysis of the past in those terms obscures the importance of regional, ethnic, and cultural divisions, not only in the United States, but also in countries like England and France, long treated as if they were quite homogeneous.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to deal with a whole and its parts as they develop in time. In the past three decades history has been a discipline in crisis, torn by raids from politically motivated ideological enemies, weakened internally by the disarray of the universities. The great service of these essays arises from their confrontation with serious problems that historians neglect at their peril.

James A. Henretta (review date December 1988)

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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 and the Old], they rejected the traditional assumptions of their discipline, “that the proper subject of history is essentially political and that the natural mode of historical writing is essentially narrative” (1). New Social Historians focused on lives and experiences of the people which they deciphered and recounted in dramatically different ways:

The New history tends to be analytic rather than narrative, thematic rather than chronological. It relies more upon statistical tables, oral interviews, sociological models and psychoanalytic theories than upon constitutions, treaties, parliamentary debates, political writings, or party manifestos.


These initiatives transformed the discipline. Political narrative that “was once at the center of the profession is now at the periphery,” Himmelfarb complains. Equally important, the integration of the new “subdisciplines dealing with workers, blacks, ethnic groups and social and sexual ‘deviants’” would result “in the disintegration of the whole” (4, 8). Hamerow doubts that a synthesis of those subdisciplines would even be attempted. Even more than their traditional predecessors, New Social Historians do not write for the educated public, but for “other professionals, who [are] less impressed by style and wit than by technical virtuosity” (60).

These attacks come, predictably enough, from the political right. As the neo-conservative Himmelfarb notes, the New History challenges all the “elitist, moralistic, consensual assumptions governing traditional history” (132). Yet Russell Jacoby, writing from the left, offers a similar critique of academic culture [in The Last Intellectuals]. Before the appearance of large universities, Jacoby claims, historians and other intellectuals wrote for the educated reader. However, as intellectuals became academics, they no longer wrote in a language accessible to the public. Rather they raised issues and used jargon familiar to fellow specialists, who determined their reputations and salaries. Academic professionalism not only narrowed the audience but also enervated the power and the passion of the radical critique itself. “In its longing to be rigorously scientific,” Jacoby maintains, academic “Marxism frequently began to look like the social science it wanted to subvert” (186).

Lost utopias abound, on the left and on the right. The massive reality of a well-financed university culture has subverted both the Old History and traditional radical assumptions. Neither the aristocratic man of letters nor the alienated bourgeois intellectual shapes the life of the mind in late twentieth-century America. That task has fallen, by weight of numbers, to the professionalized and specialized academy. Our authors acknowledge that transformed reality, but they do not accept it. Their critiques expose the limits of the academy—but also the futility of their solutions, which recall the outworn dogmas of the past. The new academic world demands understanding and a new cultural agenda.

Not so, says Gertrude Himmelfarb in The New History and the Old. She vigorously defends her neo-conservative viewpoint in ten essays, revisions of critical pieces published in influential highbrow magazines (Harper's,Commentary,New Criterion) over the past decade. A diverse lot, these essays range from a defense of nineteenth-century English Whig historians to a critique of contemporary British Marxist scholars. What unity the essays possess stems from their consistent skepticism toward the claims of the New History and their dogged defense of the Old.

Himmelfarb's criticisms are frequently on the mark. Like Hamerow, she correctly assails the jargon, complexity, and abstruse quantification in much “sociological” history (50-53). Alert to the dominance of theory in many psychohistorical studies, she is astute in protesting that “the facts, such as they are, can obviously be made to bear almost any interpretation” (111). However, too often Himmelfarb's judgments appear contradictory and politically inspired. She ridicules Peter Stearns's suggestion that “the history of menarche is … equal in importance to the history of monarchy,” while defending Michael Oakeshott's equally provocative (and sexist) image of the historian confronting the past—“He loves it as a mistress of whom he never tires and whom he never expects to talk sense.” “Like an imminent hanging,” Himmelfarb writes,

this passage concentrates the mind wonderfully. It obliges the reader to confront the implications of Oakeshott's argument as no prosaic exposition of it would have done.

(13, 175)

But the same defense could be made of Stearns's assertion of the importance of social history. To be persuasive, Himmelfarb's critical standards must be applied equally and without favor.

And they must not be arbitrary. Too often Himmelfarb simply asserts the superiority of the intellectual agenda of nineteenth-century liberalism. She celebrates history as “the rational ordering and organization of society by means of laws, constitutions, and political institutions” and stresses constantly the importance of the nation-state and Whig political ideology. If we abandon this Old History, she warns,

we will lose not only the unifying theme that has given coherence to history, not only the notable events, individuals and institutions that have constituted our historical memory and our heritage, not only the narrative that has made history readable and memorable … but also a conception of man as a rational, political animal.

“And that loss,” she concludes, “is even more difficult to sustain, for it involves a radical redefinition of human nature” (21, 25).

There is the nub of the issue. Himmelfarb, citing Aristotle, argues that “only in the ‘polis’ is man truly human, decisively different from ‘bees or any other gregarious animals,’” a fully “rational animal” (25-26). Only in the polis? Is it only in political life that men and women rise decisively above other animals? Strange wisdom indeed from the pen (or perhaps even from that marvelous human invention, the word-processing computer) of an historian of Darwin and the European intellectual tradition! Himmelfarb asserts other debatable propositions in an equally dogmatic manner. Even limiting the subject matter of history to rational action, is it really the case that “the political realm is more conducive to rational choice … [than] the social realm which is governed by material and economic concerns?” (31-32). Political life is hardly removed from the broad forces of history. Equally important, the limits—and the potential—of human beings and human freedom are the same in all realms of life. Only the circumstances, obstacles, and options are different.

These historical constraints and possibilities loom large in the scholarly thinking of Theodore Hamerow. Consequently, Reflections on History and Historians is less a polemic against social history than a carefully argued interpretation of the evolution and present condition of the historical profession. Still, Hamerow, too, has grudges that add passion to his argument. He deeply resents the dominance of the New History in major universities and the support accorded its practitioners by foundations and grant committees. Whatever the cause of these resentments, they do not significantly distort his scholarly judgment. Thus, Hamerow clearly recognizes the link between the Old History and the nineteenth-century ideology of a liberal education.” Its “goal was self-understanding and self-improvement,” he writes, “for the perfection of society [could] be achieved only through the perfection of the individual.” So Hamerow posits his astute insight into the present dilemma of the humanities, “Having become identified with the individualistic cultural ideas of the past, they appear irrelevant to the collective social aspirations of the present” (28, 30).

Nor does Hamerow blame the New History for the relative decline of the historical profession. Like Jacoby, he identifies the professionalization of higher learning as the real enemy. “Professionalism led logically to specialization, to an expertness which was exhaustive in intensity but narrow in scope.” This constriction—in method, substance, and style—afflicted the Old History as early as the turn of the century and was well advanced by the 1930s. Each succeeding decade saw fewer influential books published by Hamerow's heroes, free-lance nonacademic scholars “motivated primarily by a compelling private curiosity about the past,” people who wrote history that had the “charm of literature.” In their place appeared growing cadres of Ph.D.s, products of a rigorous system of graduate training that emphasized abstract ideas and copious research. The New History and foundation support only accelerated the fragmentation of learning and the inevitable gulf between academic scholars and educated readers. “The transformation of history … would have taken place in any case” (49, 72, 71).

Hamerow is too accomplished a scholar to ignore the achievements of the New History and even incorporates some of its methods into his own work. To demonstrate the changing social background of American academics, he draws heavily on quantitative data amassed by sociologists. Ten tables of statistical evidence dot the chapters of Reflections on History, one for every twenty-six pages of text. More importantly, the quantitative data demonstrates the plausibility of various causative arguments, such as the relationship between the recent “democratization” of the historical profession and the decline both of the “genteel tradition” and the Old History (77-86, 122). An avowed cliometrician could not have done it better than Hamerow. Moreover, despite Hamerow's lavish praise for the history written by self-taught amateurs, he explicitly affirms that “the apprentice system despite its abuses and weaknesses, appears to be not only the best but the only way to train scholars in history” (116).

Hamerow's deep commitment to history probably accounts for these inconsistencies in his argument. In a desperate intellectual gesture to save “a vital part of the cultural heritage,” he welcomes the decline of history in the curriculum and the monopoly of academics over its study. Whatever their cost, he hopes these developments

can free historical learning from the narrowness and pedantry of academic life, from the heavy-handedness of formal scholarship, from the conventionality of an organized profession … [making it] an individual and spontaneous expression of human creativity like art, music or literature.


These words evoke sadness, even pathos. For they condemn to irrelevance the entire life and life's work of their author, a genuinely eminent and thoroughly academic scholar of nineteenth-century German history. The sense of crisis among Old Historians must indeed be grave to occasion such self-doubt and angst.

What is to be done? In a glowing Appendix, Hamerow celebrates the scholarly and commercial triumphs of leading nonacademic historians—George Dangerfield, James Thomas Flexner, and Barbara Tuchman among others. Hamerow is deeply impressed, even dazzled, following personal interviews that reveal “very busy lives,” cultural and material opulence, and stimulating intellectual milieu—filled with “prominent writers, poets, artists … political leaders … elite clubs, societies, and academies.” These writers' nonacademic history is equally upscale and dramatic, “almost without exception narrative in form, emphasizing the role of individual personality in shaping or reflecting the social environment” (255-58). Life in the fast lane, indeed!

How many scholars, writers of popular history, or “public intellectuals” will the literary marketplace support? How creative and critical will their books and articles be? Hamerow wisely declines to speculate, leaving Russell Jacoby to convey the grim news. Inexpensive, intellectually stimulating urban bohemias are now few in number, and the rewards of authorship are meager. In 1979, half of all American authors received less than $5,000 from their publications, and only five percent earned enough to maintain full-time, lifelong writing careers. The vast majority of nonacademic authors labored for their daily bread in ancillary fields, usually magazine, newspaper, or book publishing. Their jobs were consuming enough to demand “an immense amount of talent, devotion, or plain luck” for any of these women and men “to contribute to the general culture” (225-26). Hamerow's road to the revitalization of history through the literary marketplace is just as much a dead end as Himmelfarb's excursion down the cul-de-sac of nineteenth-century liberalism.

What, then, is the character and potential of “American culture in the age of academe”? Jacoby is pessimistic. As an activist scholar, he deplores both the withdrawal of New Left intellectuals into narrow academic disciplines and their subsequent satisfaction with campus audiences. This professionalism, combined with the decline of bohemia and of a vigorous print medium, has stifled the critical intellectual culture necessary for significant social reform. According to Jacoby, we now understand the world without seeking to change it.

The flaw in Jacoby's argument lies in his restricted definition of the “public intellectual” in an age of mass education. Before World War II, American colleges were elite institutions. For the most part, they taught children of the well-to-do, reinforcing the social and cultural values of the parental generation. Now massive state universities and hundreds of local community colleges touch the lives of a majority of the nation's youth and, at least in some minimal sense, introduce them to new cultural and intellectual values. Like their students, the American professoriate is now recruited from a broad range of economic, ethnic, and religious groups. As Hamerow astutely observes, “Protestantism has ceased to be a criterion of social acceptability in the world of learning,” as has Republicanism (122, 128). More than ever before, academics are people of the left.

And so is much of their scholarship. As Himmelfarb discerns (to her horror), the New History is profoundly radical, not because it is Marxist but because it is democratic. It elevates the experiences of common people and, she protests, subordinates the activities of elites, “those aspects of the past which serious and influential contemporaries thought most meaningful” (18). More seriously still, the new democratic scholarship subverts the domination of elite European patriarchal culture by celebrating the literary and artistic contributions of women, blacks, and other historically oppressed social groups. This effort, in turn, has begun to yield still more revolutionary results: a fundamental reassessment of the critical standards and epistemological assumptions of the humanities. As the debate over the “Western Tradition” at Stanford University revealed, the stakes of the contest are high. The basic issue is cultural hegemony.

The struggle for a more democratic intellectual life has been joined in the university, and the graduates of those institutions—who now number in the tens of millions—will decide its fate. In this regard, Jacoby is right; “younger intellectuals responded to their times” by becoming academic scholars, but “they need not” become arid professionals (237). Have we conveyed to our students a deep understanding of the high scholarly standards, the creative insights, and the democratic perspectives of the humanities disciplines? Have we shaped their lives and their thinking in profound ways? If so, then we have fulfilled at least one of the responsibilities of “public intellectuals” in the age of academe.

Works Cited

Reflections on History and Historians. By Theodore S. Hamerow. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. 267 pages.

The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals. By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. 209 pages.

The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. By Russell Jacoby. New York: Basic Books, 1987. 290 pages.

Samuel P. Hays (review date winter 1989)

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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 than her more dominant strategy of opposition to social history.

Himmelfarb affirms the importance of a history which focuses on political leaders who weigh and debate ideas about public life in a “rational” way and make profound moral choices, all of which constitutes the main drama in the steady progress toward greater human freedom. All this, she implies, can be understood independently of social context. Thus, she distinguishes the “political realm” which is “more conducive to rational choice” from “the social realm” which is “governed by material and economic concerns. …”

She is drawn toward a history based on major political events such as the forming of the American constitution, governing instruments such as laws and constitutions, the political leaders who were the actors in those events, and the ideas through which leaders expressed alternative choices in policies and governing.

All this, she argues, has been removed from the central focus of historians by an overarching and dominant social history which has obscured and overwhelmed a more important historical enterprise.

Himmelfarb exaggerates the influence of social history. Judging from the reviews in historical journals, political biography, presidential history and formal diplomatic history are more than healthy. While social history has carved out a place for itself in the profession, it is by no means dominant.

What has happened, however, is that economic and social history have made clear that political history can not be understood if it is divorced from what is happening in the society at large beyond the realm of formal governing. What issues arise in public affairs; how they are debated and resolved; what forms of governing institutions emerge and what roles they play in public decisions; and how the larger public participates in governing cannot be understood by limiting attention to the political leaders, their ideas and their actions. A larger context in thinking about political history is required in order to engage in effective historical reasoning. But Himmelfarb considers knowledge about the social and economic context of politics to be a threat to her brand of political history and she rebels against it.

Himmelfarb, it is fair for the reader to conclude, is far more interested in engaging battle with social history than in coping with the fundamental problem of drawing links between social and political history. One can agree with her implied argument that social history has not been able to formulate more general ideas to link its concerns with political history. At the same time, however, she does not recognize a need for political historians to establish conceptual links with social history.

Research of the past four decades has brought into the world of history a vast range of subjects formerly given scant attention. They constitute realms of ideas and values, circumstance and condition within which public affairs take place. Shall we exclude them from the wider realm of politics or find ways to bring them in? Himmelfarb opts for exclusion. But how can one justify ignoring most of what we know about the past in the name of a more limited focus on a “rational process” of politics and government? One can readily argue, in fact, that the search for greater human freedom is enhanced by this recent expansion of historical knowledge; even these ultimate objectives in history which she eloquently espouses are furthered by a more successful working out of the relationship between social and political history.

The problem is to find ways of incorporating the “new social history” into a more integrated and mainstream history. Constructive ideas about bringing political and social history together are needed. Himmelfarb does not provide them.

Victor Kiernan (review date February 1989)

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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 inadequate, but because they cannot in any case ‘supply the answers to the larger questions’; historians should not be content with what can be ‘fed into a computer’ (p. 43). Professor Himmelfarb is good too on national tradition and character, and on the paradox of Zeldin writing about France while denying ‘France’ any reality; and interesting on the idea of progress, from Bury onward. Unfortunately where Marxism is in question she becomes much less convincing. Her charge against it of ‘demeaning and denigrating political events, institutions, activities, and ideas’ (p. 16) will make readers wonder what sort of Marxists she has been reading; evidently not Marx. This blurring of focus hinders her from recognizing the extent to which a conservative philosopher like Oakeshott, with his denial of any sense in history, is inspired by fear of its meaning becoming only too clear and uncomfortable. It is in fact to Marxism that we must look for a bulwark against the extravagances of the now somewhat antiquated ‘New History’.

Donald R. Kelley (review date February 1989)

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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 social history (Marxism with the ideology left out). “Social History in Retrospect” talks about quantitative history—or rather talk about talk, such as Lawrence Stone's, about quantitative social history, a field which to Himmelfarb seems to alternate between the “dismal” and the “sentimental.” “Is National History Obsolete?” criticizes the new anecdotalism of Theodore Zeldin and laments the loss of the national dimension of history which figured so prominently with the great Victorian historians. “History and the Idea of Progress” reviews Robert Nisbet's book but does not take the topic much beyond the place where Trevelyan's successor, Bury, left it three generations ago. “Does History Talk Sense?” discovers (via Oakshott and Nietzsche) skepticism about the value of history, political and moral as well as philosophical, and sensibly kicks this conceptual stone out of the practicing historian's path—if only to keep the “talk” going.

These essays—elegantly vague, stylishly cranky, resolutely antiquated, ironically elitist—carry on, in a post-modern world, an old quarrel between ancients and moderns, invoking (no less “sentimentally” than Peter Laslett) the historiographical World We Have Lost (1965). What Himmelfarb mourns is political and national history (Macaulay and Carlyle), history with a moral dimension, history with an intelligently Whig slant, history where reasonable people and publishing historians can talk and write effectively—and count for something. A “noble dream” (in the words of Charles Beard); but, while Gertrude Himmelfarb is herself a distinguished practitioner of a certain kind of social-intellectual history and surely an interesting conversationalist, I find it hard to believe that her “critical” observations will be of much service to practicing historians these days, except perhaps as a historical document of a time when the choice was between history “from Above” and history “from Below.” The conversation, among historians anyway, has long since turned to other questions, and so have the possible angles of vision.

Sean Wilentz (review date spring 1989)

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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 Scholar.1

Himmelfarb's writings are a cut above these. An important intellectual historian of Victorian Britain, Himmelfarb has at least contributed, in The Idea of Poverty (1984), an ambitious, if tendentious piece of scholarship about the English Industrial Revolution. And these essays—a series of assaults on the so-called “new history”—stand as monuments of reasoned criticism compared with the sputtering of professors like Norman Cantor.2 Considering that Himmelfarb intended these essays as provocations, they are carefully considered, sometimes insightful. And they help us see why the neocons have had so much trouble impressing practicing historians.


Himmelfarb's basic complaint is that the new history—analytical in form, social or psychological in focus—has displaced traditional or conventional history, with its narrative method and political focus. “In the historical profession as a whole,” she writes, “the new history is the new orthodoxy”; the old history—“once at the center of the profession”—is now peripheral. This is a tactical overstatement: A check of the personnel in the major history departments nationwide or of recent recipients of honors like the Pulitzer Prize shows that rumors of traditional history's overthrow are greatly exaggerated. No one, however, can deny the enormous boom in the prestige of historical subdisciplines that were either marginal or nonexistent thirty years ago. And, without question, some new historians, flushed by the enthusiasm typical of any rising intellectual trend, have sounded obnoxiously intolerant.

But Himmelfarb's case doesn't rest with what she calls “the triumph of the new.” She declares that the new history is at war, not just with the old history but with “history itself” and with “reason itself.” She points an accusing finger at three groups of miscreants—the psychohistorians, the new social historians, and the radical historians.3 She charges that all three are determinist, so much so that they efface the importance of historical events and the dignity of individuals. All three demean politics, thereby robbing history of its unifying theme. All three slight ideas, by treating them as by-products of some deeper struggle—Oedipal, demographic, or economic. To rescue history from further desecration, she looks forward to a return to those time-tested methods and subjects—“dynasties and governments, wars and laws, treaties and documents”—which she claims the new historians dismiss out of hand.

Himmelfarb spends the least energy on psychohistory—appropriately enough, given that many of those she calls new historians consider the field a disaster area. For years, psychohistory has operated largely as an academic sideshow—debunking lofty reputations in a manner that actually precludes moral, political, or historical judgments. Himmelfarb makes easy work of pointing this out in some brief remarks about Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther and discussions of two psychobiographies of the 1970s.

If anything, she is too quick and easy. We might expect Himmelfarb to assail better books than she does. Among others, Peter Gay's and Carl Schorske's rather different studies of Freud and Austro-German cultural politics mobilize psychoanalytic concepts far more persuasively than the run-of-the-mill psychobiographies do—and without threatening reason or history. The works Himmelfarb singles out may be more typical of psychohistorical practice, but an intellectual current ought to be judged by its best work, not by its uneven pioneering efforts or its mediocrities. Himmelfarb's aim is true, but her performance here looks too much like a dazzling display of Coney Island marksmanship.

Her writing improves when it comes to the mélange of history and the social sciences that, in this country, passes for the mainstream of the new social history. Here Himmelfarb takes on the widely respected scholarship of historians like Peter Laslett and Lawrence Stone; and here she delivers her most telling points. As Himmelfarb observes, the problem with so much of the new social history is not that it often concentrates on the powerless masses instead of the powerful few, or that it examines social phenomena like class, or even that it borrows from social theory to give shape and meaning to the past. The problem is the way social historians do these things—the specific theories they deploy and the kinds of conclusions they draw.

Two features distinguish the kinds of social history Himmelfarb reproves. One is their use of the behavioralist social sciences (usually, in this country, functionalist sociology or neoclassical economics). The other is their concentration on everyday life, customs, and social relations, usually among the middling or lower orders. Many of these studies (and even Himmelfarb must admit this) have made enormous contributions in charting the unknown contours of material life, popular consciousness, and social development. At their worst, they have degenerated into what C. Wright Mills called crackpot empiricism, the amassing of statistical series and folkish literary remains to no discernible historical purpose.

Himmelfarb, however, inveighs against how the new social historians slight politics and ideas. Those most drawn to the social sciences, she notes, often make the mistake of trying to decide what people really thought strictly on the basis of some behavioral trend, judging motives and causes on the basis of outcomes or effects. Social-science historians tend to be cynical about ideas, treating them either as euphemistic glosses on self-interest or as the detritus of demographic and economic forces. Less statistically minded social historians, meanwhile, imagine that social relations can be studied in pristine isolation from political institutions and the life of the mind; at times, with a kind of reverse snobbery, they seem to insist that the mundane practices of ordinary people are somehow more important than events like the American Revolution or the Civil War. Politics in the new social history usually gets reduced to tautological abstractions like “social control.” Thoughts, ideals, morality—indeed, human agency—all but disappear.

Himmelfarb's recital of all this is impressive less for its originality (much of it has been said before, sometimes by self-critical social historians) than for its urgency. So urgent, in fact, are these essays that we lose sight of what the new social history has to offer. The real pity, though, is that while Himmelfarb presents herself as the defender of the history of ideas, she says so little about the American intellectual origins of the new social history itself. She does observe that some of today's trendier themes date back well into the nineteenth century, and she makes passing references to more recent influences, from Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school to the 1960s American preoccupations with black, feminist, and populist history. Surely these are part of the story; another, larger part takes us not to Paris, but to places like Morningside Heights and to the 1950s, not the 1960s. Beginning with the postwar, liberal background of today's new scholarship, this little chapter in recent intellectual history highlights some ironic political connections, along with the narrowness of the ground Himmelfarb has now chosen to occupy. Since she does not bother with this history, let us sketch it out for ourselves.


Much of today's new history—the new social history in particular—originated not as a revolt against tradition but in the efforts of 1950s liberals to supplant the legacy of the Progressive historians and of 1930s Marxism. The list of those involved reads like a postwar American Historical Association honor roll. One was the brilliant historian Richard Hofstadter, who in his numerous books (notably The Age of Reform) disdained conventional narrative and the old-fashioned history of ideas, drew freely on postwar social scientific concepts like “status anxiety,” and lavished attention on third-rate political writers, all as a way to understand a broader American “political culture.” Another was Oscar Handlin, whose writings and teachings in the 1940s and 1950s, influenced as they were by Parsonian sociology, did much to lay the groundwork for the new social history of immigrants and city life. Daniel Boorstin was a third; although Boorstin stuck more closely than others to narrative, his books vaunted the importance of social process and argued the unsettling thesis that ideas were basically irrelevant to American politics and culture. Then there was Seymour Martin Lipset, who, though formally a sociologist, did as much as anyone to introduce American historians to postwar social science. Alongside these men were many other historians who joined in what Hofstadter called a “monographic uprising” that began, roughly, in 1950.

Although hardly of a single mind, these scholars shared a great deal besides their common interest in the American past. Many came from urban, non-WASP (usually Jewish) backgrounds, forming that first generation of outsiders to make it big into a profession long blighted by bigotry. Most were reared on the writings of Progressive historians like James Harvey Robinson, Charles Beard, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. And most shared a certain political trajectory as well. Few, if any, were conservatives; some were New Deal liberals; a surprisingly large number (at least among the most prominent) had been young radicals. As early as the 1940s, some of them began questioning the simplifications and silences in Progressive history; ten years later, virtually all had soured on whatever sympathies they had with Marxism and the left. Repulsed by the sentimentalism and moral blindness of the Popular Front, fed up with the sectarianism of Trotskyists and ex-Trotskyists, chilled (in some cases) by cold war hysteria, most would have described themselves as pluralist liberals—not optimistic do-gooders, but men of that modernist, tragic frame of mind that Lionel Trilling associated with the liberal imagination.4 Impressed with American capitalism's resilience, skeptical of radical causes, they searched for new ways to come to terms with American history in an age when all ideology seemed bankrupt.

Hardly any of these 1950s liberals considered reverting to a political narrative history that they associated all too easily with the genteel tradition. As young outsiders-turned-insiders, they still wanted answers to questions that had first interested them in history: What were the economic, cultural, and religious bases of political authority? Why was there no socialism in America? How did the immigrant experience or the frontier experience affect national development? How did psychological and symbolic factors affect the past?

Much of this writing has since been lumped together as the consensus school—a label that often hides as much as it reveals. Quite apart, though, from their various conclusions, these historians and their graduate students shared an affinity for new subjects and new methods—and especially for insights of the social sciences. Hofstadter once explicated what some of these innovations were: By looking to psychology, the sociology of knowledge, functional analysis, public opinion polls, and quantitative methods, the historians of the 1950s and early 1960s sought to make “the entire sociological penumbra of political life” into “an organic part of historical thinking.” In Hofstadter's estimation, they succeeded both in toppling the classic works of the Progressives and in releasing historians' speculative capacities and research energies.

This, as much as anything, initiated the trends Himmelfarb now rejects—for the work of the 1950s liberals carried with it (in the jargon of the day) certain latent dysfunctions. At the very moment that so many historians began looking to the social sciences for help, the social sciences were scrapping the historical dimension of their work: sociologists with their opinion surveys, economists with their market-place models of homo economicus, political scientists with their gerry-built indexes of relative deprivation. This shift toward “value-free” theory often carried with it a political burden—to elevate the values of the postwar capitalist democracies as “normative,” “modern,” and therefore desirable. At another level, the more these approaches proliferated, the more they sapped historical studies of their sense of context and human agency. Set alongside what Hofstadter called the “anti-intellectualist” current exemplified in Boorstin's writings, they tended to slight ideas as well. But these shortcomings were not immediately evident, even to a scholar as respectful of ideas as Hofstadter. Instead, at a time when America was just beginning its love affair with computers and sociological “experts”—and with public and private agencies eager to fund almost anything that sounded “scientific”—the new social history became an academic growth industry. By the mid-1960s social history had begun to look increasingly like a branch of the social sciences. And, with that, the field began to attract the numbers-crunchers, antiquarians, and crackpot empiricists who now populate it.


This backward glance reminds us of something that Himmelfarb obscures: The new history's motivating impulse was not to efface politics and ideas or subject them to some sort of sociological tyranny, but to interpret them anew, in their broadest historical context. It also clarifies where much of the new history made its wrong turn—in its resolution of the flight from 1930s Marxism and Progressivism more than thirty years ago, and in particular in its fascination with the social sciences. Not that we should blame the 1950s liberals for all the subsequent excesses and stupidities of the new social history. Nevertheless, if the 1950s liberals steered clear of the most odious kinds of pseudohistory, their sympathy for and use of the social sciences (along with Boorstin's anti-intellectualist stance) certainly helped lead American historical scholarship down what Himmelfarb considers the primrose path.

It is hard not to notice an apparent paradox here: Several of the 1950s liberals who helped inspire the new history—scholars like Handlin, Boorstin, and Lipset—are today neoconservatives. Himmelfarb should not be included in this group; while her own political shifts have taken her over the years from sectarian leftism through liberalism to the hard right, she has always written fairly traditional intellectual history—studies of Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill and so on. Still, there is a temptation to wonder if Himmelfarb's polemics ought to be thrown back in her direction. Perhaps this seeming irony is a mere coincidence. Or perhaps there is more to it, as part of a generational history of successive renunciations, first of the left, then of liberalism. One might even ask whether the new social history wasn't, at least in part, the outgrowth of an earlier phase of the neoconservatives' fitful march to the right. Either way, it is curious that Himmelfarb's account sidesteps these matters, leaving us with a flat impression of the new social history as some sort of “radical” enterprise out to subvert history and reason. More curious still is another, rather more important set of ironies—about the new social history and the left.

Attacks on the new social history began almost as soon as the field consolidated its gains in the mid-1960s. Such criticism has come primarily from four directions. Now and then, some older humanists have raised alarms, none more eloquently than Jacques Barzun. Starting in the mid-1970s, there have come the snipings of the neoconservatives, enraged by what they perceive as history's capitulation to the radical left and the counterculture. Over the last decade, meanwhile, a third stream of criticism has emerged from the new social historians themselves—from those who have tried to preserve the field's animating spirit. Alerted, at last, to the scholarly limits and presentist biases of social science behaviorialism, a growing number of them have begun trying to take politics and ideas more seriously. Many have come to agree with Lawrence Stone that it might be time for historians to jump “the social scientific ship, which appears to be leaking and undergoing major repair.”

Some of the new social history's most impassioned critics, however, have come from another quarter entirely—the same rejuvenated left that sends the neoconservatives into paroxysms. Indeed, leftist historians were quicker than most to see what was wrong in the new scholarship. British radical historians led the way, in works like E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (published in 1963, in part as a ringing response to social science interpretations of the Industrial Revolution) and Christopher Hill's assault on Peter Laslett's quanto-opus, The World We Have Lost. American radicals quickly followed suit, in monographs, articles, and reviews that culminated, in the mid-1970s, in Herbert Gutman's Slavery and the Numbers Game and Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's caustic essay, “The Political Crisis of Social History.” What's more, large portions of these radical critiques bore striking resemblances to those delivered (often later) from other corners of the profession. Labor historians excoriated social science treatments of class that were so “obsessively concerned with methodology” that they proceeded “to the exclusion of the examination of a single real class situation in a real historical context.” Other radicals lamented the new social history's “philistine disregard for the centrality of politics” along with its “willful pretense at ‘value-free’ analysis which drains any notion of consciousness or interest.” Still others wrote of the “reductive fallacy” and the search for “monocausal explanations” in the new work.

The 1960s radical historians were a diverse and fractious group. They produced their full share of bad history books, spoiled by sentimental hero worship, ahistorical moralizing, naive romantic visions of the Third World, and a “Marxist” variant of functionalist sociology. But much radical history was splendid. Building on diverse theoretical currents—from Gramscian Marxism to postwar feminism—the best works broke free of the limits of “official” leftism; with an empirical hardihood as vigorous as anything in the mainstream, they opened up new views on everything from the history of slavery to the politics of women's suffrage. It was these radical historians—Marxists, non-Marxists, feminists, and others—who, in their own research as well as their criticisms of others, provided the new social history with some of its stiffest challenges, precisely on the grounds that it slighted politics, consciousness, ideas, and human agency.

The ironies here are arresting. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the arrival of the new radical historians threw some 1950s liberals into fits, which in turn hastened the emergence of academic neoconservativism. Beneath the sturm und drang, however, some of the most influential radicals were raising fundamental objections to the kinds of new history that 1950s liberal historians (including some who have since become neoconservatives) had once helped inspire. Now, twenty years on, neoconservatives like Himmelfarb are raising some of the same objections the radicals have been raising all along—but in the name of protecting traditional history from radical perversions!

Himmelfarb is too prudent to ignore this strange convergence altogether. Yet to sustain her argument she must prove that the radicals are somehow (if only unconsciously) allied with the other new historians, in a common front against traditionalism. She seizes on one strand of radical history, Marxism, paying close attention to the writings of such postwar British Marxist historians as Thompson, Hill, and E. J. Hobsbawm.

At one level, Himmelfarb's critique is a blanket indictment of all Marxist scholarship. “Marxism,” she forthrightly declares “has succeeded in this: in demeaning and denigrating political events, institutions, activities, and ideas.” One wonders, though, exactly which Marxist histories she means. Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution? W. E. B. Du Bois on Reconstruction? Albert Soboul on the French Revolution? Whatever their faults, the classics of Marxist history cannot be accused of abasing or ignoring political events, institutions, and ideas. Himmelfarb explains her meaning: It is the Marxists' economic determinism that slights politics and ideas, in ways so similar to the rest of the new history. Whereas once “[i]t was only the Marxist who regarded politics as the epiphenomenon of history,” now (alas) almost all historians do.

This is, by any reckoning, a muddle. Marxist historians have never been the sole or even the major purveyors of economic determinism: In the United States, for example, it was the decidedly non-Marxist Charles Beard who established the economic interpretation of history as an important intellectual force. Moreover, as Himmelfarb herself goes on to observe, the economic determinist strain in Marxist history has, over the last three decades, come under withering attack from the left. Indeed, as she admits, nearly all of the British writers under discussion have rejected that model, which relegates politics and consciousness to the epiphenomenal “superstructure.”

What, then, is wrong with contemporary radical history as exemplified by Thompson et al.? We might expect Himmelfarb to be razor-sharp about this, considering that some of these Marxists write in her own field of expertise. Certainly there has been no shortage of strong and valid criticisms of the British Marxists' work, from almost every vantage point. Yet Himmelfarb's criticisms beg more questions than they answer. She accuses the British Marxists of being “excessively materialistic”—but never draws the delicate line that demarcates excessive from appropriate materialism. She charges that recent Marxist writings appear to be “a continuation of politics by other means”—a baffling passage given that some pages earlier she flatly equates politics with the pursuit of reason. The British Marxists, she says, renounce “empirical” history and prefer their “predetermined schema”—leading us to ask why E. P. Thompson, probably the most influential of the lot, has spent so much of his time defending history as a preeminently empirical pursuit, the sworn foe of predetermined models. Finally, she notes, they were once, to a man, loyal Stalinists who have insufficiently accounted for their previous crimes against scholarship.

This last point touches off alarms. There is plenty in the early writings of the British Marxists that can be held aloft for ridicule and condemnation: Paeans to the Soviet dictatorship, nice words about Lysenko and “socialist science,” all the fudging and flummery to be expected from a group of young, would-be intellectuals who (as Hobsbawm recalls) “were apt to fall into the stern and wooden style of the disciplined Bolshevik cadres.” So, in the work of some of the Victorian narrative historians Himmelfarb admires, one finds all sorts of hair-raising statements about exotic foreigners and the sham of constitutional liberty. And so (as we keep finding out) there are dirty hands among scholars, living and dead, all along the political spectrum.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to accuse Himmelfarb of applying a singular standard to those who were taken in by Stalin—demanding full recantations from them alone. But while this is true—and to Himmelfarb's discredit—it is also an evasion. The British Marxists (most of whom left the Communist party in or around 1956) have certainly been candid about their former adherence to the party line; most have pointed to the ways “Stalinist pieties” distorted their earlier writings. And no one can accuse, say, E. P. Thompson of still harboring illusions about communism and the Soviet Union—not when he has written so eloquently of the “exterminist” logic of both super power blocs. As a group, though, the British Marxists have had to struggle with one of the tragedies of modern intellectual life: Why it took so long—until 1956—for such brilliant scholars to begin to face up to things about the party that almost all of their most benighted countrymen had known for years.

Pride, no doubt, played a part in this, as well as sentimental attachments and an abiding disgust at the creepy conformism of various remorseful ex-communists. But also, perhaps, a certain confusion—that all-too familiar idea that to break too far from one's radical past is to renounce radicalism, or to give ideological advantage to the ruling class. When, for example, Thompson wrote in 1973 of his refusal to follow “the well-worn paths of apostasy” or become a “Public Confessor and Renegade,” he left the impression that to say too much, too loudly, about communism is to turn into Whittaker Chambers. Surely, as ex-communists like Richard Wright tried to show, this is not the case.

Himmelfarb, however, instead of exploring this struggle and giving a full exposition of her antagonists' evolving views, pastes up some collected snippets from their writings and tries to score political points. Her argument really rests not on what the British Marxists wrote in 1952, nor on their political pronouncements since 1956, but on their failure to renounce radicalism tout court. Whatever their autobiographical reticence (and even Himmelfarb must acknowledge they have hardly been silent) the British Marxists have worked through their political and theoretical reasoning for all to see in their historical writings. But this is not enough for Himmelfarb, who would have them change their research agendas entirely and write scholarly studies of Marxism and communism. And when faced with the task of herself refuting the “substantive philosophy” of recent British Marxist history, her analysis descends to the point of intellectual shiftiness. The Marxist, she grandly asserts (as if there were only one type) selects facts to suit prearranged theses and ignores facts that might undermine orthodox doctrine. As proof, she produces what appears to be an admission of guilt from E. J. Hobsbawm. The trouble is, she wrenches this smoking gun from some self-critical Hobsbawm reminiscences about standard operating procedure among the Communist historians in the 1940s and early 1950s. Anyone expecting a more searching, informative, conservative appraisal of current trends in British Marxist history (or any kind of radical history) will not find it here. Himmelfarb is too busy posturing.


Had Himmelfarb really wanted to make good on her interest in history's well-being, she might have made a greater effort to establish where she and so many of her antagonists share common ground. She also might have pondered why so many historians have chafed at some of the premises of the old history. Instead, she belabors the negative in the new scholarship, celebrates conventional history, and resists the notion that the two might actually inform one another. Such a reconciliation is not only possible, it is taking place. But to carry it through requires a recognition of the deficiencies in Himmelfarb's brand of traditionalism as well as in the work she chastises.

Traditional political narrative or the history of ideas—the old history—can never be dispensed with. If we are to understand anything of, say, American slavery and its demise, then an understanding of who said what to whom concerning the Compromise of 1850 or the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation (and on what date) is obviously important. So are the political writings of John C. Calhoun and Thaddeus Stevens. And so is a recognition that politicians and statesmen usually follow a pragmatic logic that heeds self-interest as well as loftier ideals.

But this is not enough. The specifics of changing social structure, popular thought, divisions of class and color, ethnicity and gender—in short, all of what Hofstadter called “the sociological penumbra”—must be kept at the center as well. Likewise, historians need to explore how the exercise and changing structure of power outside of formal politics affects political institutions and ideas, and vice versa. Recent Marxist and radical history at least has the virtue of grappling with these issues. To do so was the inspiration behind the rest of today's new history, no matter what methodological dead ends it may have run into. Of course, posing such questions can be a dangerous business, from a neoconservative as well as a traditionalist standpoint. Straying too far from the confines of the old history opens up the possibility that professors and students might begin to perceive gaps between everyday realities and those grand Anglo-American principles—of “liberty and right, checks and balances, self-government and good government”—that Himmelfarb would have our history impart.

She will not have it: The differences between these two modes, she says, have become so profound that they amount to “different conceptions of history.” It ought to be all the more embarrassing, then, for Himmelfarb to look through some of the more publicized and acclaimed historical works published over the past few years, among them James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, Nell Irvin Painter's Standing at Armageddon, and Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. All are organized as chronological narratives. All focus heavily on “traditional” subjects—wars, treaties, legislatures, political movements. Yet none is an “old history” of the kind Himmelfarb venerates; all make abundant use of the new history's finding and insights; all propose broadly social interpretations while endeavoring to avoid determinism. Clearly something is happening here, and Himmelfarb doesn't know what it is—or at least she didn't anticipate it when she put her book together. Historians—especially American historians—have decided that there is little point in pitting old against new, that the time has come to transform and combine both modes.

It is doubtful that Himmelfarb's one-sided strictures ever could have cut much ice, at least in this country. If they did, historians would have to cast a jaundiced eye on the motives and thinking behind some of the most suggestive postwar historical writing, not simply of those she criticizes directly, but of Richard Hofstadter, Oscar Handlin, Daniel Boorstin, Bernard Bailyn, Edmund S. Morgan, C. Vann Woodward, David H. Donald, David Brion Davis, John Hope Franklin, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, Linda Gordon, and so many others. Moreover, they would have to overcome what Himmelfarb herself points to as a certain American distrust of essentially political, essentially narrative history. Of course, this country has produced some grand political narrators, descending in acuity and literary skill from Henry Adams to James Ford Rhodes. But going back to George Bancroft in the 1830s, American historians, even when writing about politics and thought, have shown an impatience with political narrative and the history of ideas, preferring to pursue larger philosophical, social, and psychological themes: Parkman and his forests, Turner and the frontier, Beard and his economic interpretations, Du Bois and the souls of black folk. It was no new historian, but Ralph Waldo Emerson who spoke of “what a shallow village tale our so-called History is,” and of how we must write our annals “broader and deeper if we would truly express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride.” A bit mystical, maybe, but the heart still vibrates to that string more than it does to Himmelfarb's. Call it the democratic impulse in history writing. And make the best of it.


  1. Which is not to say the last eight years have been without conservative influences. The hounding of the Marxist historian David Abraham, the filiopiety of the Constitution bicentennial, the Meesian theory of “original intent,” evangelical celebrations of our biblical republic (the list goes on) have all made their mark. My concern here, though, is with the actual writing of history and the specific criticisms of the neoconservatives.

  2. To her credit, Himmelfarb has dissociated herself publicly from at least one of Cantor's tirades. See her letter to the New Criterion, March 1986, pp. 84-85. More recently, Cantor has tried to align American neoconservativism with the intellectual legacy of European fascism.

  3. Himmelfarb also singles out the work of Theodore Zeldin. Zeldin's interpretive style is, however, so idiosyncratic that it cannot be attached to any group.

  4. Daniel Boorstin might be counted as an exception here. Having made his separate peace with McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, Boorstin moved into a rather different sort of cold war pluralism.

Joan W. Scott (review date June 1989)

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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 actually happen.

Himmelfarb assumes that the objectivity of traditional history is as self-evident as the rationality of “man,” and so she rarely engages in a defense of these propositions. Those expecting serious philosophical arguments will be disappointed, for there is little depth to these essays. They have a learned tone but not much of the substance that scholars expect; they seem to be aimed at rallying to her viewpoint educated elites in a position to exert influence on social policy (what the nineteenth century called “enlightened public opinion”). Rather than elaborating her own position, Himmelfarb simply states it and then attacks its adversaries, building her case through negative contrasts. This way of proceeding is best characterized as polemical, even ideological, and it ultimately undermines the author's claims for the neutrality, objectivity, and truth of her position.

Himmelfarb's animus is directed against the dominance of the “new” history, actually a variety of approaches to the study of the past that are not necessarily the same but have together brought about a “revolution in the discipline” (pp. 23-23). These “new” interpretations, Himmelfarb insists, deny the drama of events, the power of ideas, and the dignity of individuals by ascribing to them causes and motives other than those explicitly invoked or avowed. Psychology's emphasis on the unconscious, desire, and passion, social history's attention to hierarchical structures and long-term processes of change, anthropology's concern with the formative cultural power of ritual and symbol, Marxism's theories of economic interest all involve for Himmelfarb a “radical,” and therefore unacceptable, redefinition of human nature and thus an abrogation of the proper subject of history.

The terms “revolution” and “radical,” with their implications of subversion, substitute for serious engagement with these theories. Why is politics better thought of as an exercise in restraint of self-interest (p. 20) than as an exercise in power or domination by one group over another? Why ought we to accept ideas as literal, intentional utterances of individuals rather than as variations on cultural themes or vehicles for furthering collective interests? Is progress the best way to characterize the human (or even the Western) story? Is it clear that human beings are the rational masters of their destinies? Is humanity best represented by the singular “man”? Is politics necessarily the best evidence of rational activity? Have historians “traditionally” assumed that was so? Although these complex questions have been debated by philosophers and historians for generations, Himmelfarb reduces them to a simple choice: for or against politics as rationality, the old history or the new.

In Himmelfarb's presentation of it, moreover, there is only one choice, since those who embrace the new history have ulterior motives. Their history is said to be tainted by contemporary outlooks that compromise objective understandings of the past or by contemporary political allegiances that demean and denigrate the old history in a kind of revenge for the failure of Marxism as a theoretical and political movement (p. 16). British Marxists take the brunt of her attack, their studies of England dismissed out of hand because, she says, they have never written histories denouncing Communism or Stalin. But other new historians are represented as guilty, too, because (at least rhetorically) she associates their present-mindedness with Marxism. “In a sense the new social historian goes even further than the Marxist” (p. 16). “For the social historian, however, as for the Marxist …” (p. 17).

The alternative is the high-minded “moralism” Himmelfarb attributes to “great” or intelligent thinkers: Disraeli and Carlyle in the nineteenth century, Geoffrey Elton and Robert Nisbet in the twentieth. By definition, she says, their work is beyond ideology. And yet one wonders if such assertions can be maintained in the face not only of what “old” historians have written about the Victorians she cites but also of a quotation she offers as exemplary from Nisbet's History of the Idea of Progress that includes as one of his five “crucial premises” the “conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization” (p. 169).

The association of rationality, progress, and objectivity with a defense of the superiority of Western civilization suggests that Himmelfarb's “traditional” history is, in fact, official history—a story told to legitimize the actions of those in the West who have shaped laws, constitutions, and governments. It suggests, further, that the “new” history is perceived as dangerous by the “old” because it offers a critique of that official story and explores other ways of telling it. The confrontation of the “old” history and the “new” is then not, as Himmelfarb would have it, a battle between truth and its enemies. Rather, as this book clearly demonstrates, claims to “truth” and to the sanctity of tradition are not innocent of contemporary political allegiances. The contest between the “new” history and the “old” is a contest about the uses and meanings of historical knowledge. In that sense, it could be concluded that, even if history is not always about politics, it is in some sense inherently political.

James Bowman (review date 21 October 1991)

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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 was that their thought was very firmly rooted in ideas of morality and individual responsibility.

This must be borne in mind to understand Sir William Harcourt's famous assertion in 1888 that “We are all socialists now.” That, it could be said, was another way of referring to what Beatrice Webb called “the time spirit”—in which social problems were seen from both sides of the political arena as calling forth science and morality in combination. Such was the consensus in the 1880s—the time of the great “rediscovery” of the problem of poverty when, paradoxically, the condition of the poor themselves was undergoing steady improvement. What we now understand as socialism, though it was foreshadowed by Marx and others, was not influential until the present century.

If this book has a hero it is Charles Booth of the Booth Steamship Company of Liverpool, who dominates the first half of it. His philanthropic activities were devoted to a massive study of the London poor, Life and Labor of the People in London, published in 17 volumes between 1889 and 1902. Like so many other Victorian worthies, Booth seems to have been capable of prodigies of intellectual effort—in spite of ill health and full-time employment with the family firm. Miss Himmelfarb is full of admiration for his industry but more for his achievement in “the creation of a new typology, as it were, of poverty.”

He was the first, that is, to produce reliable statistics about poverty which could be used to differentiate between different classes of the poor. He discerned in late Victorian London eight economic classes, to which he assigned the letters A through H. The “comfortable” working classes, E and F, together with the middle and upper classes, G and H, made up something over 69 per cent of the population. “The poor” in classes A through D made up the rest. Thus did Booth acquire the reputation, first, of having said that 30 per cent of Londoners lived in poverty and, second, of having invented the “poverty line.” Miss Himmelfarb shows that both of these perceptions about what Booth said and did are mistaken.

The crucial classes C and D, which made up well over half of that 30 per cent classified as “the poor,” though they were more subject to the vagaries of the trade cycle than those higher up in the scale, were not as a general rule either badly clothed or badly fed. Those to any degree in real need were the criminals and “barbarians” in class A (less than 1 per cent of the population) and the mainly casual laborers in Class B (7.5 per cent). The latter were “the leisure class of the poor”; many of them worked no more than they had to in order to keep out of Class A.

As for the “poverty line,” it is true that at least one of Booth's collaborators on the project used what Miss Himmelfarb regards as the less theoretical term, “line of poverty,” but he himself was too much aware of the variability of individual moral circumstance to make such a crude division based on a money amount. It was extremely important, he said, not to lump together those in distress with those of “the true working classes, whose desire for a larger share of wealth is of a different character. … To confound these essentially distinct problems is to make the solution of both impossible; it is not by welding distress and aspirations that any good can be done.”

Miss Himmelfarb is too much the scholar to say so, but those words ought to be carved above the entrance to every welfare office in the land. The trouble is that, to make the kind of distinctions that Booth does, there must be recourse to the language of morality. His use of terms like “barbarians”—as well as “idle,” “shiftless,” “improvident,” “decent,” and “respectable”—was, says Miss Himmelfarb, “not for purposes of judgment (although that was implicit as well) but for objective analysis.”

It was only by means of such categories, for example, that he was able to show what an unexpectedly small proportion of the poor were mainly victims of bad habits like idleness or drunkenness instead of economic or personal circumstances (18 per cent in classes A and B, 13 per cent in classes C and D). Likewise, it is reasonable to insist that measures to help the poor should depend upon moral judgments:

B was “very poor” generally for reasons of its own making; C was “poor” generally for reasons beyond its control. Thus the claim of C to consideration was greater than that of B and could be satisfied even at the expense of B. B was the “crux” of the social problem only because C was the true focus of the social problem.

Booth's work is now thought of as having been vitiated by its moralism. And Miss Himmelfarb acknowledges his methodological shortcomings. The harshness of his proposal for a species of state-sponsored concentration camps to remedy the problem of class B—“a sort of quagmire underlying the social structure” and likely to suck in those above it—seems very alien today, although James Q. Wilson's proposal to fence off high-crime areas may strike some as a revival of it. But the moralism should not be ignored by those who claim Booth as one of the founders of the welfare state. As the author says, “His ‘limited socialism’ was deliberately limited to the ‘very poor,’ in order to strengthen the system of ‘individualism’ that he thought to be in the best interest of the ‘poor.’”

When Booth ceases to be the center of Miss Himmelfarb's attention, the book loses focus a little. She goes on to consider the moral assumptions built into the work of the Charity Organization Society, as well as that of a variety of reformers, philanthropists, and thinkers including Octavia Hill, General William Booth (no relation), Dr. Barnardo, Arnold Toynbee (the first), T. H. Green, Alfred Marshall, Henry George, and others. Then, after chapters on the marginality of English Marxism and on the more characteristically English and morally inspired movements of Christian Socialism and Fabianism, she brings her story into the twentieth century with a chapter on the transition to the welfare state.

Here again the focus is very sharp. For “it was the welfare state that finally brought about the divorce of morality from social policy”—and which, in the course of doing so, replaced the problem of poverty with that of inequality. This is Miss Himmelfarb's cue to call for a return to the Victorian “moral imagination,” now that the welfare state is so conspicuously running up against moral problems it has no means of dealing with. Contrary to the popular wisdom, poverty can be ameliorated by public policy, but it cannot be confused with inequality or treated apart from its moral dimension. This much needs saying by a scholar as thoroughly steeped in the curious history of modern man's “compassion” as Gertrude Himmelfarb.

If her brilliant and necessary book could be improved it would be by giving more attention to “compassion” itself. Sometimes she takes “the Victorians” to be almost as monolithic a category as those she is arguing with take “the poor” to be, yet there must have been something in the quality of their sort of compassion that gave rise to ours. How did the “time spirit” of late Victorian moral earnestness evolve, on the one hand, into theoretically top-heavy socialism and, on the other, into the welfarist heresy? If, as she says, both the problem and responsibility for it became “impersonalized” in the early 1900s, is it possible to know the dynamic, the psychic stages of the transformation? But perhaps that is more the job of a literary historian—someone with the instinctive insight, even if not the Victorian roots, of a T. S. Eliot.

Alan Ryan (review date 7 November 1991)

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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 contemporary interest, never far below the surface in every treatment of the field, and prominent in Poverty and Compassion.

This is the second book that Gertrude Himmelfarb has devoted to the Victorians' encounter with poverty. The Idea of Poverty published in 1984, dealt with the English “discovery” of poverty in the early nineteenth century, though it really covered the terrain from Adam Smith to Charles Dickens.1 It was a fascinating-essay in social and intellectual history, enlivened, as all Professor Himmelfarb's work is enlivened, by her eye for paradox and her ear for pre-echoes of our own debates. Poverty and Compassion both is and is not a companion piece.

It certainly began as a companion piece, and in some obvious ways it remains one. The earlier book ended to all intents and purposes in the 1850s, and 250 pages of Poverty and Compassion elaborate a story sketched out in the epilogue of The Idea of Poverty. There Ms. Himmelfarb looked forward to what social historians have called the “rediscovery of poverty” in 1880s England, and observed that the poor described by Mayhew and Dickens—sly creatures living on the borderline of criminality with no regular work or home—were not the poor that the 1880s “rediscovered.” The poor who were “rediscovered” were neither a social threat nor glamorously criminal, but the ordinary working poor. Their “rediscovery” was the work of philanthropically minded social investigators, of whom the archetype was Charles Booth, the author of a seventeen-volume survey of the Life and Labour of the People in London. The centerpiece of Poverty and Compassion is the story of that work.

Another common feature of both books is Ms. Himmelfarb's deep hostility to historians who ignore the moral and intellectual setting within which their subjects actually worked. One of the tasks she sets herself in Poverty and Compassion is to reconstruct just who was counted among the “poor” in Booth's survey, and how and why Booth categorized them as he did. This requires a good deal more subtlety than one might think. Just as before, Ms. Himmelfarb reminds us how far the treatment of poverty was a moral issue, and urges us to take seriously the convictions of a vanished age whose views on poverty and the poor were determined by moral rather than by purely analytical considerations.

She brings to life Victorian England's understanding of the line between the “comfortable,” the “poor,” and the “very poor,” and reminds us that the distinction between “respectable” poverty and “misery” was no fabrication of a middle class that understood nothing of working-class life. British readers will need less reminding than she thinks. Her emphasis on the importance to the working class themselves of the distinction between the “respectable” and the “unrespectable” working class is one that many of us grew up with, and it is only the most unreconstructed materialists who would try to explain away all the moral convictions of Victorian England as fragments of class ideology.

In other ways this book is very different from its predecessor. Ms. Himmelfarb says that her

original intention was to write a volume that would be symmetrical with the first in theme and structure. Adam Smith would be paralleled by Alfred Marshall, Malthusianism by Social Darwinism, the New Poor Law of 1834 by the Poor Law Commission of 1909, Chartism by socialism, Mayhew by Booth, Gaskell by Gissing. It was a neat and plausible schema—belied only by the reality of history.

I doubt whether Ms. Himmelfarb was long deceived; as she says, the economic debate of the 1830s and 1840s was dominated by Smith and Malthus and their “discovery” of poverty in a way that had no later parallels, and the first book could be built around one large intellectual issue in a way the second could not.

That issue was, to put it broadly, one of “optimism” versus “pessimism.” Smith had offered the hope that in a growing economy the poor would become less poor, Malthus the grim prophecy that anything done to alleviate misery would be rendered useless by the rise in population that would follow any improvement in the condition of the poor. Whether it was mid-Victorian prosperity or superior intellectual merit that did the trick is no doubt debatable, but in any event Smith triumphed, and his triumph was cemented by the “neoclassical synthesis” of The Principles of Economics that Alfred Marshall published in 1890.

Everyone agreed that over the past half century the conditions of the working classes had vastly improved; the contemporary economist Robert Giffen thought real wages had doubled in fifty years; the historian Leone Levi that they had gone up by 30 percent in twenty-five. Although, as Ms. Himmelfarb observes, commentators seized on Charles Booth's finding that 30.7 percent of the population of London was either “poor” or “very poor,” Booth himself was at pains to point out that more than half the working class was “comfortable.” Anxiety about the condition of the badly off did not rule out gratitude that their numbers had fallen.

This cheerful background makes Poverty and Compassion a pleasant book to read; until she reaches such bêtes noires as the Webbs and the Fabian Society, Ms. Himmelfarb feels herself among friends and writes accordingly. It does, on the other hand, make for a somewhat fragmented story. The grand dialectic of The Idea of Poverty is missing, and Poverty and Compassion peters out in some rather perfunctory chapters on “New Liberalism” and assorted versions of socialism: none of these chapters says anything very novel, and several of them fall below Ms. Himmelfarb's high standards of intellectual and literary liveliness.

Before that dying fall, Ms. Himmelfarb is at her best. She has, as they say, a hidden agenda—save that her agenda is not at all hidden. She wants not only to recover and render intelligible the mental and moral approach of late Victorian England toward the poor, and toward the duties of the compassionate middle class to the poor; she also wants to contrast the theory and practice of Victorian charity with the theory and practice of the welfare state. It will come as no surprise to her readers that the advantage lies with the late Victorians.

She begins by disarming an assortment of skeptical responses that later commentators have brought to Victorian talk about treating the poor with “compassion.” On the one hand, writers of the 1880s who urged that the poor should be treated with compassion were not unscientific sentimentalists; on the other, they were not muddled or hypocritical when they urged that compassion be applied scientifically. The prominent jurist Fitzjames Stephen (Leslie Stephen's brother) earned his nickname of the “gruffian” by denouncing the spread of a “vapid philanthropic sentiment” as built on “maudlin benevolence,” but he was just wrong. The new philanthropists were determined to practice a controlled compassion, and they loathed the maudlin and the vapid. The reformers who brought the techniques of social science to the study of poverty wanted to do something useful, not just to feel good about themselves. They were well aware of the temptation to wallow in sentiment, and determined not to succumb.

Nonetheless, they were unabashed about their own moral preconceptions. When Charles Booth distinguished between the “poor” and the “very poor,” he had no qualms about distinguishing those who tried to live at a respectable level, but suffered from intermittent employment or low wages that barely allowed them to keep body and soul together from those whose deep poverty sprang from moral failure—those who were unwilling to work or so debilitated by drink and irregular living that they were incapable of it. He had no compunction about displaying sympathy for those who were trying hard, and not much for those who had in various ways given up.

It was this moral perspective that explained what was wrong with poverty. There was a level of misery that rendered it impossible for people to remain full members of society; “respectability” was not a matter of holding the right views or being a regular churchgoer, but a matter of being able to hold one's head up, to lead a reasonable social life, and to have aspirations for one's children. Poverty was a moral problem because deep poverty made a decent life impossible. Such talk of equality as ever crossed the lips of Ms. Himmelfarb's subjects was essentially about this minimal moral equality.

Why did the 1800s see such an upsurge of concern for and interest in the poor? On the face of it, it is a paradox that it happened in the decade in which statisticians like Giffen were recording a great improvement in the average well-being of ordinary working people. Ms. Himmelfarb offers no decided answer. One old but now discredited view was that although the working class was becoming more prosperous, it was getting a smaller share of an increased national income, and was suffering from what the Marxists call “relative immiseration” if not “absolute immiseration.” That appears to be the reverse of the truth. Ms. Himmelfarb seems more inclined to favor the idea that Tocqueville invoked to explain the outbreak of the French Revolution. People become indignant, he claimed, not when they are miserable, but when they have seen the possibility of improvement. In particular, they become indignant when they have seen that possibility and then see it recede. In 1867 and 1884 the vote was extended to almost every adult male, and this meant, too, that the indignant had a voice which they would not hesitate to raise when industrial depression and the dislocation of trade threatened their well-being. If “rising expectations” met a sudden setback, trouble could be expected.

That suggests that the so-called “great depression” of the last quarter of the nineteenth century coming on top of previous progress would indeed explain both working-class unrest and middle-class anxiety. But, the “great depression” is actually a misnomer. The industrial depressions of the period were short-lived and no deeper than in the previous several decades, while the long-drawn-out slump in agricultural prices and rents was good news for employed workers, whose cost of living fell while their wages did not.

In view of Ms. Himmelfarb's concentration on Charles Booth and the poor of London, she rightly stresses some highly contingent factors—housing for one. London was the world's largest city, a magnet to workers throughout England, and a place with many repulsive slums. The speed with which London had grown meant that the quality of housing available to the working class had not improved as much as the rest of their standard of living. Periodically, middle-class journalists ventured into the filthiest parts of the East End and returned to tell their readers how awful it was. Two years before Charles Booth began work on Life and Labour of the People in London, one of the most famous muckraking pamphlets in journalistic history had been published under the splendidly inflammatory title of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. Both “bitter cry” and “outcast London” passed at once into the vocabulary of protest and social history alike, and have remained there ever since.2

Oddly, the pamphlet's author was not a journalist; though the pamphlet was anonymous it is usually credited to a Congregationalist minister, the Reverend Andrew Mearns. Readers were at any rate invited to address any thoughts provoked by the pamphlet to the Reverend Mearns. Its sensational impact, however, owed much to W. T. Stead, whose Pall Mall Gazette had just been launched. Stead was an early practitioner of the peculiarly English form of populist journalism that mixes sexual titillation with the language of shock and outrage, and he promptly ran The Bitter Cry as a serial. The Bitter Cry painted a gruesome picture of life in hovels where two families might be crammed in a single room in a house full of similar rooms, with no water and no sanitation, no fresh air, the whole place riddled with vermin, and malodorous to a degree. But, it insisted, the real horror was the vice that flourished in such misery and such an absence of privacy. It was bad enough that men took to the bottle and women sold themselves on the streets. What shook the reader was the bald claim that “incest is common.” Here was a crime that usually dared not speak its name.

The Bitter Cry maintained in a general way that such things were commonplace and the misery it depicted was not untypical. The question was, How typical was such misery? Nobody really knew. The hero of Ms. Himmelfarb's story, and the man who set out to establish the facts was a Liverpool leather merchant and shipowner. Charles Booth was described by his cousin Beatrice Webb as “an attractive but distinctly queer figure of a man.” Ms. Himmelfarb is at pains to point out that this referred to his physical appearance, which was the only odd thing about him. To us it may seem strange that he combined a full-time career as an owner and director of the Booth Steamship Company with a full-time career as social investigator and philanthropist—though W. G. Runciman has done something similar in our own day. To Ms. Himmelfarb he was all of a piece. He was an employer who paid the highest wages he could afford, a social scientist who was much more interested in the usefulness of the information he had gathered than in large theoretical and methodological matters, and a lapsed Unitarian who placed his faith in the gospel of good works.

Unlike many industrialists, who have embarked on doing good after a lifetime of doing well, Booth took an active interest in radical politics in his twenties, and was only in his mid-forties when—probably in 1885—he began to collect the material for Life and Labour of the People in London. He did it as a (sort of) religious duty. For Booth was an ardent Positivist, a believer in Auguste Comte's “religion of humanity,” though no fan of Comte's wilder flights of fancy and no enthusiast for the rituals of the Positivist church. He defined this religion as follows:

I am a Positivist—by which as to religion, I mean that I worship humanity.

By humanity I mean the human race conceived as a great Being—and by worship I mean that I feel for this Being love, gratitude and reverence.

By religion I mean the double bond to the object of my worship and to others similarly bound. And to this bond and worship I look for hopefulness, strength and constancy in seeking and holding fast to the higher life.

Ms. Himmelfarb is surely right to emphasize the way Positivism united a religious attachment to human well-being with the promise of understanding and control through the “science of society” that Comte was the first to name “sociology.” Booth's attempt to bring what he termed “proportion and relation” to the philanthropic urge to bring “outcast London” back inside the fold of citizenship seems a perfect fulfillment of his Positivist allegiance.

In chronicling Booth's survey and its results, Ms. Himmelfarb deftly steers a delicate path between the two obvious temptations of this kind of history; she neither drowns in the details nor does she fly so high above the terrain that the detail gets lost. She is helped by Booth's own fastidiousness. His aim was to discover how many people could properly be said to be “poor” in his sense of “those whose means may be sufficient, but are barely sufficient for decent independent life” and to distinguish them from the “very poor,” “whose means are insufficient for this according to the usual standard of life in this country.”

Booth divided the London population into eight classes, the lower six of which were strata of the working class—some 82 percent of the whole at the time. The most eye-catching layer was the lowest, a mere.9 percent, and often described as the “residuum,” a term whose connections with the treatment of sewage were not accidental. Booth dismissed them as “a disgrace but not a danger” and pointed out that their numbers were anyway declining. The class immediately above them formed the “very poor,” 7.5 percent who were incapable of holding down a job, because of drunkenness, incapacity, or a simple hatred of fixed routines.

Though he recognized the role of drink in crime and idleness, Booth was not overimpressed by the place of drink among the causes of the poverty of the working class. He had the sense to see that it was more often the effect of misery than its cause, and thought that even in combination with “thriftlessness” it only accounted for about a seventh of the poverty he saw. Unlike a very large number of his contemporaries, he had no time for temperance campaigns and positively praised public houses—most East End pubs were “comfortable, quiet, and orderly” and provided a natural base for the social life to which the poor were as entitled as anyone else.

The two classes he was most concerned for—labeled C and D in his schema—made up a little over 20 percent of the population; they were the employed poor who were either too irregularly employed to sustain a decent existence or who were steadily employed at very low wages. It was they who exercised Booth's mind. For all Ms. Himmelfarb's reminder that 60 percent of the working class was “comfortable” by Booth's standards, that left 25 percent who were willing to work, not fecklessly self-destructive, not incapable of leading a decent existence, but nonetheless losing the battle for independence and self-respect. Booth's thoughts about them were eminently humane and forward-looking—he urged that policies of full employment should be pursued and that employers should appreciate the benefits of a well-paid and fully employed work force. He had the wit to understand that good, highly paid workers were more productive and of more use to their employers than ill-paid and incompetent workers, and urged generosity as a good bargain as well as a duty.

These proposals rested on some rather more alarming ideas about how to treat the riffraff below. They, thought Booth, were a threat to the provident; they kept wages low, demoralized the districts they lived in, and were a simple drag upon society. He proposed to set up “industrial colonies” where they would be employed, housed, and fed under state tutelage. Since they were incapable of an independent existence, they had better be given a nondegrading but dependent existence. Booth did not flinch at describing this as “state slavery,” though this was a rhetorical device to get his readers to take the issue seriously. Curiously enough, these proposals were not attacked for their brutality but for their sentimentality; the Saturday Review thought that all that was needed was a “hard-headed determination to drive the weak into the workhouse and leave the idle to starve.” Most commentators, however, praised the idea as a serious response to a serious problem.

Booth's seventeen volumes appeared between 1889 and 1902, and Ms. Himmelfarb is as interested in Booth as a representative of the late Victorian “spirit of the age” as she is in Booth himself; she is more concerned with the last thirty years of the nineteenth century than with the decade and a half in which he was working on his survey. In broadening her account of the period's response to poverty, she illustrates her theme of the age's talent for marrying warm-hearted compassion to hard-headed statistical analysis with a series of densely packed institutional and individual biographies. These are continuously interesting. Among the most interesting is her chapter on the Charity Organisation Society. As one might expect, Ms. Himmelfarb is friendlier to the COS—founded in 1869 as “The London Society for Organizing Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity”—than most of its chroniclers have been. Its reputation has been, as an organization that drew a sharp line between the “deserving” poor, whom it would help, and the “undeserving,” whom it would not. The objection of later critics is that this forced the working class to choose between hunger on the one hand and an insincere profession of middle-class morality on the other. This complaint was memorably enshrined in the character of Eliza Doolittle's father in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the cheerful dust-man who made an unlikely but articulate defender of the rights of the “undeserving.”

Ms. Himmelfarb argues that the line drawn by the COS was not a line between the deserving and the undeserving so much as a line between those whom assistance would help back into the “decent independence” that Booth later took as the crucial test of non-poverty, and those whom assistance would not help. The “visitors” who went out to find where help was needed and to give it were fulfilling the duties of citizenship toward their fellow citizens, not emulating Lady Bountiful. Condescension was shunned, and the COS's volunteers were carefully taught how not to be inadvertently embarrassing to those whom they tried to help.

Ms. Himmelfarb is by no means the first to point out the extent to which the language of “citizenship” permeated the philanthropy of the period, just as it permeated the political philosophy of the time. The “settlement” movement of the 1880s, which took dozens of university-educated young men to live in the East End in institutions like Toynbee Hall and Balliol House, was a much chronicled expression of the urge to be a good citizen. The young men were told very firmly that they were expected to get as much from the East Enders as they gave them and that the educational experience was to be a two-way experience. Ms. Himmelfarb thinks rather well of it, and paints a picture of life at Toynbee Hall that makes one quite nostalgic for a world in which Sir Leslie Stephen and A. V. Dicey could travel to the roughest part of the East End to lecture to substantial working-class audiences. By the same token, it's easy to see why a good many observers were doubtful whether it did as much good to the workers as to the young men from Oxford. It is at any rate true that the two great architects of post-World War II Britain were graduates of the settlement movement as well as Oxford. Clement Attlee spent some years at Toynbee Hall, while William Beveridge was a resident and later its warden.

It is unthinkable that Ms. Himmelfarb would pass up the chance to fight a few contemporary battles while she is chronicling the past. She has always subscribed to the view that history is philosophy teaching by example, and the tart tone of much of her writing is no doubt due to her sense that we live in an age of bad examples. Here she largely confines herself to a defense of the moral seriousness and high intelligence of such people as Booth, Barnett, and C. S. Loch, who surveyed London, created Toynbee Hall, and ran the COS. Only in the background can one hear the faint whining of ideological axes, and only when she comes to the Fabians and the Fabian vision of a welfare state does Ms. Himmelfarb bare her claws.

The late Victorian ability to check compassion with good sense, and the charity reformers' ability to draw morally loaded distinctions without either embarrassment or excessive censoriousness contrasts for her with the welfare state's inability to draw a rational line between help that is needed and help that does more harm than good. And the welfare state's inability to do what it ought to do stems, in Ms. Himmelfarb's view, from the Fabian passion for order, and for final solutions—I use the phrase advisedly, for one thing Ms. Himmelfarb holds against the Webbs, H. G. Wells, Shaw, and others of their number is their fondness for eugenics. Fabianism was committed to a wholly administered society, not a society of mutually concerned citizens. This showed in its long flirtation with imperialism as in its generally authoritarian view of reform at home. Fabianism was a fundamentally amoral view of society, and the reason why it had no need to draw moral lines was that they were irrelevant to its campaign for “national efficiency.”

This is, at best, a good deal exaggerated. The welfare state known to Britain or the United States is essentially an insurance state, as everyone who can read a pay slip is painfully aware.3 It may be a mild form of paternalism to compel the employed to contribute to their old-age pensions, Medicaid, or the National Health Service, but it is hardly a step on the road to Brave New World. Both the American and the British welfare systems build their benefits around the expectation that an able-bodied adult will support himself or herself, and neither offers much help to anyone who can work but does not.

Conversely, it is a mistake to see the Webbs as besotted by tidiness and efficiency alone; one of Sidney Webb's strongest arguments for a planned economy was that it would replace the accidents of inheritance with justice. It was not in the least an amoral orderliness that he was after. By the same token, it comes close to playing dirty pool to make so much of the Fabians' eugenicist fantasies when they were the common currency of the time. We have lived through what the Webbs, Bertrand Russell, Marie Stopes, and Woodrow Wilson—all of whom were eugenicists at one time and another—could never have imagined flowing from their ideas. In short, Ms. Himmelfarb is an excellent practitioner of the sympathetic historical reconstruction she commends when she writes about her likings, but no better than the rest of us when it comes to her antipathies.


  1. Reviewed here by Noel Annan, March 1, 1984.

  2. See, e.g., Gareth Stedman-Jones, Outcast London: A Study of the Relationship between Classes in Victorian England (Oxford University Press, 1971).

  3. Theodore Marmor et al., America's Misunderstood Welfare State: Persistent Myths, Enduring Realities (Basic Books, 1990) spells this out very persuasively.

Harold Perkin (review date 22 November 1991)

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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 Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (reviewed in the TLS, May 25, 1984), Gertrude Himmelfarb sets out to explain this transition not in terms of the late Victorians' “discovery of poverty” but as a profound change in their sensibility, in their compassion towards the poor, in their moral imagination. She starts from the paradox that, while contemporaries like Andrew Mearns and William Booth rediscovered “Outcast London” and “Darkest England”, and Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree found between a quarter and a third of the urban population living “in poverty”, objective statistics showed that the working classes were better off than ever before and that living standards were rising in the steep price-fall of the “Great Depression”. The paradox is resolved by the late Victorians' revulsion against what they took to be the excesses of the free market, and by their new-found or enlarged humanitarianism.

Professor Himmelfarb's argument, in Poverty and Compassion, is at two levels. First, she examines the statistics of the poverty surveyors, precise to one or two decimal points, which so impressed contemporaries that they felt they had to do something, and finds that they do not say what they were taken to mean. Second, she shows that, even before those statistics were published between 1889 and 1902, the late Victorian intelligentsia had begun to question and repudiate the cruder forms of the laissez-faire philosophy of their classical economic forefathers. By the 1890s, in Sir William Harcourt's not wholly facetious phrase, taken up even by the Prince of Wales, “We are all socialists now”. It was not “the pressure of facts”, for the facts were not there, but “the pressure of ideas” that brought about the transition from individualism to collectivism.

On closer inspection, Charles Booth's famous figure of 30.7 per cent of the people of London living in poverty was not nearly so alarming as it appeared, and Booth himself was surprised at its impact. “By the word ‘poor’ I mean to describe those who have sufficiently regular though bare income, such as 18s. to 20s. per week for a moderate family, and by the ‘very poor’ those who from any cause fall much below that standard.” The first, classes C and D, were the ordinary unskilled working class who did not starve but had to work for their daily bread. Only the second, classes A and B, were “in want or distress” and unable to feed, clothe and house themselves without outside help or the self-help of crime; they constituted not “nearly a third” but one in twelve (8.4 per cent) of London's population. They were the successors to the pauper class of the 1834 Poor Law, offered the workhouse or “self-help” outside, and, like Edwin Chadwick and Nassau Senior, both Booth and the Fabians were prepared to remove them from the daily struggle for existence into labour colonies and the like, so as to free the labour market for their more deserving betters. Rowntree's figure of “over a quarter” (an absurdly precise 27.84 per cent) of York's population “in poverty” was similarly ambiguous. Two-thirds of them were in “secondary poverty”, having just enough to live on if they did not squander it on drink, gambling or other non-necessities. Only the one in ten (9.91 per cent) in “primary poverty”, lacking sufficient income for bare physical efficiency, were truly below the poverty line, as contemporaries like Helen Bosanquet and Charles Loch of the Charity Organisation Society took delight in pointing out, but to no avail.

Himmelfarb belabours modern historians, especially the left-wingers whom she has anatomized before, for perpetuating the misinterpretation. She prefers more optimistic late Victorian statisticians, Sir Robert Giffen and Leone Levi, who in the 1880s demonstrated to their own satisfaction that the working classes had gained most of the increase in economic growth of the past fifty years. Unfortunately, she seems unaware that their elementary statistical errors were exposed over twenty years ago (by this reviewer in Origins of Modern English Society, 1969, pp 414-16). Her belief that the gap between rich and poor was getting narrower is belied by the far superior contemporary statistician, Sir Arthur Bowley, who showed that the absolute difference was becoming much larger. This is not to say that the working classes had not gained by industrialism, as they should have done in an economy growing as fast as Victorian Britain; it is to say that she neglects one of the major causes of late Victorian discontent, what W. G. Runciman has called relative deprivation.

She is on better ground with her second explanation, that the late Victorian moral imagination had expanded to embrace a larger and more generous sensibility towards the working poor as a whole and not just, or indeed even, towards the pauper class. In part this was due, paradoxically, to the increased affluence not of the poor but of the middle classes. As Dahrendorf has pointed out, in the later stages of industrialism the increase of “provisions” allows for more generous “entitlements”, both to enable more people to consume and keep economic growth going and to protect the rich from the political envy of the poor. Himmelfarb attributes the change to justly renowned late Victorian social thinkers: to T. H. Green and his idealist philosophy of social solidarity, Arnold Toynbee and his tortured bourgeois conscience, Alfred Marshall and his chivalric aim to turn the workers into “gentlemen”, Beatrice Webb with her religion of humanity, her husband Sidney's social engineering cry of “Interfere! Interfere!” and their Fabian socialism, even Helen Bosanquet and the maligned Charity Organisation Society with its paternalism towards the “deserving” or “helpable” poor and its pioneering social casework.

Little of this is unknown, but Himmelfarb retells their views and values in minute and scholarly detail. Not everybody will agree that “the welfare state is inexplicable without the Fabians”—it was certainly explicable elsewhere without them—and this is to take the self-aggrandizing propaganda of this tiny band of busybodies, whose specific recipes for reform were uniformly rejected by later governments, at their own inflated valuation.

Professor Himmelfarb has a (not very well) hidden agenda. In common with her husband Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Milton Friedman and the triumphalist American right, she dislikes collectivism in all its forms and has a Thatcherite distrust of what she calls the “nannyism” of the Welfare State. British readers may find her notion of the “de-moralization” of social policy by welfare legislation surprising. They might think the expansion of “social citizenship”, of the concept of one's neighbour, of being in some sense “my brother's keeper”, a far superior moral programme. Gertrude Himmelfarb has the unsentimental humanitarianism, the sharp intelligence, the tireless diligence, the ascetic temperament, the iron in the soul of Beatrice Webb, combined with the rugged individualism of Helen Bosanquet. She, unwittingly perhaps, reminds us that their Victorian moral imaginations, as distinct from their policies, were not so far apart after all.

Roy Porter (review date 25 November 1991)

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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 emancipatory destiny in Victorian times, and, by implication, in the Kennedy era. She never suffered fools gladly, especially those of the left-leaning historical establishment, and became the doyenne of the trenchant essay or the heftier demolition job, as in her Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959) and On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (1974). But would she produce something more ambitious and permanent? These doubts were dispelled by The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, published in 1984, a profound and provoking analysis of social change, public policy, and economic philosophy spanning the years from Adam Smith, through Malthus and Ricardo, to the mid-nineteenth century.

Himmelfarb attacked the whole herd of sacred cows, received opinions, and half-truths tethered in the largely leftish pastures of British academe. Despite authorities such as Eric Hobsbawm, the “pessimist view” that saw working-class living standards declining, even plummeting, as a consequence of the rise of industrial capitalism was (she declared) largely rhetoric, buoyed up by deft factual sleight of hand, Marxist dogma, and a weird schadenfreude; the unseemly eagerness of Marxists to maximize the miseries of the masses has long perplexed Himmelfarb. (On the standard-of-living debate, her intuitions are borne out by recent contributions, such as the magisterial anthropometric investigation by Roderick Floud, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabel Gregory, Height, Health, and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980, which appeared last year.)

The poor, Himmelfarb insisted, were not the creation of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, classical political economists may have been right to contend that poverty was the side effect of a traditional parish welfare system that encouraged profligacy and dependency by extending automatic rights of relief to the idle. Strange indeed, Himmelfarb observed, to find sentimental socialists, in this century and the last, championing the entitlement of the poor to their poverty, rather than showing sympathy for the earnest attempts of bourgeois economists to eradicate indigence, as in the New Poor Law of 1834. By universalizing the workhouse with its “less eligibility” sanction, the new legislation, flinty-hearted no doubt, shrewdly aimed to drive a wedge between “paupers,” regarded as the mainly “undeserving” indigent, ripe for institutional segregation, and the “laboring poor,” active in the labor market, who would thereby be delivered from the shame of indigence. Hankering after an outmoded “moral economy,” and fixated upon “revolution” as the true destiny of the proletariat, self-styled people's historians have all too often shown condescension toward those workers, the “aristocracy of labor,” who were at last achieving some dignity within the industrial economy and its self-help politics. In their doctrinaire manner, they interpreted gradual, partial, and pragmatic improvements as social control or selling out.

Himmelfarb's readings of the ideologies of poverty in early industrialism were a little tendentious, but she demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, that poverty could not blithely be treated as some monster-brood of the new factory system and its “dismal science,” destined to be destroyed only by the purifying blood of revolution in the socialist millennium. It was, rather, a knotty problem, demanding arduous intellectual explication. A companion volume was promised, which would explore late Victorian poverty in theory and practice; and we have been eagerly awaiting Himmelfarb's findings, certain that they would be framed to serve at the same time as verdicts on the mythologies of the left today, or rather—in a decade in which the conservative cause carried all before it in the West and in which, farther East, Marxism has finally dug its own grave—as their funeral orations.

In the event, that follow-up volume (Himmelfarb admits to some changes of plan in the interim) is a damp squib. Though one might cross swords with its thesis, its details, or its agenda, The Idea of Poverty possessed tremendous intellectual power, with its insistence on the intractability of the problem of poverty, and its luminous analyses of the self-defeating nature of well-meaning attempts to resolve it. Poverty and Compassion, by contrast, is altogether more lightweight, a rather haphazard assemblage of brief and occasionally hackneyed essays loosely strung together.

We are taken on guided tours of the Salvation Army, the Charity Organization Society, and Toynbee Hall. We meet the saintly Canon Barnett and the suspicious Dr. Barnardo, who did a touch too well out of the orphans' homes that bear his name. We encounter Positivism, Christian Socialism, and Fabianism; Henry George (of “single tax” fame) and the Oxford Idealist T. H. Green; Octavia Hill and her bevy of improving rent-collectors, Stewart Headlam, the defrocked “sacramental socialist,” and H. M. Hyndmann, the frock-coated, top-hatted revolutionist; even John Stuart Mill makes a guest appearance. It is a colorful cast, but most of the portraits are familiar, and flashing by at great speed they leave one in some doubt about the raison d'être of the enterprise as a whole.

Only Charles Booth, author of the monumental seventeen-volume Life and Labour of the People in London (1889-1903), and to a lesser extent his younger contemporary Seebohm Rowntree, the northern chocolate manufacturer, receive sustained and engaged attention. Himmelfarb rightly regards Booth as engineering a key shift in the conceptualization of wealth and its distribution in the late nineteenth century. The old problem of the “poor,” Booth perceived—and Himmelfarb endorses his perception—had at long last been solved, though not, of course, in the sense that everyone was now rolling in money. But for the bulk of the laboring classes, Booth argued, standards of living were substantially and steadily rising (more Hobsbawm-hammering here).

In other words, the working classes were ceasing to be the laboring poor. Despite shock-horror publications like Andrew Mearn's The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, dire destitution had become localized. Among the eight grades of society he tabulated, Booth singled out Class A (loafers, ruffians, the semi-criminal) and Class B (hopelessly feckless casual workers) as the “leisure class of the poor.” In many cases suffering some hereditary taint, such rabble only served to depress Class C, the other major group subsisting beneath the “line of poverty,” honest folk in casual employments (dock laborers, porters, and so on). The most practical policy would therefore be to raise Class C workers above the poverty line, which could be achieved by removing the A and B dregs to labor colonies as “servants of the state” under a system of “state slavery.” In their salutary absence, the respectable working classes could continue to climb in self-esteem in a generally thriving capitalist economy.

Booth is a Himmelfarbian hero: a realist possessed of authentic social discernment derived from a vast labor of empirical social science, his “arithmetic of woe.” It was his merit, she argues, to comprehend that poverty was the product not of capitalism but of the poor. “While the problem of 1834 was the problem of pauperism,” the great economist Alfred Marshall aptly observed, “the problem of 1893 is the problem of poverty.” But Booth is also a crucial figure for Himmelfarb in another, and possibly more equivocal, way. She is fascinated by Booth's “compassion.”

Like so many of his opulent, educated, dynamic peers, Booth, the owner of a shipping line, did not take the easy road of power and glory, but directed his energies, sympathies, and finances to social issues. He mingled and even lodged with the populace. Investigate, analyze, help: these were Booth's directives, and similar drives galvanized scores of Victorian men and women of conscience, Christian and secular, activists and analysts, builders of model dwellings or systems of social science.

Their motives were complicated, their targets sometimes rather tortured. Arnold Toynbee, social prophet and disciple of the moral evangelical T. H. Green, slummed it, in part to expiate class guilt. “We—the middle classes, I mean, not merely the rich—we have neglected you,” he confessed to the working men who attended his East End lectures:

Instead of justice we have offered you charity and instead of sympathy, we have offered you hard and unreal advice; but I think we are changing. … I think that many of us would spend our lives in your service. You have—I say it clearly and advisedly—you have to forgive us, for we have wronged you; we have sinned against you grievously—not knowing always; but still we have sinned, and let us confess it; but if you will forgive us—nay, whether you will forgive us or not—we will serve you, we will devote our lives to your service, and we cannot do more.

If this makes us squirm—especially when we hear the quid pro quo that Toynbee went on to demand: his sacrifices would be wasted, he insisted, unless his audience raised the tone of their lives!—Himmelfarb is careful to resist the temptation to reduce elite altruism to guilt, to projections of Oedipal hatred, or, following certain left-wing formulations, to strategies of social control.

And yet aristocratic philanthropy poses questions. Himmelfarb's worthies invested vast intellectual and emotional energies in researching and improving the lot of the poor—and, Himmelfarb stresses, it never occurred to these earnest Victorians that facts and feelings, moral concerns and mathematical calculations, ought to be kept apart. (It is our notion of “value-free social science” that is peculiar.) But why they devoted themselves to the poor remains problematic. And so, too, do Himmelfarb's attitudes.

For in some of her figures such bourgeoisie oblige tends to be presented by Himmelfarb as precious, self-indulgent, and faintly ludicrous. Toynbee Hall's founders were confident that a mission settlement in darkest Whitechapel would serve to civilize the natives, thanks to the conspicuous gentility of the Oxford toffs slumming it there. Perhaps it was also morbidly self-destructive. The sentimental socialism of the salon possibly provided cement for an otherwise hyperindividualistic, atomized society. But such “heart burning of the aristocrat” (the formula is Marx's) may also have been a kind of class treason, a failure of nerve among the Olympians, and it may have contributed to Britain's decline.

In general, Himmelfarb is not dogmatic. Not so, however, about the Fabians, that unbearably superior elite, who, according to their leading light Sidney Webb, comprised “the Society of Jesus of Socialism.” Himmelfarb has no difficulty sketching a wholly negative portrait of these latter-day benevolent despots, offspring of Comtian positivists, bourgeois, bohemian, and opinionated, never doubting their own rectitude and omniscience, believing in government of the people, for the people, but preferably not by the people. (By the Fabians instead, of course.) Snobbishly disdainful toward the masses (the poor were hateful, George Bernard Shaw insisted, which is why they had to be abolished), they make almost too easy a target.

And they provide a convenient opportunity for Himmelfarb, at long last, twenty pages before the close of her book, to reveal her hand. The Fabians, she assures us, were the “architects” of welfare socialism: “the welfare state is inexplicable without Fabianism.” In other words, so Himmelfarb seems to be arguing, the flirtation with socialism, that potentially dangerous treason within the ranks of the Victorian elite, finally prepared the ground for a tiny core of genuinely dangerous ideologues, from whose deplorable designs the British Welfare State emerged.

The supposed evils of the “nanny state” are thus explained in terms of their origin. But this reading hardly holds water. The welfare state in Britain owes its rise to a multitude of sources—some intellectual and institutional (including liberalism and trade unionism, not just Fabianism), but largely practical and political: the auctioneering of party politics and electioneering; the effects, crippling yet centralizing, of two world wars; the growing crisis of the late-industrial economy. There is something willful in singling out Fabianism to explain the welfare state and its imputed evils. To grant them such influence is to take them wholly at their own evaluation.

“The welfare state did not abolish poverty,” Himmelfarb declares—hence its need to reintroduce supplementary benefits, or, as she puts it, to revert to the outdoor relief of the old poor law. This is, however, an intemperate judgment. How rapidly, how comprehensively, could the Welfare State, inaugurated in 1945, be expected to resolve an age-old problem? What did happen after 1945, though Himmelfarb does not mention this, is that the differentials between rich and poor became narrower. By contrast, during the twelve years since Thatcher began dismantling that Welfare State in the name of “Victorian values”—an admiration for market economics and a repudiation not just of socialism but of society itself (“There is no such thing as society, only individuals and families”)—cardboard cities of the destitute of a kind familiar to Mayhew have mushroomed in the metropolis, and poverty has once more increased. Between 1979 and 1989, the poorest 20 percent in Britain lost £160 per year in disposable income while the richest 20 percent gained £7,986. This followed Thatcher's “less eligibility” principles. On cutting unemployment benefits, she declared, “I believe it is right to have a larger difference between those in work and those out of work.”

Only left-wing ideologues, past and present, are the targets of Himmelfarb's waspish wit. Right-wing pundits of poverty escape censure. Yet it would be equally easy to demolish the fantasies about the indigent advanced by late Victorian reactionaries. Many of them were howling eugenicists convinced that the poor were degenerate stock threatening the nation with imminent racial suicide, and sure that improvement in working-class wages would sound the death knell of morals and civilization. Poverty and Compassion is not only a perceptive book, it is also a slightly annoying one, because of its blind spots, which are most extravagantly displayed in its concluding polemic, where Himmelfarb crassly aims to discredit welfare politics by crudely fathering them onto an obnoxious band of ideologues.

Still, it is also a work of genuine penetration, thanks to the powerful moral imagination that Himmelfarb trains on Victorian minds confronting contemporary ills. They had the perspicacity to recognize that problems were complex: personal but also structural, material but also moral. Poverty had much to do with the economy, but it also had something to do with the poor. Money was part of the solution, but so too was moralization. Here the Victorians have not a little to teach us. And so does Himmelfarb's general avoidance of easy moral judgments on eminent Victorians. After reading her brace of books, no one can any longer pretend that poverty is a simple fact in itself, or that it is ripe for ready solutions.

Peter L. Berger (review date December 1991)

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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 thought and social programs of the early Victorians; here she deals with their successors in the latter part of the century, and with the continuities and discontinuities with what had gone before.

The most important continuity lies in the quality of moral fervor which characterized both Victorian cohorts as they attacked whatever they considered to be a social problem. These were very serious people indeed, whose moral commitment remained very much in evidence even when they were claiming to go about the business of reform in a scientific manner. Their fervor clearly had its roots in the stern morality of Evangelical Protestantism, in that “Nonconformist conscience” which had animated the campaigns against the slave trade and against child labor, and which arguably was at the basis of most if not all the reform initiatives of the early 19th century.

But the late Victorians differed from their predecessors in two important respects. First, the impulse of compassion had become considerably secularized, severed from its religious roots. And second, a shift had occurred in the definition of the social problem itself—more specifically, a shift in the categorization of those deemed to be the proper targets of benevolence.

Miss Himmelfarb discusses the first difference quite extensively, but it is the second that interests her more. She exemplifies it by comparing two works, each of which had a great influence in its respective period: Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1849, and Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London, the first volume of which was published forty years later, in 1889.

Both authors studied various groupings within the lower classes, but Mayhew's reformist intentions were primarily directed toward what we would today call the underclass—in his words, “Those That Will Not Work.” It was they who, to Mayhew's mind, constituted the problem. The larger population of the poor was not a problem in itself, since poverty was after all a natural condition; rather, the issue here was to prevent these poor from becoming altogether pauperized and thus falling into the lower depths of the underclass.

For Booth, too, the core of the problem was the underclass, which had to be massively (and rather harshly) dealt with. But his benevolent interest was directed at the groupings above the underclass, the people whom he affectionately called “my poor.” Their poverty was not considered by him a natural condition about which nothing should be done; on the contrary, these “respectable” poor should be helped to improve their position—albeit in such a way as not to undermine their “respectability,” which consisted precisely in their sense of individual responsibility and their willingness to take care of themselves.

Beatrice Webb, Booth's cousin by marriage, would describe him as a perfect representative of what she called the “Time-Spirit,” both because of his devotion to an allegedly scientific method and because he had switched the impulse to serve from God to man. As Gertrude Himmelfarb portrays him, he was indeed a prototype, and a very influential one at that. A successful businessman, he was engaged full-time in running the steamship company he owned. By all accounts he enjoyed his life as a businessman. But, driven both by conscience and (one may assume) by innate curiosity, and despite persistent ill health, he devoted all his spare time to the gigantic enterprise that eventually filled seventeen volumes (the last one came out in 1902). His conscience, as Beatrice Webb accurately observed, was a highly secularized one. Booth was a Unitarian (his wife remained a churchgoing Anglican and the two prudently decided not to discuss religion), but he also described himself as a Positivist. “As to religion,” he wrote in a lofty and quite nebulous confessional statement, “I mean that I worship Humanity.”

Booth distinguished four classes below the poverty line. Class A was what we would call the underclass. Class B were people with casual earnings, the “very poor.” Classes C and D, those with intermittent and those with regular but low earnings, together constituted the “poor”—his poor. There were further differentiations above the poverty line, but they did not figure in his definition of the social problem.

What did Booth propose to do about each of these various categories? Only the lowest two classes, A and B, were to be objects of state policy, of “socialism” (a pejorative term in his usage). Class A, indeed, was already being taken care of by the laws against pauperism and vagabondage, as exemplified in the institution of the workhouse. Class B too was similarly to be put under “socialist” tutelage, housed in “state industrial homes” and compelled to work on state projects under threat of being remanded to the even more restrictive regime of the workhouse. Those in classes C and D, however, were to be respected as “individualists,” objects not of state policy but of private (and typically intermittent) help that would allow them to lead better lives despite their poverty, a condition for which (unlike the denizens of the lowest classes) they should not be blamed.

Miss Himmelfarb discusses at length many other actors in the late Victorian drama of compassion. There was the Charity Organization Society, or COS, founded in 1869 to help the “deserving poor.” This became the most important private agency of social welfare, basing its activities on “social science” (defined as “the science of doing good and preventing evil”!) and originating the casework method. There was the Salvation Army, founded in 1878 by William Booth (no relation to Charles) and marked by an unreconstructed Evangelical emphasis. And then there was a long line of individuals whom she sharply profiles: the founders and activists of Toynbee Hall (a sort of university for the poor), T. H. Green (who gave Hegelianism a quaintly English twist), Alfred Marshall (creator of an “economics of chivalry”), and a motley crowd of socialists (Marxist and otherwise), utopian visionaries, and socially conscious cranks. Toward the end appear the Fabians, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb but also comprising a great number of more or less endearing eccentrics, from George Bernard Shaw to Annie Besant, the founder of the international Theosophical movement. It is impossible to do justice here to this colorful gallery, but it should be observed that Miss Himmelfarb's book can be read for the pleasure of the company she presents even if one has no great interest in the larger issues.

The Fabians constitute the bridge between Victorian social reform and the 20th-century British welfare state. They—for whom, of course, “socialism” ceased to be a pejorative term—sharply repudiated the individualistic ethic of Charles Booth and his kind and gave a collectivistic turn to the moral fervor of the Victorians. It is clear that Miss Himmelfarb is not overly fond of them, and perhaps her portrait of them is not quite accurate. Still, one must wonder about the moral sensibilities of someone like Beatrice Webb, who could approvingly cite a plan for the underclass as “a great social drainage scheme” which would “get rid of the festering heaps and scientifically treat the ultimate residuum.” No wonder that she, along with her husband and many of their fellow-Fabians, were later to be counted among the most uncritical admirers of the Soviet Union.

Out of the Fabian version of socialism came William Beveridge and other theorists of the welfare state. Here the concept of poverty was both de-moralized and relativized. Questions of individual responsibility were to be separated from social policy, and the poverty line was to be ongoingly movable. The problem now was no longer the poor, however categorized, but the working class as a whole. Eventually, the issue would no longer be defined as one of poverty at all, but as one of equality. All of society would become the object of social reform on the part of the state—precisely what Charles Booth and his contemporaries had denigrated as “socialism.”

An argument that recurs throughout this book concerns the “moral imperialism” of Victorian social thought. It has been a common notion, and not only on the Left, that the Victorian reformers sought to impose middle-class values and styles of life on the poor. Miss Himmelfarb rejects this view. The “respectability” so dear to the Victorians was not just a value of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it was at the core of the aspirations and the culture of the working class itself. Booth and most of the others discussed by Miss Himmelfarb were very solicitous of that culture.

Thus, Booth opposed the temperance movement because it showed a lack of understanding of the social role of the public house, and the COS warned its case-workers against any show of condescension or disrespect toward the poor. The two exceptions were the Salvation Army—and later on, the Fabians. The Salvation Army put on its banner the motto “Blood and Fire”—referring to Evangelical notions of salvation. It took the socialism of the 20th century to concretize, in an ironic and horrible way, the idea that the poor were indeed to be saved by blood and fire.

Early in this book Miss Himmelfarb warns us against the “Whig fallacy” of looking at the past in terms of the present. But in her conclusion, while reiterating that the problems of the Victorians were different from our own, she does look at the “lessons” they may hold for us. Most importantly, she proposes that the Victorians were right in insisting that poverty is a multilayered phenomenon, and right in insisting that it has a centrally important moral component. Both insights have been lost in much of 20th-century social thought and policy. It is not the Victorians but many of our own contemporaries who can be fairly described as “moral imperialists.” In Miss Himmelfarb's own words:

After making the most arduous attempt to objectify the problem of poverty, to divorce poverty from any moral assumptions and conditions, we are learning how inseparable the moral and material dimensions of that problem are. And after trying to devise social policies that are scrupulously neutral and “value-free,” we are finding these policies fraught with moral implications that have grave material and social consequences.

For clarifying these hard truths with incomparable learning and persuasiveness, Gertrude Himmelfarb's superb study performs a necessary service not only of historical rectification but of great social and even moral import.

Wilson Carey McWilliams (review date 14 February 1992)

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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 Stuart Mill, theorists who reformulated liberal political philosophy; Alfred Marshall, who aspired to an “economics of chivalry”; the Fabians, Henry George, and the Salvation Army—mostly middle class, all answering to very Victorian consciences and united by an essentially moral sensibility and by faith in the power of ideas.

Events added their own impetus. It was a time of general improvement, as Himmelfarb shows, and although the poor benefited, progress also chipped away at society's excuses for the existence of poverty. Economic growth weakened the plea of scarcity, while science pushed back the boundary of the conceivable. Possibility made duty incandescent: laissez-faire lost moral authority, and reformers hoped for a social science which could add to compassion the discipline, prestige, and force of research and method.

The late Victorian reformers, however, never let form swallow substance: they saw human excellence as the goal of policy, and while they hoped to reduce material want, their higher aim was to secure for the poor a dignified place in civil life. As Himmelfarb observes, the language of morality and the soul belonged (as it still naturally belongs?) to the Left at least as much as to the Right, all the more because the working class shared in the regard for those common decencies we sometimes call “bourgeois.” In the logic of laissez-faire, poverty marks some defect of character or ability; the late Victorian reformers, by contrast, saw poverty as the arena of a desperate, often defeated, struggle for propriety, and by so doing, they “remoralized” the poor.

Some of the poor, Charles Booth acknowledged, did suffer from moral “irregularities,” and others, victimized by shattered or brutal families, were probably damaged beyond repair. This underclass—Booth called it the “very poor”—would likely be permanently dependent, and the late Victorians generally followed Booth in arguing that it be given relief only under close supervision. The prime concern of the reformers was for those among the poor who possessed at least the foundation of the decencies and who suffered, not from irregular habits, but from irregular and inadequate work. Yet the reformers recognized that, in addition to steady jobs at living wages, the decent poor (and even the comfortable working class) need to be protected against the economic competition and moral laxity of the underclass. And, seeking those necessary supports for moral freedom, the late Victorians came to look toward the state. Most reformers agreed with some version of T. H. Green's argument that liberty is “positive,” no mere absence of restraint but the ability to develop one's best self, a teaching that provided a cornerstone for modern liberalism.

But liberalism—and, as Himmelfarb indicates, most of the late Victorians were liberals, whatever they called themselves—is not at ease with judgments about the soul. The very “methodism” of social science, so attractive to Himmelfarb's reformers, encouraged the tendency to follow Seebohm Rowntree in defining poverty in terms of income, distinctions of quantity displacing Booth's hierarchy of qualities. In a similar way, the American “War on Poverty” slipped into an emphasis on income transfers rather than employment, forgetting Michael Harrington's warning that poverty is “not an income level but a condition of life.” And even when such programs were funded more generously than they are nowadays, they had a tendency to overlook the poor as moral agents.

Late Victorian thinking reminds us that material want is only the most evident and urgent dimension of poverty, and that the poor need help—reproof as well as encouragement—in combatting demoralization and despair. The Victorians also understood that those who receive without being asked to contribute are told that they have nothing but appetites to bring to the table, a conceit that conspires with degradation as it inspires rage. Dignity involves giving as well as getting, and it includes being held to standards and responsibilities which are within reach but stretch the muscles.

It goes without saying that there was also foolishness and error in late Victorian thought, but contemporary liberals—disoriented and not a little demoralized themselves—can benefit from the encounter with their more confident predecessors. And in exploring that past, any reader will be fortunate to have Himmelfarb for a guide.

H. L. Malchow (review date spring 1992)

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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 Himmelfarb to be the perverting, distorting prejudices of Victorian socialists and twentieth-century left-wing historians. It is a history with villains and heroes, bearing the marks of Himmelfarb's characteristic fine observations and analysis of text but also of her famously derisive and provocative tone aimed at those with whom, past or present, she disagrees.

A. J. P. Taylor once snapped back, when introduced as a man who had written provocative books, that he did not write to provoke but to tell the truth. In the last decade or so Himmelfarb has increasingly cast herself in the role of an elder stateswoman of the profession who is unafraid to tell the truth, to swim against the tide of a deterministic social history which has reduced ideas to superstructure. Her study of the idea of poverty falls into this context, as part of her life-work as an embattled historian of ideas with a deep personal sympathy for the high intellectual life of the Victorian intelligentsia. Her impatience with the left, with epigones repeating text-book clichés, with the “new history” fields of psycho-history, quanto-history, annaliste history, structuralist history, or deconstructionist history, boiled over in a famous assault published in Harper's the year that The Idea of Poverty appeared. If this angry essay seemed by then to be moving not against but well within the tide of historical revisionism—to be, as Lawrence Stone said, flogging a dying horse—nevertheless it accurately expressed a preoccupation, not to say obsession, apparent in her entire oeuvre.

The Idea of Poverty grew, we are told, out of her mulling over, in the early 1970s, aspects of Bentham's Pauper Management scheme. Well before this, however, she had attacked Bentham's reputation in a vividly written essay of 1965 (republished in Victorian Minds), while other players in the poverty study—Malthus, especially, but also Burke, Mill, the social Darwinists—had long been favorite touchstones for her essays and reviews. In many respects the two poverty books are not a discrete project, but are built upon four decades of writing about the ideas and what she calls, borrowing from Lionel Trilling, the “moral imagination” of the Victorians.

Himmelfarb has been a remarkably consistent advocate of a traditional, perhaps one might say a mandarin, approach to history, affirming an essentially liberal, nineteenth-century historiography of narrative, politics, and ideas. It is an intellectual tradition marked, in its best practitioners, by a rigorous examination of the major texts (where “a great contemporary” expresses himself “most carefully and deliberately” [New History 55]), with close attention to argument and intellectual sources. While an interest in other influences might extend to areas of domestic biography, as in her assessment of the impact of Harriet Taylor's influence over Mill, this rarely involves deeper areas of “context.” In her first book, a study of Lord Acton—significantly, “a study in conscience and politics” rather than a full biography—Himmelfarb announced her adherence to this discipline, and to its principle not to stray from “the intention of the original thinker,” to keep “as close to the text as possible.” The Acton book, however, signals something else as well. Acton's virtues projected themselves into her own scholarly enterprise—“the habit of rigorous judgment,” a “moral integrity,” and his “refusal to succumb to philosophical or historical determinism” (Lord Acton vii-viii, xi, 148, 240). This sounds the familiar note of the cold war liberal intelligentsia—a need to liberate the great thinkers and doers of the past from Marxist determinism, to rediscover heroes (she later titled an essay on Burke “The Hero as Politician”), and to portray the thinker as autonomous historical agent. Six years after Acton appeared, she published a lengthy study of Darwin. Her object was to pose the question “How did Darwin rise above the antecedents and influences that had shaped him?” and to discover “how a non-hero was transformed into a particular hero” (Darwin x, 2).

The long period between Darwin and her book-length study of Mill, a period of ideological and generational confrontation in American and European universities, saw Himmelfarb emerge as a sharp and often angry polemicist whose characteristic battleground was the extended review and whose victims of choice were, as she saw it, countercultural anti-intellectualism on the one hand and the new left and the new social history on the other. Implicit perhaps from the beginning, her historiographical agenda became also a political one, namely that of undermining the socialist ideas which formed the underpinning, not merely of the Soviet system, but of the non-Marxist welfare state in Britain and America. In the context of the 1970s this produced a kind of irritableness and a derisive, dismissive tone which could be effective, or at least entertaining, in reviews. Subsequently, in the 1980s, with the political tide flowing her way, with the dismantling of social services in both Britain and America, with, as she notes in Poverty and Compassion, Margaret Thatcher's own assertion of “Victorian virtues,” there has been a disturbing triumphalism.

The Mill book is marked by an odd determination not to integrate the life-work of a significant nineteenth-century figure, but to pull it into two parts, to save for us the “real” Mill and to denigrate the “socialist” Mill as inauthentic. Here she scores blows against both socialism and feminism in her determination to represent that which was “weakest” in Mill's thought as deriving from the malign influence of Harriet Taylor. As always in Himmelfarb's work, there is much that is shrewdly observed and argued, but the political and ideological axes she grinds are too obvious. Even where she may convince us of Harriet Taylor's influence, we are left with an uneasy feeling that there is wanting the kind of detachment and objectivity which separates the major historiographical work of revision from the clever review. This need to score against enemies alive and dead is all the more problematical in her study of the idea of poverty.

Himmelfarb often invokes a moral vision or imagination, which is what to her mind makes the Victorians so admirable and moderns so wanting. It also separates, apparently, the intellectual historian from the social historian. It is a quality she associates with a belief in individual worth and responsibility, in free will and the autonomy of ideas and values. It requires freedom from the myth of the collective, and impels her to insist on “working classes” rather than “the working class” or on “women” rather than the “woman” question, as well as to assault the aggregate numbers of the quantifying historian. The insistent search for moral meaning (“I am embarrassed to discover how often—how obsessively, some might say—I have dwelt on the same theme”) goes back to her first book on Acton, and “is not far from the center of my other books” (Marriage xii).

In fact, it is this search for the underlying, and she believes neglected, moral element which forms the framework for her explication of the idea of poverty. What we have in these two books is really an extended investigation of the concept of the deserving or respectable poor, something which Himmelfarb believes the left historians have dismissed “through a failure of understanding as well as of compassion” (New History 68). Neither book is much concerned with the enduring debates among social historians over the “hard facts”—the standard of living, unemployment, living and working conditions. What matters here, we are told, is the way such facts as contemporaries thought they knew “were mediated by a structure of ideas, values, opinions, beliefs, attitudes, preconceptions, and images” (Idea 8). This is an approach which, by refocusing attention closely on what contemporaries actually said, can in fact offer a salutary and refreshing perspective. Her retrieval of Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments as a text necessary for a proper understanding of The Wealth of Nations provided the most interesting argument in The Idea of Poverty. Smith's ability to credit such sentiments as sympathy, benevolence, and humanity separated his political economy from that of Malthus and Ricardo by identifying it with “a larger moral philosophy, a new kind of moral economy” (47-48).

If Himmelfarb's sensitive rereading of Smith bore fruit, her continuing hatred of Bentham leaves him exactly where he was in her early essays. Bentham, or the caricature of Bentham, runs as a thread of evil through her entire oeuvre. He is associated with those other objects of her dislike, Harriet Taylor (“In some ways she did resemble Bentham. They were both intolerant …” [On Liberty 238]) and Beatrice Webb (whose Fabianism was a “latter-day Benthamite utopia” [Marriage xiv]). If we have a close rereading of Smith, we have a loose, anecdotal, and derisive dismissal of Bentham, a major thinker whom Himmelfarb has judged not to be on the side of the angels. It is an example of her disturbing habit of giving her heroes a close and sensitive reading and reserving for her villains a sharp and mocking argumentum ad hominem. It flies in the face of her own principle of “text” to reiterate that Bentham stood to gain from his prison or poor law reforms, or to suggest that Godwin's domestic troubles or Harriet Taylor's dislike of the closeness of poor cottagers to her country home throw any more light on their thought than the fact (mentioned twice in Poverty and Compassion) that Beatrice Webb stinted her guests of food and drink at her dinner parties.

However, in spite of an often tendentious and selective argument, a somewhat tortuous representation of the “true” basis for the New Poor Law, or the animus against Bentham and all his works, The Idea of Poverty remains an important and imaginative work, richly rewarding in its fresh look at Smith, Mayhew, and the gothic novelist G. W. M. Reynolds. Himmelfarb intended to follow it with a mirror treatment of the late Victorians—focusing on Charles Booth (in place of Mayhew), on Alfred Marshall (in place of Smith), on socialism (in place of Chartism). She tells us however that the book “took on a life of its own because the period had a life and vitality of its own” (Poverty 17). True as this may be, there remains enough of the original formula to make this second volume somewhat less compelling than the first. The discussion of Booth, especially, and of Marshall, T. H. Green, and Toynbee is valuable, placing each in the context of a particular moral, humanizing tradition. But the process seems more mechanical and the result has less to offer than her earlier revision of Smith. Moreover, the period's closeness to the Liberal origins of the welfare state in the Edwardian period unleashes Himmelfarb's antisocialist passions in a way that works against the kind of objectivity and broad vision that the topic seems to demand.

In Poverty and Compassion we get a sympathetic and perceptive revisionist discussion of aspects of the ideas of Booth. Fabian ideas, however, are derided by juxtaposing them, for example, with the familiar catalogue of G. B. Shaw's eccentricities (his vegetarianism and “woolener” convictions), while Edward Carpenter's idea of spiritual love (a euphemism, we are primly reminded, for homosexuality) is somehow devalued by his “belief in the spiritual efficacy of sandal-wearing, the liberation of the feet being a necessary prelude to sexual liberation” (352). This sort of thing may (or may not) be amusing, and perhaps works well in an entertaining review or an undergraduate lecture, but lessens the value of this work by associating it too closely with what one assumes to be Himmelfarb's personal grudges against counterculture and left ideology in the university. Just as there was a “guilt by association” nastiness lurking in her cataloguing of Stalin's crimes in order to dismiss the work of Eric Hobsbawm or E. P. Thompson (New History), there is a not-so-thinly-veiled homophobia in her use of Carpenter to deride Fabian socialism, or her reference to Keynes's homosexuality as a possible source of his interest in the “short run” (homosexual unions being unfruitful). In Marriage and Morals Himmelfarb gave freer reign to this style of debate in her contemptuous dismissal of Strachey (“he refused to serve in his country's war”) and the Bloomsbury circle whose ideas of moral relativism offend her own particular Victorian “moral imagination” and were to be explained by “the compulsive and promiscuous nature of … homosexuality. … We are only now beginning to recognize how ‘queer’ that world was …” (43-45).

The difficulty here is not only that of a questionable technique prejudicially and selectively applied, or that it seems to contradict her own insistence on text rather than context, but that its employment prevents Himmelfarb from extending her analysis of “moral vision” into wider and more fruitful areas. Carpenter's vision—or that of William Morris, for that matter—was an almost obsessively moral vision, and one that had little in common with the arrogance, as Himmelfarb portrays it, of Fabian authoritarianism.

The central interest of Poverty and Compassion lies in Himmelfarb's presentation of Booth, not as the familiar founding father of social science who reluctantly confirmed with statistics socialist assertions of widespread poverty, but as a Victorian moralist who attempted to reinvest the majority of working people with an ethical character by emphasizing their distinction from an immoral “residuum.” Subsequently, and unfortunately she believes, the individualizing, particularizing element in his study was displaced by a popular reading that established the idea of a “poverty line,” below which lay, through little fault of their own, about a third of the population. With the majority of the poor “re-moralized” in the eyes of the educated public as deserving of assistance, even the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.), dedicated to directing aid as efficiently as possible only to the deserving poor, found itself on the slippery slope toward the welfare state.

Along the way much important work by social historians like Gareth Stedman Jones or Standish Meacham on working-class culture is dismissed as ideologically tainted or irrelevant. Along with “the culture of poverty” also is discarded the concept of “relative poverty,” another invention of the left which, like the “quality of life” argument, Himmelfarb sees as merely an attempt to avoid coming to grips with the reality of rising real wages (37, 387-88). This is not quite fair. Historians of the left have long accepted the fact of a general rise in late-Victorian real wages. But in the context of a more conspicuously consuming wealthy class, with the rise of department stores and late-Victorian and Edwardian ostentation, with the visibility in an illustrated press of the social rituals of the rich, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that a rising awareness of relative deprivation became for many a sharp source of grievance.

Himmelfarb's own grievance seems to be that these concepts derive, she contends, from the embarrassment of left-wing intellectuals rather than from the experience of the poor themselves. But here we have the central limitation of the project she has embarked upon. Dismissing “history from below” as essentially irrelevant to the history of ideas, she has no way of connecting the world of ideas about poverty with the reality of poverty. Indeed, she makes a virtue of Booth's lack of direct knowledge of the poor—his reliance on second-hand information from school visitors and so on—because this allowed him to invest the poor with his own moral vision, to consider them, or most of them, as deserving, fully responsible, individuals. Similarly, she denies the force of social environment and self-interest in the shaping of middle-class morality itself. Taking her cue from recent attacks on the “social control thesis,” she dismisses any consideration that organizations like the C.O.S. were engaged in an attempt to impose middle-class values on (her sarcasm is expressed in her use of quotation marks) “indigenous working-class values.” Here she wanders well away from the kind of tightly argued examination of text which we were promised. In any event such an examination cannot offer much to substantiate assertions on the subject of working-class life. Perhaps because of this, her rhetoric can descend to a disingenuous form of insinuation: “If thrift, prudence, sobriety, industry, cleanliness, and independence were middle-class values, is it to be assumed that profligacy, imprudence, drunkenness, idleness, dirtiness, and dependency were indigenous working-class values?” (210). This is merely to deflect one from the real question—whether working-class culture involved networks of mutuality and comradeship that offered alternative “values” to the C.O.S. gospel of self-help and independent individualism.

To return to the realm of educated opinion, of ideas, it is odd to find so little on the minor novelists who explored the “social problem” in the period—little on Gissing, nothing on Walter Besant. The study might have been extended to the length of the first volume, which devoted, in fact, an entire section to “the fictional poor.” There is surprisingly little here of fin de siècle pessimism, of the theories of degeneration (except where eugenics can be deployed to embarrass the Fabians), of Hardy's fatalism, of the neo-Malthusians, of contemporary fears of racial contamination and “sexual anarchy.” The potential connections with the discourse on poverty are obvious, and might have provided, like her treatment of Reynolds's gothic vision in The Idea of Poverty, a very rich area for discussion. There seem to be two reasons for this avoidance. In the first place such speculation leads directly into kinds of history that Himmelfarb has angrily dismissed—“subdisciplines dealing with workers, blacks, ethnic groups, and social and sexual ‘deviants’”—the “integration” of which into the historiographic “mainstream,” she mysteriously believes, might “result in the disintegration of the whole” (New History 8). The other reason has to do with a basic revisionist premise of the book itself, that mainstream late-Victorian thought, especially that on poverty and the poor, was essentially optimistic (74-75), and stands in direct contrast with the “pessimist” economic and social vision of Victorian Marxists and Fabian socialists and their latter-day fellow travelers, the historians of the left.

More could certainly have been said in another direction as well. Given the obviously important connections between religion and the moral vision of the Victorians, it is surprising that Himmelfarb does so little with religious thought and language in this book. She touches on the beliefs of some of her subjects, but there is no attempt to explore the kind of territory Boyd Hilton so successfully used to reveal the overlapping discourses of economics, social thought, and theology earlier in the century. Though she does not ignore Christian Socialism, it does not occupy a significant place (a mere dozen or so pages), and her treatment of its theology, for an historian who lectures us on the necessity to take a hard look at just what thinkers have said, is surprisingly vague and unsure. Her lack of interest is also suggested in a casual misstatement that the late-Victorian decline in religious attendance was “especially” marked “among the working classes” (336). Evidence indicates otherwise—that urban working-class attendance rose or remained steady while the upper classes fell away dramatically (McLeod 237).

Though Poverty and Compassion does not seek to explore the actual world of working-class morality any more than it does the actual conditions of poverty, Himmelfarb clearly implies that the moral vision of the Victorians she examines, the way they constructed the poor, was more in tune with reality than the ideologically driven representations of socialists and social historians. The C.O.S., we are told, reflected “the values of the working classes as much as of the middle classes” (210). That may well be true, but in light of her own dismissal of the value of “history from below” such an Olympian observation is mere assertion. There is little reason to believe that those propertied and leisured Victorians, however compassionate, could see into that nether world with any more clarity and understanding than a privileged senior academic comfortable in her prejudices can comprehend the need for contemporary “workers, blacks, ethnic groups, and social and sexual ‘deviants’” to retrieve their own past.

Ultimately the moral imagination of these late Victorians has more to tell us about themselves—the educated, propertied, and relatively comfortable bourgeoisie—than about the poor. Himmelfarb's accomplishment really lies in her ability to shed fresh light on an old subject, middle-class morality, by revealing just how pervasive “the moral imagination” was, by reattaching leading late-Victorian thinkers to the mentality of the majority of their class, rather than assuming them to be harbingers of a “valueless” social science. But having established the primacy of moral vision, she does not address in any serious way the relationships that may exist between ideology and social context. That it has been Marxist historians who have led the way in posing such issues (or psychologists, or historians of minority or deviant groups), is not sufficient reason for rejecting serious effort to integrate social context, emotional interior, and intellectual and moral consciousness. Would it not be valuable to speculate at least on those social and biographical and psychological conditions specific to the comfortable classes of the nineteenth century which may have helped to shape, frame, entrench, and, yes, limit, the “moral imagination's” understanding of the poor and of poverty?

There is, in fact, much that is closed and self-limiting in Himmelfarb's approach, however finely nuanced her arguments. The rage and combativeness that make her an amusing reviewer ultimately deny the ranging curiosity expressed by her mentor Lionel Trilling, who in the very text from which she draws her inspiration for a “moral imagination” affirms the importance of context and seems to call for what appears almost an agenda for the “old new history”:

As we read the great formulated monuments of the past, we notice that we are reading them without the accompaniment of something that always goes along with the formulated monuments of the present. The voice of multitudinous intention and activity that is stilled, all the buzz of implication which surrounds us in the present, coming to us from what never gets fully stated, coming in the tone of greetings and the tone of quarrels, in slang and humor and popular songs, in the way children play, in the gesture the waiter makes when he puts down the plate, in the nature of the very food we prefer.


Works Cited

Hilton, Boyd. The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1795-1865. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

———. “Denigrating the Rule of Reason: The ‘New History’ Goes Bottom-Up.” Harper's 268 (1984): 84-90.

———. “The Hero as Politician: Edmund Burke.” Victorian Minds. 4-14.

———. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. New York: Knopf, 1984.

———. Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics. London: Routledge, 1952.

———. Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians. New York: Knopf, 1986.

———. The New History and the Old. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987.

———. On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. New York: Knopf, 1974.

———. Victorian Minds. New York: Knopf, 1968.

McLeod, Hugh. Class and Religion in the Late Victorian City. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1974.

Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. New York: Viking, 1950.

Standish Meacham (review date October 1992)

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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 fixation on the path from an individualist, moralistic past to a collectivist, value-free present has precluded them from an appreciation of the achievements of men like Charles Booth and T. H. Green, who thought it only right to link morality with social policy. Welfare statists and their historians, Himmelfarb contends, by devising and celebrating “value-free” reform, have condescended to those whose words and deeds have stood opposed to that goal.

Although she oversimplifies to make her case, Himmelfarb has written a book as worthy of attention as her equally provocative study of early nineteenth-century social reform, The Idea of Poverty (1984). She is at her best when linking the ideas of men like Green and Alfred Marshall with those of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. Few can weave analysis of this sort as surely or as elegantly as she. Disappointingly, however, she has followed an urge to include short chapters on movements that seem no more than peripheral to her argument; her treatment of land nationalization and religious socialism are cases in point.

To prove her thesis, Himmelfarb rightly spends considerable time discussing the work of Charles Booth, whose seventeen-volume Life and Labour of the People in London (1889-1903) has often been understood as the genesis of value-free scientific social analysis. She argues, however, that Booth never for a moment imagined that morality and social science ought not to be conjoined: “Nor would he have thought it scientific to ignore the objective, empirical, demonstrable facts about the poor—moral and religious facts as well as economic and social facts” (p. 149). It is because he thought in this way that Himmelfarb admires him.

She admires Booth as well—as she admires the all but universally disparaged Charity Organisation Society—for insisting that reformers could not address the needs of one monolithic working class but instead must design programs that would respond to the problems peculiar to each of the six categories into which Booth divided London's workers and their families. Here, according to Himmelfarb, “lies the essential ideological import of Booth's work” (p. 167), separating him from Marxists, who spoke of a working “class” and not “classes,” and from Welfare Statists, who insisted that class divisions mattered little since all citizens should together enjoy a universal system of social services. Yet how does one square Himmelfarb's assertion with the fact that Booth argued for old age pensions “to be given to everyone regardless of means or need” (p. 166)?

Himmelfarb thinks little of the Fabians. She points out, however, that far from advocating value-free social services—and hence far from being architects of the welfare state—they professed a morality as insistent as that of the Charity Organisation Society. They, too, wanted improved conduct in return for increased benefits. Himmelfarb, however, attacks the Fabians, and in particular Beatrice Webb, for arguing in the same fashion as those whom she admires. Indeed, her treatment of the Fabians smacks of a desire, echoing in its tone some of Margaret Thatcher's shriller pronouncements, to do little more than put them in their place. She belabors the Fabians for their aversion to democracy: “They were all in favor of government for the people but not necessarily government of or by the people” (p. 369). So, in fact, were men such as Green, unless the electorate was prepared to accept his prescriptive course for the attainment of Idealist “citizenship.”

Himmelfarb's heroes and heroines, despite their worthy intentions and despite the often impressive results of their thoughts and labors, did what she insists her readers must not do: they condescended. They assumed themselves “disinterested”—above class—and therefore particularly suited to the business of social reform, of deciding for others what was best for them. Yet they were no more disinterested than any other class of late Victorians. They belonged to one of the several middle classes that existed alongside the several working classes. And they spoke with the authoritative voice of their class, a voice that, despite its authority, nevertheless trembled when it pronounced the word “democracy.”

Lewis S. Feuer (essay date March 1993)

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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 history” by two Columbia University professors, Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, who wrote textbooks used by perhaps millions of high school students; Beard had derived the concept in 1906 when he read the Socialist History of France, much of it written by the French socialist, Jean Jaurès. The philosophy of history still remains in a position similar to that which has long prevailed in the philosophy of physics, where determinism and indeterminism have persisted irreconcilably.

Rarely does an American historian venture to set forth a philosophy of history. The ablest of them, however, have finally felt impelled to do so—James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard, Carl Becker, and Allan Nevins, and they have now been joined by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Her books have always broken new ground. Her very first on Lord Acton [Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics] probed the paradox of the author of the greatest book that was never written, his History of Liberty. She has always asked new questions, and in her writings Darwin, Mill, and Malthus become our contemporaries. Now, her Jefferson Lecture of 1991, given to a large, appreciative audience at Constitution Hall, has sought to formulate some philosophical inference from her life's work. It is in the spirit of an admiring reader that I should like to state and consider the chief tenets of her philosophy as a historian.

In the first place, Professor Himmelfarb wishes to avoid the principal philosophical error (in her view) to which scholars in democratic societies are prone—their inclination toward determinism. As the clear-seeing, analytic Alexis de Tocqueville had written: In democratic periods, historians are apt to belittle the influence of individuals and to “make general causes responsible for the smallest particular events,” such general causes as race, the country's geography, the social character of its culture, and, as Karl Marx would have added, its mode of technology and the structure of its economic classes. Allied to this democratic determinism, in Himmelfarb's view, is the “debunking” propensity of its partisans. “No man is a hero to his valet,” it was said, and Hegel appended, “not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.” Although there are genuine heroes in history, too often nowadays the academic critics, the envious schoolmasters, according to Himmelfarb, look for the essence of history “not in the great events of public life but in the small events of private life”; they see no statesmen, no principles, but in their own image reduce all to the level of politicians serving their own interests. Behind their leveling impulse lies presumably an envy of merit and high-mindedness.

In Himmelfarb's view, the “new history” that she regards H. G. Wells as having inaugurated in 1920 with his best-selling Outline of History was thus meant to denigrate the “world-historical individuals,” such as Napoleon, Caesar, and Alexander the Great, by writing instead a history about the common man that was also for the common man, the nonheroes of his novels of the lower middle class—Mr. Polly, Mr. Lewisham, and Kipps—a “history from below” that would elevate them to a new dignity. In a brilliant passage, Himmelfarb draws on “that extraordinary television series The Civil War,” that “skillful combination of history from above and history from below,” in which the common soldiers were transmuted into heroes as much so as the generals and statesmen, “partaking in the universal,” articulating in their homely letters a simple courage in their task that matched the divine-touched phrases of Lincoln's addresses. To such significances, the deterministic historians, in her view, are blind, as they seek to “take away from the people themselves the faculty of modifying their own lot” and make of them the adjuncts of “a kind of blind fatality,” the personal instances of impersonal law.

Finally, Himmelfarb argues against the new generation of French historians who call themselves “structuralists,” although their verbal usage has little to do with the basic meaning of structure as Bertrand Russell first analyzed it in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. Like the Marxist materialists, these historians aim to eradicate the presence of human free will in history rather than to personalize it and not to attach much importance, for instance, to such as Hitler, the individual who directed the extermination of the Jews, or the individual Stalin, who directed the “liquidation” of the “kulaks” and potentially dissident intellectuals. The most eminent of the structuralists, notes Himmelfarb, characterized the Holocaust as a “short-term event,” not part of the underlying tectonic movements of history, not in any scientific sense a possible diastrophism.

Let us, to begin with, note that H. G. Wells, for all his penetrating narration, would not have called himself the originator of the “new history.” James Harvey Robinson in 1912 had published a book in New York City by that name, and the textbooks that he and Charles A. Beard wrote were already molding the minds of American youngsters with the “new history”; its distinctive feature, apart from its regard for the lives of ordinary people, was its emphasizing the unique contribution of the intellectual class, the writers, scholars, and artists, to the making of the modern world. Indeed, it was the great French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, who had inspired Beard with the conception of a “new history,” for Jaurès, professor of philosophy, a loyal friend of his schoolmates Bergson and Durkheim, and France's greatest orator, had early in the twentieth century inspired and written much of the Histoire Socialiste of the French Revolution. At Columbia University, young Beard's enthusiasm welled as he read it, and he immediately wrote a ten-page review for Political Science Quarterly. Although the book had “flaming red covers” and an “ominous title,” Beard felt it was a “monumental contribution … a story remarkably impartial”; despite its lack of an index to its 3,500 pages, an “almost useless” table of contents, and a text punctuated with “many misprints and mistakes in dates,” it welded together the underlying economic forces that shattered the equilibrium of the Old Regime and helped turn the French people into the intellectual disciples of their philosophes and encyclopedists. This, the “first attempt to rewrite history on a large scale” that socialists had made, had the breadth of Jaurès's vision, wrote Beard, as indicated at the outset by Jaurès's threefold dedication to Marx, Michelet, and Plutarch. Beard made it his mission to persuade his chief, James Harvey Robinson, to read Jaurès's vast book, and, according to Alvin Johnson, that reading “awakened Robinson out of his academic slumber and gave us the Robinson all liberals love,” the Robinson who brought the “new history” to perhaps millions of American high school students.1 Charles Beard, as a young man, had had the prevision at Oxford of a Ruskin College for workingmen; that vision expressed itself as well in the new history.

What was later distinctive about H. G. Wells's The Outline of History was not solely its enormous circulation, which within a few years reached in Britain and America more than two million sold copies. Wells aimed to change the conception of who were the great men, the makers of history. He regarded, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte as “this dark little archaic personage … unscrupulous, imitative, and neatly vulgar … a confused strategist” who deserted his men to defeat in both Russia and Egypt.

Wells looked forward to the Great Society that would be ruled by the scientist-intellectuals. Thomas Henry Huxley had been his admired teacher at the Normal School of Science, and Wells believed that the successors to such as Darwin and Huxley, “these two very great men,” were finally to govern society: “They thought boldly, carefully, and simply … they lived modestly and decently; they were mighty intellectual liberators.”2 Close to half a page of Outline of History was devoted to an eyewitness account of the drubbing that Huxley administered to the Bishop of Oxford, “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, at the celebrated session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860. Soapy Sam was also, as a bishop in the House of Lords, pertinaciously opposed to the admission of Jews as members of Parliament.3

There were thus indeed two kinds of new history: that deriving from Jaurès's view of the French Revolution elevated the humble workingmen as the anonymous heroes of history, whereas that practiced by H. G. Wells saw the quiet men of research, the Newtons, the Darwins, the Faradays, as those whose findings and their applications were steadily remaking the world.

Curiously, the American public at the end of the Second World War was evolving toward Wells's conception of the scientist-statesman. His vision of a governing scientific elite was not altogether fanciful; it was indeed prescient, for it was J. Robert Oppenheimer who evoked the greatest awe after the Second World War as a hero; had he not been compromised by friendships and associations with Communists, he might well have aspired to become America's first scientist president. Subsequently, no person in America enjoyed the stature of a hero more than did Edward Teller without whom the monopoly of the hydrogen bomb would have been left to Stalin's successors; had he not been Hungarian-born, Americans might have had a president who would have spared them the inept embarrassments of General Dwight Eisenhower, whose ignorance of the significance of science was colossally unheroic; when asked to comment on the Soviet priority in landing a satellite on the moon, President Eisenhower replied with a vacuous unprofundity to the reporters, “Would you want to go there?” and instead authorized an ill-starred flight of a spy plane over the Soviet Union even as an important international conference was getting under way; afterward he lied pathetically about the episode.

In assigning to the scientific class the central role as society's future rulers, Wells was indeed going far beyond the American new historians, for the latter envisaged the leadership as in the hands of the “intellectuals,” a term that embraced ambiguously artists, novelists, journalists, schoolteachers, professors, actors, writers—anyone engaged in cultural activities. Wells looked rather to the scientists, men of the laboratory, observatory, and mathematical analysis, not the ideologists, not the writers of manifestos, not the advocates of “isms.” He was among the “Pragmatists,” Wells had written, who took determinism as “a provisional assumption” of “modern scientific work,” although Wells earlier had liked the Calvinist word “predestination.”4 At the same time, he cheerfully averred that he quite “completely” believed in free will and rejected the “economic fatalistic socialism” of Marx. He discovered the past anew, as J. Salwyn Schapiro perceived in his outstanding review of Outline, because he was the first who clearly saw that the scientists were the new heroes of history.5 Therefore Wells himself stood twice for Parliament in 1922 as a candidate for the constituency of his alma mater, the University of London. Alas, Wells ran last among the candidates. Also defeated that year were Bertrand Russell and R. H. Tawney; only Sidney Webb, the least given to theoretical analysis among the foremost socialist intellectuals, was elected.6 Wells's election addresses were, however, masterly expositions of the moral of the “new history”: that the time had come for the rule of the new elite, the scientific intellectuals. In his appeal to the University of London voters he wrote,

I matriculated in the University of London in 1889, I studied at the Royal College of Science for three years, and took the degree of Bachelor of Science with first class honors in zoology and second class honors in geology. … For a year or two I coached in Biology for the London degrees in the well-known University Tutorial and Correspondence College. … I hope for the support of many graduates who were once students in my practical classes in Red Lion Square.7

No sociologist was at hand to find out why the professionals of the intellectual class repudiated Wells's call to the making of history.

How much Wells owed to Robinson and Beard (as well as to the Encyclopaedia Britannica) in his composing The Outline of History came out comically at this period when he was sued for plagiarism by a Canadian schoolteacher, Florence Deeks, who had also written a world history. The suit dragged on for seven years from 1925 to 1932, and wasted a lot of Wells's time. It transpired that both authors had pilfered so much from Robinson and the Encyclopaedia Britannica that they could convey an impression transitively of having plagiarized from one another. As Lord Atkin of the Privy Council said in the final opinion, “The suggested similarities,” numerous though they were, “can be explained … by the fact that both writers must have had recourse to authorities which were common to both,” and that Miss Deeks's “evidence,” otherwise “fantastic,” was “quite explicable.” Deeks lost her suit but was too impecunious to pay the costs levied against her. Regrettably, Wells never wrote a novel about the birth of the “new history.”8

Now, Himmelfarb, much like William James, feels that the propensity within a democratic society toward a deterministic philosophy is dangerous and deleterious, for whatever weakens the belief in free will does damage to society. She does not go as far as James who charged in 1884 that “the fatalistic mood” had engendered such extremes of recklessness or passivity, as to abet in France the extremes of the “left wing,” the outlook of “the baser crew of Parisian littérateurs,” who immersed themselves in “the naturalistic novel” state of mind promoted by Emile Zola.9 During the next decade, indeed, it was the philosophical determinists who rallied to save the French republic and who exposed the frauds and forgeries used against Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jew falsely accused of being a spy. It was Emile Zola himself who wrote the drama-filled, open letter J'Accuse, which indicted a corrupt, lying group of French officers, ministers, and parliamentarians. It was also Anatole France, the determinist heir to the skeptical tradition of Ernest Renan, despised by James for his “craven unmanliness” and “dilettantism,”10 who joined with the workingmen and socialists to save the Republic and who wrote the unforgettable tribute to the brave officer, Major Georges Picquart, who almost single-handedly, and at personal risk, compelled by his sheer honesty a reopening of the Dreyfus case. For all his skepticism, Anatole France held fast to the basic belief that “the future is careful to realize the dreams of the philosophers,” and admonished youth, “Without dreams there is no science, there is no wisdom. Dream! … Slowly, but always, humanity realizes the dreams of the wise.”11 The same Anatole France too could challenge Jean Jaurès: how would a socialist-planned society be able to preserve the freedom of its writers? And it was Georges Clemenceau, the atheist materialist, who, as editor of L'Aurore, suggested J'Accuse for the title of Zola's assault on the military cabal and then brought a little-used noun, intellectuals, into common parlance when he entitled an open letter signed by many of them as “Manifesto of the Intellectuals.”12

If Himmelfarb rejects the macrohistorical determinism, she likewise repudiates the “debunking” school of historians, the microhistorical determinists, those who stress “the small events of private life” as determining “the great events of public life.” Presumably, those historians who look for psychoanalytic interpretations of the behavior of such “heroes” as Hitler would also be regarded as guilty of committing a species of the “valet's fallacy” when they look for the basic cause of his anti-Semitism in some relatively trivial personal event. Such, however, might indeed have been the case. Little is known about Hitler's earlier years as a would-be artist in Vienna, where an unusual Jewish and social democratic culture flourished. Is it possible that Hitler, worsted in some artistic competition by a Jewish rival, reacted with an overpowering hatred of Jews, the garners of prizes? Did he challenge some social democratic Jewish speaker at a political meeting and get shown up so badly that the crowd laughed at him? Did he court some Viennese girl who dismissed him by saying she preferred a Jewish lover? Did some Jewish soldier in the army during the war call him a “fool”? Did some Jewish intern at the Viennese psychiatric clinic not take him seriously enough? All the traumas of childhood and adolescent defeat might finally have merged to reinforce an anti-Semitic will for revenge. The answer will probably never be known, but a microhistorical cause, affecting an otherwise petty villain in a highly unstable world-historical situation, might have tipped the scales for the most calamitous of alternatives. These multiple lines of causation, with all sorts of components involved—economic, political, sexual, religious, intellectual—might summate to a pluralistic determinism; James used to call it a “soft determinism,” as against the “monistic variable” variety. Sometimes, James also said that “pluralism” involved “chance,” although that clearly is not necessarily the case, for a pluralistic determinism can be every whit as deterministic as a monistic one. Even an emphasis on the role of individuals in history may be consistent with a determinist standpoint, for unless the interactions of persons can themselves be shown to include a present freely chosen, otherwise undetermined constituent, Himmelfarb's philosophy will not dislodge the determinist from laying hands on the pluralistic mode.

Indeed, one “small cause” for the virulent Nazi anti-Semitism has scarcely been explored. Anti-Semitism at the University of Berlin grew in its virulence during the 1920s precisely as the fame of the Jew, Albert Einstein, “the smartest man in the world,” increased. During that decade, the threats of anti-Semitic disturbances at the University of Berlin became so menacing that its administration forbade Einstein risking his life in any public lecture. Meanwhile, Einstein's renown kept growing internationally; crowds greeted him from America to Japan, and even the leaders of the recent French and British enemy did him honor. A small cause, “human jealousy,” but deeply affecting the scholars, scientists, and citizens of a nation that Hegel had taught to regard itself as especially close to the Absolute: such jealousy may have crucially augmented the macrohatred that made possible the Holocaust. We shall probably never know the variety of “small events of private life” that kindled Adolf Hitler's all-malignant hatred of the Jews. But that some such decisively crucial “small event” had occurred is highly probable, and no accumulation of social structural conditions will enable us to remove the causal lacunae in our specifically personal history of the individual Hitler. Although a xenophobic, “Christian” hatred of the medieval Jewish merchant, peddler, and artisan was perpetuated in tradition, the Jews had to sustain a high further penalty for Einstein's greatness. Einstein's discovery of the theory of relativity in 1905, itself an accidental individual event, was enough to ignite a jealousy in Germany that grew manyfold when so much of the world responded with admiration in 1919 to the news that Einstein's theory had been verified during the sun's eclipse off West Africa. Einstein judged well the character of the German proto-Nazis in 1919 when he said that the Germans did not deserve a Rosa Luxemburg; though a social democratic mayor nominally ruled in Berlin, the proto-Nazi students ruled the universities, where they awaited a Hitler to lead them in their revolution against reason rather than follow an Einstein who was reason's votary. A cluster of unknowns, the small events, thus surrounded the coming of European catastrophe. The jealousy of the Germans for the Jews became fiercer as it became more intellectual than economic, and as Einstein's world-view with its determinism coolly set at naught such Nazi philosophies as Heidegger's. If Einstein left Germany quickly and cheerfully never again to return to its soil, the Nazis could in their “triumph of will” extirpate several millions of his fellow Jews in camps, crematoria, and charnel houses.

It appears doubtful, however, whether, as Himmelfarb seems to think, there is any direct affinity between democracy and some particular philosophical tenet. De Tocqueville himself was rather self-contradictory on this point; on the one hand, he said that Americans were the least philosophical people, but, on the other hand, influenced by the New Englanders he had met, he also asserted that a democracy tended naturally toward pantheism. Much appears to depend on what the chief variety of philosophy happens to be against which people are reacting at a given time as well as the condition of society with regard to its social problems. Different social strata, too, respond in contrary ways. Large crowds waited for hours in many American towns during the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries to listen to such melancholy, disillusioned men as Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, and Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll—all agnostic or atheistic determinists—but at the same time, William James was becoming celebrated as the pragmatic, optimistic, free-willing author of such essays as “The Will to Believe” and “The Dilemma of Determinism,” and President Theodore Roosevelt with his ebullient adventurousness appeared his political counterpart.

Clarence Darrow would recite to large rapt audiences the verses of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat and A. E. Housman's testaments of finality and then ridicule the poet W. E. Henley, who dared proclaim, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Darrow rebutted that “man isn't even a deckhand on a rudderless ship. He is just floating around and trying to hang on.”13 Darrow, of course, took pleasure in noting that neither Omar nor Housman believed in free will. Such critics of human existence curiously flourished most during the years of America's economic prosperity; perhaps their pessimism never had a significant practical outcome and had a short life span, for the democracy elected and enjoyed the optimistic flair of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many writers, painters, and actors enjoyed creating their art of protest even as their determinism became a political cliché. The historian Charles A. Beard did indeed during this period become more temperate in his economic interpretations and adopted the “sociology of knowledge” of exiled and disillusioned German epistemologists. He became a relativist and asserted that historical “reality” was not an objective existent but rather a subjective selection from events that was made largely to accord with the emotive a priori of the particular historian or culture. It all sounded Einsteinian but the historical relativists appeared to overlook that Einstein's principle of relativity was used to discover a formulation of laws of nature that would be even more invariant, unchanging in form with respect to diverse frames of reference, more objective.

Probably, Himmelfarb spoke for most Americans when she welcomed a virtually new pictorial historiography in that “extraordinary television series The Civil War,” with its unusual art for portraying “the heroic nature of a great historical event”; by skillfully combining “the magnificent rhetoric of Lincoln's speeches” with the “homely and very moving rhetoric of soldiers' letters to their wives,” it achieved a true union of “history from above and history from below”—the picture of “a truly heroic event” in which common soldiers and uncommon leaders were alike as heroes, in which the elite and the citizenry blended without rift into democracies. Even in this great film achievement, however, the character of Abraham Lincoln still appears to have been rendered permanently elusive by his martyrdom. There was, it appears, more of a kind of pessimistic determinism in Lincoln's character than any other president has had, a largely unwritten aspect of the frontier experience. Of this emotional standpoint, Abraham Lincoln was indeed evidently, from his early manhood, an unswerving adherent. According to his law partner, William H. Herndon, Lincoln brushed aside all “investigation into first causes” and “abstruse mental phenomena” as “trash, mere scientific absurdities,” and was “a materialist as opposed to a spiritualist. … He held most firmly to the doctrine of fatalism all his life,” and thus argued, for instance, that Brutus and Caesar had simply been determined to enact their respective deeds. “There are no accidents in my philosophy,” said Lincoln, and when Herndon defended the freedom of the will, Lincoln “smiled” at Herndon's metaphysics “and answered that it was impossible.” He carried his skepticism into his opinions on the writings of historians; he thought that “biographies as generally written are not only misleading, but false,” that their authors magnified the perfections of their subjects. His views had been shaped in discussions during animated evenings in New Salem's tavern and village store, where young men, village atheists, and village deists, who had read Tom Paine's Age of Reason, argued their own rationalist ideas. This deterministic philosophy, if, as in Roman times, it made for a certain melancholy, was not incompatible, however, with heroic greatness in deeds. Lincoln's determinism, moreover, was possibly skewed with a self-destructive component. He was said to have written a short poem, “Suicide,” that was published in the local Sangamon Journal; its lines appear to have been excised in later years from the files.14 Whether Lincoln's determinism remained as a surd doctrine never blending with his Civil War deeds is a question that historians have not answered. His martyrdom and the terrible carnage in the Civil War's battles have indeed tended to vex any historian who tries to reason analytically about that tragic period.

Nonetheless, for the sake of the sanity of our political thinking, it might be well to recall the self-destructive aspects of the Civil War that our sympathetic imagination tends to soften or remove. The poet Walt Whitman, a nurse during the War, entitled one of his articles “The Real War Will Never Get into the Books,” and the title's truth has not been superseded. He told of the massacre of Union prisoners by Mosby's cavalry: “Multiply the above by scores, aye hundreds … light it with every lurid passion, the wolf's, the lion's lapping thirst for blood … boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain … and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.”15 Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that the war was “testing” whether a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure. In what sense could a war, with a decision imposed by force on a minority that held with Jefferson for the constitutional right of secession, have been a test of the democratic idea? No more than the Holocaust was a disproof of the Jewish ethics. Could Allan Nevins have overestimated what he called Lincoln's “marvellous power of logic”?16 Then, too, the war inflicted an abiding biogenetic wound on the American stock, on its youth of idealistic intelligence. Young Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (later Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court), wounded in the foot and lying in the hospital, hoped he would be permanently maimed so that he would not have to return to the brutalities of the battle fire again.17 Lincoln himself never renounced his belief in the separation of the races. A long-time member of the American Colonization Society, he maintained that the liberated Negro slaves should be repatriated to Africa or Central or South America,18 and said as much to a Negro delegation on August 14, 1862, but soon emancipation as a wartime measure, perhaps to many a largely revengeful one in its intent, displaced any practical consideration. Because Lincoln's views as to the future of the races were scarcely radical, one might have expected a more determined effort on his part at negotiation to preserve the Union. Such was the retrospective view of the philosopher John Dewey, who always remembered the grim months when his family lived in a tent adjoining the Army of the Potomac in Northern Virginia because in 1864-65 they were so desperately hungry for food.

The costs of the Civil War in money (not to mention lives) far exceeded what a financial compensation for the liberated slaves would have required.19 The influential New York Tribune, edited by Horace Greeley and Charles A. Dana (Karl Marx's editor), supported such schemes for the gradual emancipation and resettlement of the Negroes. The value in dollars of the four million slaves in 1860 was estimated (in “very high” terms) as four billion. The cost of the Civil War in economic terms alone, apart from the human tragedy and biogenetic catastrophe, was later calculated as twice as much—eight billion dollars. As historian James Ford Rhodes wrote, “There is no doubt whatever that the North would have been glad to agree to such a measure [of gradual compensated emancipation]. … Had the Southern people known what the next four years were destined to bring forth … they would have voted for it to a man.”20 The Civil War indeed violated every canon of economic rationality. Was there in addition a mutual failure of statesmanship, a deflecting of logical processes, and a distortion in perception that collapsed any possible, rational compromise in the winter of 1861? A heady excitement in “fighting faiths,” the threats, and counterthreats, the self-testings of manhood, and the invocations of a “higher law” helped ignite a symbolically critical incident at an obscure military post, and rational considerations were shelved for a duration of mutual killing and mutilation of Americans.

Men defeated in civilian life, such as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, welcomed the war for its opportunities to resume military careers; these civilian failures raised the mechanics of war to higher levels of men's slaughter in frontal attacks, conjoined with a higher degree of incendiarism than had yet been known. Were such men heroes in any sense comparable to the first god-hero, Prometheus, who sacrificed himself to be chained and tortured forever by Zeus for having brought to mankind the secret of fire? Indeed, one young hero of labor and invention, a partially deaf Michigan telegraph operator, Tom Edison, whose sympathies curiously were with the Confederacy, stayed at home to help later discover such new modes of enjoyment for people as the phonograph and motion picture. To be sure, in later years Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. romanticized his soldier's faith in the metaphor of the great cosmic campaign whose strategy he did not understand, but he also thereafter resisted reading any books on the Civil War. He told his friends frankly that he had no such impression of Lincoln's greatness as later popular opinion affirmed and felt he was watching the growth of a myth.21

Far more fundamental, however, than the role of exceptional men, or heroes, in history is the view held by Himmelfarb as to the ultimate metaphysical free will of individual persons. As a historian, she has described the sense of free choice that individuals experience at crucial junctures as they decide among alternative life patterns. She has told, for instance, how young Charles Darwin, hearing that the captain of H.M.S. Beagle was looking for a ship's naturalist, set himself to persuade his skeptical father to allow him to seek the post, and how, overcoming his father's veto, he departed for nearly five years on what proved to be an epoch-making voyage for the history of science. That consciousness of a free choice among alternatives was one that William James sought with all his introspective and literary powers to describe. Yet after that work was done, he had to avow that he had not brought closer any settlement to the dispute between the determinist and the voluntarist, the believer in free will. Tracing the sequence of our experienced tensions as we try to decide what to do in some quandary, what considerations to reject, how to balance our aims against the uncertain eventualities, the possible consequences, and the risks, for instance, in distant travels, James scrutinized the mental process that then prorogued all such uncertainties in favor of a resolution. Nonetheless, William James remained aware that a deterministic psychologist might still persist in measuring pressures within all the competing motivations in the chooser's psyche, the person's own longings, conscious and unconscious; if the polygon of multiple personal forces added up to a unique resultant, then free will was little more than a vague residual phrase descriptive of that underlying arrangement of forces. There is no way that such a possible deterministic description can be excluded a priori; and if the thoughtful Isaiah Berlin once observed that such a determinist description would do violence to our language-habits of free will (and possibly our intuitions), then the determinist may resolutely reply, “So much the worse and untrustworthy are our language habits and our errant intuitions.”

William James sought a way out of this impasse. He repeatedly cited a saying by Søren Kierkegaard: “We live forward, but we understand backward”22; that is, we experience indeterminacies with respect to future times from among which our own partially free and indeterminate selves try to choose, while with our past-bound understanding we select and retroject causal patterns that are never fully explanatory of the outcomes. For the scientist, however, the aim remains to surmount James's dualism between the past and the future as much as is possible and to find laws that are invariant, unchanging for both past and future. If the astronomer Hubble discovers a law that the galaxies are receding with velocities that grow the further away they are from us, he uses it to predict not only what its speed of recession will be in some distant future but to reconstruct as well what the state of the material universe was in some distant past when, all squeezed together, it presumably constituted a massively superdense everythingness.

History, however, would become a tedious enterprise, with the fresh surprise of events gone, if its practitioners tried mainly to conform to, or to confirm, some given philosophy of history. One can thus read Charles A. Beard's histories without suspecting that he was a disciple of John Ruskin's idealism; one can read David Hume's History of England without suspecting that this writer reduced causation into a constant conjunction of circumstances and advised that all theologies be thrown into the fireplace. The great Leibniz was obliged to waste precious years of his life on writing a history of the House of Brunswick; although Edward Gibbon did have a kind word to say for that labor of courtly documentation, would anyone find any plausible connection between Leibniz as a historian and Leibniz's metaphysics of monads?23 Or did Bertrand Russell's philosophy of logical atomism have any bearing whatsoever on his history of the nineteenth century, Freedom versus Organization? Almost every historian at his craft instinctively oscillates among undogmatic, elastic conceptions of determinism and freedom; if he acknowledges the causative pressure on his human subjects, he generally leaves gaps in the event-sequences that would accommodate their own personal contributions; moreover, he usually avoids committing himself to any metahistorical proposition concerning determinism and free will. We do not find metaphysics in Thucydides or Gibbon, and even a confirmed believer in the locomotive of history checks its emergency signals for stoppage.

William James thought he had gone as far as any person could go in coming to terms with this insoluble problem. He used the language of free choice when he counseled each of us that we can rightly actualize from among our equipossible alternatives those most emotively congenial to us. But it would be equally valid to use the language of determinism, to begin with, and to recognize that we find ourselves not choosing but being determined by our respective characters as we confront given situations. It matters little whether or not we call ourselves either voluntarists or determinists. James's declaration that the first act of freedom is to declare one's self free might be about as valid as picturing an infant's first act as its deciding to breathe.

Often, it appears that social causes determine whether we join the determinists or free willers. Jewish thinkers in modern times have tended to be determinists: from Spinoza in the seventeenth century to Einstein, Marx, Freud, Jacques Loeb, and even the British philosopher, Samuel Alexander, in the nineteenth and twentieth—their underlying world outlooks have been determinist.24 According to William James, their first act in their relatively free status should have been to affirm their free will; instead, most denied that they found in their experience any sufficient warrant for such a belief. Was their determinism a reaction to intellectual trauma? In a world where an anti-Semitic incident first impinges by way of some childhood experience, does the determinist mode of explanation provide a kind of intellectual weapon of retaliation against the anti-Semite? You show that this pretentious human physico-chemical entity, far from thinking clearly and creatively, is like a machine mouthing phrases that have been preinstalled within him; determinist analysis foreshortens the “free-willing anti-Semite” into a parody of a man. Would a psychoanalysis or socioanalysis possibly verify that Freud and Einstein themselves were impelled toward determinism because they both wished to retaliate by reducing deterministically the behavior of those against whom physical resistance was foolhardy because the latter were too armed, too numerous, and politically powerful? Nothing denigrates or infuriates a pretender to power more than having it shown that underlying his public role is an irrepressible awareness of his own man-fearing inferiorities.

Freud's insights, moreover, made possible advances in understanding that went far beyond the new histories of Beard and Wells. When Adolf Hitler led his German countrymen in the extermination of the Jews, he bound them in their loyalty as murderous accomplices with a tribal bond that Freud illumined in his analysis of the “primal murder.” Freud never knew that his Totem and Taboo would be so reenacted a few years after his death. The psychological scientist cannot altogether rejoice as Einstein did in 1919 when he thanked God that Eddington's observations in Africa during an eclipse had confirmed the theory of relativity.

Whatever, however, our direct experience may be, whether it be that of “freely chosen” actions or a sense of being determined according to causal laws, it does not authorize us to affirm as metaphysical truth either free will or determinism.

The philosophy of history is indeed in a position similar to that which has long prevailed in the philosophy of physics. Perhaps no correspondence among two close physicist friends analyzed more frankly the ineradicable source of their philosophic divergence than that which took place between Albert Einstein and Max Born during the almost forty years from 1916 during the First World War to their last years after the Second World War. They had gone through the German Revolution of 1918 together, watched the rise of Hitler and his Nazis, and then escaped into their respective exiles in America and Scotland and saw the advent of the atomic bomb. From the first, Einstein was hostile to the indeterminacies in the new physics: “I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will, not only its moment to jump off, but also its direction. In that case I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming-house, than a physicist.”25 Einstein felt that both he and Born had been incredibly naive when they thought that they could “help to turn” the German people at the Reichstag into “honest democrats.” “How naive we were, for all our forty years. I have to laugh when I think of it. We neither of us realized that the spinal cord plays a far more important role than the brain itself,” he wrote in 1944. But evidently, associating the new “dice-playing physics” with an era of irrationalities, Einstein remained “confident that Jewish Physics is not to be killed.”26 Max Born, however, felt that Einstein's determinism was as mistaken in human history as it was in philosophy and physical theory. He conceded that they both had “completely misjudged the forces in German politics.” “But,” he added, “it was, after all, only by a hair's breadth that everything went as wrong as it did.” (In that case, the misjudgment was hardly complete.) Born felt that Einstein's determinist outlook was at odds “with the existence of responsibility and conscience,” and he looked to Niels Bohr's “principle of complementarity” to resolve these issues.27 According to Bohr's principle, one could set alternative experimental arrangements that would result in depicting atomic phenomena in correspondingly different patterns either as waves or alternatively as particles and accept them both as “complementary,” but any attempt to translate from one standpoint to another or to combine the two in one formulation gave rise to flat incompatibilities.

Was Einstein's determinism a reaction to a “free will” physics that he associated with such names as Werner Heisenberg, the young, brilliant physicist and active Nazi? Indeed, Jacques Loeb, the famed biological determinist, enjoyed thinking throughout his life that every determinist physico-chemical explanation he originated was a blow struck against the German militarists and their metaphysicians.

Now it might well be that our experience of what we regard as free will is partially the psychic counterpart of a physiological indeterminism in our neural paths. A chance act, however, is not a freely willed one, though perhaps the possible opening for a free action requires as a necessary condition such a component of indeterminism. Moreover, the psychological conscious experience of free will, even if illusory, might well have been helpful to evolving animals in their struggle for existence, for the feeling it gave that they were capable of invention and maneuver as against single-directed beasts. Such a psychological experience, however, might be either a chance or a determined occurrence without any constituent act of actual free will being involved.

On the other hand, if the experience of a “free” decision is taken at its face value as a self-caused step in a causal sequence, then, as the early Stoics thought, an element of the divine spark might make possible the participation of components of free causation in every human soul. Although every human being, perhaps unconsciously, might have such a belief, no such metaphysical proposition, however, is a dividing one between liberals and conservatives. It was John Stuart Mill, a philosophical determinist, who composed the greatest and most influential essay on liberty that has ever been written.

Furthermore, William James's conviction that a faith in free will does create its own verification and brings the rewards of victory is unhappily untrue, as a matter of historical statistics. “Who gains promotions, boons, appointments but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses … ? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification,” wrote James eloquently.28 But many an American politician who has experienced a live faith in himself as a great potential president has then observed party bosses, managers, and delegates settling on some pedestrian nominee. James Bryce wrote a famous chapter on “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents,” in which he explained the favored appeal of mediocrities to the party machine, and the risks in having great men as candidates. Thus, for instance, the American presidents in the generation before the Civil War, according to Bryce, “were intellectual pigmies beside the real leaders of that generation—Clay, Calhoun, and Webster.”29 Though the presidency had obviously been the livelier “ambition” for Henry Clay and Daniel Webster than for such as Polk and Buchanan, evidently the faith of the greater men had helped fashion their own refutations, not their verifications. Indeed, many a suitor for a famed beauty has been known to have failed, despite his high pragmatic confidence, while she gave her hand to some shy and diffident one.

The working historian, moreover, does usually assume unequivocally the existence in the past of an objective historical reality. He knows there are different and competing “interpretations,” but an “interpretation” is a set of assumed socioeconomic and sociopsychological hypotheses that have been found at least partially trustworthy in explaining the transition from an earlier historical reality to a later one. Granted that the “laws” in question are never very rigorously formulated; nevertheless, their meaning is sufficiently clear so as to make it possible to state an approximate causal connection. Granted, too, that when the actions of individuals are involved, there always remains an unresolved question as to the extent to which the protagonists' acts were, at least in part, freely chosen or whether all have been determined by the complex of actualities. There is no question here of alternative experimental contrivances, although the diverse documentary sources can be either alternatively selected or interpreted. Still, the historian is more in the situation of a cameraman who has pictures of the same individual taken from different angles, distances, lenses, and illuminations; in principle, they might all be fitted together in a continuous series of projections of the same person.

William James finally found the free will a “mysterious” conception; the “tie” between thinking and doing, between the thought-event and the motor centers remained “mysterious.”30 For all his genius in introspection, perhaps unmatched by anyone except Freud, James found that when he tried to analyze such a free decision, for instance, as that of a man who decides to walk away from “a coquette's door,” he had to acknowledge he could penetrate very little into the nature of that “mysterious tie.” All he could say with assurance was that a free will expressed itself through achieving sustained attention on a given idea, as, for instance, the idea of turning away from the “coquette.” Perhaps Freud would have correctly observed that James's resistance to a deeper introspection in this instance arose patently from its involvement with a “coquette,” a curiously prissy term now disused. But there were more momentous free decisions on William James's part, as when he risked his academic reputation to defend psychical researchers and medical crackpots, all because he felt that every thinker deserved a hearing for his hypotheses and evidence. Freud, on the other hand, believed that his analysis of the superego explained in a deterministic fashion the origin of that mechanism—the origin of conscience as the continuing operative force of parental commands. “The whole drama is a mental drama,” says James himself.31 Freud, moreover, might have accurately observed that although William James asserted that it was his own free will that led him to defend the crackpots of Massachusetts, it may have been rather his still-ruling superego, that ardent follower of the mystic Swedenborg, his own father, Henry James, who continued to exert authority on William, who was trying to liberate himself as a scientist.32

Has Freud considered sufficiently the next step in the formation of “conscience” when the maturing child finds the power to criticize the parental command with its own inconsistencies and unfairnesses? Then, one's ideals, or conscience, appear not to be related to a hostile father's commands but to a kind of declaration of what one's own individuality is; the story that Himmelfarb told of Darwin's arrival at his own moral individuality, so distant from his father's, was one such case, and perhaps the “mysterious tie” in such cases involves the sense of a linkage with a higher moral aspiration in the universe. Perhaps when our own individuality emerges as a kind of first cause itself, it shares something with whatever macro-first-cause may have been involved in the beginnings, turnings, and ends of cosmological processes. Perhaps that explains in part why the foremost astrocosmological discoverer of our century, Edwin P. Hubble, found he shared so much with his friend, the mystic Aldous Huxley. Perhaps the creative process is truly original when its underlying will is finally free and self-forming. The historian then, like the scientist, achieves a hero's or heroine's stature. H. G. Wells himself during the last strained, downcasting years of the First World War felt moved to write a book with his own theology, God, the Invisible King. It angered such a naturalistic philosopher as John Dewey into an intemperate review, and Wells's theological mood receded when shortly afterward he was industriously writing The Outline of History during one busy year. Perhaps indeed the creative historian, like the historical realities he tries to explain, oscillates inexplicably between determinist and voluntarist phases, an alternation that itself may be part of the underlying cosmic rhythm that helps sustain the originative power of an otherwise self-exhausting linear, deterministic universe.


  1. Charles A. Beard, “A Socialist History of France,” Political Science Quarterly #21 (1906):111-20; Alvin Johnson, Pioneer's Progress: An Autobiography (New York: Viking, 1952), 156.

  2. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (New York: Garden City Publishing Company, 1930), 892; H. G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1934), 655, 162.

  3. Wells, The Outline of History, 955-56.

  4. H. G. Wells, First and Last Things: A Confession of Faith and Rule of Life (London: Watts, 1929), 46-47.

  5. J. Salwyn Schapiro, “Mr. Wells Discovers the Past,” Nation 112 (February 9, 1921):224-31.

  6. Holmes-Laski Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski, edited by Mark De Wolfe Howe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), vol. 1, 459.

  7. H. G. Wells, Wells' Social Anticipations, edited by Harry W. Laidler (New York: Vanguard, 1927), 114.

  8. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: The Life of H. G. Wells (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), 363-66; “Deeks v. Wells,” Dominion Law Reports 1 (1933): 358.

  9. William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1896), 176.

  10. Ibid., 173.

  11. Carter Jefferson, Anatole France: The Politics of Skepticism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965), 157, 162; Nicolas Ségur, The Opinions of Anatole France, translated by J. Lewis May (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928), 147-52.

  12. Geoffrey Bruun, Clemenceau (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943), 57.

  13. Clarence Darrow, Verdicts out of Court, edited by Arthur and Lila Weinberg (Chicago: Ivan R. Des, 1989), 202. For the most vivid depiction of the impact of Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll on the frontier, see Robert M. LaFollette, LaFollette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences (Madison, WI: Robert M. LaFollette, 1913), 33-36.

  14. Paul M. Angle, ed., Herndon's Life of Lincoln, as Originally Written by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik (New York: A. and C. Boni, 1936), 351-56, 172.

  15. Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (Philadelphia, 1882-1883), “The Real War Will Never Get into the Books” and “A Glimpse of War's Hell-Scenes,” revised and reprinted (New York: New American Library, 1961), 111-13, 80-81.

  16. Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Short History of the United States (New York: Modern Library, 1945), 224.

  17. Mark De Wolfe Howe, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Shaping Years, 1841-1870 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 111, 112, 156, 106, 138.

  18. Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, ed., An Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926), 98-99, 302, 130, 306.

  19. James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vol. 3 (New York: Macmillan, 1895, reprint 1912), 270.

  20. Ibid., p. 271.

  21. Holmes-Pollock Letters, ed., Mark De Wolfe Howe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941), vol. 1, 271, vol. 2, 242; Holmes-Laski Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski, edited by Mark De Wolfe Howe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), vol. 2, 1345.

  22. I have enumerated William James's citations of Kierkegaard's statement in my book, Einstein and the Generations of Science (New York: Basic, 1974), 224.

  23. The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq., with notes by John, Lord Sheffield, Vol. 3, Historical and Critical (London, 1814), 359-65.

  24. Only Henri Bergson developed a basically antideterminist metaphysics. He greatly feared that a Zionist movement would provoke an anti-Semitic reaction; he never signed a pro-Dreyfusard statement. His father, Michel, born in Warsaw, and a composer of Chopinesque music, married an English-speaking woman and later settled in London. See Florian Sokolow, Nahum Sokolow: Life and Legend (edited by Joseph Leftwich; London: Jewish Chronicle Publications, 1975), 171-72, 57.

  25. The Born-Einstein Letters, translated by Irene Born (New York: Walker, 1971), 82.

  26. Ibid., 148-49.

  27. Ibid., 154-56.

  28. William James, “The Will to Believe,” in Selected Papers on Philosophy (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1947), 119.

  29. James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (New York: Macmillan, 1914, new ed. of 1893 work), vol. 1, 83.

  30. William James, The Principles of Psychology (Henry Holt, 1890; Dover edition, 1950), vol. 2, 563-64.

  31. Ibid., 564; Austin Warren, The Elder Henry James (New York: Macmillan, 1934), 55-86; Henry James, Sr., A Selection of His Writings, edited by Giles Gunn (Chicago: American Library Association, 1974), 54-77; Charles S. Peirce, “Review of Henry James, The Secret of Swedenborg,North American Review 60 (1870): 463-68.

Victor Bailey (review date fall 1993)

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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 collectivism in the late Victorian period in terms of an enlarged compassion towards the poor, a moral yet unsentimental “Religion of Humanity,” common to philanthropists, investigators and reformers across the political spectrum. Once more, Himmelfarb rests her case largely on institutional and individual biographies, and again offers a scrupulous reconstruction of the moral sensibilities of the time (although leftward-leaning Victorians and modern-day social historians get much rougher handling). Once more too, we only see those who lived in dread of “the hunger-wolf anear” refracted through the lens of philanthropist and reformer; we only dimly perceive the connections between thought and legislative action concerning poverty. But there is an essential difference between the books. Where the first volume was original, striking and challenging, this final volume has a more derivative, fragmentary and predictable quality. Of course, nothing Professor Himmelfarb writes, with her hallmark of elegance, could conceivably come out with a whimper; but the climax of this monumental project falls short of the anticipated bang.

Poverty and Compassion opens with a paradox. Not the conventional one of the coexistence of wealth and poverty embodied in Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879), but the paradox of a distinct improvement in the condition of the working classes coinciding with an intellectual and social agitation about the problem of poverty. Himmelfarb surely exaggerates when she claims that the share of income going to wages increased at the expense of business profits between 1850 and 1880. Still, we can concede that at the very moment the working classes began to reap some dividend from industrialism, a “new consciousness of sin,” in Beatrice Webb's legendary phrase, spawned charitable associations, model dwellings, settlement houses and socialist societies. Why so? Because, says Himmelfarb, expectations outran improvements, and severe housing and unemployment conditions undermined the evidence of improvement. In addition, those dedicated to public service lost faith in the “industrial organization” for failing, as Mrs. Webb said, “to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain.”

At the very heart of this new social consciousness, uniting the scientific method with the “Religion of Humanity,” was Charles Booth, whose leviathan social survey, Life and Labour of the People in London (17 vols., 1889-1902) reoriented the debate on poverty. Historians, says Himmelfarb, have wrongly emphasized the finding in Life and Labour that 35.2 per cent of East Londoners (or 30.7 per cent of all Londoners) were living at or beneath the level of bare subsistence; a “submerged third” whose plight could not be remedied by private charity alone. She highlights, instead, what she believes both Booth and contemporary reviewers considered cardinal: that just over half of the London working classes lived in comfort, that another 22.3 per cent were “poor,” due mainly to irregular employment, and that these could be rescued from poverty by placing the 7.5 per cent of the “very poor,” the only ones in “chronic want,” under “State slavery” in labor colonies. By this small dose of “State Socialism,” Booth declared, further collectivism could be avoided. All this is vintage Himmelfarb: vivid detail allied with keen discernment; the upending of accepted interpretations by a meticulous attention to the evidence and an appreciation of the moral sensibilities of the age. To suggest it is downhill from this point on would be too harsh a judgment, but the author never again achieves the same intellectual acuity and engagement.

Himmelfarb then turns to the compassionate individuals who gave their time, energy and money in the service of the poor. They did so under the auspices of the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.), the housing schemes of Octavia Hill, the Salvation Army and Toynbee Hall, all of which (with the exception of the Salvation Army) drew inspiration from the philosophical idealist T. H. Green, whose “positive” brand of Liberalism urged individuals to cultivate their “best self” and to pursue the “common good.” Himmelfarb tries hard to rehabilitate the C.O.S. by stressing its devotion to a respectability” the poor independently coveted. It is difficult to extend “moral imagination,” however, to an organization which, by attacking free medical relief, labor yards for the unemployed and outdoor relief for the aged poor, displayed so little imaginative insight itself into the seasonal rhythm of the metropolitan economy and the associated problems of the poor.

In this section too, the author rattles the cages of those who suggest that these charitable organizations were instruments of social control. I am charged, in addition, with inconsistency, arguing first that the Salvation Army was an enemy of the working class, only later to contend that it was an ally of the working class. In fact, my arguments were more consistent and a good bit more nuanced than she allows. My first article suggested that the riotous opposition to the Salvation Army was strongest in non-industrialized towns where the working class was most traditional, and where the labor movement and working-class consciousness were less developed; the second article pointed to some areas of compatibility between the Salvationists and the organized labor movement in the first phase of the latter's development.

In the final and least satisfactory section of the book, on the socialist societies, Himmelfarb's “moral imagination” seems a little threadbare. She has no time for the Social Democratic Federation, whose Marxism, she maintains, had marginal influence on the political culture. The Christian socialists get a better press, but, inexplicably, no mention is made of the Independent Labour Party, the most effective and quintessentially English of all the socialist societies in this period. Himmelfarb reserves her fiercest attack however, for the Fabian socialists, the apostles of a planned society, the supposed architects of a welfare state drained of all morality. Himmelfarb's case would carry more conviction if the welfare state bore any resemblance to the various Fabian proposals. Clement Attlee, prime minister, Toynbee Hall president and Fabian socialist, may well have launched the welfare state in 1945, but the acknowledged architect William Beveridge, was no Fabian, and his social security scheme was no Fabian blueprint. Rather, it extended the concept of contributory insurance, which the Webbs vehemently opposed in the late-Victorian and Edwardian years.

Whoever bears responsibility for the welfare state, however, Himmelfarb obviously prefers the voluntary beneficence of compassionate citizens to the legal and universal provision of social services. Yet the latter continues to attract considerable support from all social classes in Britain. The belief that health and social security are proper areas of public provision dies hard. For that very reason, Thatcherite offensives to introduce market economics into the allocation of welfare have been thrown back. The “triumphalist right” is not yet all-triumphant.

John Gross (review date April 1994)

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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 others.

The “abyss” in the essay on deconstruction is the abyss of meaninglessness (or of surfeit of meaning, which comes to much the same thing). In the world of deconstruction, the interpreter takes precedence over the thing interpreted, and—not to put too fine a point upon it—any interpretation goes. The most obvious aim of such a creed is to weaken our hold on reality, chiefly by denying that there is any reality for us to get hold of; its most probable effect, if we were to take it seriously, would be to induce feelings of despair and dread. But the abyss of the deconstructionists, as Miss Himmelfarb says, is a purely linguistic one. It offers us a soft landing; it positively invites us to start frisking around.

No feature of deconstruction is in fact more striking than its programmatic will to playfulness. Miss Himmelfarb quotes some memorable examples: the Yale critic Geoffrey Hartman praising deconstructionist critics as “clowns and jongleurs,” Richard Rorty exhorting his fellow philosophers to “josh people out of the habit” of taking moral issues seriously. She might have added that in recent years “carnival” and “carnivalesque” have become particularly okay critical terms. Life is a cabaret, old chum—though not a very amusing one. In practice, the verbal wit of deconstructionists tends to be as elephantine as their slogans would lead one to expect, and there are times when the whole enterprise seems not much more than an excuse for making bad puns. (A random example: I open a well-produced journal of art history, emanating from a major university, and there is an article on homoerotic motifs in Alfred Hitchcock entitled “Anal Rope.”)

Sometimes the joshing and jongling assume a more sinister aspect. Miss Himmelfarb also cites a description of the late literary critic Paul de Man, also of Yale, as “the only man who ever looked into the abyss and came away smiling.” I must admit that I have a strong, possibly unworthy, desire to wipe that particular smile off that particular face. Not of course that there was any necessary link between de Man's later deconstructionist writings and the views he had once promulgated in a pro-Nazi newspaper in occupied Belgium in 1941 and 1942. But deconstruction does not seem to have been any kind of hindrance to his hushing-up of those views, and it certainly enabled his admirers to resort to the most ludicrous sophistries in his defense—tricks to make the angels weep.

Turning from the deconstructionists to the postmodernists, Miss Himmelfarb notes that the historians among them are equally dedicated to the pleasure principle—to history, as she says, “at the pleasure of the historian.” They yearn to be considered creative and imaginative; casting off the chains of mere causal and chronological “narrativity,” they nonetheless tend to conceive of history as a form of fiction. Postmodernist fiction, to be sure: what one of them has called “a historiographic metafiction.”

As with the playfulness of the deconstructionists, there is a gulf here between the aspiration and (as far as I can judge) the mostly leaden results. But it is the theoretical stance that counts: that, and the rejection of established standards. Miss Himmelfarb is especially good on the contrast between the postmodernists and their modernist predecessors, between yesterday's “relativistic” relativism and the “absolutistic” version that has succeeded it. The earlier modernists, like most good historians before them, were well aware that perfect objectivity is unobtainable; the difference is that they still thought objectivity was worth striving for, and that above all this entailed the critical sifting of evidence. In order to “demystify” such supposedly false history, postmodernism, in Miss Himmelfarb's words, “has to expose not only its ideology—the hegemonic, privileged, patriarchal interests” that the old sort of history allegedly serves—“but also its methodology, the scholarly apparatus that gives it a specious credibility.”

It will be clear from the type of interests it sets out to unmask (and Miss Himmelfarb's brief list is an accurate one) that postmodernism does not operate in a vacuum. For the most part it has a political agenda, or rather a choice of agendas—some of them in potential conflict with one another, but all of them radical. True, it also has its radical critics, neo-Marxists in particular; but even they have been known to feel the charm of its subversive implications.

And what of deconstruction? It, too, presents itself as a liberation movement, which means that the most important question we can ask about it is: liberation for the sake of what? Often, no doubt, liberation as an end in itself, which is an attractive enough ideal until you have to start picking up the pieces. As Miss Himmelfarb remarks elsewhere in this collection, in an essay on John Stuart Mill, if absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, so does absolute liberty.

But then absolute liberty is itself a form of power—the power to destroy without having to face the consequences. And one way or another it is on the power they confer that the various “isms” Miss Himmelfarb discusses seem to me to base their ultimate appeal. Often, it is true, it is no more than literary or academic power: the traditional exultation of the intellectual in his ability to “see through” things, to dislodge his predecessors, to know more about you than you know yourself. But let us hope that things remain at that level, that these particular ideas are not translated into action as they filter down through the media and the instruments of mass education.

The presumption against greatness—“the valet-like conception of history,” about which Miss Himmelfarb writes so well—can itself be seen as a move in the intellectual power game; and like other such moves, it is not without its ironies. A climate in which heroes are supposed to be cut down to size is also one in which leading campus pundits (if they are deemed to be sufficiently subversive) are accorded a star status that very few of their predecessors ever enjoyed.

Miss Himmelfarb introduces us to the term “BG”—“Big Guy”; she first heard it, as a variant on DWM or Dead White Male, from “the head of the women's-studies program in a distinguished college,” who explained that the objectionable thing about the BG's of the past was not only that they were Guys but also that they were Big, and hence “privileged.” I am not quite sure where this leaves Big Persons like Emily Dickinson or Madame Curie, but I am even more curious as to whether the objection to bigness, which plainly takes in Beethoven and Shakespeare, also extends to more recent avatars like (shall we say?) the deconstructionists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. I doubt it; in any case, there are certainly some feminists (Miss Himmelfarb quotes Joan Wallach Scott) who believe that Foucault and Derrida “can offer feminism a powerful analytic perspective.”

Postmodern often means post-Marxist as well, and Marx cuts a decidedly old-fashioned figure in the one essay in this book in which he bulks large. “From Marx to Hegel” takes its cue from Vaclav Havel's observation that the lesson of recent history is that “Consciousness precedes Being”—as Hegel maintained—“and not the other way round, as the Marxists claim.” Insofar as Miss Himmelfarb's essay reads like an epitaph for Marx, it may be a bit optimistic: I am not yet convinced that we have really killed the snake, and that we may not have to go on scotching it. But Miss Himmelfarb makes some excellent points along the way—about Marx's compulsion to present the proletariat in an unattractive light, for instance, even while speaking on its behalf and in its name.

By contrast, an essay on nationalism and religion is the one piece in the collection that feels skimpy: Miss Himmelfarb simply does not have enough space to do justice to an elaborate theme. Yet even here she manages to make an observation which ought to be familiar, but is not, and which is all the more valuable on that account:

It is one of the bitter ironies of history that now, when the newer nationalities are becoming more aggressive and brutal, the older ones are becoming more diffident and passive, reluctant to affirm the legitimacy of their own civic, pacific mode of nationalism, let alone to impugn the legitimacy of the despotic tribal mode that is now emerging.

A subtitle describes the essays that make up On Looking into the Abyss as Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. They are untimely only in the sense that they resist and reject the fashions of the day; in every other sense they are as timely as they could be.

Colin Welch (review date 18 April 1994)

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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 formidable erudition and wide range; to their prodigious mastery of areas of dark knowledge which many of us don't have or wish we didn't; to their polemic power and capacity to make clear what is obscure or complex; and so on. But when all is said and done, it is Bea's own character that, like the emperor's head on the Thaler, gives these essays much of their value.

Her love of truth and freedom, her hatred of callousness and cruelty as of the rotten ideologies that breed and justify them, her respect for tradition and morality, her mistrust of all the repulsive-isms—structuralism, deconstructionism, post-modernism, and so forth—that have brought spiritual and intellectual impoverishment to Academe. For all Bea's attitudes on these and other points, a strong intellectual case can be made: she makes it. Yet I suspect that the reasons why she hates this and loves that lie deep in a character that is admirable if now, alas, a bit unusual.

May I be impertinent again for a moment? Apart from being a formidable bluestocking, Bea is au fond a perfectly normal, decent, natural woman, a devoted wife, mother, and now proud grandmother, in a world in which—I concede—such domestic virtues are no longer seen as normal and natural. Think how many of the aberrations of modern political, economic, and sociological thought would have been moderated, rebuked, or prevented by such domestic considerations. If only Marx and Nietzsche had been proud grandmothers! The world would have been a happier place.

One Richard Rorty, a “respected” American philosopher quoted by Bea, reports that only “a metaphysical prig” believes now in such things as “truth” and “reality.” Bea is unabashed: she wondered whether this book should have been entitled Confessions of an Unregenerate Prig.

Among the gratefully acknowledged inspirers of this book (it is dedicated to his memory) is the great Lionel Trilling. He declared himself proudly “a nineteenth-century person.” Just so might Bea. She has spent much scholarly time in that “other country,” has unearthed there and brought back from it much ancestral wisdom, precious but now by intellectuals forgotten or derided.

A characteristic of the nineteenth-century person, according to Trilling, is a belief in the efficacy of free will and in the value of individual freedom. Bea too has this characteristic, governed always by an abiding concern for personal and public morality. Again and again as I read her, the dictum of James Anthony Froude, literally a nineteenth-century person, came back unbidden to mind. I quote from memory: “Morality, when vigorously alive, sees further than intellect and provides unconsciously for intellectual difficulties.” Morality is certainly “vigorously alive” in Bea, though in her case I'd guess it deals consciously rather than unconsciously with intellectual difficulties.

What is this Abyss into which Bea invites us to peer? Trilling introduced it to his students of modern literature. He listed some of its notable inmates—some by choice resident there, others just visiting, curious, fascinated, or hostile. He named them, the great modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Lawrence, Mann, Gide, Conrad) and some of their forebears (Frazer, Nietzsche, Freud, Diderot Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy). All of these were for Trilling, and perhaps for Bea profoundly subversive of culture, society, morality, conventional sexuality—of all we once called “civilization.” (Incidentally, is not Conrad for one an odd man out here? And what about Dostoyevsky? Let it pass.)

The Abyss was thus for Trilling a literary and cultural Abyss, its residents “dread beasts.” Like Blake's Satanic mills, Trilling's Abyss was a metaphorical conceit, a place of ideas, inhabited by turnip ghosts, so materialists would say. Yet Trilling knew, as Bea knows and fears, that ideas have consequences. Beware: the deranged bohemian, the frowsy pedant, the wild poet, the fanatical ideologue, and the unreadable bore may be umbilically connected to Gulags and Holocausts past and perhaps to come! According to Bea, the Abyss has lately got deeper and more perilous, the beasts at the bottom of it more terrifying. (“You thrilled to modernism; shudder now at post-modernism, the movie they dared us to make and you to see …”). Relativism now mutates into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity, all to Bea's eloquent dismay.

Trilling and Bea seem alike oddly disappointed that the reaction of students to this carnival of moral deformity is only to breathe “how interesting, how exciting,” and to discuss it all seriously, politely, and sophisticatedly, thus socializing the anti-social, acculturing the anti-cultural, and legitimizing the subversive. Well, better perhaps (I agree) if instead they cogently and vigorously desocialized, decultured, and illegitimized. Meanwhile, cool dilettante interest and polite excitement are surely preferable to frantic subversive fanaticism?

Bea attests that her intrepid voyages on our behalf into deconstructionism, post-modernism, and the rest have immersed her in much “literature” that is instructive perhaps but neither readable nor congenial. Like an explorer returned from the jungle, she shows off amazing flora and fauna, monsters and freaks, in particular incredible specimens of academic gobbledygook. We rub our eyes; surely these must be untypical or parodic? She assures us, no.

Though never without rational hope and humor, she is naturally a bit pessimistic about these ideas and their consequences. One thing may well cheer her up at times—their manifest absurdity, their innate tendency to blow themselves up. Seeking to deconstruct others, deconstructionists deconstruct themselves. Where murder is intended, suicide is achieved.

The “respected” philosopher Rorty, for instance, concedes that Heidegger, another “respected” philosopher, was “a nasty piece of work.” Rorty deplores his outspoken Nazism. Heidegger's worst mistake, however, according to Rorty, is to have taken philosophy “seriously” rather than “light-mindedly,” “playfully,” “aesthetically.” Rorty regards an original philosopher as a mere product of “a neural kink.” As such is he more to be consulted about wisdom and virtue than any original mathematician, say, or micro-biologist, or chess master? With nothing to say about wisdom or virtue, isn't the philosopher an innumerate mathematician (I know such exist), a chess master who can't play chess, a plumber who can't measure a pipe? Ignore him—don't ring him in an emergency!

If not noted for wisdom and virtue, what then is the philosopher for? Playfulness? Light-mindedness? Better by far go to Broadway. The boa-deconstructor Derrida offers puns, tedious plays on words: Hegel suggests to him “aigle” (French, eagle), hence “power,” or “Ekel” (German, disgust), ha ha! We yawn, overcome by Ekel. The playfulness of bores, the frivolity of “respected” philosophers, is indeed ekelig, the mirthless humor of the humorless, a ballet of cripples.

Paul de Man, a leading deconstructionist, wrote embarrassing anti-Semitic articles in a Nazi journal during the late war. His peers have striven tortuously to exculpate him. Bea notes mordantly that they cannot manage this without evasions and distortions, without breaching their own strict but useless literary canons, without deconstructing de Man, his critics, and themselves alike. Is it not a poor philosophy that cannot defend its own darlings with its own intellectual weapons? Have the deconstructionists followed too well the advice of Turgenev's Bazarov—who counseled to the effect that, when you're cutting down the pillars of society, you mustn't forget your own legs?

Bea justly prides herself in taking on the big boys, not just the tiddlers who have said something silly but the real intellectual eminentoes, the mega-gurus. The most conspicuous of these is John Stuart Mill. In his On Liberty, a sacred text, she irreverently finds much to criticize and “deconstruct,” though here as elsewhere she is scrupulously fair. She notes passages from other works of Mill which themselves seem sharply in conflict with what she objects to. She looks round her beloved America as it is today. She sees with grief a land in which tainted morality can be practiced, displayed, commended, and subsidized, but not tainted food—presumably because the material is regarded as more important than the spiritual. She points out that, despite the old saw, morality can be legislated, yes, and so can immorality. She notes that the crucifix is banned from American public schools, but can be displayed publicly drowned in urine as “art.” She quotes a joke, that in America a performer may masturbate on the stage, but only if he or she is paid the minimum wage can she be sure it is still a joke? She notes all this and more, unintended consequences of Mill's ideas.

For Bea, as for Burke, liberty must be limited to be enjoyed. Absolute liberty is indefensible, self-destroying. It tends, like absolute power, to corrupt absolutely. Yet in Marxist circles of American Academe, traditionally limited freedom is scorned as “repressive tolerance.” The quest for absolute freedom puts it in mortal danger.

Confronted by the carnival of folly and evil which Bea describes and analyzes, many of us laugh, sigh, shrug, snore, despair, hope for death, or subside into a sort of moral imbecility. Not so Bea, who preserves not only her wits but the grandmother's traditional right and duty to be shocked. It is an invaluable characteristic. With humor, it is presumably what has kept her sane.

I can hear her now in the Abyss: “This place stinks. Who's in charge? The Devil? Send him here. I want to see him. It's a pit, a sink! Come on now, children, let's clean this mess up.”

Terry Teachout (review date June 1994)

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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 Holocaust denial. Hence, too, Holocaust “minimization,” a staple item of latter-day radical black rhetoric to which the American public at large was introduced by Khalid Muhammad's notorious speech at Howard University, an event which left progressive-minded journalists scrambling to find new ways to define black anti-Semitism down. And—perhaps most insidious of all—hence the “deconstruction” of the Holocaust to which the most daring of postmodernist historians have lately turned their hands.

In assembling the essays collected in On Looking into the Abyss, Gertrude Himmelfarb was initially surprised to find that nearly all of them made prominent mention of the Holocaust. This, she says in her introduction, “was not anticipated or consciously intended by me. Yet it now seems to me perfectly natural and proper. In almost every essay, the Holocaust stands as a rebuke to historians, philosophers, and literary critics who, in their zeal for one or another of the intellectual fashions of our time, belittle or demean one of the greatest tragedies of all time.”

Himmelfarb's title refers to the famous passage from Beyond Culture in which Lionel Trilling told how his Columbia College students reacted to their first exposure to the “prolegomenal works” of modernism, among them The Birth of Tragedy, the book in which Nietzsche warned that “whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature's disintegration”:

I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”

Like Trilling's naïve students of three decades ago, today's academic intellectuals view the abyss as a clean, well-lighted pit inhabited by friendly beasts, a place where all values are relative and all “truths” scrupulously pluralized and imprisoned within the barbed wire of inverted commas. The only difference is the stakes: “The beasts of modernism,” writes Himmelfarb, “have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity.” For Himmelfarb, the most telling symbol of the moral trivialization wrought upon Western culture by postmodernism is the way in which its historians, taking their cue from Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger (both of whom, in the most exquisite of ironies, are now known to have been Nazi sympathizers), have begun to flirt with the “problematization” of the Holocaust.

The essence of postmodernist history, Himmelfarb explains, is “a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past.” Where does the undeniable objective truth of the Holocaust fit into this slippery scheme? Himmelfarb quotes one postmodernist historian, Jane Caplan, who clearly saw the trap that awaited less prudent colleagues:

To put it bluntly, what can one usefully say about National Socialism as an ideology or a political movement and regime via theories that appear to discount rationality as a mode of explanation, that resist the claims of truth, relativize and disseminate power, cannot assign responsibility clearly, and do not privilege (one) truth or morality over (multiple) interpretation? … It is one thing to embrace post-structuralism and postmodernism, to disseminate power, to decenter subjects, and all in all let a hundred kinds of meaning contend, when Bleak House or philology or even the archaeology of knowledge are the issue. But should the rules of contention be different when it is a question, not simply of History, but of a recent history of lives, deaths, and suffering, and the concept of a justice that seeks to draw some meaningful relation between these?

But such scruples—especially when couched in a dehydrated argot indistinguishable from self-parody—were no match for the exciting challenge of a deeper, darker abyss to plumb. In the spirit of Paul de Man (who, in the perfect phrase of David Lehman, “looked into the abyss and came away smiling”), postmodernist historians like Hayden White are now treating the Holocaust as a “meta-historical problem.” Given the nature of the deconstructionist project, it is inevitable, Himmelfarb says, that the bloody reality of the Holocaust will get lost in the sterile shuffle of Marxist jargon: “The difficulty is compounded by the existence of a school of thought that relativizes, ‘deprivileges,’ ‘decenters,’ indeed, deconstructs the Holocaust so thoroughly as to deny its reality. It is this ‘revisionist’ thesis that postmodernists would like to avoid. But they can do so only by the kind of verbal legerdemain that is their stock-in-trade—and that has created the problem in the first place.”

On Looking into the Abyss is not devoted solely to a catalogue of the sins of postmodernist historians. The seven essays collected in this slender yet indispensable volume range from a pithy reconsideration of On Liberty in light of the collapse of Communism (how inspiring that our finest commentator on Mill should still have fresh insights to offer thirty-two years after the publication of her seminal essay “The Other John Stuart Mill”!) to a mordantly witty dissection of the “moral lapses” inherent in the decline and fall of footnoting. But again and again Himmelfarb finds herself drawn back to the singular inability of the “new history” to account for the most important historical event of our time:

Historians who think it the highest calling of their profession to resurrect the “daily life of ordinary people” can find little evidence in the daily life of ordinary Germans of the overwhelming fact of life—and of death—for millions of Jews; those who look for the “long-term” processes and impersonal “structures” in history tend to explain this “short-term event” in such a way as to explain it away; and those seeking to “deconstruct” the history of the Holocaust as they deconstruct all of history come perilously close to the “revisionists” who deny the reality of the Holocaust. … Our professors look into the abyss secure in their tenured positions, risking nothing and seeking nothing save another learned article.

One might well regret that the “preeminent Victorian” of American historians found it necessary to take time out from her own learned labors to write these occasional essays, were it not for the fact that they are so lucid and compelling a contribution to the ongoing debate over the future of American culture. The fire of justified anger warms this coolly argued polemic; it is the work of a distinguished scholar who knows well that “there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and the polity,” and who seeks to restore a measure of sanity to that relationship before it is too late. If the worst happens—assuming that it hasn't happened already—we cannot say we were not warned.

Lee Congdon (essay date July 1994)

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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 who was then training as a historian of modern England. It served to deepen her instinctive sympathy for the traditionalist liberalism of Edmund Burke, who had also, she recalled, praised “the sentiments which beautify and soften” society. “All the super-added ideas,” Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France,

furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our own naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded [by the French revolutionaries] as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

To the examination of those “super-added ideas,” that “moral imagination,” Himmelfarb has devoted her long and distinguished career. Swimming against the stream of historical cynicism and reductionism, she has always treated with respect and seriousness the assumptions and preconceptions, the attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and manners of the Victorians who have been the focus of her scholarly research. And in the process she has enlarged her own moral imagination and refined the moral realism that has made her a perceptive observer and articulate critic of a culture and society—our own—that has come to the edge of the abyss.


“What I relate,” Nietzsche wrote in late 1887 or early 1888, “is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.” Himmelfarb's studies of the Victorian mind and imagination have convinced her that the German prophet was right—and for the reason he gave. Once its religious sanction was removed, morality—Judeo-Christian morality—would inevitably lose its hold on the lives of most men and women. This Nietzschean theme runs through all of Himmelfarb's work, but she treated it most succinctly in a brilliant essay previously collected, “A Genealogy of Morals: From Clapham to Bloomsbury.” The title, of course, was borrowed from Nietzsche.

The “Clapham Sect” was composed of evangelicals such as William Wilberforce and James Stephen, for whom, as for John Wesley and the Methodists before them, the Christian faith was not only a matter of private belief and personal character but of public responsibility. What unbelievers thought of as social problems to be solved, these men and women viewed as moral obligations to be fulfilled. They, therefore, took the lead in the campaigns against such morally insupportable activities as the slave trade and the exploitation of child labor. Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian-born English thinker whom Himmelfarb knew and admired, once summed it up this way: “The release, at the opening of the 19th century, of the new religious forces pent up among the middle and lower classes during the period of the Wesleyan movement, started also a pervasive movement of moral reform, which spread through society upwards and downwards from the expanding middle classes.”

Polanyi was quite right, but, as the century advanced, unbelief began to spread. As we know, there were many reasons for that, including the progress of science and the controversies generated by Darwin and Darwinism, to which Himmelfarb has devoted an admirable study. One of the most observable effects of this spiritual devolution was a widespread feeling of angst, a dread of losing one's moral equilibrium and of tumbling into the abyss of anarchy and nihilism. In order to keep that awesome fear at bay, the Victorians made morality, in its private and public careers, their surrogate religion. They sensed, rightly, that having lost its religious underpinnings, morality was no longer secure against outside attack; they had, therefore, to insist upon it in an almost obsessive way.

And so, as everyone knows, they did. Himmelfarb is fond, in this regard, of quoting the revealing credos of some of the most eminent of Victorians. Leslie Stephen, grandson of James and author of the still-valuable History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, summed up his attitude this way. “I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality etc., etc. I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible.” Similarly, when George Eliot was asked how morality could survive the loss of religious faith, she replied that while God was “inconceivable” and immortality “unbelievable,” duty was “peremptory and absolute.”

In her recent Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, Himmelfarb has shown in convincing detail how, in obedience to that rather desperate sense of duty, the late Victorians redoubled their efforts to effect a thoroughgoing moral reform of society. There is not a hint of condescension in her account. On the contrary, she writes with sympathy and admiration for her subjects' realistic approach to helping the poor and the destitute, and for their determination to frame the issue of relief in moral terms. The evil of poverty, they held, resided less in material privation than in character deformation. For the late Victorians, she wrote, the problem “was not inequality but poverty, the kind of poverty that threatened to reduce the laboring poor to a state of dependency and degradation.”


Nietzsche reserved his most scornful mockery for the moral imagination that inspired Victorian social action:

They have got rid of the Christian God and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little bluestockings a la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one's position in a fear-inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there.

But he derived satisfaction from the thought that it could not last. Sooner or later, the Christian moral imperative to tell the truth would compel even the English to question the validity of Judeo-Christian morality.

As Himmelfarb readily concedes, Nietzsche was right, for by the time the members of the Bloomsbury group, prominent among whom was Leslie Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, gathered in London, the moral capital that Christianity had provided had been spent. “Where Clapham had inspired a moral and spiritual reformation,” according to Himmelfarb, “Bloomsbury sought to effect a moral and spiritual liberation.” Unlike the members of the previous generation, the men and women of Bloomsbury pursued the logic of unbelief to its end. Like Dostoevsky's most terrifying characters, they announced that God was dead and that, as a result, everything was permitted. “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom,” John Maynard Keynes, one of their number, wrote. “We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists.”

One of the consequences of the new immorality, Himmelfarb has pointed out, was a significant change of attitude toward the social question. Moral concern for the poor was replaced by an ideological passion for equality. In the future, everyone, without reference to need, was to benefit from “welfare.” The charitable politics of the moral imagination had to make room for the coercive politics of envy. So much so that, as we approach the end of the millennium, our culture finds itself in the grip of an egalitarian fanaticism that has absorbed, intensified, and perverted what once were religious and moral passions.


Himmelfarb treats the welfare state as a symptom of a more profound disorder, the pervasive nihilism that threatens to engulf us. That nihilism, Lionel Trilling knew, had been adumbrated in the work of the best modern writers, and it was out of genuine concern for the effect that such work might have on impressionable young people that, for some time, he turned a deaf ear to all entreaties for a course in literary modernism at Columbia University. When, reluctantly, he relented, he introduced his students to the work of Frazer, Freud, Conrad, Mann, Diderot, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and, of course, Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals). He invited them “to look into the Abyss” only to discover, to his amazement, that they could not grasp just how subversive, how hostile to civilization the assigned readings were. To them, it was merely another academic exercise.

Himmelfarb borrowed her title for her newest book [On Looking into the Abyss] from Trilling's remark, and, though she does not say so, her subtitle from Nietzsche's Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (Untimely resections). In this way, she wished to signal her intention of pitting the moral imagination against the spiritual descendants of Bloomsbury, the active proponents of immorality and nihilism. Since the years when Trilling lectured to uncomprehending students, she writes, the abyss has opened wider. “The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity.”

In one of the finest essays collected here, “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?” she examines John Stuart Mill's famous principle—“that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection”—in light of Trilling's warning in The Liberal Imagination. The fundamental difficulty with Mill's principle, she argues, is that it is absolute and hence antagonistic toward those informal social sanctions that attempted, with a remarkable degree of success, to discourage immoral or morally dubious conduct that did not, directly, harm another person.

It is surprising that Himmelfarb does not draw attention to the devastating, and to my mind unanswerable, attack on Mill leveled by James Fitzjames Stephen, brother to Leslie Stephen and uncle to Virginia Woolf, in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Nevertheless, she clearly shares Stephen's view that, by ruling out all forms of coercion for purposes that extend beyond self-protection, Mill's “very simple principle” undermined all organized religions, and hence all moral systems and political institutions, on the unproved and highly questionable assumption that they have done mankind more harm than good.

Mill could adopt the position he did, Himmelfarb cogently argues, because he lived in an essentially decent society, one that he took for granted but had, in fact, been created and maintained by the very laws, conventions, and traditions of civility that he sought to override. Deceived by the level of civilization that England had attained, he formed an excessively favorable estimate of human nature, one that, as Stephen pointed out, permitted him to believe “that the removal of restraints usually tends to invigorate character. Surely the very opposite is the case.” One need only peruse a contemporary newspaper to recognize the validity of Stephen's objection.

Among the many, and certainly unintended, consequences of Mill's position, Himmelfarb reminds us, is that no one may censor or even censure depravity for, as the disingenuous litany goes, “Who is to say what is depraved and what not?” Under such conditions, the choices remaining to a people become stark. Either they permit depravity to expand its empire, or they invoke a far more obtrusive authority than custom, the massive power of the state, to contain it. “This is,” Himmelfarb observes, “the source of the disjunction between individualism and paternalism that is so conspicuous a feature of contemporary liberalism.”


Mill's liberalism purports to be neutral toward religion. Indeed, it trumpets its devotion to freedom of religion—so long as faith remains a private matter—but, in fact, it is hostile. Both Stephen, who denied that neutrality was possible (he who is not for religion is against it), and Himmelfarb recognize this. She insists, in fact, that hostility toward religion lies at the very heart of Mill's position. This is in striking contrast to the religious liberalism that Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers defended. True liberty, the great French thinker wrote, “considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” Such a liberty, one informed by the moral imagination, dignifies men and women by treating them as responsible beings and not as mere creatures of appetite entitled to debase themselves and their society so long as no legal indictment of direct harm to others may be returned against them.

Almost as important, perhaps, Tocqueville and other traditionalist liberals prefer liberties—concrete, historical, and specifiable—to Mill's absolute and imperialistic Liberty. One can, they insist, balance such liberties against the equally valid and sometimes competing claims of order and authority. Himmelfarb would certainly agree, for as a historian she has a well-developed sense of the limited, the partial, and the contingent. That is why, for example, she rejects the claims advanced by postmodernist historians that, because absolute, total truth is beyond the historian's grasp, the search for proximate truths should be abandoned. She challenges, that is, the currently fashionable notion that history is merely another species of fiction.

That notion has already begun to do its work. Even Simon Schama, the author of several fine historical studies, recently wrote a book with the clever title Dead Certainties: (Unwarranted Speculations) in which he blended history and fiction so skillfully that readers could not always tell where one ended and the other began. True, he denied that he scorned the boundary between fact and fiction, but he insisted that “claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator” (my italics). It does not seem to have occurred to him—even though, like Himmelfarb, he is Jewish—that such premeditated acts of historical sabotage can produce unwanted consequences. For if, as Himmelfarb points out, all certainties concerning the past are dead, one cannot easily counter the claim, made by some, that the Nazis did not really murder millions of Europe's Jews.

The postmodernists permit such questions to be raised because the idea that history is fiction provides them with opportunities for political subversion. By denying that “texts” have any assignable meaning and maintaining that efforts to base historical claims on evidence are either pointless or fraudulent, they declare it to be their right to make of the past what they wish, to exercise their will to power and, at the same time, to a revolution of nihilism that would topple the few remaining pillars of tradition and order.

There is, of course, a logical contradiction at the core of postmodernism, for if texts can mean anything, postmodernist claims themselves become problematic. That may help to explain why Himmelfarb expresses confidence that the postmodernists will soon go out of fashion. In the meanwhile, she continues to uphold the high scholarly standards that once governed the historical profession. Take, for example, the little essay entitled “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?” in which she reasserts the importance of scholarly responsibility, integrity, and discipline. In a larger, cultural sense, to be sure, she is less sanguine, but no less determined to follow Lionel Trilling's example. “He was able,” she writes in tribute, “to resist the insidious ideological and political fashions of his time without the coarsening of mind that often comes with doing battle, and also without the timidity and equivocation that retreats from battle in an excess of fastidiousness.” I can think of no better way to describe Gertrude Himmelfarb herself.

Alan Ryan (review date 5 August 1994)

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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 (with the aid of Bloomsbury and others who slighted family values) responsible for the loose morals and depraved tastes of late twentieth-century American liberals. Himmelfarb denounces him here in the same terms as she did twenty years ago in On Liberty and Liberalism. Mill's virtuous twin was a complex and anxious conservative, almost indistinguishable from Himmelfarb's hero, Lord Acton. It is hard to escape the thought that her urge to distinguish the good, complex Mill from the bad, simple Mill reflects the fact that she herself comes in two rather different guises.

I do not mean that Gertrude Himmelfarb is both a distinguished historian of the British nineteenth century, and an ornament of American neo-conservatism. The doubleness lies in the contrast between her capacities as a historian and her incapacities as a philosopher. As a historian, she writes with subtlety, patience and a willingness to allow the quirks and peculiarities of individuals their due. When she turns to the philosophy of liberalism, to methodological issues in history and literature, or to direct commentary on contemporary issues, she behaves as she says the enemy behaves; she short-changes the arguments of the other side, treats every controversy as a fight to the death between the forces of good and evil, and affects an astonishing naivety about what might lead anyone to hold views of which she disapproves.

Himmelfarb's recent book Poverty and Compassion (1991) displayed her at her most sympathetic and empathic best; these essays, presented in various places including one conference presided over by Baroness Thatcher, and another that should have been presided over by the Pope, but wasn't, display her at her angry and irritated worse. “Worse” is not to say bad. Himmelfarb is (in the English rather than American sense) an enraged liberal, not a stand-pat conservative; she engages with whomever and whatever she reads in a wonderfully uninhibited fashion; and she writes with such anger because she thinks intellectual mistakes have political consequences. Since both Himmelfarbs write like angels, Looking into the Abyss is a pleasure to read even at its most maddening. It may do some unanticipated good as well: its unfairness is so transparent that some of her readers are likely to be provoked to go and find out for themselves about the ideas she trashes.

Consider the attack she launches in her opening and concluding essays on recent trends in literary criticism and historical analysis. According to Himmelfarb, nobody in the contemporary university seems to be writing anything but “structuralist” or determinist histories, in which individuals appear only as the playthings of vast uncontrollable forces. Worse yet, even the raw stuff of analysis has been deprived of its reality by a deconstructive enthusiasm for evading actual happenings in favour of quasi-philosophical analyses of how events are conceptualized. A quick glance at university press catalogues suggests she exaggerates; as in the bestseller lists, biography, overt or thinly disguised, predominates, traditional narrative thrives, and if contemporary scholars insist on recovering the lives of the obscure and neglected, they mostly do so in conventional ways.

There is certainly some high theoretical history to be seen as well, but it comes in more versions than Himmelfarb lets on. She starts with so intense a prejudice against anything other than narrative history of a somewhat moralizing sort that she will not draw distinctions among her opponents. As for her objections to what they practise, it is not the philosophical rapier that she wields but the moral bludgeon. In the American fashion, Himmelfarb argues against the goings-on she dislikes by trotting out the Holocaust: it was real, it was vile, it was organized by nameable individuals, and it killed nameable individuals, so let's have no talk of structures and no dissolution of the subject. British enthusiasts for the work of Past and Present and the History Workshop movement will be surprised to discover that the Holocaust even constitutes an argument against “history from below”. To observe that most aspects of everyday life in the Third Reich were not very different from most aspects of life during Weimar, and little different, after the mass murder of the Jews had started, from the way they were before, diminishes, she says, the evil of the Holocaust. We must not abandon the writing of history as an epic tale of heroes and villains, lest we abandon morality too.

This raises innumerable questions, and it is not a complaint against Himmelfarb that she doesn't tackle all of them. It is a complaint that she seems not to understand how much there is to be said on the other side, nor even how many rather different things one might say on her own side. For instance, it is not obvious that structural accounts of totalitarianism and the Holocaust must remove individual responsibility, let alone that they must question the reality of the events so explained: Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1967) was a gallant attempt to explain what Himmelfarb's arm-waving obscures—the way in which hideous things happened and otherwise decent people went along with them because the capacity of the decent people to stop such horror had been so damaged by the social and economic disruption of industrialization, migration and war. There is nothing here to suggest that an emphasis on structures rules out moral concerns.

One might go further. Exaggerating the role of structural factors suggests that we have no moral resources at all, but Himmelfarb's exaggeration of individual responsibility makes it look as if individuals have no resources beyond their inner selves. The truth is surely that we behave decently most of the time only with the help of other people and in conditions that give us the necessary strength when decency demands strength. The resources that allowed the Danes to do so much more for their Jewish population than the Dutch did for theirs were social as much as individual, and wholesale unconcern for the structural conditions in which decency can be effective is no more morally serious than the “anti-humanist” structuralism that shuts out questions of responsibility altogether.

Still, anyone who wants a checklist of foolish things that professors sometimes say will enjoy those of Himmelfarb's shots that land on target. She is funny and acerbic about some of the odd turns lately taken by the academic study of literature in the United States. There is something awfully dispiriting in the self-importance of professors who can maintain with a straight face that their activities as critics are more significant than the texts on which they exercise their skills. And there is something awfully dispiriting about history professors who inflate a concern for interpretation into the lunatic view that historical interpretation isn't at all constrained by the facts. How much any of this matters is another question entirely. Himmelfarb gets very steamed up about an account of one of Wordsworth's “Lucy” poems by the eminent high theorist J. Hillis Miller, and on the face of it what Miller has to say tells the reader rather little about the poem and more than anyone needs to know about Professor Miller's tastes in psychoanalytic theory and German philosophy. But it is not clear what harm he is doing, nor to whom. It may be true that only a very rich country could afford to pay Professor Miller to free-associate on a theme by Wordsworth; but only a people with the astonishing religiosity of the Americans would think the results a form of blasphemy, and get quite so exercised about it.

Himmelfarb can't leave it at that because she is passionately and urgently hostile to anyone who thinks we needn't take ideas seriously. Books have effects: ideas have consequences. Stalin and Hitler did terrible things because they thought terrible things. And on that she is surely right. But she may not be right in quite the way she thinks. Hitler and Stalin had appalling views about politics race, revolution and most other matters: since they could force their wretched subjects to live by their appalling ideas, their ideas mattered in the most direct way. It does not follow that the way in which the poetry of Wordsworth and the cultural criticism of Matthew Arnold matter in a democratic society like the United States has much in common with the way Hitler's ideas mattered.

Wordsworth and Arnold matter the way Mozart matters—not because they do us good and avert political disaster, but because their work gives a point and a meaning to existence that nothing else quite does. They are neither religion, nor magic, nor therapy. There isn't a seamless cultural web such that frivolity about modern literature means frivolity about human rights, and although Himmelfarb denounces the view that Heidegger's Nazism had little connection with his philosophy or Paul de Man's creepy wartime anti-Semitism with his line on literary theory, she is no better than anyone else has been at explaining just what the connection is between philosophical opacity and poisonous politics.

Thomas Paine complained that when Edmund Burke wrote his memorable account of the beauty and glory of Marie Antoinette, and denounced the revolutionary ruffians who had laid hands on the royal family, he pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird. It is hard not to feel the same about both Gertrude Himmelfarb and her opponents. American politics, the American inner city, much of American education, and a good deal else in American life are surely in a bad way; but the causes of and the cures of what ails the United States have rather little to do with the reception or rejection of recently fashionable Parisian thinkers in the English and History departments of American universities and colleges. The apocalyptic tone of recent discussion has predictably led to more heat and less light, and all sides might decently be asked to cool it.

Paul Hollander (review date fall 1994)

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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 present-day American society and culture. These volumes, Gertrude Himmelfarb's On Looking into the Abyss and Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition, are indispensable for updating our knowledge and understanding of what goes on in the academic marketplace and how it influences society at large. The authors, Himmelfarb a historian, Gross and Levitt scientists, provide from their different vantage points both information and argument that ought to give pause to all those concerned with the life of the mind generally, and the social role of intellectuals in American society in particular.

Both books ought to be read by members of Congress, the White House staff, high-ranking civil servants, heads of foundations and universities, staffs of think tanks, literate journalists, and other elite groups who exert influence on American social institutions and monitor cultural trends. Unfortunately, even if the books were widely read, it is not clear how many minds would be changed in the process, for one of the distressing aspects of present-day cultural-intellectual life in the United States, highlighted by both these volumes, is that groups of highly intelligent, well-educated people no longer fruitfully communicate with one another. Hopes of persuasion through rational argument are greatly diminished; the notion of rationality itself is under attack. The possibilities of dialogue between groups of different ideological or philosophical persuasion have become modest; protagonists talk past each other, and points of views are routinely dismissed not on the basis of their substance but on the basis of their source. Why has this come to pass?

Few outside the academic world know or care about the ideas and posturings associated with postmodernism, deconstructionism, or structuralism, but, despite their abstruseness, such ideas have become entrenched in many branches of academic life. Postmodernism, in particular, has become, as Gross and Levitt put it, “the unifying doctrine of the academic left” (p. 72). Accounting for its popularity they write:

If we examine the popularity of postmodernism with a view to understanding its appeal to the politically discontented, we see that psychological factors are at work echoing those that lured previous generations to Marxism-Leninism. As before, what is offered is the possibility of becoming an initiate, part of a blessed elect whose mastery of a certain style of discourse confers insight unobtainable elsewhere, and authorizes a knowing (and often smug) attitude.

(p. 73)

But so what? It is far from self-evident that the obscure goings-on in departments of English, “cultural studies,” or the social sciences affect the cohesion or decline of a society. But they do. Although neither of the books under review explicitly raises the idea of decadence, it is difficult to read them without bumping up against the concept. Indeed, what these two excellent books do best is to help us to grasp the connections between the life of the mind and the cohesion of social institutions. As Gross and Levitt argue: “It is not without historical precedent that incoherent or simply incomprehensible opinions have had great and pernicious social effect” (p. 15). One need only recall the impact of “scientific” racism, complete with phrenological subdisciplines, on European intellectual life from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century to appreciate the point.

The pernicious social effects of incoherent, barely comprehensible or obscurantist opinions is clearly discernible as its flows from present-day academic and intellectual life in the United States into society at large. Foremost among the destructive social effects of postmodernism and other adversarial currents (such as radical feminism, Afrocentrism, radical environmentalism, and so forth) has been a growing hostility to science and, more generally, to rational thought and argument. When entire school districts adopt texts produced by manifestly unqualified people, and the “inanities of Afrocentric ‘science’ … have a free rein in a number of urban, predominantly black school districts,” and when “the condescending belief has taken hold that black children can be persuaded to take an interest in science only if they are fed an educational diet of fairy tales” (pp. 247, 208)—under such conditions, the social and educational consequences of certain ideas become distressingly clear.

By attacking science and suggesting that multiculturalist, or Afrocentrist, or feminist versions of “science” are no less (but more) authentic, postmodernist intellectual relativism helps to perpetuate the scientific illiteracy of black students and all students. Even pointing that out is likely to provoke accusations of racism and sexism, which is why this is rarely done in public.

While most discussions of the decline of the United States focus on matters economic or narrowly educational (that is, mastering competence sufficient for jobs in a modern economy), decline and decadence have more elusive aspects that must be understood before one can proceed to tangible issues, such as the imbalance of trade, declining international competitiveness, productivity, and research and development. Decadence has two major dimensions: moral-psychological and functional-instrumental. Thus, if our work force is less educated, less able to meet the demands of present-day technologies, we must start by understanding the ideas and the ethos that contributed to this state of affairs in the first place, and that is communicated to the supposed beneficiaries of higher (and increasingly) lower education as well.

It is the more elusive, moral, psychological, and intellectual aspects of decadence, or decline, that these two books elucidate, including the decline in the clarity of communications painfully apparent in so much of current academic “discourse.”

The eclipse of moral certainties and the crusade against reason are at the core of the first aspect of decadence; it is associated with lack of purpose, and a moral relativism unchecked by sustaining and widely shared values or beliefs. Admittedly, such attitudes are often a form of posturing: few people, including postmodernists, are in fact capable of genuine and consistent moral relativism, let alone unlimited benign tolerance, much as they may advocate such a position. More characteristically, we encounter a selective relativism, a peculiar combination of professed moral (or intellectual, or aesthetic) relativism, and an unstated moral absolutism and partisanship that can be inferred from the unskeptical advocacy of positions taken by the putative relativist. As Gross and Levitt point out, “the strange combination of scepticism ad credulity … characterizes the postmodern stance” (p. 180). In turn, Himmelfarb notes, for example, that while many intellectuals in the liberal democracies glory in ‘demystifying’ their own culture and nation as Eurocentric, xenophobic, sexist, and racist, they fawn on illiberal Third World nations, provided they are sufficiently anti-Western (p. 121). Likewise, while they subject to merciless scrutiny their own Western culture, they cannot bring themselves to critically examine, among other things, the claims of “multiculturalism,” especially its Afrocentric variety.

It is significant and paradoxical that the postmodernists who claim to believe that everything is a matter of opinion, are among the fiercest, most virulent, and radical critics of Western culture. They emerged as the heirs of the sixties' rejection of American society, unable or unconcerned to propose a positive vision for replacing the multiple evils of our allegedly racist, sexist, patriarchal, capitalist, homophobic, and Eurocentric culture. Unhappily, “one of the saddest facts of life is that frustration rarely begets wisdom but it frequently ignites irresponsible fantasy” (Gross and Levitt, p. 233).

Gertrude Himmelfarb is among the handful of scholars in the humanities who powerfully confronts and publicly rejects these trends. It is her premise that “there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and the polity” (p. xii). Her collection of essays addresses both the intellectual and moral aspects of the burgeoning obscurantism and relativism, especially as they appear in the study and teaching of history. She arrestingly sums up the current state of affairs in the humanities and some of the social sciences: “The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity” (p. 16).

Her collection includes not only illuminating critiques of postmodernist historiography but also examinations of current approaches to the teaching of literature and philosophy, reflections on Karl Marx, Georg Hegel, and John Stuart Mill, and the contemporary political-historical roles and relationships of religion and nationalism. Looking at current trends in history and biography in particular, Professor Himmelfarb observes that the very idea “that there is such a thing as greatness, genius, uniqueness, that people should celebrate and aspire to such qualities, that there are truths that transcend race, gender and class” is under attack (p. 40). The anti-intellectual and amoral thrust of this attitude is quite momentous. Himmelfarb writes:

Postmodernism is now confronting us with … a relativism so radical, so absolute as to be antithetical to both history and truth. For postmodernists deny not only supra-historical truth but historical truth, truths relative to particular times and places …

(p. 131)

The presumption of postmodernism is that … because there is no absolute, total truth there can be no partial, contingent truths. More important still is the presumption that because it is impossible to attain such truths, it is not only futile but positively baneful to aspire to them.

(p. 135)

Passing moral judgments even over phenomena such as Nazism or Soviet totalitarianism becomes problematic, if not altogether impermissible, for the postmodernist: “Looking into the most fearsome abysses of modern times, these historians see not beasts but faceless bureaucrats, not corpses but statistics, not willful acts of brutality and murder but the banal routine of everyday life, not gas chambers and gulags but military-industrial-geopolitical complexes” (p. 18).

The embrace of such a far-reaching moral-intellectual relativism has profound consequences for the life of the mind. Ever more professors of literature disdain the study and interpretation of actual literary works, and there are historians who do little research about actual historical events or periods (pp. 140-42). The contempt for facts even finds expression in the progressive abandonment of footnotes, in the lofty indifference to documenting views and opinions, as Himmelfarb documents in “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?”

In this compact volume, Himmelfarb succeeds in lucidly cataloging and exposing some of the most profound ills and ailments of American society and cultural life as it approaches the end of the century. In doing so, she personifies and reinvigorates the ideal of the responsible intellectual.

It is of great significance, if not generally realized, that during the past quarter century or so critiques of science have become a major form of social and culture criticism in the United States. While the social criticism of the 1960s focused on particular social institutions, practices, or evils, the more recent varieties seek fundamental change through “a wholesale revision of cultural categories” (Gross and Levitt, p. 3), that is to say, concepts, ideas, words, ways of looking at the world. This orientation also explains the extraordinary efforts made at purging and transforming our vocabulary so that the “correct” usage should reflect “correct” ideas; the obsession with appropriate terminology on the part of radical feminists, Afrocentrists, and other victim groups is a form of intended thought reform.

In the course of the past two decades, the hostility to science has become a common denominator of the adversary culture and its different constituencies. These attitudes had their roots in the social-cultural protest movements of the 1960s, especially in the counter-cultural fulminations against the impersonality and the rational ordering of society and the highly romantic rejection of the routinized, predictable aspects of life. As the representatives of the protest movements of the sixties and adherents of the adversary culture settled down to academic life, the attacks on science emerged as their major shared preoccupation. Gross and Levitt write:

Postmodern scepticism rejects the possibility of enduring universal knowledge in any area. It holds that all knowledge is local, or ‘situated’ … rigidly circumscribed by interests and prejudices. …

(p. 72)

The traditional Marxist view that what we think of as science is really ‘bourgeois’ science, a superstructural manifestation of the capitalist order, recurs with predictable regularity in its own right, or refurbished as the doctrine of ‘cultural constructivism’. The radical feminist view [is] that science, like every other intellectual structure in modern society is poisoned and corrupted by ineradicable gender bias … multiculturalists … view ‘Western’ science as inherently inaccurate and incomplete by virtue of its failure to incorporate the full range of cultural perspectives … radical environmentalism condemns science as embodying instrumentalism and alienation from direct experience of nature. …

What enables [these views] to coexist congenially … is a shared sense of injury, resentment and indignation against modern science.

(p. 5)

The authors see a shared resentment as the main source of the attack on science. But while splendidly describing its varied manifestations, they stop short of attempting to locate the deeper sources of this resentment. And while they observe, correctly, that “science becomes an irresistible target for those Western intellectuals whose sense of their own heritage has become an intolerable moral burden” (p. 220), they do not pursue the matter further to ask: What aspects of this heritage have become so burdensome and loathsome and for what reason?

What really ails the academic Left, the ideological survivors of the sixties, and the adversary culture that make up a large portion of American intellectuals here discussed? The resentment against science, I believe, derives from a broader and deeper source: the resentment of modernity itself. When all is said and done, and when we put together both the most articulate as well as the most inarticulate critiques of capitalism, American society, Western culture and civilization, and Eurocentric thought, what stands out is the rejection of the lack of meaning, purpose, and lost sense of community associated with modernity. To be sure, there are also grievances and injuries (real and imagined) peculiar to gender, race, ethnicity, and (decreasingly) class. But the actual experiences of victimization do not come close to accounting for the ferocity and generality of the rejection and critique directed at American culture and society, since the critics themselves are generally privileged, for the most part academic, intellectuals.

The rejection of the pains of modernity is not the only way to explain the alienation of intellectuals that is behind their postmodernist, multiculturalist hostility to science. Critics of Western intellectuals (among them Raymond Aron, Paul Johnson, Lewis Feuer, Eric Hoffer, Christopher Lasch, Arthur Koestler, and Edward Shils, to name only a few) repeatedly suggested that intellectuals turn on their (Western) societies because they do not feel sufficiently appreciated, because these societies, and the American in particular, have failed to satisfy their need for recognition, influence, and even power—or as Richard Pipes put it recently, because of frustrated ambition.

Gross and Levitt themselves ask in their last chapter: How much difference does the hostility to science really make to the state of American culture and society? Is it an indicator of general decadence, or is it much ado about nothing as far as the country as a whole is concerned? As suggested above, the attitudes and beliefs examined by the two books under review are indeed powerful indicators of decadence precisely because they join together its moral-psychological and functional-instrumental aspects. The hostility to science is significant both as symptom of a profound estrangement from Western culture and rationality, and it is significant in its consequences. The latter include the rising levels of scientific illiteracy and the diminishing numbers of Americans interested in its pursuit, as indicated in the gradual takeover of departments of the hard (not social!) sciences by students from abroad.

The extraordinary and increasingly radical animus against American society and Western culture that finds expression in the hostility toward science is, in the final analysis, a protest against life perceived as both meaningless and unjust. Perhaps the most serious threat the attitudes here discussed represent—and the most profound symptom of the decadence, at once moral and intellectual, they embody—is that, as Gross and Levitt put it, they leave “no ground whatsoever for distinguishing reliable knowledge from superstition” (p. 45). A noteworthy example of the inroads made by the trends here discussed has been the career of John Mack, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard. After years at the “cutting edge” of various New Age and peace movements, Mack has recently taken to writing about claims of massive extraterrestrial kidnappings and copulations, and advocating their veracity.1 What is so stunning about Mack's new cause is not that he has adopted it, but the astonishing respectability his claims have garnered in the commercial publishing and media world.

If, as Gross and Levitt persuasively argue, “the health of a culture is measured in part by the vigor with which its immune system responds to nonsense” (p. 217), then we truly find ourselves in sad shape. But thanks to Gross and Levitt and Himmelfarb, among many others, mostly unsung, perhaps the tide will start to turn back.


  1. John Mack, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (New York: Scribners, 1994). See, also, Stephen Rae, “Humans Report Abduction by Aliens! Harvard Psychiatrist Swears It's True!” The New York Times Magazine, Mar. 20, 1994.

David Kirkwood Hart (review date November-December 1994)

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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 glance, Himmelfarb's essays collected in this book seem rather random, from the long of it—“Liberty: One Very Simple Principle?”—to the short of it—“Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?” But there is a clean, clear theme that runs throughout: Himmelfarb's passionate commitment to “the Enlightenment principles [of] reason, truth, justice, morality, reality,” which are for her the prerequisite for a free, humane, and democratic society.

Himmelfarb, more and more, appears to embrace the tradition of “civic virtue,” which argues that the strength of a republic lies in the pervasiveness of virtue among its citizens. Further, and following Lord Acton, she also argues that the greater the power one has, the greater the moral responsibility—noblesse oblige. This leads her to extend that standard across the board: if virtue is essential for a republic, it is essential for any social endeavor—whether public, private, or academic. Her demand for academic virtue is a distinctive and very important part of her argument: those involved in the work of the university must hold themselves to the highest standards of virtue.

Finally, she continues to emphasize the extraordinary importance of the moral imagination. In the vein of George Santayana, Himmelfarb believes “that all serious human activity is moral.” Hers is a universe of moral realities: compassion, courage, and truth—for instance—are superior to cruelty, cowardice, and falsehood. But such moral realities must be made to live in the hearts and minds of individuals—hence, the necessity of moral imagination, which she defined in The Idea of Poverty (1983) as “the imagination that makes sense of reality, not by being imposed upon reality (as ideology is) but by so thoroughly penetrating it that the reality has no form or shape apart from it.”

Such commitments make obvious who are the villains. Unlike so many trendy folks who delight in middle-class, mass male bashing, Himmelfarb goes after the real malefactors: the anti-rational, mystagogic, and authoritarian intellectuals of postmodernism. She is aware of the proliferation of their sects and factions—from post-structuralists and deconstructionists, to multiculturalists and “Rortyarians”—but for the sake of brevity, she clusters them all under the rubric of postmodernism.

The most salient characteristic of postmodernism is an obscurantist writing style that would stump ULTRA. The fact is that the self-proclaimed “clowns” and “jongleurs” of language cannot write worth a lick. But that is not the real problem. In The New History and the Old, Himmelfarb deplored the rejection of “ordinary literacy” by the psycho- and quantohistorians. This, she argued, “is not a matter of ‘mere’ style—although that would be serious enough. It goes to the very substance of history; it determines how the historian thinks about, as well as writes about, the human beings, human affairs, and human events that constitute the subject of history.”

Their language (and, thus, their beliefs), she continued, dehumanized their human subjects, and the same can be said of postmodernism. Himmelfarb would likely agree with W. H. Auden, who wrote: “There is one evil that concerns literature [or history] which should never be passed over in silence but be continually publicly attacked, and that is corruption of the language.”

For Himmelfarb, however, the great sin of postmodernism is that it proselytizes for the creatures of the Nietzschean abyss—hence, the title of the book. She warns, “There is nothing illusory or metaphoric in Nietzsche's abyss, which is the primal, tragic fact of the human condition.” That we must confront the abyss is essential if we are to transcend it. But, as with a solar eclipse, great care must be taken not to gaze at it directly.

Nietzsche warned, “Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Himmelfarb argues the abyss “has grown deeper and more perilous, with new and more dreadful terrors lurking at the bottom,” which makes the gazing more dangerous: “The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of post-modernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity.”

The postmodernists, however, treat the beasts casually and, paraphrasing David Lehman, they look into the abyss and come away smiling. Thus, says Himmelfarb, “generations of intelligent students under the guidance of their enlightened professors have looked into the abyss, have contemplated those beasts, and have said, ‘How interesting, how exciting.’”

The postmodern professors, having debunked moral reality, have also eschewed moral responsibility to those they invite to the gazing: let them fare for themselves, caveat discipulus.

What is more, this is done from a risk free position, for the postmodernist professors “look into the abyss secure in their tenured positions, risking nothing and seeking nothing save another learned article.” To Himmelfarb, they are the pampered scions of a hard-won liberalism, who misuse the freedom they have been given, but have not earned. What is more, they have pushed that freedom beyond all reasonable limits, creating a threatening paradox: “How can a society that celebrates the virtues of liberty, individuality, variety, and tolerance sustain itself when those virtues, carried to extremes, threaten to subvert that liberal society and, with it, those very virtues?”

Such irresponsibility is particularly serious within the universities, because, as Himmelfarb sees it, they are the guardians and guarantors of the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic heritage of humankind for the future. To play fast and loose with the moral obligations of the university is harmful to the society at large, for “there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and the polity.”

The academic profession, thus, requires virtue in the professorate, if for no other reason than that the legacy can be easily lost. Freud is reputed to have said that if one generation fails to teach the next generation, the third generation begins in the caves. To jumble the metaphors wildly, if one generation poisons the well, the next generation will become addled, and the third generation will begin way behind the eight-ball. So it is that postmodernism “entices us with the siren call of liberation and creativity, but it may be an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide.”

Why? Himmelfarb concedes that postmodernism is a fad on the wane. Why not just let it fade away into deserved obscurity? The reason is that the postmodernist historians are doing nearly irreparable damage to the discipline of history—and, thus, to society. What are the areas of damage?

First, postmodernism mocks “morality” as simply an artifice used by the elites to keep the masses in line. As noted above, Himmelfarb believes in a moral reality, and she also argues that the moral realities of the past are the most important facts in understanding that past. Thus, in an earlier essay, she observes, “Victorians would have found inadequate any purely behavioral description of social relations that did not take into account such moral facts as duty and obligation, propriety and responsibility.”

Second, in “deconstructing” the horrors of the past, they relieve the perpetrators of evil from the burden of guilt. As one of their number wrote about Stalin—and, by implication about Hitler—to pass judgment upon him is “an exercise in moral imperialism.” Conversely, to deconstruct the glories of the past is to dismiss the great acts of moral courage as largely irrelevant.

In place of moral free will, post-modernism substitutes a confused determinism, in order “to mute the drama of history, to void it of moral content, to mitigate evil and belittle greatness.” Great men and women apparently just happen, as do evil men and women—unwilled by-products of the flow of non-events. Responsibility, duty, obligation—these are just outmoded words that have no relevance for human life.

This is made quite clear in their incomprehensible attempt to deconstruct the murder of millions of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis. This Holocaust is arguably one of the most horrendous events in human history since it was both “voluntary” and “intentional”—an act of conscious willing. Yet the postmodernists suggest that it was both “determined” and “unintentional”—some unfortunate rough water in the ineluctable stream of time, no more nor less significant than the culturally determined contents of a romance novel or the creation of Mickey Mouse.

Thus, Heinrich Himmler had no choice but the Final Solution and Ilse Koch had to make those lampshades out of human skin. Even worse, the great moral heroes turn into cultural marionettes: Raoul Wallenberg exercised no moral courage as he tried to save the Jews and Dr. Strandbygaard was just another cultural lemming as she risked her life as she was leading Jews down to the little boats that ferried them from Denmark to Sweden.

Himmelfarb detests this presumption of moral helplessness. She begins her essay “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets” by throwing the familiar pitch, “No man is a hero to his valet,” but the pitch turns into a slider: “No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet.” This sounds elitist, but she has nothing against valets, an endangered species. Rather, she goes after “valet-like souls,” slovenly souls—Lytton Strachey is a good example—who have never seen fit to develop the capacity to appreciate or understand greatness.

Himmelfarb believes that valet-souls are on the increase—aided and abetted by postmodernism:

Today it is more obvious than ever that without will and freedom there can be no virtue and vice. And without virtue and vice there can be no heroes and villains. There can be only valets—valets who recognize no heroes, whether of good or evil; indeed, who recognize no greatness of any kind: no momentous events in history, no superior works of art, literature, or philosophy, no essential distinction between the trivial and the important.

She decries the attempt to deny that either heroes or villains can consciously will their characters. That is to deny reality, and to corrupt both history and humanity.

Himmelfarb is neither a hero-worshipper nor an apologist (unlike, for instance, the frenetic postmodernist defenders of the unsavory Paul de Man), but she insists that events and individuals be put into their proper context, as did the best of the Victorian biographers: “Their heroes had feet of clay; but they were heroes nonetheless, because their heroism lay not in their feet (or other lowly organs) but in their minds and works.”

Postmodernism attempts to eliminate “those last remnants of heroism by denying not only the idea of eminence but the very idea of individuality.” But, she concludes, “The absence of villains is as prostrating, as soul-destroying, as the absence of heroes.” To deny humankind its moral heroes is tragic; to deny it their moral villains is stupid.

Third, postmodernism argues that the record of the past is simply fiction, created by a dominant elite to justify their hegemonic repression of victim classes. History, therefore, is no longer a demanding, essential search for the facts of human existence, it is just a parlor game—“Scrabble” with “texts” on the tiles.

As such, history becomes an exercise in creative writing, and “the historian finds himself with a tabula rasa on which he may inscribe whatever past he likes.” Historians, from this perspective, need do no more than just kick back and enjoy the trip: “Postmodernist history,” says Himmelfarb, “[…] recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle—history at the pleasure of the historian.”

Fourth, postmodernism dehumanizes individuals by “freeing” them from the burden of history, primarily by attacking all notions of free will and individual uniqueness in the historical record. But to strip humans of these things is to degrade them into meaningless ciphers, significant only for their gender, race, sexual orientation, or class. The postmodernists call this “multiculturalism”—their version of pluralism—claiming that it gives voice to the voiceless. But Himmelfarb names it for what it is:

… its [most] pernicious effect is to demean and dehumanize the people who are the subjects of history. To pluralize and particularize history to the point where people have no history in common is to deny the common humanity of all people, whatever their sex, race, class, religion. It is also to trivialize history by so fragmenting it that it lacks all coherence and focus, all sense of continuity—indeed, all meaning.

As she writes: “To free men from the ‘burden’ of history is to free them from the burden of humanity.” It is within our common history that we discover our common humanity.

Finally, postmodernism promotes a deconstructed, and then culturally adjusted, history in order to justify the political beliefs of its acolytes. Here they follow the grand inquisitor O'Brien, in George Orwell's 1984, who forces Winston Smith to repeat a Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. …”

So it is that many postmodernists cynically manipulate the history of those already hurt: from African Americans and Native Americans, to Hispanic Americans and women. Or, in their trashing of “Eurocentrism,” they legitimize “nationalities in the Third World and elsewhere which are notably illiberal, inhuman, and, not infrequently, racist.” How can anyone hope to learn from history so distorted?

Himmelfarb rejects the post-modernists and their claim to being taken seriously. She rejects them not only because of their obscurantism, their propensity for dealing with dissent by McCarthy-ite tactics, but mainly for their denial of moral reality and, hence, moral responsibility. Cleverness, apparently, has become the substitute for moral responsibility: “One of the gurus of this school, Stanley Fish, once said that the demise of objectivity ‘relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.’”

Himmelfarb's book is dedicated to “the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between them.” Historians have the moral obligation not to impose their values upon their subjects—reading history backwards. But the past must be judged, and historians must make moral judgments, if the present generation is to learn from history. To repeat Santayana's familiar warning: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. … Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it.”

And history tells us emphatically that all of us have a civic responsibility to live virtuously. Himmelfarb writes about John Stuart Mill's conception of liberty: “In Enlightenment France, in Whig England, and in republican America, the message was the same: Liberty, but not in excess and always in conjunction with virtue. … Even the Founding Fathers … recognized the importance of virtue, both in their leaders and in the people.” And, as Himmelfarb makes clear, in their professors.

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

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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 pretend to read. This censure runs throughout Himmelfarb's work, ever since she made that fateful shift, from Victorian intellectual history, on which she still writes with distinction, to the faults of the academy and its works.

Himmelfarb catalogues the ways in which academic historians have strained to appear original. Deliberately ignoring chronology, claiming the right to reinvent biographical contexts, and prescinding from moral judgments while describing situations that cry out for them are all features that she finds in today's academic historiography. While Himmelfarb does concede a limited use for non-narrative historical studies, she is upset that those on the other side of the methodological divide would see her work as obsolete and even reprehensible. She urges a new appreciation of the standards of historical scholarship that prevailed before the ascendancy of postmodernism. This defense of the old historical tradition against reckless innovations is the thematic thread intended to hold together the anthology.

Whatever else her essays cover, Himmelfarb tries to relate them to this central concern: upholding the moral, narrative-based historiography that she herself writes and which she believes is best exemplified by Victorian and other nineteenth-century historians. To her credit, Himmelfarb does have a record of highly respectable scholarship, going back to the magisterial biographies of Charles Darwin and Lord Acton she wrote in the 1950s. Unlike many historians, she writes elegantly, without flaunting her learning. And she is not afraid to express her own views about some of her subjects, for example Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. Himmelfarb bravely notes the often contradictory readings she has taken away from particular figures whose work she has researched. Her study of Mill in the 1970s remains a provocative example of the conflicting opinions that one can draw from that thinker and of the importance of putting texts into a biographical context.

In a revealing examination of her present work in the New York Times Book Review, Michael Howard, Regis Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, praises Himmelfarb's subtlety and sense of conviction. He remarks on her determination to follow the moral teachings of one of her heroes, the Columbia University professor of English Lionel Trilling. Like the morally outspoken Trilling, Himmelfarb seeks to “resist the insidious ideological and political fashions” without a “coarsening of the mind that often comes from doing battle” and while also avoiding “the triviality and equivocation that retreats from battle in an excess of fastidiousness.” Like the author of these lines, who combines textual insights with moral passion, Himmelfarb is seen as taking on those who shun the necessity for ethical choice: she exposes “frivolous gameplayers who make a virtue of their moral irresponsibility.”

Among these are the academics who excuse the literary theorist and fascist collaborator Paul de Man by citing his aesthetic achievements. Himmelfarb reproves all those who “problematize” the Holocaust instead of condemning it unequivocally. Despite his praise of the book, however, Howard does express a single but significant reservation, that the author may have expended too much talent on trivial targets: she has “given so devastating a survey of postmodernist fashion in American academic life that one sometimes wonders whether these boobies are really worth powder and shot.”

One might phrase Howard's comments a bit differently, as a question. Were all the objects of Himmelfarb's attacks really uncomplicated boobies? If so, can it not be agreed that her work of demolition was misdirected—and even possibly superfluous? In many of her other criticisms, Himmelfarb may be swinging with too little restraint. She fiercely assaults postmodernist historians, though it is never shown to what extent they are representative of the historical profession. Are historians who avoid the use of footnotes as common as Himmelfarb intimates in Chapter Six? From what I can tell, they are no more common than the deconstructors of historical chronology, who are ridiculed in Chapter Seven.

I am also not convinced of the merit of Himmelfarb's censures against Braudel, who believed that “long-term, inanimate, impersonal forces,” particularly geography, demography, and economics, shape history. Braudel did extensive work on his magnum opus, The Mediterranean World in the Time of Philip II, while a German prisoner during the Second World War. Despite the unpleasant “short-term occurrence” of that war, Braudel maintained that the “deeper realities” of world history were climactic and material. Rather than observing his detachment in making such a judgment, whether right or wrong, Himmelfarb scolds Braudel for ignoring “heroes of evil.” Concludes Himmelfarb: “The Holocaust as a ‘short-term’ event—the mind boggles!” Himmelfarb contrasts Braudel's cosmic aloofness to Trilling's acute awareness of “Nazism and Stalinism,” which led him into “moral reprobation.” She takes pains to present the morally and imaginatively insensitive Braudel as a foil for the intensely judgmental Trilling.

As Himmelfarb herself points out, however, Trilling was not a historian but a didactic literary critic, and his anti-Stalinist record was spotty at best (which was also true for Braudel). Himmelfarb clearly recognizes the evils of Nazism and Stalinism; but there is no reason to assume that hers is an isolated opinion in American universities. Her complaint that contemporary historians are ignoring the evils of Hitler and Stalin is utterly counterfactual, given the steady publication of works by historians dealing with both tyrants. One must commend Himmelfarb's passionate rejection of self-evident evils, but there is no indication that Trilling was a particularly good model for this attitude or that those who choose other historical methods are morally phlegmatic.

Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and other deconstructionist targets in Himmelfarb's work have always been explicit about the political intent of their method. They have fought against fixed meanings being assigned to texts and events, and have defended free association in their hermeneutics as a definite political statement. Deconstructionists in America and France have presented their method of explication as an effort to free society of the rigid inherited controls which they associate with the reactionary right. Himmelfarb may not agree with either the method or the simplistic view put forth to justify it, but her treatment of deconstructionism does not do justice to the idealistic claims made by its exponents. What they do may be a self-contradictory fraud but their justification invariably appeals, though sometimes surreptitiously, to moral values. Again, ironically, it was Himmelfarb's mentor Trilling who during the student riots at Columbia in 1968 refused to take a stand against the rioters, thereby showing what was then perceived as an avoidance of moral choice. Though his wife Diana and his biographer Mark Krupnick both effectively defend Trilling against the charge of moral cowardice, it is curious to see him treated as a more engaged moralist than Derrida. Like Himmelfarb, I prefer Trilling as a writer to Derrida and would no doubt have liked him better as a companion. But one overriding reason for my preference is that Trilling was far less politicized than most deconstructionists, who grandstand as anti-fascists. Would that they were more like the whimsical amoralists whom Himmelfarb depicts. Alas they are not, and some French deconstructionists, led by Derrida, authored and signed an “Appeal to Vigilance,” which appeared in Le Monde on July 13, 1993. The Appeal sounded an ominous warning against the “New Right Danger” in Europe. Although the enemy here was not expressly named, the French press and media were denounced for refusing to muzzle the “enemies of democracy,” on the anniversary of the Jacobin ascendancy of 1793.

There are stretches of informative analysis in On Looking into the Abyss. The chapter on Hegel includes illuminating statements: for example, that Hegel's Philosophy of History sets out to plot not the progressive realization of freedom in successive civilizations, but the unfolding consciousness of freedom through historical time. In a few lapidary phrases, Himmelfarb deals with some of the most persistent misconceptions of Hegel's views of progress and freedom. Unfortunately, she then betrays the limits of her own understanding, by identifying Hegelian philosophy with the journalist Francis Fukuyama. Because of Fukuyama's widely noted publications dealing with the “end of history” and the coming global triumph of liberal democracy she tells us, Hegel “has [finally] come to Washington.”

But Fukuyama takes his ideas about the end of history not from Hegel, but from the Marxist-Hegelian Alexandre Kojève, a friend of Fukuyama's teacher Allan Bloom and a longtime correspondent of Leo Strauss. It was Kojève and other members of the Hegelian left who proclaimed the advent of a lasting age of democratic internationalism prefigured by the French Revolution. An anti-democratic constitutional monarchist and defender of the nation state, Hegel did not express the political vision found in either Kojève or Fukuyama.

Unlike these latter-day progressives, Hegel did not represent the view that Himmelfarb mistakenly ascribes to him, believing that “nationalism has no empirical significance. It is a blip on the panorama of history.” Such errors mar even the best chapters in Himmelfarb's collection of essays. They make us long for the days when the author wrote her exhaustive biographies of great Victorians, when she practiced intellectual history in the best sense, and still had not become a full-time social commentator. Perhaps at this point in her career, Himmelfarb should think of recovering that high ground. Her work of earlier decades will likely hold up far better than will this book.

Wilson Quarterly (essay date winter 1995)

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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 alternative, since Lewes was already married and could not get a divorce.” Nor did she flaunt her defiance of convention. “Although Eliot lived with Lewes in that ‘irregular relationship,’ as the Victorians delicately put it … she tried to ‘regularize’ it by making it as much like a proper marriage as possible.”

Eliot referred to Lewes as her “husband” and to herself as his “wife.” She signed letters “Marian Lewes,” and asked friends to address her as “Mrs. Lewes” (and even the real Mrs. Lewes did so). The 24 years that Eliot and Lewes were together “were spent in perfect domesticity and fidelity,” Himmelfarb says. After he died, she wed John Cross, “with all the trappings of a proper marriage: a trousseau, a church wedding, and a honeymoon.”

“The idea that only in marriage can Dorothea find her personal happiness as well as her moral mission seems peculiarly Victorian. And so it is,” Himmelfarb says. “For the Victorians, even for Victorian feminists, marriage and family were the primary human relationships. … Victorian families, recent scholarship has shown, were not nearly as oppressive or patriarchal as was once thought. But the idea of the family was very nearly sacrosanct, and that idea implied that men and women had distinctive natures and virtues which bound them together in a complex relationship of rights, duties, and, if they were fortunate, love.”

Dorothea marries Ladislaw, by her own account, because of their mutual love. But Middlemarch, Himmelfarb says, is also what Henry James called a “moralized fable.” Precisely because Ladislaw is morally imperfect, he provides Dorothea with “her mission: to redeem him.” Her love and faith in him can make him “a better human being worthy both of her and of society.” For Dorothea to marry the noble Lydgate, on the other hand, would have been lacking in moral drama. He sought to do “great work for the world,” and did not need a wife to help him. The ending of Middlemarch, Himmelfarb concludes, is not tragic, but rather, “as Eliot meant it to be, eminently moral, even heroic.”

Merle Rubin (review date 14 February 1995)

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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 belittling the Victorian ideals of hard work, thrift, sobriety, cleanliness, and honesty as merely middle-class values “respectability,” she reminds us, “was the common denominator linking all the classes.” The Victorian credo of self-help and self-respect, she shows, far from engendering selfishness, fostered a keen sense of social responsibility toward the less fortunate. Private philanthropy flourished alongside government programs for reform, sanitation, and public welfare.

And, while religion played a formative role in many Victorian lives, even those who were unbelievers maintained an unshakable commitment to morality—so much so, that it was often said, morality was the Victorians religion, whatever their particular affiliations.

Foreign observers like French philosopher Hippolyte Taine (1828-93) were impressed by the difference between the French gentilhomme, a model of elan and elegance, and the English gentleman, an honorable and decent human being. Although the term was originally linked to a class (the “gentry”), by the later years of the Victorian era, gentlemanliness was a question of character rather than birth. “It was no small feat for England, in a period of massive social and economic changes, to attain a degree of civility and humaneness that was the envy of the rest of the world,” Himmelfarb notes approvingly.

But her chapters, interesting as they are, treating everything from “The Jew as Victorian” to “Feminism, Victorian Style,” do not form a coherent thesis. And while her understanding of the Victorians is subtle and acute, her vision of modern times is lacking in precisely those qualities.

Turning to the present “de-moralized” age, Himmelfarb points to the horrifying increase in violent crime that has, according to some statistical analysts, made the life of the average inner-city youth riskier than that of a GI during World War II. But rather than examine the complex reasons for society's increasing lack of humaneness and civility, she focuses—almost obsessively—on the issue of illegitimate births, predictably blaming the 1960s counterculture for this and most other lawless behavior. (In 1988, Scott Davis's book The World of Patience Gromes Making and Unmaking a Black Community made a similar point far more persuasively.)

But if the counterculture can be blamed for glamorizing promiscuity, irresponsibility, even violence, Himmelfarb remains notably silent about the jungle-style ethics of the so-called free marketplace of developers eager to make a quick buck at the expense of the environment, of an entertainment industry that sees nothing wrong with continually ratcheting up the level of graphic film violence, of journalists doing anything to sensationalize a story, of some lawyers, doctors, and other professionals more concerned with profits than with service to people.

Nor has she any word of caution to the new horde of deregulators itching to “get government off the backs” of businesses (like the drug and airline industries) that actually seem to need more oversight than they are currently receiving. Schools that hand out contraceptives alarm her a good deal more than the proliferation of assault weapons—ironic, considering her horror of illegitimacy.

The Victorians, as Himmelfarb portrays them, combined a sense of broad social responsibility with a respect for the conscience of the private individual.

There are far more lessons to be learned from their conscientious and public-spirited ethos than Himmelfarb is prepared to present to the “de-moralized” society so greatly in need of such inspiration from the past.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 19 February 1995)

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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, cleanliness, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, patriotism”—with the “relativized and subjectified … ‘values’” of the present day. She writes:

Values, as we now understand that word, do not have to be virtues; they can be beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies—whatever any individual, group or society happens to value, at any time, for any reason. One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone's virtues are as good as anyone else's, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. Only values can lay that claim to moral equality and neutrality. This impartial, “nonjudgmental,” as we now say, sense of values—values as “value-free”—is now so firmly entrenched in the popular vocabulary and sensibility that one can hardly imagine a time without it.

It is Himmelfarb's intention in this book to bring back to life on the printed page precisely such a time: the much-maligned Victorian era, a long, fruitful and endlessly interesting period in English and American history when a sense of communal morality was at the very center of society and culture. She does this without sentimentalizing the Victorians, about whose shortcomings she is entirely forthright, or arguing that the clock can be turned back. Though she writes admiringly about such matters as “respectability” and its embodiments, the “gentleman” and “gentlewoman,” she is less concerned with narrow details than with the broad lesson the Victorians can teach us, “not so much the specifically Victorian virtues that we may well value today, as the importance of an ethos that does not denigrate or so thoroughly relativize values as to make them ineffectual and meaningless.”

Himmelfarb advances this argument with careful reasoning and rich detail, so a relatively brief review can only mention a few of its highlights. Perhaps the most important of these is that, contrary to prevailing notions of Victorianism as a synonym for snobbery, prudery and class warfare, it was in fact a period, in England most specifically, in which “democratic virtues” were actively sought if not always achieved. She makes a persuasive case that Victorians “assumed a common human nature and thus a moral (although not a political or an economic) equality.” A cat could look at a king, and a commoner could be a gentleman. Not rank or wealth or privilege distinguished such a person; as Anthony Trollope wrote: “What makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? Absolute, intrinsic, acknowledged, individual merit.” This was a condition to which anyone could aspire, and the Victorians were as quick to recognize and praise it in a potter or a blacksmith as in a merchant or a prince.

The Victorians were a domestic people to whom the household was the center of life and the family “something like a civic religion, the natural, providential basis of the public as well as the private order.” She quotes Benjamin Disraeli: “The nation is represented by a family—the Royal Family; and if that family is educated with a sense of responsibility and a sentiment of public duty, it is difficult to exaggerate the salutary influence they may exercise over a nation.”

Himmelfarb offers that observation without commentary of her own, perhaps because in present circumstances any comment is so self-evident as to be universally acknowledged. Yet it is worth saying the obvious all the same, that the decline of morality and virtue in the royal family at once mirrors and accelerates the same decline among families less fortunately situated. In a country where for generations the royal family has been the focus of national identity and the model for national emulation, what happens when the center itself cannot hold?

Looking from the vantage point of the Victorian era at the present and the future of our own, Himmelfarb is anything except optimistic. It is difficult to imagine that she or any other clear-minded observer could be otherwise. “Where the Victorians had the satisfaction of witnessing a significant improvement in their condition,” she writes, “we are confronting a considerable deterioration in ours,” and she cites statistical chapter and verse to prove the point. The essence of it is that whereas the Victorians experienced decline or stabilization among such indices of social derangement as crime, illegitimacy and welfare, we are seeing all of these rise at rates so rapid as to leave no expectation save more of the same.

All of this takes place within the larger framework of a culture that has been, in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's notable phrase, “defining deviancy down” so as to legitimize behavior previously regarded as antisocial or criminal. That is, we have rising criminal and antisocial statistics at the same time that we have become ever more permissive as to what behavior falls under such statistical classifications. Himmelfarb does not put it in precisely such terms, so I shall take the liberty of doing so for her: We are in danger of becoming a criminal society, one so completely “demoralized” as to be incapable of distinguishing between proper and improper behavior.

We have made, as Himmelfarb readily recognizes, “considerable gains in material goods, political liberty, social mobility, racial and sexual equality.” We have also suffered “no less considerable losses in moral well-being.” But there is no direct or inextricable connection between these phenomena. The price of enhanced liberty and equality is not moral and ethical debasement. Indeed, no one in postwar American life sought more eloquently or persuasively to invoke our common moral heritage than that great advocate of racial justice, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew that social progress cannot be divorced from a firm sense of right and wrong. That we as a society no longer share such a sense is one of the mysteries, and the calamities, of the age.

James Bowman (review date March 1995)

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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 Victorianism as well as Victorians has been constrained by the demands of scholarship. It is time that she cut loose—not because we would have her take a vacation from scholarship, but because we have need of polemics which are as convincingly informed by it as this one is.

After an introductory discussion of the social significances to be attributed to the shift from “virtues” to “values,” Miss Himmelfarb launches into a masterly series of chapters on Victorian attitudes toward “manners and morals,” to the family, to the position of women, to the poor, to charity and philanthropy, and, finally, to the Jews. Then there is a chapter on the changing ideas of sexual morality during Victoria's last decade, which “may be said to constitute the late-Victorian ‘counterculture.’” Her final chapter on the breakdown of the Victorian consensus—which only became complete (with disastrous social results) in the 1960s—is followed by a brief postscript on why the puritans of political correctness do not deserve to be called “New Victorians.”

Indeed, the book consistently celebrates those Victorian qualities which are least understood by the “New Victorians” but which ought most to recommend themselves to us—their tolerance, their democratic instincts, their passion for reform. Here there is no reticence about or apology for proposing the Old Victorians to us as models both of intellect and of conduct. Others (not least Mrs. Thatcher) have done the same, but no one hitherto has done it with such a breadth of learning and such a comprehensive understanding of just what it is that she is recommending.

For those who are skeptical about the virtue revival and above all the virtues of the Victorians, The De-Moralization of Society will severely tax their ingenuity in raising informed objections; for those who are already in sympathy with it, the book will serve as both a useful and a delightful compendium of knowledge about the period, culled from lifelong study. Here you may learn in the author's enjoyably frequent asides that a writer for the Lady Cyclist in 1895 hailed the bicycle as the means by which women could meet “a new dawn, a dawn of emancipation,” or that the motto of the penny paper Woman, of which Arnold Bennett was an assistant editor, was “Forward but not too fast.” I especially liked the account of how Freud and Havelock Ellis managed to agree that the science of sex was often conducted by those who themselves suffered from sexual neuroses without being able to agree as to which of the two of them so suffered.

The book can only be faulted, I think, in being a bit more censorious of Wilde and the decadents than they quite deserve and, occasionally, in straining too much to rehabilitate the Victorians to late-twentieth-century sensibilities. It is easy to say, as Miss Himmelfarb does, that “no one, not even the most ardent ‘virtue revivalist,’ is proposing to revive” such things as excessively deferential children, or workers, or blacks, or women along with Victorianism. “Those ‘good-old’/‘bad-old’ days are irrevocably gone,” she avers. To me it is not quite so obvious as it seems to be to her that we can pick out for refurbishment and renewal only the good things of Victorianism and leave the bad ones alone. But it will be a long time before we see anyone make a better case than this one for the good.

James J. Sheehan (review date April 1995)

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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 Where Nationalism and Religion Meet,” she argues that “not all nationalities are worthy of respect and recognition.” Good, healthy nationalisms are those “tempered by religion as well as the other resources of civilization” (pp. 119, 121). “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets” provides some fragmentary reflections on the role of the individual in history and on the danger of reducing history to the study of long-term structural change. “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?” rehearses Himmelfarb's claim that there are two John Stuart Mills: the radical, irresponsible author of “On Liberty” and the more moderate, prudent ally of Alexis de Tocqueville and other sensible liberals. In this essay, the “bad” Mill is held partly accountable for the philosophical position that Himmelfarb most dislikes, the postmodern denial that there is any such thing as truth. Her critique of postmodernism is the central subject of the first and last essays, “On Looking into the Abyss” and “Postmodernist History,” but in a sense it pervades the entire volume, which is, as the author tells us in her brief introduction, “dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between them, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society” (p. xii). Her enemies are those who seem to deny these fundamental values.

Himmelfarb is not a talented polemicist. To be sure, she has no trouble hitting such large and slow-moving targets as Martin Heidegger's politics, Paul de Man's youthful anti-Semitism, and Jacques Derrida's preposterous defense of de Man. Most of her opponents, however, will have little trouble evading her wrath. In part this is because she rarely feels it necessary to analyze or argue with them; it usually seems to be enough to state their views with sufficient scorn and outrage. Too often, these views are distorted beyond recognition. Her treatment of Richard Rorty, for example, is based on a crude caricature of his ideas, which may be deeply wrong, but are also far more interesting and substantially more difficult to dismiss than her account would suggest. This is a book of opinions, not arguments and analysis; it is a sermon for the choir, delivered to those who already have the faith.

Himmelfarb's own opinions are abundantly clear, but it is sometimes unclear who exactly holds the opinions she so vigorously attacks. Consider, for example, her discussion of the Holocaust, which, she tells us, “stands as a rebuke to historians, philosophers, and literary critics who, in their zeal for one or another of the intellectual fashions of our time, belittle or demean one of the greatest tragedies of all time” (p. xi). She excoriates those historians who see “not beasts but faceless bureaucrats, not corpses but statistics, not willful acts of brutality and murder but the banal routine of everyday life, not gas chambers and gulags but military-industrial-geopolitical complexes” (p. 18). But who are these historians? One searches her endnotes in vain for the names of scholars who belittle or demean the Holocaust, just as one searches in vain for references to the extraordinary new work being done by Richard Breitman, Christopher Browning, Jonathan Steinberg, and many others. It is unfortunate that in her zeal to make a polemical point, Himmelfarb misses the opportunity to introduce her many readers to those who have recently helped us to understand this central tragedy of our time.

A similar weakness undermines her attack on “Postmodernist History.” A great many of the alleged postmodernists mentioned in the sixty-seven endnotes to this essay are not historians at all. Most of the writings by historians that she does cite are programmatic statements and methodological exhortations (some of which, in their strident tone and lack of substance, have a not entirely accidental resemblance to her own essay). As far as I can tell, not one book of postmodernist history is discussed. Postmodernists, one suspects, come as single spies, not in battalions: without Hayden White and a handful of others, the defenders of truth against postmodern subversion would have no enemies at all.

This book is handsomely produced and has been widely promoted. It will, however, persuade no one. Those whom Himmelfarb attacks will ignore her. Some of those who share her views may be glad to see them repeated one more time. But others will hope that she soon returns to writing those fine works of history that represent the most sustained and eloquent arguments in favor of the kind of history she thinks ought to be written.

Christie Davies (review date 3 April 1995)

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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 period of secularization in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as earnest agnostics strove even harder to be moral after the age of faith had departed. This may well have been true of dutiful Victorian intellectuals such as Darwin, Stephen, and George Eliot, whose lives and works Professor Himmelfarb has studied in great detail, but was it really true of the ordinary people of provincial England, Scotland with its competing Calvinisms, or widely revivalist Wales? My criticism is not of the logic of Professor Himmelfarb's argument, but merely about the timing; secularization set in rather later in Britain than her model suggests.

One of the most important sections of Professor Himmelfarb's book is her rehabilitation of the image of the Victorian family and particularly the Victorian working-class family. It is clear from a variety of sources, including oral history, that the women who ran, and the children who grew up in, such families did not feel that their lives had been overdisciplined or that they had been overworked or treated with repressive cruelty. Indeed in later life most of them remembered their homes and families as having provided a natural, right, and in general happy way of life. Marriage was a lifelong working partnership with clearly defined roles for husband and wife and clear standards as to what a good husband and a good wife were like. We have here a demolition of the feminist myth of an oppressive patriarchal past; ironically, but reassuringly, Professor Himmelfarb has garnered much of the evidence disproving the feminist view from empirical material gathered by scholars of a feminist persuasion. It is good to see that some feminists have the integrity to put regard for the truth ahead of political correctness.

What is also very striking is the great stability of the working-class family at a time of very rapid social and economic change—in marked contrast to the chaotic living arrangements of today's squalid underclass. Indeed, in the East End of London, a poor area with an unstable labor market and endemic unemployment and poverty, the illegitimacy rate was only 4.5 per cent in the middle of the nineteenth century and 3 per cent by the end of the century; both figures were below the national average, which had peaked at 7 per cent in 1845 and fallen to 4 per cent by 1900. Today, by contrast, about a third of all British births are illegitimate.

We can see here part of a phenomenon I have called the U-curve of deviance, that strange fall and then rise in crime (both violent and nonviolent), illegitimacy, and drug and alcohol abuse that have taken place over the last century and a half. Victorian reform reduced all of these types of deviant activity to very low levels. These low levels were then enjoyed by the British and Americans for the first half of the twentieth century, until a massive rise in all of them during the last forty years. Professor Himmelfarb suggests in her book that the name of my model should be changed to the J-curve, since the rise in deviance and crime has taken Britain and America to a point of moral disorder far in excess of anything to be found in the nineteenth century. She may well be right; it looked more like a U-curve when I dubbed it that at the end of the 1970s than it does today after another 15 years of moral degeneration.

Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest study of the Victorians is, like all her work in this field, a delight to read—clear, erudite, sensible, logical, and creative. In addition to providing a convincing picture of a successful and virtuous society, her work throws new and interesting light on particular issues, such as the distinctive character of and divisions within Victorian feminism and the position of Jews, whose virtues led to their being regarded as suspect by the early socialist ideologists and organizers. There are also marvelous insights into the foibles, and more than foibles, of many early, mid, and late Victorians, including John Stuart Mill, H. G. Wells, and the rascally “Dr.” Edward Aveling, who abused Karl Marx's daughter in true Marxist fashion. Professor Himmelfarb's is also a moral text, for it not only dissects and praises the morality of Victorian Britain, but also shows in great statistical detail how far present-day Britain and America fall short of the Victorian ideal. It points the way to a possible renewal of society to cure our current demoralization.

Peter L. Berger (review date May 1995)

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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 regard to this school of interpretation; she does not idealize the Victorians, but she insists on a balanced picture. More, she argues that there are important aspects of Victorian culture that merit our emulation.

One common opinion about Victorian society, widely shared for obvious reasons by historians on the Left, is that there were wide cleavages between middle-class and working-class culture. To the contrary, Himmelfarb argues: one of the more remarkable features of Victorian society was the commonality of moral beliefs throughout most of the population. The middle classes and the lower classes generally agreed on what constituted respectability, in the basic moral sense of behavior worthy of respect.

Similarly, Himmelfarb criticizes the notion that Victorian women were particularly oppressed—they were very active, she demonstrates, in important social and political movements, even if denied the vote and deemed properly to belong to the household rather than to the world of gainful employment. She is equally skeptical of the conventional view of profound sexual repression—the Victorians were a jollier lot than is commonly assumed. Nor, she shows, were the wealthier elements of the population callously indifferent to the sufferings of the lower orders—the Victorian age was one of ongoing reforms, virtually without exception initiated by middle-class politicians and movements often inspired by Protestant moral convictions.

On the last of these points, Himmelfarb returns to an argument that she has advanced repeatedly before. The Victorians, she shows, drew a distinction between the poor and “paupers.” The former were considered “deserving” of benevolent interventions because their poverty could not be blamed on them; by contrast, the latter either had brought their misfortune on themselves by their own destructive behavior or had refused to improve their condition by giving up that behavior. Here, if nowhere else, the Victorians hold out lessons of great relevance to our current debate over the nature, the ethos, and the limits of the modern welfare state.

But above all we can learn from the Victorian understanding that society is at bottom a moral entity. That insight, not necessarily based on the specific moral ideas of the Victorians, is as true today as it was then, and indeed here the common sense of the Victorians coincides with the most sophisticated sociological theories. (One thinks especially of Emile Durkheim and his view of human society as based on a “collective conscience.”) If the insight has been blurred in more recent times, that is due in part to a misunderstood social-science view of human actions, and particularly to an increasing reluctance to use moral language in thinking about social justice and the welfare state. As Himmelfarb writes, “It is this reluctance to speak the language of morality, far more than any specific values, that separates us from the Victorians.”

There were, to be sure, dissenters even at the time from the class-transcending morality of Victorian society. They came to the fore with some fanfare toward the end of the era, in the notorious fin-de-siècle. These were the writers, artists, and intellectuals who made it their business to outrage the moral sensibilities of their contemporaries; Oscar Wilde may be regarded as their doyen. These people did indeed foreshadow the moral relativism of our own time. But there is an important difference that once again Himmelfarb sums up succinctly: “A century ago the ‘advanced’ souls were just that, well in advance of the culture, whereas now they pervade the entire culture.” In other words, the de-moralizing avant-garde has become an amoral establishment.

Himmelfarb's subtitle, From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, suggests the core of her critique of our post-Victorian world. “Virtues” are moral norms that are deeply held and believed to be of the very order of things. “Values” are not much different from opinions—more or less arbitrary preferences that one is not too sure about, does not know how to defend, and certainly cannot seek to impose on anyone else.

The shift between them is analogous to a related shift in the nature of religious adherence. Thus, there is a world of difference between saying that one is “of the Protestant confession”—a statement that implies total commitment and even a readiness for martyrdom—and saying, as is common today, that one has a Protestant “religious preference” (“preference” being a term derived from the language of consumer behavior, as in “I prefer brand A over brand B, but I might change my mind tomorrow”).

Himmelfarb places much blame for the change from virtues to values on Nietzsche and Max Weber. About Weber one begs to differ: he was a messenger of moral relativism, but that was hardly his own message. And one wonders whether Nietzsche had all that much influence in Britain or in this country. Be that as it may, however, Himmelfarb is certainly right about the nature of the shift.

To be sure, there are still many people who profess taken-for-granted “virtues,” just as there are people with taken-for-granted religious convictions (probably more of both kinds in America than in England). But in the elite culture, and on both sides of the North Atlantic, a relativism has invaded most of the remaining fortresses of moral and religious certitude. One does not have to be either a Victorian or a Durkheimian social theorist to find this state of affairs disturbing.

In her epilogue, Himmelfarb turns to present-day society, enumerating the widely-known facts of rising social pathology: crime, drugs, illegitimacy, welfare dependency. The facts are more dramatic in this country than in Britain, but the rates curve upward in very similar fashion there, too. These symptoms of decay, Himmelfarb argues convincingly, cannot be ascribed to economic recession or to mounting inequality, as analysts on the Left keep on saying. Rather, we are confronting a moral revolution, one which has so thoroughly succeeded that anyone daring to address these pathologies in moral terms is promptly accused of “blaming the victim” (one of the most obfuscating mantras invented by social scientists in recent years).

Himmelfarb gives credence to Myron Magnet's thesis (in The Dream and the Nightmare) that the revolution has been a dual one, occurring both in middle-class culture and in the so-called “culture of poverty”—but with greatly different consequences in the two milieus. Thus, for example, a middle-class professional woman having a child outside marriage (Murphy Brown, if you will) certainly faces problems and may put her child at some disadvantage, but there are means at hand to mitigate the consequences. By contrast, a poor woman in the same circumstance lacks those mitigating resources, whether social or financial, and the consequences both for her and for her child are likely to be disastrous. The face of today's “underclass” is the collective result of this disaster, which is rooted in a vast moral deformation (or, literally, a moral “deconstruction”).

The data cited by Himmelfarb draw attention to a very intriguing fact: that the abrupt change occurs in the 1960's. In all Western societies, that one decade, roughly between 1965 and 1975, becomes the watershed. One is almost tempted to say somewhat ahistorically—Himmelfarb might not agree with this—that the Victorian age really lasted until the mid-1960's!

There is great uncertainty as to what really happened during this brief but ominous span of years. Although Himmelfarb points to the notion of a moral transformation, one must still ask what caused that, and why ideas voiced but not taken up widely in, say, 1865 were suddenly adopted with a vengeance by large numbers of people a hundred years later.

Whatever the answer, Himmelfarb rightly insists that it is impossible to deal with a moral crisis unless it is recognized as such. She recommends a serious rethinking of previously held positions across the political spectrum, and concludes with the modest hope that we may be ready for “a new reformation.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb has long given pleasure to anyone curious about our history. Increasingly, she has been providing insight for those concerned about our own times. Her new book does both, splendidly.

Raymond Carr (review date 13 May 1995)

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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 against the venial sin of masturbation; he was aware that his obsession with the redemption of prostitutes might represent ‘filthiness of spirit’ and he sought to beat it out by self-flagellation. Needless to say, latter-day Lytton Stracheys would castigate this as a resort to another form of sexual perversion.

Professor Himmelfarb rejects out of hand another common onslaught on Victorian moralism: that it was imposed on the lower classes by a hegemonic middle class in it own interests as an instrument of social control. It is true that Victorians had inherited something of the earlier belief that Sunday Schools would inoculate the lower orders against the virus of 1789. It is also true that the lower classes sought the respectability of middle-class values for their own sake. It was their sign of identity as citizens deserving the vote. Hence the working-class Temperance Movement. The working class saw themselves committed to middle-class values, the moral superiors of an aristocracy whose spare-time occupation was adultery. The diaries of my great great grandfather, an under footman in London, never able to hold down a job, reveal his total commitment to family values in his painful struggle to support his wife and child. When he failed and was forced to send his wife and my great grandfather to the country, where they would be eligible for poor relief, he killed himself. Again, like some middle-class feminists, working-class women opposed birth control as an ‘artifice to indulge men's sensuality’, a threat to family values as teaching men to ‘repudiate fatherhood’.

Professor Himmelfarb insists on the surprising extent of private philanthropy, administered not by paid social workers but by the philanthropists themselves. She hammers home that the aim of Victorian philanthropists was always to encourage its working-class objects to help themselves; they were capable of self-improvement and to think otherwise was to demean them as moral beings. This vision would take harsh forms. ‘The less eligibility’ test of the 1834 Poor Law was intended to make a stay in the workhouse less desirable than the life of an independent labourer, to attach a stigma to dependent pauperism. ‘Today the very word stigma has become odious, whether applied to dependency, illegitimacy, addiction or anything else’.

But stigmas are the corollary of values and since the Victorians took values seriously they took seriously the need for social sanctions that would stigmatise their violation. Professor Himmelfarb shares the conservative contention that modern welfare systems create incentives to remain in dependency. After defining ‘substance users’ as ‘disabled’ and therefore entitled to public assistance, the US Supplementary Income Program cuts off funds from those who seek to overcome their addiction and rewards those who remain addicts. This she sees as the polar opposite of the ‘less eligibility’ test that was the keystone of Victorian philanthropy.

‘It is the reluctance to speak the language of morality far more than any specific values that separates us from the Victorians’. The triumph of Victorian moralism was its capacity to combine praise for fruits of economic individualism with an ethos that kept such individualism in check. Thus conservatives who argue that the unrestrained pursuit of individual economic interest will solve our problems will create a moral desert and call it the good society. Victorian moralism worked—it cut the illegitimacy and crime rates that were to rise spectacularly once it became unfashionable in the 1950s and 1960s because it turned on a concept of self that has been eroded in our society, where we distance moral responsibility from the moral agent.

We have become accustomed to the transference of responsibility from the individual to society—from the criminal to the economic and social conditions that are the presumptive causes of his criminality.

This will appeal to that hate-figure of the liberal progressive intelligentsia: Dr Theodore Dalrymple.

Needless to say Professor Himmelfarb detests the so-called New Victorians who reject bourgeois morality and seek to impose on us their own esoteric brand of Puritanism: promiscuity OK, provided you obtain explicit consent for each stage of the proceedings. This moral correctness is the mirror image of political correctness; both will sink under the weight of their absurdities. But there is hope, Professor Himmelfarb asserts, that moral language will stage a comeback as we contemplate the statistics that reveal the sorry state of our de-moralised society.

The foundation of conservative moralism was laid by Burke: Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

And without lies the interventionist nanny state. The trouble is that many proponents of moral re-armament are not as intelligent as Professor Himmelfarb. It is the thought of some of one's companions on the road to New Jerusalem that gives pause for thought. Perhaps I brood too much on my great great grandfather's unavailing, pitiful struggle to achieve dignity and respectability, defeated by Mr Gradgrind's ‘facts’: the ‘facts’ of a market economy.

David Bromwich (review date 15 May 1995)

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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.

These are truths the lawyers can make us forget, but the novelists make us remember, and a historian of culture is bound to side with the novelists. The Victorian novelists most of all: Trollope took down manners like an inspired clerk, George Eliot looked at them as calmly as a saint at a skull, Hardy heard in a dying man's curse the pangs of a slight from his youth. But Himmelfarb's book [The De-Moralization of Society] is not just about the Victorians. It is about the Victorians and us, and its subtitle promises that the earlier period will be brought in to testify against ours, its virtues shown to be more deeply founded in experience than our values.

That promise is sealed in an epilogue that, with many up-to-date graphs and statistics, makes almost a separate pamphlet. Here Himmelfarb passes from history to prophecy. She thinks that a relativist ideology that is in principle averse to judgment has pared down morality to a useless minimum. Violent crime, the rising numbers of illegitimate children, the breakup of families and the danger of welfare dependency: all these elements of our crisis have a precedent in the Victorian age, and Himmelfarb believes they may be ameliorable by an attack from the older virtues. This final stretch of the book acknowledges a debt to James Q. Wilson, Charles Murray and the circle of intellectuals and policy-makers broadly associated with The Public Interest and the American Enterprise Institute, and it will be read by many who pass over the earlier chapters.

But the credit one gives to Himmelfarb's reading of American society ought to depend in part on the credence one gives to her reading of the Victorians. The manner of her narrative is restrained. The materials of the book are anecdotes, quotations and lists, with such caption-biographies as the description of Ruskin as “an art critic who was also a critic of capitalism.” The chapter topics are striking, not clearly linked but clearly enough sharing a popular interest: the relation of morals and manners; the idea of the gentleman and “the angel in the house”; feminism and its surprising array of thoughtful opponents; the distinction between paupers and the deserving poor; voluntary philanthropy as against state supervision of the indigent; “The Jew as Victorian” (the only chapter that stays long in a single focus); and the feminist and homosexual components of what Himmelfarb is prepared to call “a late Victorian ‘counterculture’.” The cast of characters shifts, as a rule, every two or three pages, making the narrative short-winded, and without the past-and-present structure the argument would elude summary.

Himmelfarb's earlier studies of Acton, Darwin and John Stuart Mill showed a persistent concern with the shaping power of ideas. The title of her collection of essays, Victorian Minds, was among other things a counter-irritant to such titles as Victorian Cities and Victorian People. “They had minds, too,” she was saying, “and they thought.” By contrast, The De-Moralization of Society deals with minds only in relation to bodies—bodies to be regulated or punished or (with usually dire effects) liberated. The chief scholarly interest of the book is therefore its apparent polemic against those cultural historians who denounce Victorian society for its coercive ideology.

The customs of family life, the forms of recreation permitted or forbidden, the religious temper of philanthropy and indeed the interest in public benevolence of any kind, have been traced alike to a motive of “social control.” Himmelfarb is disposed to contest this formulation when she finds it in the work of other Victorianists. But as it turns out, she disagrees less with their description than with their scorn for the phenomenon they are describing. She approves of the forceful influence of legislation on morals and the persuasive influence of morals on manners. The social disciplines of the Victorians could not have worked without a belief that conformity was a necessary element of social cohesiveness. Victorian morality took stock of the well-being of people, and by definition that included their moral being.

It was in the nature of Victorian manners that not everyone qualified as a beneficiary of social assistance. In The Age of Equipoise, W. L. Burn described the attitude dryly: “That there would always be an improvident, irresponsible mass, many of them potentially or actively criminal, milling about at the foot of the social ladder, was not a conception to which the mid-century took kindly,” for the age was notable for “a certain hardening of opinion, an unwillingness to bother too much or beyond a certain point with people who were making a nuisance of themselves.” You will not find quite so conclusive a judgment in Himmelfarb. But she does share much of the mid-Victorian mood—its assurance and impatience regarding the obstacles to reform, its freedom from generalized self-doubt, its belief in the propriety of certain remedies and the limited good to be expected from them—and she writes to show us the understanding in which this way of thinking flourished.

The success of the Victorians began, as Himmelfarb sees it, with the strength of their language. We have a lower starting point for moral reflection than they had, and a sign of our lack of conviction is said to be the change in usage from “virtues” to “values.” Values (giving the word a moral shading) is a late-found synonym for morals, which limits and debases the meaning of morals, and even Margaret Thatcher is gently chided for saying it once instead of “virtues.” It was, we are told, the moderns and especially Nietzsche who transformed virtue into one more good with a price on its head. This is a plausible abridgement of history, but I do not altogether believe it. I suspect that not only the German pragmatist but the Americans Peirce and James, and a good many others in the last decades of the nineteenth century, found themselves unsystematically on the track of an expanded sense of “value.” And when it comes to the test, Himmelfarb is one of them: “virtues” are quietly replaced by “values” for most of her book.

Adopting the change in practice, she cannot let it pass in theory. “So long as morality was couched in the language of ‘virtue’,” she writes, “it had a firm, resolute character.” This is to ascribe an extraordinary efficacy to language. Much likelier, virtue lost some of its weight because it became a cant term, whose pliability in the mouths of brutal or shallow persons brought the idea itself into partial disrepute. A fair complaint would be that the same has now happened to value. And yet, as Himmelfarb points out, the word “virtue” is again in active use by philosophers who describe themselves as political liberals; and I have heard a suburban mother say to her adolescent son, “You're going to make me wonder if you have any values at all,” with an authority as far beyond defiance as Margaret Thatcher's.

The overrating of usage would be a minor matter, except that a still greater claim is advanced for the ideas that the words represent. Moral ideas are credited here with autonomous power: “Values are a determining factor in their own right. So far from being a ‘reflection,’ as the Marxist says, of the economic realities, they are themselves, as often as not, the crucial agent in shaping those realities.” But there is a range of possible effects between the subordinate status of “reflection” and the independence of a “determining factor in their own right.” Granted, ideas of virtue and vice are not a reflection, they are a refraction, a relation, a contingent participant in the course of life we recognize in “economic realities.” That is not the same as saying that they have a distinct agency, as if they operated uniquely against the driving force of economics. The improvement of manners can do much (but finite) good where the state of economic morality checks its ameliorative effect; the corruption of manners can do much (but finite) harm when the evil it broadcasts is not allowed to prosper in the marketplace. The morality of the market tells you—with the same truth as manners, because it is a part of manners—what society as a whole is willing to reward.

Himmelfarb says that she is “aware of the difficulties and inequities of Victorian life,” above all “class distinctions, social prejudices, abuses of authority, constraints on personal liberty.” Nothing in the book inclines me to believe that she regrets the presence of class distinctions; the kind of reform she praises draws its whole authority from the reality of such distinctions. In any case, she adds: “I have also learned to be appreciative of those values that helped mitigate the harsh realities of life, inspiring a ‘moral reformation’ that, in turn, stimulated a variety of social and humanitarian reforms.” The grammar of cause and consequence is revealing. Good values came first: they helped soften the worst of social misery, and in doing so they inspired self-reform in the sufferers. Self-reform, “in turn,” brought about social reforms from outside, a new humanitarian interest that the deserving poor, because of their values, could be seen properly to have earned. This progression is not false to the facts. It is less true, or true across a narrower front, than the phrasing may suggest.

Consider a piece of familiar testimony. Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, a Victorian fable in all but its date of publication, has a capitalist hero named Undershaft, a faintly Continental superman touched by the Ruskin-Morris ethic of craft virtue, who recognizes that the poor cannot pick themselves up unassisted. A philanthropist acting from self-interest, he builds a utopian community from whose decencies a few of the poor learn the value of life and learn incidentally how to turn a profit. These poor are handed a decent life before they show any signs of self-respect. Their enterprise is the manufacture of weapons. The externally assisted self-reform thus comes at a cost of misery somewhere else, but that misery is literally valueless: a theorist can tote it up, but it does not affect the society in question. Shaw's politics were socialist and imperialist, and his sympathies were with Undershaft, but he wrote the play because he had hold of a good paradox and his readers were free to turn it upside down if they pleased. The play has a credible source in General William Booth's Salvation Army, and such secular rivals as Toynbee Hall, and the Undershaft sequence of cause and effect reverses the order favored by Himmelfarb. Philanthropic intervention comes first, then self-reform and only at last “moral reformation” for a community that prohibits the suffering it exports.

The lesson of Himmelfarb is fairly close to the lesson of General Booth. Erst kommt die Moral, dann kommt das Fressen. Behave now, eat later. This is a gospel preached to the poor, but that fact does not affect its truth: it may be a necessary gospel. Historically, it is important to hold in view the society that made the preaching natural. The Victorian practice of virtue called for sympathies whose limits were drawn from within. Prejudice cut down sympathy, just as charity cut down pain. The conservative heroes of the age, as Himmelfarb reminds us, were paternalist regarding morality and anti-paternalist regarding the state. They may be, in both respects, a model to parents and legislators today. But their morality went the whole length, and the state, too, could grow suddenly paternal with a punitive confidence—as it did when it removed the daughter of Annie Besant, the birth-control propagandist, from the custody of her mother on the ground that the child of such a person might inherit her opinions.

When you think about it, the Victorian faith in work as a way of redemption was part of the same ethic, and not to be confused with our American belief in work for results. We care about work instrumentally: it is the means by which an individual shows that he or she amounts to something. The Victorians cared about it as an end in itself, the proof that human life was endowed with inseparable duties. Himmelfarb sees the difference and yet her desire to impute unity as well as stability to Victorian culture sometimes leads to a flattening of observable differences within the period. Carlyle, an evangelist of work, inculcated the worship of heroes as a spiritual exertion by which men could realize an idea of Man and the people come to share in the conquests of a nation. Samuel Smiles, the author of Self-Help, wrote more gently for a humbler audience who sought models rather than heroes. When Himmelfarb calls him “Everyman's Carlyle,” the unified approach exacts a high toll.

Still, it is true that the Victorians differed with each other less than they differ from us. They believed that society is indivisible. There was a “common good” to which political and moral thought deferred; and the common good required sacrifices by the rich as well as the poor. The poignancy of that belief is audible in a passage Himmelfarb quotes from a lecture addressed to the working classes by Arnold Toynbee:

We—the middle classes, I mean, not merely the very rich—we have neglected you; instead of justice we have offered you charity, and instead of sympathy, we have offered you hard and unreal advice; but I think we are changing. If you would only believe it and trust us, I think that many of us would spend our lives in your service.

Ruskin in Unto This Last—a book that Himmelfarb does not quote, which contains a chapter relating value intimately to virtue—found a similar offense in the style of consolation employed by the rich:

We continually hear it recommended by sagacious people to complaining neighbours (usually less well placed in the world than themselves) that they should “remain content in the station in which Providence has placed them.” There are perhaps some circumstances of life in which Providence has no intention that people should be content. Nevertheless, the maxim is on the whole a good one; but it is peculiarly for home use. That your neighbour should, or should not, remain content with his position, is not your business.

It is less important, Ruskin thinks, to give the right admonition to our neighbors than to know how many our neighbors are.

On the subject of the common good, more is promised by this book than it ever finds occasion to deliver Similarly, the topic of public education, so absorbing to the Victorians, is kept to second-rate status, and the criticism of commerce, familiar in Ruskin, Dickens and others, is generally played down. I think the reason is that Himmelfarb is more concerned here with the part of morality that reduces disorder than with the part that makes for an equitable order.

Her dutiful wives and husbands, generous but conditional philanthropists, liberal-minded women against women's rights and well-meaning apostles or recruits of the workhouse, are meant to illustrate good habits and how they are learned. But at this point a large problem of translation arises. To the citizen of a twentieth-century democracy, these “small morals” will seem conspicuously smaller than those involved in citizenship. The habits of a docile member of society and the habits of the citizen do both depend on precepts and consensus. But the first are a matter of reflex, the second a matter of reflection.

Not all Victorian moral thinkers were quite so remote from democratic ideas, and those who were least remote may still seem representative Victorians. In a previous book, Poverty and Compassion, Himmelfarb wrote at length of the philosopher and educator T. H. Green. In this book he comes into one or two of her lists and is cited for the suspicion in which he held “paternal government.” It would have served her popular audience well to quote Green's remark that “we must not allow” the ideal of a rational freedom “to mislead us into supposing that there is any moral freedom, or anything of intrinsic value, in the life of conventional morality.” The burden of this remark is that the morality of habits acquires value only when we make it our own by rational approval. Himmelfarb guards too little against the misleading supposition that the Victorians believed conventional morality to be intrinsically admirable.

Across the classes of society, Himmelfarb gathers a long file of witnesses to testify their concurrence in an existing state of morals. We are reminded how forcibly the middle-class idea of respectability was impressed upon the poor, and she remarks that “by ‘moralizing’ the idea of the gentleman, the Victorians democratized it as well, extending it to the middle classes and even, on occasion, to the working classes.” A fine and suggestive chapter explores Beatrice Webb's youthful essay on Jewish adaptation to the market society of England. The virtue of the Jew harmonized, Webb thought, with the motive of economic man, “an Always Enlightened Selfishness, seeking employment or profit with an absolute mobility of body and mind, without pride, without preference, without interest outside the struggle for the existence and welfare of the individual and the family.” That quotation is allowed to close a section triumphantly. Yet, from the quotation itself, it sounds as if Webb recognized with some irony the limits on the “interest” of the Victorian Jew, and indeed on the interest of “economic man.” If she did not describe religion as an illusion in the manner of Marx or Freud, that may have been as much a matter of prudence as of sentiment.

Others, too, who might be supposed outside the consensus of Victorian morals, are received here with a domesticating touch. Oscar Wilde is brought up to lend some color to the claim for a Victorian “counterculture.” The Picture of Dorian Gray is full of aesthetic epigrams that tread the brink of depravity, and cannot be entirely the moral tale that Wilde sometimes said it was. So far Himmelfarb is skeptical, and to sharpen the “counterculture” savor she neglects a conventional element in Wilde's plays, most pronounced in Lady Windermere's Fan, which looked on bourgeois morality as a good thing for the bourgeois. (The artist's morality was for the artist alone, to be whispered and not shouted.) But there was another side of Wilde. He made some genial epigrams on religion. “Catholicism is the only religion to die in,” he said. And again: “The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teaching would have cured my degeneracies.” When Himmelfarb comes to these sentences, her skepticism deserts her and she intimates that Wilde was, just possibly, a believer all along. She does not stop to ask what the archness of the phrase may do to the frankness of the profession.

How far can we sympathize today with the Victorian rebels who turned above all against the moral consensus in sex? They were, Himmelfarb seems to argue, all right in their way and in their time, in sufficiently small numbers. “A century ago the ‘advanced’ souls were just that, well in advance of the culture, whereas now they pervade the entire culture.” We can see the unhappy consequences of the change, she thinks, in the loss of the stigma against premarital sex. In those days the advanced souls could bear the consequences of sexual freedom, and if they could not bear them none but themselves were the worse for it. Now, with the spread of their manners, society itself has suffered a loss of bearings.

Most readers will agree that in this area too much restraint has been surrendered. Yet the objection of the rebels against Victorian “respectability” deserves to be recalled. Friendship, they thought, was one of the great goods in life, the pleasure from sex was another and a distinctly related good, and a man or a woman might come to believe these things so substantial as to render worthless the counterfeit of a forced partnership that brought no joy. Most Victorians submitted in some degree to the counterfeit, since to do so was moral and to refuse meant the end of respectability: here manners and morals did converge. But with the lifting of the stigma—a great loss, to social stability and to modesty—was so very little gained?

“Today,” writes Himmelfarb, “the very word ‘stigma’ has become odious whether applied to dependency, illegitimacy, addiction, or anything else.” Or anything else is wrong. Physical abuse of a child is an evil that now brings with it a heavier stigma than ever before. And as the same example shows, stigmas do very well for themselves without much assistance from policy. The argument for a revival of the stigma seems to me a case where the theory of manners has carried Himmelfarb from history to metaphysics with no real pause for experience. Thirty-five years ago, a teenage girl known to have had sex with a boy, or about whom there were rumors of sex, was routinely called a whore. The word was said out loud and clear, and the boys said it in the honorable belief that

Value dwindles without vice,
Nice is good and good is nice.

Was this ugly word then the expression of a value? Its more conspicuous motive was sexual resentment, as the best of the Victorians knew, and as Blake knew when he wrote: “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.”

One often learns most about a novelist's or a historian's temperament from accidents of tone. From this book, I would judge that Himmelfarb is a convinced admirer, almost an a priori admirer, of families. She shows a tenderness toward the family that stays together—no matter how warped its customary life—that she denies to the most high-minded defector from a family. Thus “the common problem,” she writes,

even among the “roughs,” was not the absence of a father but the presence of one who was irregularly employed and regularly drunk and abusive, or, somewhat less commonly, a mother who was drunk and slatternly. Among the respectable poor, both parents were normally present and accounted for, carrying out, however adequately or inadequately, their distinct and traditional roles.

It would be unkind to infer from this: “Better a drunk and abusive father than none at all.” Yet, unless something of the sort is intended, one cannot guess the meaning of “adequately” in a sentence that deals only with inadequacy, or know what to make of the odd, satisfied phrase “present and accounted for.”

A brief account is offered here of the New Poor Law of 1834 and its most detested innovation, the workhouse. As Himmelfarb records, it became a “point of honour” with many of the lower classes to starve rather than endure the conditions of service there: the “workhouse test” was that any person so desperate as to desire the remedy must be qualified to receive it. But the innovation itself, as much as the aversion it prompted in the poor, strikes her as an impressive achievement, and she writes to alter “the Dickensian image” that has swayed our modern judgment against an ingenious piece of social policy. She does not point out that Green, the enemy of paternal government, opposed the Poor Law on the conservative ground that such innovations took away “the occasion for the exercise of parental forethought, filial reverence, and neighbourly kindness.” She does quote Disraeli's judgment that the law had “disgraced the country more than any other upon record.” These reactions show a depth of resistance so unusual one is surprised to see the notice of it mostly confined to subordinate shorter sentences.

The De-Moralization of Society is history written with sufficient generosity for some of its own evidence to count against its conclusions. Still, it is a delicate matter how a tract for the times gets read. So often, its reception will depend on the partialities of the spirit in which it is read. A hardening of antipathy toward the poor, and toward every effort of social amelioration: these are traits of American life in the 1990s that many sharers of the mood would like to sweeten with the name of virtue. And, less from its explicit argument than from a certain shading of style and the ease of the past-and-present structure, I cannot help wondering whether the effect of this pleasant and informative book will not be to act as a great simplifier.

Himmelfarb's epilogue is certainly calculated for some such effect. Until then, it may have seemed that two books cohabited in a single frame: an anthology of stimulating facts about Victorian society and culture, and an admiring account of the harmony between Victorian manners and morals. Yet traces of a third book were evident in the prologue on virtue and value, and in the nuance of sympathy or scorn with which details were presented throughout. This third book is a charge to policymakers to take heart from the success, a century ago, of a benevolent and punitive ethic of regulation and conservative reform; and its moral is not an implication, it is an inference Himmelfarb herself has drawn in recent contributions to The New York Times and USA Today. She there declared her belief that “Gingrich's revolution”—the phrase and quotation marks are hers—may offer a moral renewal comparable to the effort of national rededication sponsored by Queen Victoria.

Newt Gingrich's first response is on the record. “I think moral force matters,” he told The New York Times. “It ain't that hard to understand. Read Himmelfarb's book.” It is a fair test of the epilogue to look at its strictures from the perspective of this intended reader, with his readiness for instruction, his eagerness to propose and dispose, his assimilative quickness and his freedom from complication. Will he be chastened by what he finds there, and roused from the noise of slogans to an uncustomary sort of deliberation? Or will he be pleased, with the Victorians and with himself, and on the whole be comforted?

He will recall from an earlier chapter that the New Poor Law, with its innovation of the workhouse, might today appear “grudging and harsh,” yet “it was not the simple punitive measure it is so often described as being. A punitive measure would have denied the able-bodied any relief at all.” True, “the reformers did not achieve all they had hoped.” But the fault lay partly in the realities of the time and partly with “an older, more traditional humanitarianism that resisted their innovations.” If that seems a comfort, there is a greater consolation in this reminder: a social expedient like the “workhouse test” and a word like “pauper” sound “invidious and inhumane,” but they were “the result of a conscious moral decision: an effort to discourage dependency and preserve the respectability of the independent poor, while providing at least minimal sustenance for the indigent.”

These historical hints may acquire, in the legislator's mind, a practical value; and there is no avoiding the value of the prudent advice that “today in the inner cities there is a correlation between unemployment and crime, but it is not a causal one. Or if it is causal, it is not unemployment that causes crime so much as a culture that denigrates or discourages employment, making crime seem more normal, natural, and desirable than employment.” Employment matters a great deal less than we have thought, and less than the Victorians thought. What matters first and most, in view of the well-established nullity of every social remedy, is the enforcement of morals.

But what is the authority of the final quotation on crime and employment? Suppose that we agree unemployment does not cause crime “so much as a culture” does, shall we not ask with what materials of fantasy or reality the culture succeeds in discouraging so many? Nothing less than “the conditions of life” (as Gissing called them) can be the cause of the despair. And among the conditions must be counted the scarceness, in one section of society, of pictures of dignified employment—pictures that, glimpsed at a distance, do not compete with the glamour of illegal employment or the unchecked freedom of the streets. To call the scarcity of good and the abundance of evil a “correlation” is rather cool. A culture of crime is one of the conditions of crime; but so is the improbability of dignified employment. The culture should be eradicated as far as possible, but a reform that fights against the culture alone will be a reform of convenience only. This objection will not trouble a reformer whose motive is revenge against the people milling around at the bottom of the social ladder. It will trouble a reformer whose motive is reform.

As for the remedial manners suggested by Himmelfarb's book—the revival of the stigma, of the status of pauper, of the workhouse test—each reader must guess the applicability of these devices to America today. I believe that their pragmatic use may be smaller than the chapters and the anecdotes lead us to think. Some of the reasons can be found in a nineteenth-century study of manners to which Himmelfarb does not allude, Walt Whitman's Democratic Vistas. It is true of the Victorian period that American writers, because of the newness and the infectiousness of democracy, recognized early certain hopes that the Victorians, even the most reflective of them, had only begun to claim as part of their future. What Whitman saw best—though there are hints of a similar recognition in Mill and Green—was the irresistible attraction of the idea of a chance in life.

The phrase is modest and if it stays modest it will not deceive. The idea that a chance in life belongs to the human inheritance entered the world through democracy, and though the idea may be called self-regarding, selfishness is not its leading consequence. It also breeds humility in the face of the luck or fortune that contributes to shape a life. This was not a humility available to the Victorians: class pride, the confidence of the stigma and other traits of timidity useful to the social order, stood in its way. Yet democratic humility is an achievement of manners, and more than that it is a moral discovery. It is one of those rare changes that serves to differentiate one phase of humanity from another.

The presence of democratic manners is a feature of American life that often strikes hostile observers as innocent. Morally, it proceeds from a habit of mind the reverse of innocent, a friendly regard for the possible fortune, and a skeptical regard for the asserted destiny, of anyone in society. We will never know if there were many “born” drug pushers whom conditions failed to press into reality in certain small towns in South Dakota, just as we will never know if there were many “born” poets among the children of strategic thinkers. Individual lives succeed or fail depending in unquantifiable measure on talent and environment. It may sound loose or reckless to leave it at that, but that is where democratic manners do leave it.

The Victorians had their own useful traits for self-preservation, a mingled irony and fatalism most unfamiliar in America today. They felt a narrower pride than ours—not the same as arrogance—in the face of moral luck. In some moods we naturally envy their pride, but we cannot graft one history onto another. The virtues we build on will have to remain our own. And so the party of conservative improvers, among whom Gertrude Himmelfarb is the pre-eminent historian, needs to think carefully about the innovations it projects for the manners of American society.

The combination for conservative reform in our day is not greatly different in some respects from the combination that held for the Victorians. Then, there was a class of utilitarian economists on top, and, making up the mass for reform, a rank-and-file of Evangelicals and Methodists. The behaviorists in the think tanks, and the Christian Coalition with its millions, are perhaps a comparable blend. To judge by the early evidence, however, the reforms our improvers aim at are more speculative than any attempted by the Victorians. They are trying to bring about the acceptance of a freedom which, for all but those with a great deal of money, will have as its reward self-discipline, self-restraint and the embrace of a humble station in society, with no disturbing consciousness of unfulfilled possibilities.

Some of these ends seem to me desirable. Some of them, in spite of the vividness of Himmelfarb's anecdotes, seem undesirable ever to render routine, as much because of the passions they feed in the governing classes as because of the reaction they produce in the governed. In proportion as the design succeeds, the manners of American society will cease to be those of a democracy. But there are no moral equivalents in manners, and our degree of disorder (the staggering rate of out-of-wedlock births, for example: five times that of England in 1870) may indicate a difference of kind from the Victorians. Quantitative change does at some point turn qualitative, and it is senseless to think of the inner city today as Dickensian. In any case, to the extent that the Victorians are a possible model, they have not yet been used by our innovators. Victorian conservatives believed in punishment, but they also believed in remedial help. To offer, as policy, mere penalty, to suppose the removal of assistance alone could supply the motive for self-reform: this was beyond their imagination and beyond their ambition. They never thought to experiment with a wholly punitive paternalism.

“The very principle of authority for good ends as well as bad has been put to scorn by the weakness of men in authority.” The sentence was written in 1868 by Frederic Harrison, a Positivist who was also a constitutionalist. He had in mind the 1866 riots in Hyde Park, but he caught a truth about America in 1995. “The governing classes,” Harrison added, “never pretended to rely on force. They trusted to maintain their supremacy by their social power, and their skill in working the machine.” The Victorians knew society is governed by opinion; by persuasion, which is a different thing from force; by the gradual influence of manners rather than the enforcement of morals; by agreements that are the more binding for being tacit. To govern by opinion did not mean to tease and unsettle and scandalize, or to foment civil fury so long as it was done in a good cause. Nor is this truth of political manners exempt from a consequence for political morals. When a society governed by opinion turns habitually to force, the force required will be such that, whether disorder prevails or is put down, the governing classes must sacrifice in the name of survival every trace of the life they wanted to see survive.

David R. Henderson (review date June 1995)

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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 he could be independent of his middle-class family because he would qualify for the negative income tax himself. I was stunned. Where I grew up, in rural Canada, there was a stigma about taking welfare. I had simply trusted that this stigma would be strong enough that few young, healthy people would take advantage of a negative income tax. This student challenged my naiveté, and unwittingly made me an opponent of the negative income tax.

I was reminded of that incident while reading Gertrude Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society. Himmelfarb, a history professor at the City University of New York, takes a fresh look at Victorian England—an era my 40-something generation was taught to ridicule—and finds much that was good. One of the good things was the way Victorians stigmatized those on “relief.” We are told today that welfare should carry no stigma, because that is demeaning and dehumanizing to those dependent on it. The Victorians believed exactly the opposite.

Humanitarians in that era wanted to help only poor people who were unable to support themselves. Thus, they wanted able-bodied people on relief to feel stigmatized by those around them, as a way of motivating them to get off welfare as soon as possible. They wanted those who could be poor and independent not to turn into paupers, that is, people who were permanently dependent on others for their daily sustenance. They thought a lot about how to reduce this permanent dependence.

Their thinking led them to believe in “less-eligibility,” which was the basis for the Poor Law reform of 1834. Before that welfare reform, people were entitled to relief. The 1834 law tightened eligibility. According to the principle of less-eligibility, the condition of the “able-bodied pauper” should be less “eligible,” less desirable, than the condition of poor self-supporting laborers. Less-eligibility led to the workhouse principle, the idea that to get relief, the able-bodied pauper and his family (but not the sick, the aged, and widows with small children) would have to live in workhouses.

Weren't these workhouses the hellholes that Charles Dickens portrayed in Oliver Twist? Certainly not always. French writer Hippolyte Taine, who observed England in the 1860s, reported that the workhouse he visited was spacious and clean, the children were taught in classrooms, and the diet included meat once a week—a luxury in those days.

Though workhouses weren't the hellholes of popular myth, they did take away people's freedom and segregate them from the general community. And it worked. Taine reported that of the 350 “inmates,” not one was a single able-bodied man.

“They prefer to be free and starve,” he wrote. “The workhouse is looked upon as a prison and the poor make it a point of honor never to enter one.”

The data on workhouse expenditures confirm that the reform worked in discouraging dependency. Annual expenditures averaged 6.7 million pounds in the five years before the reform and 4.5 million pounds after, in spite of a population increase of 1 million.

Illegitimacy has always been a decent predictor of future social pathologies. The Victorians, writes Himmelfarb, also condemned women who had children out of wedlock. While I still think condemnation was too harsh, contrast that to three years ago, when former Vice President Dan Quayle was the one condemned for even suggesting there might be problems associated with illegitimacy.

Himmelfarb quotes the recently departed surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, who, asked whether having children out of wedlock should be condemned, answered: “No. Everyone has different moral standards. … You can't impose your standards on someone else.” This difference in moral outlook, argues Himmelfarb, is responsible for a huge difference in results. She notes that whereas in 1901 only 4 percent of births in England and Wales were out of wedlock, by 1992 the figure was 32 percent.

Himmelfarb's subtitle, [in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,] highlights the importance of words. What the Victorians called “virtues,” we call “values.” And the change in words speaks volumes. Virtue connotes something that is rock solid and definitely not arbitrary. Value sounds squishier, more subjective.

Himmelfarb notes that modern “moral education” courses explicitly avoid educating people about morality. Instead, the values clarification technique has students “discover” their own values by “exploring their likes and dislikes, preferences and feelings”—as if likes and dislikes have anything to do with morality. The Victorians would have little tolerance for this ethical relativism that surrounds us today.

Instead, the Victorians believed in the bourgeois virtues—being honest, industrious, punctual, sober, and law-abiding, to name a few. Living by these virtues almost guarantees that dependency will not become a problem. Those virtues also resulted in a very civil, and very safe, society. Hippolyte Taine wrote: “I have seen whole families of the common people picnicking on the grass in Hyde Park; they neither pulled up nor damaged anything.” And, notes Himmelfarb, Britain's crime rate during the Victorian era was very low. By 1901, near the end of the Victorian era, the crime rate bottomed out at 250 indictable offenses per 100,000 population. Compare that to Britain's 1991 rate of 10,000, a staggering 40 times that 1901 rate. Taine commented, “The aim of every society must be a state of affairs in which every man is his own constable, until at last none other is required.” The modern emphasis on values over virtue has done little to help us achieve this noble aim.

But Himmelfarb believes that abandoning failed welfare policies and releasing the resources of the free market wouldn't be enough to achieve that aim either. Faith in free markets, writes Himmelfarb, “underestimates the moral and cultural dimensions of the problem.” Traditional values, she argues, must be legitimated, and this is difficult when the state and the dominant culture are legitimating their opposite.

Those who want to resist the dominant culture, asserts Himmelfarb, “may be obliged, however reluctantly, to invoke the power of the law and the state, if only to protect those private institutions and associations that are the best repositories of traditional values.” She does not say clearly which powers of the state she would invoke and for what, but her further discussion hints that she would have no trouble with anti-pornography laws, for example.

Himmelfarb is right that a cultural change is needed. But she is wrong to believe that “invoking the power of the state” is the way to get there. Though she seems to understand the strong connection between government welfare policies and the decline in culture, she doesn't take the obvious next step: calling for a radical downsizing of government.

But only a large cut in government welfare programs, with abolition of most, can set the cultural forces in motion that would lead to declines in illegitimacy, crime, and other social pathologies. Trying to change the culture without changing its underlying incentives is, well, silly.

David Frum said this well in his 1994 book, Dead Right. In discussing the major strands of 1990s American conservatism, Frum wrote: “Conservatives who throw in the towel on issues like Social Security and Medicare and welfare in order to direct their full attention to ‘the culture’ are attempting to preserve bourgeois values in a world arranged in such a way as to render those virtues at best unnecessary and at worst active nuisances. The project is not one that is very likely to succeed.”

Richard Hoggart (review date 23 June 1995)

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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” by choice, as they have a favourite football team. No one person's values can therefore be challenged by anyone else, precisely because they are personal, solipsist at the extreme. But if the world is so free of agreed virtues why do so many claim to have “personal values”? Perhaps that is the tribute which the feeling that there is an unchallengeable moral emptiness at the heart of society pays to the idea that, at bottom, some values should be shared.

Meanwhile, so far as society is concerned, we go on resisting agreed values. We say “value-free” as approvingly as we read “sugar-free” on a cereal packet. One of our dirtiest words is “judgmental”. We do not say that any action is “bad”; we call it “inappropriate”. We are hung up on narrow ideological explanations for any action about whose demands we are uneasy. Some teachers hesitate to recommend charitable actions to their pupils—helping the local community, say—on the ground that that is “inculcating bourgeois attitudes”.

The US Secretary for Health and Human Services ties himself into an agonizing knot: “I don't like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong.” The Surgeon-General does not hesitate to hit the fashionable button: “Everyone has different moral standards. You can't impose your standards on someone else.” The get-out and giveaway there is “impose”. Substitute “share your standards with …”, and the bold assertion begins to wobble violently. Our own version of such utterances came recently from a Cabinet minister who, asked why the idea of a Public Service duty (in, say, broadcasting) was in decline, replied that “values change year by year”. Another Cabinet Minister argued against the use of “taxpayers' money” to help the poor because that was a limitation on our freedom to exercise our own definitions of charity, and so a form of “robbery”. Day by day, the language for judgment is crumbling on our tongues.

The secular background to all these changes is clear; the key-word is “relativism”. Professor Himmelfarb recognizes this, but could have said much more, since it is the main dissolvent of Victorian “virtue”. Briefly, external authority, whether religious or lay, has virtually gone. That could be a liberation. As Edward Shils has noted, “the working classes have entered society” to a degree that would have seemed inconceivable even before the First World War. We are professedly a “democracy”. But a democracy has to rest on some agreed values; it is, potentially at least, the most thoughtful form of society, since it does not offer authority from above.

Without such an agreement, it becomes not democratic but populist. In a capitalist democracy, where many more people than ever before have spare money at the end of the week, the slide to populism quickly gives birth to consumerism (still the best available word). Consumerism cannot abide firm and shared virtues; they are bad for trade. It encourages instead individual “values”, or values accepted only for a short time by a concocted audience or “mass”, and then quickly succeeded by other values. By this point, “values” has become a blanket synonym for successive tastes, whether for the latest fashionable drink or in instant disposable opinions.

It is by now clear that this analysis, which Himmelfarb pursues very perceptively (though she credits Mrs Thatcher with far too much wisdom in her support of “Victorian values”), gives no comfort to either the right or the left. Neither can appropriate it without being intellectually shoddy, because one-sided.

Where are the thoughtful men and women on the right? Not in the present Cabinet. At least Norman Tebbit has gone to the Lords, taking with him his illiterate jibes at the value of not directly vocational research. The Chairman of the Party has no bottom, only the shallow charm of a middle-aged matinée idol. Portillo? Lilley? Redwood? Howard? One could go on, but may best end the list with the ever-blustering Heseltine. Our smaller, off-the-cuff remarks most reveal us. The use of National Lottery money to buy the Churchill papers raised profound questions about public duty and personal responsibility. Asked about this on radio, Heseltine replied that if you find a Rubens in your attic, of course it belongs to you. The two-dimensional mind revealed.

The far left is no better. Invited to make judgments of value, it disregards personal responsibility and wholly blames society and that blessed let-out, “hegemony”. Asked to recognize that working-class “respectability” could be a virtue held on to against the odds, it relegates that to the status of a sentimentality. All this in tones of rabid righteousness. Edward Thompson had more claim than most of us to pinpoint the attitude: “I can't assume … that intellectual violence and elitism are only to be found on the Right. … There are some on the Left who flirt with conceits of violence and aggression in a way which suggests a disorder of the imagination, a mere bravura of opinions. … Within the vocabulary of this kind of Left there are many ‘dainty terms for fratricide’.”

A final, dire thought emerges. This is also a period of increasing intolerance of many kinds: racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, religious fundamentalism, resurgent Nazism. Perhaps these are violent, unconscious reactions against the burden of openness, an unbearable agoraphobia of conviction, an affront to the will for certainty. Gertrude Himmelfarb has done us all a service.

Carson Daly (review date July 1995)

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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, Georgian, and Edwardian all have positive connotations. Even pagan and Byzantine are complimentary in comparison. In the popular mind, to be Victorian is to be strict, joyless, judgmental, intolerant, nosy, hypocritical, didactic, repressed, shame-ridden, and guilt inducing. Nearly all the words that moderns associate with the term evoke physical, mental, or moral discomfort.

Most moderns feel unabashedly superior to the Victorians, whom they consider a benighted group that lived in miserable conformity with a host of antiquated notions that were inhumane, racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, patriarchal, and imperialist. Likewise, twentieth-century readers typically believe that contemporary social policies are much more compassionate, enlightened, and successful than those of their forebears.

To those who espouse this point of view, Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest book, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, comes as a rude awakening. In this work, America's preeminent historian of the Victorian age shows that most of these beliefs are myths and that the Victorians were, in many respects, not only our equals but our superiors. After persuasively arguing that they handled many of their social problems—poverty, crime, welfare, and illegitimacy—better than we do, she suggests that, in many areas, we would do well to imitate them. This would, she believes, help to re-moralize modern society, now foundering amid an epidemic of social pathologies.

The subtitle of the book indicates its focus: the story of how contemporary society strayed from the virtues that made the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a golden age in England and America. How, Himmelfarb asks, did we go from a society that extolled virtue and an immutable sense of right and wrong to a culture that deifies the solipsistic, the nonjudgmental, and the open-ended, reserving opprobrium only for those with the temerity to invoke such an outmoded concept as morality? How did virtues, the moral equivalent of an imposing Victorian breakfront housing the family's heirlooms, give way to “values,” the metaphorical equivalent of a seedy convertible futon—now a chair, next an ottoman, then a bed—the perfect symbol of a life in flux?


The first step, according to Himmelfarb, was to replace the word virtues with the term values. Whereas virtues, she explains, depend on a transcendent sense of right and wrong and emphasize the individual's character, “values … can be beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncracies—whatever any individual, group, or society happens to value, at any time, for any reason.” In an illuminating prologue, she traces the evolution of virtues from Aristotle's four cardinal qualities (wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) to the three theological virtues—hope, faith, and charity—to Montesquieu's assignment of diverse attributes to different regimes. But she emphasizes that all these authors “believed in the intimate relation between the character of the people and the health of the polity.” Moreover, none of them denigrated “the idea of virtue itself,” which, she points out, is a distinctly modern stance. “It was not,” she observes, “until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues ceased to be ‘virtues’ and became ‘values,’” a transformation that she calls “the great philosophical revolution of modernity.”

Amazingly, virtually everyone—as the author points out—was oblivious to this revolution. Only Nietzsche, who began speaking of values in the 1880s, recognized that adoption of this term would result in the “ultimate revolution, a revolution against both the classical virtues and the Judaic-Christian ones.” This would, he believed, result in the “death of God,” of morality and truth.

Himmelfarb argues that this “transmutation” led not only to the disappearance of the typical Victorian virtues (“hard work, thrift, cleanliness, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, [and] patriotism”) but also to skepticism that virtue even exists. Ironically, she believes that the very lack of virtue that characterizes contemporary society and the miasma of social pathologies to which this lack has led have made America ripe for a rebirth of Victorian virtues—the qualities that allowed nineteenth-century England “to attain a degree of civility and humaneness that was the envy of the rest of the world.”

Before discussing the de-moralization of modern society, which she treats in the epilogue, Himmelfarb describes the ideas, forces, and attitudes that moralized and humanized the Victorian world. In seven well-written, informative chapters, she covers “Manners and Morals,” the Victorian attitude toward the home, “Feminism, Victorian Style,” “The Mischievous Ambiguity of the Word Poor,” Victorian philanthropy, “The Jew as Victorian,” and “The New Women and the New Men.”

She argues that the Victorians valued manners because they “saw them as the harbingers of morals writ large, the civilities of private life were the corollaries of civilized social life.” Moreover, after Darwin, when the religious faith of many was shaken, morality and the manners that expressed it “became, in a sense, a surrogate for religion.” In George Eliot's memorable words, God was “inconceivable” and immortality “unbelievable,” but duty nonetheless “peremptory and absolute.” Even those—like Eliot, Dickens, and Gladstone—who broke the code did not invoke manners to hide their transgressions but to pay tribute to the idea of respectability, advocated by virtually all Victorians except the fin de siecle aesthetes.

Himmelfarb also takes issue with scholars who accuse the Victorians of using middle-class morals to control and victimize those beneath them on the social scale. She argues that manners were actually a democratizing and ennobling force because they enabled anyone—regardless of class—to be considered a gentleman or gentlewoman based on individual merit. She asserts that this point of view conferred more dignity on the poor than the current idea that the culture of the “underclass” is inseparable from poverty, crime, illegitimacy, single-parent families, and welfare.

Himmelfarb illustrates that the home was another great humanizing and ennobling force in Victorian life. As she observes, “the family was not only revered but sentimentalized to a degree never known before or since.” The Victorians' great reverence for the home derived from their belief that it was the seat of virtues. There, children were taught and first practiced the behavior that would make them a credit to themselves, their families, and their nation.


Such an exalted idea of the home also entailed an idealization of women in general and of wives and mothers in particular. This view often worked to women's advantage, although it was sometimes invoked to keep them from participating in worldly activities. Indeed, readers who consider the nineteenth century a time of patriarchal oppression may be surprised to learn that the Victorians first made secular divorce possible, opened the universities to women, and guaranteed them the right to control their own property. As Himmelfarb makes clear, the moral superiority that the Victorians typically attributed to women gave them particular status as reformers in what has often been called an age of reform. Although many readers will probably think of such reformers as primarily feminists and suffragettes, the author cautions that the words feminist and feminism “did not come into general usage until the Edwardian age, when they were applied to the militant ‘suffragettes’ of that time—a very different breed … from the Victorian ‘suffragists’.”


The rights to vote and to work outside the home were two of the nineteenth-century feminists' objectives. It is striking, however, how many “liberated” women—like George Eliot and Florence Nightingale—either did not support these objectives or did so only with qualifications. Frequently, such women felt that these “rights” would boomerang, imposing additional burdens on their gender. Considering the irresponsible behavior spawned in part by the Pill and its relatives, it is also interesting to note that the first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, known for her “advanced views on women's sexuality,” rejected artificial birth control because she believed that “artifices to indulge a husband's sensuality while counteracting Nature” would encourage men “to repudiate fatherhood” and women to “shrink from the trouble … [of] bearing and nurturing children.” In light of the current problem with “deadbeat dads,” the novelist Trollope's observation that women's working would encourage men not to support them also provides unexpected food for thought.

Today, when many militant feminists are adamantly antimen and antimarriage but unashamedly pro-promiscuity and abortion, it is worth recalling that a “concern for … purity, propriety, [and] womanliness … [as well as] for family, marriage, [and] children … distinguished the Victorian feminists from those of the fin de siecle” and their modern counterparts.

One of the great spurs of nineteenth-century feminism and of the Victorian reform movements in general was the virtue of compassion. Having written Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (1991) and The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984), Himmelfarb is unusually well qualified to discuss nineteenth-century poverty and the Victorians' response to it. Although she admits that some of the nineteenth-century poor laws were “grudging and harsh” by contemporary standards, she emphasizes that by invoking the principle of “less eligibility,” they encouraged recipients of relief who could work to do so and discouraged those already working from lapsing into dependency.

Himmelfarb also shows that the Dickensian depictions of workhouses and orphanages that fill moderns with horror were usually inaccurate. In addition, she points out that the principle of less eligibility significantly reduced the number of people on relief, a number that had mushroomed earlier in the century. Moreover, the price of this reduction was not an increase in human misery. Contrary to Marx, who believed that capitalism led to the “immiseration” of the poor and the weakening of family ties among the proletariat, Himmelfarb shows that despite “great social and economic dislocation, … the working class family was more stable than ever.” Indeed, its standard of living rose consistently throughout the century.

This rise partly resulted from the indefatigable philanthropy practiced by the middle and upper classes throughout the Victorian period. Nineteenth-century England was “the most philanthropic-minded country in the world,” and the 1880s saw “a veritable explosion of social concerns and activities.” A host of charitable organizations proliferated: homes for unwed mothers, schools for wayward boys, orphanages, settlement houses, and societies to help the poor, aged, and infirm. Far from being the “ruthlessly materialistic, acquisitive, and self-centered” time that its critics describe, the Victorian period was actually, as the writer Hannah More observed, an “Age of Benevolence.” This benevolence coupled with prudence attempted to achieve moral as well as material objectives. The Victorians sought to elevate the poor “morally, spiritually, culturally, intellectually,” and, what is more, they believed the poor “capable and desirous of such elevation.”

In the last two chapters, Himmelfarb discusses “The Jew as Victorian” and “The New Women and the New Men,” groups that espoused totally contradictory visions of life. Whereas the East End Jews exemplified—for commentators like Beatrice Webb—Victorian virtues, the New Women and New Men advocated nothing less than the overthrow of those values. Advocating free love, the primacy of aesthetic experience, and a variety of radical political beliefs, they and the decadents were the precursors of the Bloomsbury group and other twentieth-century bohemians. But, as Himmelfarb points out, “a century ago the ‘advanced’ souls were just that, well in advance of the culture, whereas now they pervade the entire culture.”

In the epilogue, the author argues that the democratization and legitimization of these “advanced” morals has de-moralized modern society and has produced skyrocketing rates of crime, divorce, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and illegitimacy. Moreover, Himmelfarb argues, rather than improving or alleviating these problems, current “value-free” social policies have exacerbated them, creating a pernicious culture of poverty from which its members seem powerless to escape.

The final lesson that she believes moderns can learn from the Victorians is that “the ethos of a society, its moral and spiritual character, cannot be reduced to economic, material, political, or other factors, that … virtues are a determining factor in their own right.” As she brilliantly illustrates, we have prematurely consigned moral principles to the dustbin of history. In this ecologically minded age, one of our own values—the importance of conservation—should suggest a remedy: resurrect and recycle the idea and practice of virtue. As Himmelfarb indicates, a good way to begin would be to appropriate the Victorians' best qualities and refashion them to suit the temper of our times, mindful that virtue is perhaps our most precious resource and certainly one that must be conserved.

Alan Jacobs (review date autumn 1995)

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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 is putting a forceful question to the would-be reformers of today: When one considers that in recent decades the rates of serious crime, illegitimate births, and even (by some measures) poverty have been rising in England and America, while the Victorians achieved steady and in some cases remarkable progress in responding to all these problems, can we safely continue to ignore their achievements and merely mock them for rigidity and intolerance?

Himmelfarb repeatedly insists that Victorian society was in many respects deeply flawed. In the history of the period, “there is enough to give pause to the most ardent Victoriaphile.” But even if the Victorian age were perfect, it would not be possible simply to “emulate a society … at a different stage of economic, technological, social, political, and cultural development” than our own. Still, if we cannot, strictly speaking, imitate, we can learn; and Himmelfarb makes a convincing case that there is much to be learned from a close look at how Victorians responded to their social problems. What she counsels is very different from the kind of learning available to the Whig interpreters of history, who respect only those people and movements that seem to foreshadow the interpreters' own world—the rest of history being worth knowing only if such knowledge helps us to avoid repeating our ancestors many and tragic mistakes. Throughout The De-Moralization of Society Himmelfarb conducts a sotto voce debate, chiefly in footnotes, with historians who find no lessons, or only negative ones, in the past. For many modern historians, the Victorians succeeded in nothing, not even in good intentions; for others, they succeeded only when they thought as we think. Though such positions are assumed more often than argued, neither seems self-evident to Himmelfarb.

The question of intentions is a particularly important one. Himmelfarb repeatedly takes up the most common of all charges against the Victorians, that they were hypocrites. (The skepticism many modern historians turn upon the Victorians' motives is equaled only by their confidence in their own.) Himmelfarb is quick to acknowledge that the Victorians often failed, sometimes quite dramatically, to live up to the moral standards that they relentlessly proclaimed. But hypocrisy is not the only cause of inconsistency: if one's standards are high enough, after all, one is bound to fall short of them.

“The Victorians,” Himmelfarb writes, “thought it no small virtue to maintain the appearance, the manners, of good conduct even while violating some moral principle, for in their demeanor they affirmed the legitimacy of the principle itself.” William Gladstone's diaries, when published a few years ago, occasioned much glee among those who found this moral and moralistic man's fascination with prostitutes an exemplary case of Victorian hypocrisy; but, Himmelfarb argues, we only know of this fascination because Gladstone recognized his behavior as sinful and recorded it as such. “The eminent Victorians … did not take sin lightly—their own sin or anyone else's. If they were censorious of others, they were also guilt-ridden about themselves.”

In like fashion, Himmelfarb repeatedly shows that most of the “eminent Victorians,” those currently in favor as well as those in disrepute, were more complicated than many historians want us to think. Her chapter on Victorian feminism is especially interesting in this respect. She reminds us that many of the most influential and brilliant women of the period, including George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, and (from a later generation) Beatrice Webb, conspicuously failed to support women's suffrage. (On this subject, however, Himmelfarb's desire to counter the conventional wisdom leads her into at least one significant error: she makes a list of prominent literary women who failed to sign a petition in favor of women's suffrage, but several of the women on her list were dead when the petition was circulated, one [Charlotte Bronte] for fifteen years.) “It takes no great act of imagination,” argues Himmelfarb, “to reconstruct the case for the suffrage, which now seems so obvious and natural as to require no explanation or defense. What does require imagination is understanding the reasoning of those opposed to it, particularly women who were already active in public affairs” and who had already violated some of the characteristic Victorian proprieties.

By exercising her imagination in exploring Victorian attitudes toward this and other questions—the relation between manners and morals, the problem of poverty (about which she has already written better than anyone else), educational reforms, philanthropy, and so on—Himmelfarb brings the Victorians out of the Manichaean world of Whig history, in which one is either saved (i.e., a progressive reformer) or damned (i.e., a hopeless reactionary), and shows them to be recognizably like us in the breadth of their reactions to social concerns. When one sees how few of the major minds of the time thought in predictable or narrow ways, one comes to believe more fully in the sincere passion with which the Victorians, at their best, struggled with their social problems.

Himmelfarb argues that the Victorian age, for all its flaws, managed to achieve a degree of amelioration of injustice and suffering that the modern world can only envy. Near the end of the book, Himmelfarb ventures into the (for her) unfamiliar territory of graphs, and the graphs are striking indeed. Note the steady and stately decline of crime in England and Wales during the second half of the nineteenth century. Note the precipitous rise in crime—the graph looks like one side of the Matterhorn—in the United States during the last thirty years. (She also provides graphs for the recent history of England and Wales; these are even more dramatic.) But her concern is less with establishing the statistical differences between the two periods, which is easy enough to do, than with exploring the potential causes of the differences. And here we come to the meat of her argument.

Himmelfarb believes that what fundamentally separates us from the Victorians, in character and in the achievement of significant social reform, is that they believed in virtues while we believe only in values. For Himmelfarb the shift from virtues to values indicates “the great philosophical revolution of modernity.” The particular virtues in which the Victorians believed (preeminently “the belief in family and home, respectability and character”) are to Himmelfarb important, but less important than “an ethos that does not denigrate or … thoroughly relativize” virtues by remaking them as mere “values” that people just happen to hold.

Much of this book can be seen as Himmelfarb's response to the claim made by many historians that beliefs and convictions, virtues and values, are mere by-products of material conditions. “The ethos of a society, its moral and spiritual character,” she argues, “cannot be reduced to economic, material, political or other factors.” Instead, “values—or better yet, virtues—are a determining factor in their own right. So far from being a ‘reflection,’ as the Marxist says, of the economic realities, they are themselves, as often as not, the crucial agent in shaping those realities.” If our actions differ from the Victorians', that is because our beliefs differ from theirs. And those differences begin to look less and less to our credit.

To Himmelfarb's credit, she never forces upon the reader the parallels between the Victorian age and this one—except in the prologue and epilogue, they are rarely mentioned. But having been alerted to them from the start, the reader can see that the Victorian themes and topics presented have been chosen with an eye toward the modern situation and can consider the parallels all along. Himmelfarb's reticence here is, I think, quite effective, especially since she is not counseling mere imitation of the Victorians. To see the energetic integrity that the best minds of that age brought to the most serious social problems, all of which must have seemed more intractable than our own, is rather shaming. If many readers feel that shame, The De-Moralization of Society is a success.

James W. Tuttleton (review date autumn 1995)

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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 Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994). In the present work she undertakes not only to define what the Victorians affirmed and celebrated as virtues but also to show what happened to those virtues as Time dragged Anglo-American society from Victorianism into Edwardianism, the Jazz Age, Modernism, and now even Postmodernism.

To be more precise, The De-Moralization of Society charts the loss of belief in those qualities that sustained the generation of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers—the value of self-discipline, the importance of self-help, the idea of work as in itself worthwhile (as even perhaps a redemptive factor in life), thrift, cleanliness, perseverance, honesty, personal responsibility, personal philanthropy, and sexual purity. Professor Himmelfarb adduces a great deal of evidence to show that, at the height of the Victorian period, all sectors of society gave allegiance to these values as personally important and socially essential. But, more important, it was widely believed that these were not merely culture- and time-specific values but “perennial virtues” worth cultivating in any age or place.

Professor Himmelfarb does not think that they are perennial virtues since they differ from what ancient Greeks, say, would have defined as virtue (courage, magnanimity, etc.). But that they were essential for all seasons accounts, it seems to me, for why my parents held to them with the greatest tenacity. A culture does not move along from era to era like a circus wagon from town to town, bringing to each succeeding age a set of differing novelties and freak shows. In any culture with a historical memory there will be lines of continuity, a palimpsest of values, a set of value-overlays derived from the past and continually integrated with what is thought to be eternal. We unconsciously concede this when we call Jefferson a “Renaissance man,” though he lived in the eighteenth century; Dr. Johnson an “Augustan” (of the Roman variety); and the Victorian Carlyle a contemporary of Abbott Samson at Bury St. Edmonds in the Middle Ages. At the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Adams in the Education called himself “a child of the eighteenth century” and there is no reason to doubt that he was. Some of us don't like very well the time and place fate dealt us and, like Professor Himmelfarb, are ready to concede that they managed things better back then.

I note, however, that Professor Himmelfarb has come under an especially violent attack in the press for showing that the Victorians, in both England and America, maintained the society in a more orderly way and in a better condition than we do. Her evidence—a terrifying thought to the Left—has proved persuasive to the politicians. In England, the rehabilitation of Victorian values has been an unashamed aspect of the political agenda of the Tories (who have turned out to be, however, so far as sexual rectitude is concerned, no better than they should be). Indeed, Professor Himmelfarb quotes an interview in which Margaret Thatcher expresses gratitude to the Victorian grandmother who had brought her up:

We were taught to work jolly hard. We were taught to prove yourself; we were taught self-reliance; we were taught to live within our income. You were taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. You were taught self-respect. You were taught always to give a hand to your neighbour. You were taught tremendous pride in your country. All of these things are Victorian values. They are also perennial values.

How quaint! was the reaction. It is particularly hard for the press corps and the political left to grasp the point that the set of values defined here by Lady Thatcher, defined as Victorian but paradoxically perennial, is a matter of devout conviction in the mainstream America that has elected a Republican congressional majority. Congressman Newt Gingrich is himself a Thatcherite, when it comes to values. He recently stupefied the Washington Press corps (which is at the head of the circus wagons) by adducing Professor Himmelfarb's new book as evidence that Americans, by emulating the Victorians, can turn around a society that has become worm-eaten with liberalism, licentiousness, and phony compassion. In “Gingrich Looks to Victorian Age to Cure Today's Social Failings” (in the New York Times for 14 March 1995), Katharine Q. Seelye reports that the Speaker of the House told the National League of Cities that the Victorians

changed the whole momentum of their society. They didn't do it through a new bureaucracy. They did it by re-establishing values, by moral leadership, and by being willing to look at people in the face and say “You should be ashamed when you get drunk in public; you ought to be ashamed if you're a drug addict.”

Did shame play a role in reducing Victorian out-of-wedlock births? Yes, according to the statistics provided by Professor Himmelfarb. Can shame work in America? Mr. Gingrich evidently thinks so: “Read Himmelfarb's book,” he told reporters. “It isn't that complicated.”

But the pressure of public opinion is more complicated than Mr. Gingrich suggests. Moral leadership is something that the Victorian period provided, more or less, from the top down. Queen Victoria brought to the throne a high standard of domestic purity and public rectitude, such that her name is given to a species of respectability that, since the days of Oscar Wilde, has been dismissed as repressive. Her long reign, which came close to spanning the whole century, reminded Englishmen that the monarch is, among other things, the spiritual leader of the nation. As Walter Bagehot remarked in The English Constitution (1867),

We have come to regard the crown as the head of our morality. The virtues of Queen Victoria and the virtues of George III have sunk deep into the popular heart. We have come to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign. And that the domestic virtues are as likely to be found on thrones as they are eminent when there.

Something of that same residual feeling obtains in America—the sense that the President is or ought to be the spiritual leader of the nation. He is not only supposed to be above the fray of party politics; in the last analysis, he is supposed to be the embodiment of the moral ideals of the nation. For this reason, something very close to reverence has attached itself to the American presidency—to Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the martyred JFK. Every four years we put our trust in a candidate who, we hope, will be not just a temporary manager of a huge executive bureaucracy but “the head of our morality.”

But how can the American president embody this exalted spiritual function when he is a confessed adulterer who exposes his marital problems on prime time TV and whose sexual improprieties are the joke of the tabloids and scandal of the courts? How could anyone embody this role when the media evidently have no other purpose in life than to catch presidents and politicians—like Wilbur Mills, Teddy Kennedy, and Gary Hart—in flagrante delicto? Even those we used to think above reproach—Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Kennedy—have been so flayed in the scandal sheets and on TV (often with good reason) that no respect, much less reverence, could conceivably be paid to them. When the ostensible moral leader is rotten, a harvest of public cynicism is the result. Nevertheless, Professor Himmelfarb believes that Victorian values deserve more than the dismissive scorn of those who despise Mrs. Grundy.

Amongst those who have attacked The De-Moralization of Society are a horde of academic neo-Marxists, swarming out of the American Historical Association, with a flurry of protests that come down to the bankrupt argument that the Victorians espoused the Gospel of Work and the idea of personal responsibility only in order to exact the maximum of labor from the exploited, crushed, and impoverished masses. The values of hard work, personal responsibility, thrift, sobriety, punctuality and the rest were supposedly promoted by the middle-class Victorian power structure simply in order to control the unruly mob and focus their labor on middle-class profits.

In fact, however, Professor Himmelfarb has provided a great deal of evidence to show that self-respect and earning the respect of other people was a very important element in the disadvantaged Victorian's view of himself. Those struggling to make it from poverty and homelessness into the ranks of the working poor, and the working poor themselves, often expressed the absolute importance of properly managing their own economic, personal, and social affairs. To suck on the welfare teat, to go on the public dole, was to many an indigent Victorian a shameful humiliation. In the poorest years of my childhood, in the midst of the worst times of the Depression, my parents would have died before taking a government handout. The poor have always understood, in a way that reformers have not, that (as Professor Himmelfarb puts it) welfare or “‘poor relief,’ unlike charity, had a demoralizing effect upon the poor and a deleterious effect on the economy.” The imposition of poor relief, as the century wore on, also had a deleterious effect on late Victorian personal philanthropy.

But perhaps most conspicuous is the fact that no welfare program, then or now, has ever succeeded in abolishing poverty. And indeed, the existing strings to welfare grants have even separated families and subverted the very idea of the family in the conventional sense. Lyndon Johnson inaugurated a host of Great Society programs in 1963 with the intention of completing the New Deal agenda of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “The War on Poverty” was to put an end to American indigence at last. But four trillion of your tax dollars later, the poor we have with us still; crime in the underclass has shot up like a rocket; illegitimacy is a rampant national scandal; single-mother households sag under the poverty level; generations of kids have grown up on the dole; welfare fraud is pervasive; and there is a continuing national ulcer of frustration, resentment, and rancor.

The reason for all of this is very probably that to which Professor Himmelfarb points. While there will always be fluctuations in the economy and in unemployment levels, the situation of the poor cannot be understood without reference to “the larger context of Victorian values—of character, conduct, and the social ethos.” Indeed, the Victorians may have been right all along in believing that poverty was not a “problem” that could be “solved.” Certainly if we have learned anything at all since the days of LBJ, it is that the problems of the poor are not remedied by simply throwing money at them. Professor Himmelfarb remarks that “in de-moralizing social policy—divorcing it from any moral criteria, requirements, even expectations—we have demoralized, in the more familiar sense, both the individuals receiving relief and society as a whole.” Perhaps she is right in suggesting that we ought to resume the Victorian discussion of social problems in terms of the moral conduct, family values, and personal “lifestyles” of those who make a claim upon social services.

The De-Moralization of Society is nothing if not timely in its discussion of Victorian feminism. I was surprised, from Professor Himmelfarb's account, at the wide range of responses, on the part of nineteenth-century English women, to issues that most concerned them: marriage, birth and child care, divorce, prostitution, education and jobs, and the suffrage. Some were in favor of education but not in favor of public work; some saw birth control as liberating while others thought it subversive to marriage and men's sense of sexual responsibility; some were for, some against, suffrage. Professor Himmelfarb's account of the issues and personalities in nineteenth-century feminism is too complex to summarize here. But it suggests that the movement tolerated a great deal more dissent and disagreement over aims and methods than is now—given the canons of political correctness—the case. In any event, I was most struck with the foresight of the wise Millicent Fawcett, who urged women not to purchase liberation at the expense of womanliness and the domestic virtues, arguing that “anything that loosened the bonds of marriage and family meant the ‘immeasurable degradation of women.’” It was Fawcett's

concern for the feminine virtues—purity, propriety, and womanliness—that distinguished the Victorian suffragists from many (although not all) the Edwardian suffragettes. And it was the concern for the domestic virtues—family, marriage, children—that even more sharply distinguished the Victorian feminists from the “new women” of the fin de siècle. The Victorian feminists were not rebels; they were reformers. And they were Victorian reformers, committed to those values, including family values, that were so deeply ingrained in Victorian culture and society.

Professor Himmelfarb is thus an acute diagnostician of the present Anglo-American social mess, seen as the effect of a de-moralizing slide from Victorian ethical high-mindedness to the anything-is-permitted sleaze of contemporary life. Unfortunately, however, her account of the Victorian ethos has a number of serious deficiencies, and she has nothing really to give us by way of a modern solution to the contemporary problems she has so brilliantly diagnosed.

As to the deficiencies of the book, there is plenty of evidence that the Victorians were rarely as high-minded as she makes them seem or, indeed, as they wished to appear. Hence the fulminations of Carlyle against the industrial horrors of the age; Arnold's despair at all the social classes—the “barbarian” aristocrats, the “philistine” middle class, the sodden lower classes who wanted only their “gin, beer, and fun”; and Marx's call to revolution. She is right to point out, however, that at least the Victorians gave lip service to the idea of virtue and that, as La Rochefoucauld observed, “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” Our age pays homage to virtually nothing, so far as I can see, beyond celebrity and money. In any case, what we need is the rehabilitation of a very selective cluster of ideas and moral principles that were voiced in the nineteenth century but that subsequently got lost.

However, when we look to Professor Himmelfarb to explain how we can recover them and overcome the current disconnection between social policies and the moral convictions that once served to effect and animate them, the deficiencies of her book become most visible. The difficulty is shown in the following passage from her conclusion:

The main thing the Victorians can teach us is the importance of values—or, as they would have said, “virtues”—in our public as well as private lives. And not so much the specifically Victorian virtues that we may well value today, as the importance of an ethos that does not denigrate or so thoroughly relativize values as to make them ineffectual and meaningless.

Now, Victorian virtues and values were of course ethical formulations founded on Christian belief, church doctrine, and prescribed moral commandments. While Darwin, Huxley, and others sapped the confidence of Victorian believers, over a period of time, Professor Himmelfarb's gallery of Victorian moralists were frankly all nurtured on Christian doctrine. (And on the Jewish doctrine as well: Professor Himmelfarb's chapter “The Jew as Victorian” makes the excellent case that the values espoused by the Victorian moralists [some of whom were Jewish] were grounded in the Old Testament and Talmud as well.)

But Nietzsche was quite right in The Twilight of the Idols to remark that “when one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet.” The same might be said for giving up orthodox Judaism. For quite some time a great many Americans have thought of this country as a “Christian nation” whose greatness lay in part in the social manifestation of its Christian moral values. But more than a century has elapsed since Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud began their work of transvaluing the values that underlay Anglo-American political and social assumptions. The moral capital of Christian faith has been mostly all spent now—and with it the basis for Christian (a.k.a. Victorian) morals. Nowadays, who believes in the supernatural doctrines of Christianity? Or the miracles of Judaism for that matter? And who can think of this country any longer as Christian? Or even Judeo-Christian?

The consequence of the bankruptcy of all religion now (except for the saving remnant) is that the public affairs of this nation—in government, in social services, in the media, in public education, etc.—are mainly run (and used by) what might be called the new immoralists. They have no beliefs or convictions, short of hedonistic pleasure and self-aggrandizement, and they have no capacity to understand the remnant who retain their faith, espouse an old-fashioned morality, and live in a different time warp. These are dismissed as moral cranks and crackpots, the religious right, killjoys, a dangerous threat to our open, inclusive, multicultural, and flaccidly tolerant society. Even so, something is horribly wrong with our society, and we are desperately ransacking the past—the Victorian era this time—for answers.

So, as we turn toward the new century, what are our social values, our moral virtues, to be grounded on? Professor Himmelfarb, alas, has no answer. She cannot call for the apostate Gentile's return to Christian doctrine; nor does she advocate the secular Jew's embrace of the abandoned Temple and the Torah. The moral order of the classical past has also seen its day. For her, it is likewise impermissible for government to promote any particular moral precepts. She does not even insist on the specific Victorian values that she has affirmed throughout this book. Instead, the country is supposed, somehow, to create an “ethos” that accords importance to “values” and does not denigrate “virtue.” This, it seems to me, is a hopeless task. Without someone to give us the real book of virtues and the ground on which they can be believed and defended, the society will continue to wander about in the dark.

Ann Robson (review date June 1996)

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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 successes—and with the contemporary ideologies perpetuating those failings, which she reveals through criticism of recent historiography. Himmelfarb's reader, therefore, has to have a nodding acquaintance with Victorian England and with the recent schools of historical writing that disparage it. Why do Marxists, feminists, feminist Marxists, socialists, and Foucauldians generally denigrate the Victorians and their achievements? Why are the Victorians' attempts to educate the people, to relieve the poor, to improve morals, and to preach self-help seen as attempts at social control? Why is their moralizing seen as hypocrisy? Himmelfarb's answer—and here I simplify—is their very success. Their success was achieved by the very virtues that our values denigrate.

Himmelfarb's prologue opens with a discussion of the reaction in 1983 to Margaret Thatcher's enthusiastic endorsement of Victorian virtues: “Those were the values when our country became great” (p. 3). Underlying the rest of the book is an acerbic analysis of why “many journalists, professors, and Labour Party members [were] frankly contemptuous of so retrograde a notion” (p. 3). She argues that the concept of virtues was undermined by Friedrich Nietzsche's nihilism: “The ‘death of God’ would mean the death of morality and the death of truth—above all, the truth of any morality. There would be no good and evil, no virtue and vice. There would be only ‘values.’ And having degraded virtues into values, Nietzsche proceeded to de-value and transvalue them, to create a new set of values for his ‘new man’” (p. 10).

In her epilogue, subtitled “A De-Moralized Society,” Himmelfarb, mostly relying on statistics, compares contemporary British and American society with Victorian times. For anyone who believes that it is better not to murder than to murder, to take an indisputable criterion, the statistics are horrifyingly damning of our de-moralized social policy, a policy divorced “from any moral criteria, requirements, even expectations” (p. 243). A society in which all values claim equality has no virtues.

The book's simple question is: if our values are so much better than the Victorians' virtues, how come they were much more successful than we? Himmelfarb's book is for all those for whom this is a rhetorical question and agree with its implications and for all those who think it a wrong-headed question and its implications erroneous. The latter have their work cut out to provide a response based on fact, not ideology.

John F. Quinn (review date summer 1996)

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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, General Gordon, and Dr. Arnold—and depicted them as grasping, foolish and hypocritical.

Himmelfarb admits that she is troubled by some aspects of Victorian society: “I am painfully aware of the difficulties and inequities of Victorian life … class distinctions, social prejudices, abuses of authority, constraints on personal liberty, restraints and hindrances of all sorts” (p. 17). On balance, though, she views the Victorians as earnest, morally upright people who were concerned with the well-being of their families and the community as a whole.

In her chapters on women, she argues persuasively that most were content with the division of society into “separate spheres.” Under this arrangement men worked full time and concerned themselves with public life while women managed the home and oversaw their children's educations. If Victorian England were as stiflingly patriarchal as some feminist historians have claimed, then presumably some women of the day would have spoken out.

Instead, Himmelfarb notes that the leading feminist of the day was a man, John Stuart Mill. In his writings and during his stint in Parliament in the 1860s, Mill lobbied for women's suffrage. He received little support, however, from a number of prominent women. Florence Nightingale was initially against women's suffrage but eventually gave it a lukewarm endorsement; George Eliot remained opposed to it until her death in 1880; and Beatrice Webb, the Fabian socialist, was strenuously opposed, believing that it would “harden and narrow” women (p. 101).

Many women, of course, did rally to the cause. Led by Millicent Fawcett, feminists pressed for the franchise and increased educational opportunities for women. While suffragists would have to wait until 1918 to get the vote, Cambridge opened a college for women in 1869 and Oxford followed suit ten years later.

Fawcett and many of her feminist co-workers had other concerns as well. Through the National Vigilance Association for the Repression of Criminal Vice and Immorality, suffragists campaigned against immoral literature—including birth control information—and pressed for an end to prostitution. Clearly they were not libertarians on matters of sexual morality. Instead, as Himmelfarb notes, their watchwords were “purity, propriety and womanliness” (p. 123).

Himmelfarb also devotes considerable space to Victorian perspectives on poverty. The New Poor Law of 1834, which required able-bodied paupers to receive relief inside workhouses, has been widely viewed as a mean-spirited piece of legislation. Before 1834, outdoor relief was generally provided to anyone who requested it. Poor people could visit the workhouses in their communities and obtain food, clothing and/or money and then go back to their homes. Normally only the sick and the elderly would reside in the workhouses. The New Poor Law, however, tried to discourage healthy adults from seeking aid. Therefore in order for them to receive assistance, they would have to agree to move into the workhouse and complete chores in return for their food. While Charles Dickens drew a horrifying picture of workhouse conditions in Oliver Twist, Himmelfarb claims that the houses were generally clean and relatively comfortable. In fact some observers labeled them “pauper palaces” (p. 136). Himmelfarb does not wholeheartedly defend the legislation. For example, she notes that families were routinely split up on the basis of sex upon their entry into the workhouses. Still, she believes that by stigmatizing relief the Victorians encouraged the virtues of hard work, thrift, and sobriety.

Furthermore, she argues that the condition of the working poor was ameliorated through assistance provided by private charities. Settlement houses like Toynbee Hall provided a variety of educational and cultural activities for the poor of London; housing projects gave some people at least a chance to live in spotless new apartments; and temperance societies offered members insurance and other benefits. In each case the aid was meant to provide a moral uplift for the recipients: “Whatever was done for the poor was meant to enable them to do more for themselves, to become more self-reliant and more responsible—to bring out, as T. H. Green said, their better selves” (p. 164).

Himmelfarb firmly believes that over the course of the Victorian era the English people were indeed improving morally, becoming their better selves. Illegitimacy rates were falling; adultery seems to have been rare—at least the French observer Hippolyte Taine thought so; divorce was uncommon; and crime was decreasing steadily. At the end of the century, though, Himmelfarb notes that a few influential Englishmen and women began to rebel against the Victorians' worldview. A cadre of intellectuals, including Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor, began to advocate free love in place of marriage. At the same time, another set—this one all male—formed around Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. These “aesthetes,” as they styled themselves, were for the most part promiscuous homosexuals.

Himmelfarb claims that the values of these fin-de-siècle bohemians have gradually filtered down to the general public over the course of this century; the sexual revolution of Ellis and Wilde and the others has been “democratized and legitimized” (p. 218). In her final chapters, she analyzes the toll that these new values have taken on England and the United States in recent years. In 1900 the illegitimacy rate stood at 4 percent in England—and was 3 percent in the working-class neighborhoods of London. By 1992 it had increased to 32 percent. In America the numbers have risen at the same rate: from 3 percent in 1920 to 22 percent in 1991 among whites and 68 percent among blacks. Crime rates increased forty-fold in England from 1901 to 1991, and incidents of violent crime have multiplied in the past fifteen years. And teen pregnancy, abortion, divorce, and drug use have likewise reached staggering levels in contemporary America and England.

Some experts attribute these problems to poverty and believe that if it could be eradicated then these pathologies would dissipate. Himmelfarb strongly disagrees, noting that America and England endured depressions in the 1890s and in the 1930s, and yet these statistics did not change significantly during those years. She claims the root of the problem is relativism. People are no longer sure of their own values and are therefore deathly afraid of imposing them on anyone else. If America and England are to find their way again, Himmelfarb suggests that they must experience a moral reformation and reappropriate the best of the Victorian virtues.

It is in these final pages that the imprint of Himmelfarb's husband, Irving Kristol, and son, William Kristol, is most evident. Leading neoconservatives, the Kristols have criticized the Great Society programs of the 1960s, arguing that they have bred dependency and despair. In their place, they have championed private charity and “family values”—in fact William Kristol was chief of staff to Dan Quayle when he delivered his famous “Murphy Brown” address.

Himmelfarb's willingness to wade into the contemporary culture wars will surely put off some readers. This reader, however, was not troubled by her decision. What was disappointing was her determination to jump from 1900 to the 1960s. It would have been very interesting if she could have chronicled the changes in people's attitudes in the Edwardian era, the interwar period, and the forties and fifties. A discussion of these years would have given the reader a better understanding of how America and England got into their present predicaments.

It would also have been helpful if she had devoted more attention to the link between religion and morality. In several places she notes that as some late Victorians lost faith, they held on to their moral values with more tenacity. That is probably true, but were these principled agnostics able to pass their morality on to their children and grandchildren? Perhaps this crisis in contemporary society is merely the by-product of secularization.

These concerns notwithstanding, The De-Moralization of Society is well worth reading. The writing is elegant from start to finish and Himmelfarb's knowledge of Victorian literature, politics and philosophy is striking. Readers may not accept all of her neoconservative prescriptions, but even her sharpest critics should in fairness concede that this book is informative, engaging and provocative.

Robert Beum (review date spring 1997)

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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 arguments. “John Buchan: The Last Victorian,” a highly original and valuable corrective to the politically correct disparagement of a master of narrative art and a champion of élan, makes the essential points: Buchan's mind “had a range and seriousness that has to be respected”; and his outlook on race, gender, class, and government was authenticated by sincerity and spontaneity, that is, by qualities that made him both perceptually honest and immensely productive—he had “none of the scruples that are so inhibiting today.” Anyone who wonders what happened to high literary achievement would do well to ponder Himmelfarb on Buchan.

In “The Specter of Malthus,” another remarkable essay, the author's sharp focus on a seemingly small point—differences between the first and second editions of the famous Essay on Population—yields fresh and provocative ideas. “The Victorian Ethos: Before and After Victoria” presents one of Himmelfarb's few eminently arguable theses: “Utilitarianism, Darwinism, Rationalism, Biblical Criticism, and Atheistic Humanism—none of these succeeded … in undermining morality, as some had feared.” Middle-class England, from Dickens through Gladstone, was so cohesive—owing largely to the influence of the Evangelicals—that it could easily resist the corrosive power of the new -isms. But the undermining of morality and the loss of cohesion are exactly what Himmelfarb's recent studies entail. The cohesion did break; the moral consensus did go—and in the same way as in France a century earlier. 1789 brought no immediate widespread transformation of moral assumptions and habits, but the revolutionary ideology was eventually assimilated, and within a generation it emerged as a formidable anti-tradition.

Professor Himmelfarb probably overcredits the British Evangelicals. In the short run they did help form the ethos that gave the Victorians strength. But, in the second half of the century, the logic of Evangelicalism may have worked itself out into a destabilizing force, helping to prepare the way for full-dress modernity's cult of the self. Excitedly emotional, and demanding what Eric Voegelin calls world-salvific results, Evangelical “belief” was virtually identical with the enthusiasm itself. But the personal and social miracles happened too slowly and too seldom, and a great many Evangelicals found it impossible to sustain even the enthusiasm. Recurrent large-scale defection, a fact the author slights, was part of the movement's history. One thing, however, that the apostates were likely to retain from their “faith” long after that had been lost was the habit of emphasizing the self in “Save thyself” and the My in “My Saviour.” Himmelfarb forgets to tell us that the Evangelical focus on self-salvation, as distinguished from the adoration recommended by traditional religion, required only the lapse of faith to become what we have today: the religion, fully orthodox and institutionalized, of self-worship, the liturgy of “rights,” “self-expression,” and “self-esteem.”

The De-Moralization of Society focuses on what the Victorians might teach us: “the importance of values—or, as they would have said, ‘virtues’—in our public as well as private lives … the importance of an ethos that does not denigrate or so thoroughly relativize values as to make them ineffectual and meaningless.” The de-moralization of society was identical with the triumph of the counter culture. But, uneasy as they may be about that triumph, Americans, an antihistorical breed, remain reluctant to concede that history is instructive. “In the last two decades, the movements for cultural and sexual liberation have progressed far beyond their original intentions. Yet few people are able to resist their momentum or to recall their initial principles. In an unhistorical age such as ours, even the immediate past seems so remote as to be antediluvian; thus anything short of the present state of ‘liberation’ is regarded as illiberal. … Any assertion of values—any distinction between the publication of Ulysses and the public performance of sodomy—is thought to be arbitrary and authoritarian.”

By way of completing the logic, one might add that in the abstract the currently insatiable demand for “rights,” though undreamed of by the founding fathers, is only a logical extension of the democratic principle beyond its original intentions. The latter were still strongly influenced by a residual aristocratic principle; but, as a concept or ideology, the democratic postulate is indefinitely extensible. The democratic idea has no immanent means whatever of limiting its own application because all limitation exists as a nagging inconsistency. Every step taken toward complete equality is a perfectly logical, if not prudential, move; and since equality of franchise and access inevitably fails to produce the anticipated social miracle, the clamor for an even wider egalitarian extension—into a guaranteed, government-enforced equality of results—begins, and apparently it never ends. All of the thinkers and imaginative writers Himmelfarb commends believed that democracy can function reasonably well only if an aristocratic principle remains overtly or covertly functional. In Wilhelm Roepke's words only if “all, or at least most, voters are agreed that certain supreme norms and principles of public life and economic order must remain outside the sphere of democratic decisions” will it work. Such agreement is over. Professor Himmelfarb knows that, and she is not blinded by ideological abstraction; but her message is sometimes blurred because she seems unsure that she can get away with saying, this late in the day, that built-in social-political inequality may be the only way that civilization ever saves itself from the despotism of King Numbers.

The inability or unwillingness to come to terms with aristocratic necessity, together with the constant overestimation of middle-class cultural and political capabilities, seems to me a very serious deficiency in Himmelfarb's understanding of historical causes and effects. Most of the recent cultural developments she deplores are manifestations of a deep-seated and ruthless materialism. She must know that, but her studies provide no explanation of its genealogy and ever-more aggressive imperialism. It may not be a coincidence that the momentum for our present crushing and devouring materialism developed after, not before, the reformations and revolutions had destroyed the monarchic-aristocratic structures of Europe and established a world of republics and liberal democracies. Materialism no doubt started when man did, but there was more than a small element of genuineness in the old functional aristocracies' attachment to excellence in general and to devotional, chivalric, heroic, and poetic ideals. Once capitalism, rather than royalism, became the political Right, there arose a great deal of stir and commotion about the joys of trade and industry and buying and selling on our way along the luxurious road of Progress that leads at last to a bliss of effortless living in a world of material plenty. I, for one, would like to hear Himmelfarb's own account of just how the achievement of middle-class power, liberal democracy, evolved—devolved may be better—into a situation in which entire populations care little about conserving anything except their materialistic “rights” and their ability to push for ever-higher standards of credit cards, electronic amusements, power gadgets.

Reluctance to offend the divinized democratic principle and to risk losing even the sympathies of her compatriots in middle-class conservatism may explain Himmelfarb's thinness on the subject of Victorian manners. These must have been not only lively, even piquant, compared with our own and may have reinforced as well as reflected the ethos. Must even Himmelfarbs take on the political correctness of feeling guilty about delighting in the social textures of cultures ordered by class structure?

Much more thoroughly developed but still perhaps slightly incomplete is her rebuttal of liberal and socialist attacks on the Victorian free-enterprise economy. She sees quite clearly both the illogic and the strategic but disingenuous evasions of those attacks. Liberalism has generally held that the capitalist enterprise has fragmented Western society. Himmelfarb replies that Victorian capitalism may be absolved. Because of the “powerful ethos” that restrained individualism, “Victorian England did not succumb to the moral and cultural anarchy … said to be the inevitable consequence of economic individualism.”

But there must be complications here: the ethos proved to be a center that could not hold. The flourishing of fin-de-siècle modes as early as the 1880s, and of less précieux but equally socially alienated literature even before that, signalled the onset of the “moral and cultural anarchy” that would own the future. Loss of consensus and fragmentation of life modes—atomization, as the sociologists call it—may have been an inevitable, if long-range consequence of the Industrial Revolution itself, an eminently capitalist phenomenon. In England, as on the continent, “economic liberalism,” i.e., competitive individualism, replaced the old agrarian corporateness—and did so in juggernaut fashion. The Reformation, another phenomenon with strong ties to capitalism and a concomitant middle-class empowerment, had long since prepared western Europe for an acceptance of radical individualism. Skeptical rationalism, another dissolvent of traditional corporateness, gathered its own momentum only a generation after Calvin. The triumph of the individualist principle indigenous to democratic faith and ideology was probably assured without the romantic self-glorification added by Rousseau in the very heyday of the tradition-baiting philosophes. All of these developments interblended to some extent, sometimes making strange amalgamations; but the common thrust was a movement away from consensual tradition and a corresponding exaltation of the individual, competitive, independent, subjective, and—a condition not well anticipated by the promoters of individualism themselves—isolated and lonely, and haunted by the sense that some great good had been lost irrecoverably. Thus an alternative to Himmelfarb's encomium for Victorian capitalism is to propose that machinisme itself—free-wheeling industrialization and urbanization, establishing radically new life modes—was a powerful dissolvent, independent of the particular “politics” behind it (mainstream socialism soon committed itself to machine culture); and that England's industrial-democratic emprise was less socially and culturally corrosive than it might otherwise have been because it remained significantly influenced by the centuries-old, pervasive monarchic-agrarian residue, destined to dissolve continually but never completely disappear. The residual aristocratic influence was significantly strengthened because there happened to be a particularly beloved queen on the throne who symbolized continuity with the past. Himmelfarb is no despiser of Queen Victoria, but her references to the possible value of the English aristocratic thrust are few and never go beyond the rather innocuous acknowledgment that Victoria herself did, on occasion, publicly declare for “the virtues.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb's reluctance to tilt with the democratic principle, together with her tendency to regard conservative democracy as a deep-rootable, potentially permanent system rather than as the transient historical phase which it actually was, vitiates her general understanding of political affinities and of the political history of the West. She even commends some of the specific goals and achievements of radical democracy—for instance, absolute political equality and gender parity—as if these could be separated from their provenance in historical malcontentedness, envy, hatred of authority, and other reflex negativism, the very stuff of which “moral and cultural anarchy” is made.

The author presents irrefutable evidence that contemporary American society (and not it alone) is radically de-moralized and that Victorian society both believed in and on the whole made a strenuous effort to live by “the virtues.” The book's first 249 pages (of 263) suggest that this moral solidity, which included stable (if not famously blissful) marriage and low rates of crime and illegitimacy, make the Victorian world, despite its shortcomings, an admirable one. But next we hear we should not look to the 1860s as “models for emulation. … One could not, even if one so desired, emulate a society … at a different stage of cultural development.” Then the message becomes even more ambiguous: “if there is much in the ethos of our own times that one may deplore, there is no less in Victorian times. … Social and sexual discriminations, class rigidities and political inequalities, autocratic men, submissive women, constraints, restrictions, and abuses of all kinds—there is enough to give pause to the most ardent Victoriaphile.”

What does professor Himmelfarb really want us to think? Have we gained as much as we have lost? Are advances in “freedom” (or that which can be gotten away with) and in “gender parity” as important, after all, as “the virtues”? If so, why ask readers to compare the moral order of 1995 unfavorably with that of 1895? If it isn't really possible, and may not even be desirable, to recover something resembling the Victorian moral idealism and achievement, why should anyone think, or write, animatedly about the matter?

The self-destructive ambiguity and ambivalence of Himmelfarb's coda to The De-Moralization of Society appeared only a year after On Looking into the Abyss had already presented a trenchant and consistent critique of contemporary irrationalism. Compressed but never oversimplified or gracelessly abstract, the seven essays of the earlier book are motivated by the hope that good sense and love of truth may yet prevail over the lure of the abyss which Nietzsche had in mind: “if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

The abyss is emotional nihilism, a black hole of enervation, paralysis, and nausée dug by relativism and subjectivism (Himmelfarb neglects to identify the latter as historical endproducts of unrestrained individualism). Outraged at his self-mutilation, the abyss-gazer takes his revenge in a violence mediated through irrationalist social and political movements and through “new art forms,” “advanced techniques,” or “anti-art” held to be “more honest than art.” Vengeful hoaxes, all will appeal to the jaded sensibilities and sheer gullibilities of intellectuals bored not only with truth and beauty but with distinctions between illusion (or fantasy) and reality.

Himmelfarb is a formidable pathologist—always fair, clear, and efficient as long as she focuses on the diseased tissue itself. Her survey of the abyss-gazing tendencies that have eroded the “sense of law, morality, nationality, religion, culture, family, freedom” by blurring the distinctions between virtue and immoralism, heroes and monsters, beauty and ugliness, courage and whining, logic and dyslogic, importance and triviality, and compassion and sentimentality includes the exaltation of literary criticism and the corresponding devaluation of literature itself; literary deconstructionism; feminist literary and social criticism; leveling (i.e., virtue-baiting) biography; historical structuralism; and “anti-elitist” history (history “from below”). All come away worse for the wear of her scrutiny.

But of course that applies only for those who still value facts and logical connections. Extend the egalitarian principle far enough and it reads: Logic shall have no privileges not also afforded to dyslogic. Highly vocal and influential segments of today's “intellectual community” have made the extension. Facts are just as useful, or useless, interpreted one way as another. Logical reasoning, being ordered, “circumscribes one's freedom,” dares, in “authoritarian” fashion, to try to impose itself as the very condition of argument—or, rather, self-expression. Both facts and logical construction are no more than personal and optional “techniques,” components of an intellectual or aesthetic game created by a given individual for personal reasons.

When absurdity is thus transformed into a virtue and a sophistication, logical and ethical attack upon it loses its customary force. A willed insanity is the most impregnable of all things. No one knows that better than Gertrude Himmelfarb. But she heroically persists in sense and indignation, and civilization may last a little longer for that.

John Brown (review date July 1997)

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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 values—have somehow become lost since the nineteenth century ended, so that morality has become ‘thoroughly relativised and subjectified’. Nietzsche is singled out incidentally as almost alone in realizing what was happening, and Weber is placed among the vast majority who did not. This is one of the unintentionally amusing remarks, which come as a welcome relief from the relentless grinding of axes. The author's tendency, like her heroine's, is to judge people very firmly on the basis of whether they seem ‘one of us’. There is a strange chapter which argues that the admired virtues or values are not just Christian, capitalist and middle-class but also Jewish, which manages to mention that Mrs Thatcher ennobled the Chief Rabbi, and which repeats Harold Macmillan's joke (though it may not be his) that there were ‘more Estonians than Etonians in her cabinet’. The values remain, of course, above all quintessentially English (even though Mrs Thatcher is quoted as once calling them Scottish). The whole argument is confused not only by partisanship but also because the author often does not know what she is talking about, or at any rate does not know enough. She knows, for example, that the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act ‘left out’ paupers, and seems to approve of their exclusion, but apparently does not know that this pauper disqualification was repealed in 1910. Some contentious remarks, some of them simply untrue, are made without any supporting evidence. For example, it is asserted that welfare has become ‘in recent decades divorced systematically from moral sanctions and incentives’. Neil Kinnock's description of Victorian values as ‘cruelty, ignorance, drudgery, squalor and ignorance’ is dismissed for confusing values, which do not govern behaviour but set standards for conduct, with social realities. But she herself is keen to make some connection between values and conduct in terms of cause and effect. The defining characteristic of Victorian society is seen as moral progress, apparent in increasing family stability and in decreasing illegitimacy, drunkenness, crime and public violence. This progress and the subsequent decline are ‘measured’ in the book's concluding section by graphs of crime and illegitimacy (despite a passing admission that problems surround the interpretation of the statistics). It should not be necessary to say so, but perhaps it should be said in conclusion, if only because of other recent books such as the British Academy symposium on ‘Victorian values’, that the Victorian age was a very long one of great intellectual change and diversity, and that it is misguided to let present-day political rhetoric obscure this obvious point.

Terry Teachout (review date 22 November 1999)

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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) don't get Karlgaard's point, while those who do get culture but think it ceased to exist in 1960 (or 1860) have been reduced by postmodernity to the kind of frenzied spluttering Bugs Bunny used to inspire in Daffy Duck. As for the libertarians for whom Karlgaard speaks, they are the remittance men of Western culture, living happily off the income from a dwindling trust fund whose capital they do nothing to replenish or protect.

The not-so-simple answer comes from Gertrude Himmelfarb, America's preeminent Victorianist, who in recent years has been writing with increasing frequency about the way we live now, and whose latest book [One Nation, Two Cultures] is a concise, clear-eyed look at the culture war and what it really means. Once or twice in a generation—if that often—a very wise person writes a very pithy book that compresses everything that needs to be said about a given topic into the briefest of compasses. The Road to Serfdom,Notes towards the Definition of Culture,The Abolition of Man: Books like these are made to be given to puzzled friends. They change minds, and lives. One Nation, Two Cultures is such a book.

The manifold virtues of Himmelfarb's book start with its title, in which she answers Mr. Jones's question with four well-chosen words. Yes, she says, there has been a culture war, “a revolution in the manners, morals, and mores of society,” and the Left has won it:

What was, only a few decades ago, a subculture or counterculture in American society has been assimilated into the dominant culture. … Most [Americans] lead lives that, in most respects, most of the time, conform to traditional ideals of morality and propriety. But they do so with no firm confidence in the principles underlying their behavior. … Even when they complain about the “moral decline” of the country (which they continue to do, in very large numbers), they offer little resistance to the manifestations of that decline. They believe in God, but they believe even more in the autonomy of the individual. They confess that they find it difficult to judge what is moral or immoral even for themselves, still more for others.

But at the same time, the losing side, far from rolling over and playing dead, has launched a resistance movement:

There is, however, another culture (or set of loosely allied subcultures) that coexists somewhat uneasily with the dominant culture. This might be called the “dissident culture”—the culture not of the three-quarters of the public who redefine family to include “significant others,” but of the one-quarter who abide by the traditional definition; not of the 55-60 percent who think that premarital sex is acceptable, but of the 40-45 percent who think it is not. … They do not think of sexual morality as a “personal matter” that can be “boxed off,” as is now said, from the rest of life. Nor do they think of religion as a “private affair” that should not encroach upon the “public square.” Nor are they apt to engage in such circumlocutions as “Who am I to say … ?” or “Personally … but …”

It is this tension between dominant and dissident cultures, Himmelfarb argues, that explains “the peculiar, almost schizoid nature of our present condition: the evidence of moral disarray on the one hand and of a religious-cum-moral revival on the other.” But the fact that the dissident culture is neither monolithic nor coercive but democratic—“It is entirely voluntary, its members being free to move in or out at will”—allows those who belong to it, however alienated they may be from the radical nonjudgmentalism of the dominant culture, nonetheless to remain “loyal to America as a country, a nation, and a polity,” and thus open to the responsible political compromises and accommodations that are made possible by true tolerance, as opposed to the Tolerance Lite of the hard cultural Left.

The value of One Nation, Two Cultures lies less in the originality of its analysis—little of what the author has to say will come as a total surprise to those familiar with such influential books as Bork's Slouching towards Gomorrah or Myron Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare—than in the concentration and clarity of its presentation. But Himmelfarb's emphasis on the necessity for loyalty to the idea of an American polity is decidedly her own, and recalls the stern stance she took in response to “The End of Democracy?,” the now-notorious First Things symposium in which several participants suggested that a time might be coming when “conscientious citizens [could] no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.” Such language, she contends, is dangerously hyperbolic, just as it is irresponsible for alienated conservatives to abandon the public square altogether, much less to call into question “the legitimacy of either the law or the ‘regime.’”

Original, too, is the fact that unlike so many aging cons and neocons, she views the current crisis with the guarded optimism of a historian accustomed to taking long views. Despite the myriad horrors wrought in the name of the '60s, she notes, neither dominant nor dissident culture has resorted to widespread repression or violence. The two cultures remain one nation, split but not sundered; Bill Bennett's Index of Leading Cultural Indicators is showing modest signs of improvement, and it is now possible to broach in politically mixed company ideas that once would have gotten you tossed out of the better sort of cocktail party. For Himmelfarb, the glass is exactly half full:

Nor do the old labels, pessimist and optimist, apply to those who are neither apocalyptic nor utopian, who do not think of themselves as either at the nadir of Western civilization or at the zenith of a brave new world, and who do not aspire to solve all problems but only to mitigate some of them.

So temperate a tone is unlikely to appeal to the angry alarmists who tend to dominate the cultural conversation on the right. Yet I confess to finding it sympathetic, not least because my own view of such matters has become unexpectedly benign, if not precisely sanguine. To be sure, I still feel deeply alienated from innumerable aspects of contemporary American culture, sometimes to the point of actual despair. But despair, as John Lukacs once remarked, almost always involves a large, sinful dose of self-indulgence—especially given the fact that amid all the craziness, there is no shortage of reasons for hope.

It's worth noting, for instance, that Rich Karlgaard's declaration of left-wing cultural triumph came deep within an admiring Vanity Fair profile of such “conservative babes” as Wendy Shalit, Danielle Crittenden, Kanchan Limaye, and Amity Shlaes, none of whom is exactly hoisting the white flag. Gen-Xers continue to emit inchoate but nonetheless unmistakable signs of dissatisfaction with the cultural orthodoxies of the baby boomers; the Internet, for all its atomizing effects on American life, also offers members of the dissident culture a way to bypass the elite media and create virtual communities of their own. You can even hear new tonal music in the concert halls nowadays.

Small victories? Perhaps. But if history has anything to teach us, it is that there can be no such thing as an earthly paradise, and that those who shed the most blood in this bloodiest of centuries did so in the hopes of making everything right, right now. “If a counterrevolution is unlikely,” Gertrude Himmelfarb writes toward the end of this invaluable little book, “a more modest reformation is not.” I can think of worse things.

Tamar Jacoby (review date 13 December 1999)

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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 wide range of issues—everything from what should be on television to the role of religion—the group's distinguishing quality is its conviction that there are time-honored, unambiguous, “objective standards about what is good and true.” Himmelfarb's pithy, provocative book celebrates the minority and its ethos as a promising remedy for the many “diseases” afflicting the country.

In a way this is an appealing vision, not only because it is pleasingly schematic—a single, succinct idea that appears to explain so much in the news—but more important because it suggests an easy answer to our moral quandaries. Traditional values are all we need, it implies, and the backbone to live by them. Unfortunately, skilled as she is in marshaling both statistics and moral arguments, in the end Himmelfarb does not persuade. On the contrary, the more she makes her case, the more unduly hopeful it seems and the more dauntingly the moral challenges posed by modernity loom in contrast. Yet, overly simple and certain as her thesis may be, she remains an unusually thoughtful guide to reviving and encouraging a moral sensibility today. It is almost as if her book were good in spite of itself, or in spite of what she perceives to be its central, saving message.

The best parts of One Nation, Two Cultures are the least polemical middle chapters. These are less about what our idea of virtue should be than how, in a democracy, to inculcate and inspire it. The most obvious and effective tools are the family, religion, civil society, and government. Himmelfarb has interesting things to say about all four of them.

Although a conservative, she is surprisingly willing to wield the power of government, and offers a number of intriguing proposals for doing so with a lighter touch: not through intrusive legislated norms, but by using tax incentives and other inducements that might encourage people to, say, stay married rather than get divorced. When it comes to civil society—everybody's favorite remedy these days—her tough-minded skepticism serves her admirably. It is all very well, she argues, to look to mediating institutions like Parent-Teacher Associations, unions and community organizations as alternatives to big government. But that won't help very much in fueling a sense of right and wrong unless those bodies offer more than the pleasures of belonging. They have to stand for something, and be willing to censure those who don't go along with them.

Himmelfarb is particularly interesting in discussing how the four different tools of virtue can and should work in concert: how, for example, a democratic polity depends on but then also extends a sense of morality inculcated elsewhere, be it in church or in a neighborhood organization. And though she sometimes sounds like an apologist for evangelical religion—insisting, for instance, that it is merely “defensive” and never really tries to convert or coerce others—she also writes thoughtfully about how belief translates into ethics, and increasingly, as it does, sheds sectarianism and intransigence.

The most complex moral and intellectual issues are addressed with winning subtlety and precision. Despite the author's own austere and often uncompromising values, her book is generally temperate in tone, less alarmist and more nuanced than some other recent jeremiads by social conservatives. By the end, her passionate concern about the nation's moral state is catching, even if you do not agree with what she sees as the solution.

Doubts about her prescribed remedy arise early on, in the chapter describing how the poison of the '60s “adversary culture” spread through society to create the amoral mindset she now sees as prevalent. But Himmelfarb is too good a historian not to note the other changes at work in the postwar era—changes that also had a transformative effect on American mores.

Those shifts were first and foremost material: economic, technological, demographic. The automobile, TV and the pill have done more to alter America than any ideology. As much as feminism, it was the shift to a service economy that made it possible for large numbers of women to have careers; more than the New Left, it was the baby boom and the less hierarchical peer culture it created that eroded parental authority. Himmelfarb documents these changes, but she does not question how much harder they might make it to apply the moral standards inherited from an earlier and in many ways far less complicated era.

For Himmelfarb, anyone who so much as sees the increased difficulty of applying the rules is a shameless relativist—the epitome of evil. Scouring the press over the past few years, she has come up with some truly appalling examples of relativism: college students so “understanding” that they can't bring themselves to condemn the horrors of the Holocaust or the practice of human sacrifice. “If it's part of a person's culture, we are taught not to judge,” she quotes one woman saying, “and if it has worked for them.”

Yet surely this is not the same thing as a single twenty-something contemplating sex outside of marriage. Once upon a time, the decision was easy, mainly because the consequences were potentially so onerous. But for better or worse the pill has changed all of that, and the right answer is considerably less obvious than it once was.

So, too, with the family. Once upon a time, most people lived in the same town as their grandparents, no one got divorced, and at least one parent stayed home to take care of the kids—and eventually the older generation. Not anymore, and while that does not make family any less important, it makes it a lot harder—especially, in many “blended” situations—to define, let alone maintain the way people used to.

It is not that the old rules are wrong; for most of us, most of the time, they are still what we aspire to. But we all know, or know about, many more people who don't manage to live by them, and this has inevitably altered our attitudes toward the very idea of a moral code. Relativism is one word for this changed attitude, and Himmelfarb is right: It is something we as a nation ought to acknowledge and confront. Yet ultimately, it may not be as dangerous as she believes—a matter not merely of weakness and confusion, but also, more promisingly, of humility and forgiveness.

Every now and then Himmelfarb comes close to recognizing this. Skilled polemicist that she is, she knows there is a difference between what she calls “the dominant elites”—those in the media, the universities and elsewhere who are the true inheritors of the '60s adversary culture—and ordinary middle-class Americans struggling with some difficulty to find a moral code they can live by. In a sterner mood, she calls these people “passive, quiescent” and confused. “They habitually take refuge,” she writes, “in such equivocations as ‘Who is to say what is right or wrong?’ or ‘Personally, I disapprove of abortion, but that is only my own opinion.’”

On the other hand, she is aware that the majority “lead lives that, in most respects, most of the time, conform to traditional ideals of morality and propriety.” And though it isn't her intention, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for what she describes as their dilemmas: “They find it difficult to transmit their own principles and practices to their children. They believe in God, but they believe even more in the autonomy of the individual.”

For all her talk of the moral “diseases” that afflict America—an awfully strong word for some of the things, like vulgarity on TV or even divorce, that bother her—Himmelfarb concedes that many in the dominant culture are disturbed by the amorality they observe around them and are, by her lights, coming around on a number of issues. Thus the consensus that has emerged in recent years about the breakdown of the family, the crisis in education, the need for a stronger civil society and other issues.

Someone else, even someone as concerned about what happened in the '60s as Himmelfarb, might see this as a kind of Marxian synthesis of the '50s and '60s—an attempt to reconcile conventional moral ideals with the freedoms of our era and the questions that inevitably come with them. Not Himmelfarb, who despite her insight, retreats again and again to her certainty that the only answer is certainty: an unwavering code of unchangeable absolutes.

If only it were that easy—if only will-power could restore a sense of unquestioned permanence to marriages undermined (and, of course, also enhanced) by the new freedoms many women enjoy. If only it could teach us how to reconcile the family with the increasing “autonomy of the individual,” or restore our respect for authority at a time when authority figures no longer hold the power they once did. Much of what has changed in America in the postwar era cannot be reversed. The challenge is to fashion a moral code that fits the way we live today.

Paradoxically, by the end of One Nation, Two Cultures, it is far from clear that the people best suited to helping us are those holding fixedly, without doubts or questions, to the verities of an earlier, more conventional era. In fact, it could be argued that a better way to start would be with questions—with some acceptance of how differently we live now, and how much thornier our moral quandaries often turn out to be. Himmelfarb would never agree, but her book is full of rich, detailed advice about how that considerably more difficult renewal might proceed if it ever got going.

Paul Johnson (review date January 2000)

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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 conclusions.

What, then, is to blame for the confused moral state of contemporary America, and in particular for everything summed up by the phrase, “the permissive society”? In a way, as Himmelfarb says, it is capitalism. The roots of the phenomenon lie not in the 1960's, when the shoots appeared above the surface, but in the 1950's, the supposedly stuffy Eisenhower years when American capitalism really went to work to create a consumer society.

A century earlier, John Stuart Mill had warned that a “progressive economy” was conducive to materialism and hedonism; in order to restrain this process, Mill wanted to keep the economy in “a stationary state.” Much closer to our time, the Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism, being simultaneously creative of wealth and destructive of society, would destroy itself, too, in the end. He was wrong about that, but right about capitalism's propensities. As Daniel Bell pointed out 25 years ago, capitalism contains cultural contradictions: it demands self-discipline and deferred satisfaction in order to function at all, but in the process of expanding stimulates a self-indulgence that is impatient of all restraints.

I think it would help to understand this process better if we abandoned the word “capitalism,” or at least ceased to see it as an ideology, or “ism,” deliberately created by man in the same way as Communism. Capitalism is something that, unless you act drastically to stop it, occurs quite naturally at a certain point in human development. The human brain, a feverish force in itself, ceaselessly seeks—and finds—novelty, and the way we run business is merely one expression of this restless fecundity. Given human intelligence, there can be no such thing as stasis in any area where humans have the power to change things.

The strength of capitalism is that it is continually transforming itself, absorbing lessons, overcoming difficulties, and setting ever-more ambitious objectives. But in so doing, it reflects a human dynamism that is destructive of the status quo in every field of activity—politics, religion, morals, and values no less than economic arrangements. The same dynamic pursuit of “progress” transformed medieval art into the art of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, and then in due course destroyed the culture of high art in the early 20th century. A religious Great Awakening will be followed by an equally feverish and determined pursuit of sensual satisfaction, in the next generation or the one after.

America, being a society founded virtually from nothing in the early 17th century, was able, when the techniques became available, to embrace industrial capitalism unhampered by the restraints of a long past and with a wholeheartedness that Europe and Japan cannot muster even today. That is why America is the global engine of enterprise and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Seen from a European viewpoint, America is a society of excess or extremes—excessive both in its puritanism and in its libertinism. No European society would have embarked on the hazardous frontal assault of Prohibition, or the current attempt, by law and public pressure, to stamp out smoking. But no European society could have created Hollywood, in all its evil manifestations.

Wall Street, Disneyland, political correctness, Star Wars: these are seen by many Europeans as manifestations of the American propensity to push things farther and faster than desirable—even though the Europeans do tend lamely to follow the U.S. example in the end. Europeans were amazed equally by Ronald Reagan's religiosity and Bill Clinton's moral squalor, shocked both by Kenneth Starr's prosecution strategy and by the baffling way it failed to dent Clinton's poll ratings. They are appalled at the periodic mass-killings by maniacs running amok with firearms, and shaken—or say they are shaken—by the number of Americans executed for murder.

In short, America is a revolutionary country, albeit one that, in a rich paradox, is remarkable for nothing so much as the stability of its political system, which has survived more than two centuries of astonishing growth and change and one of the fiercest civil wars in history. America was settled by the revolutionary desire to break away from the corruptions of Europe, and it created the built-in revolutionary dynamism of the world's largest economy. In the last half-century, as Himmelfarb points out, it has also created a revolutionary counterculture, one aspect of a cultural revolution that itself embraces a racial revolution, a sexual revolution, a welfare revolution, a revolution of political protest, a psychological revolution—also known as the “cult of narcissism”—not to speak of a technological revolution beginning with mass TV and continuing into the Internet and countless other manifestations of rapid change in the way we communicate.

In these circumstances, culture wars are inevitable. It could even be argued that America has always had culture wars, at least since Roger Williams broke away from Massachusetts to found a new state. Initially, America's vast size and space, and the ever-moving frontier, made it easy to accommodate such wars. Now they tend to become battles of attrition. In this sense, “one nation, two cultures” is normality for America. And the process works both ways: the restless dynamism that destroys the static good also goes on to destroy the horrors it itself spawns. It is not only decent men and women who are crushed beneath the juggernaut wheels.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, while rightly deploring many diseased aspects of contemporary America, is too truthful and too good a historian to omit signs of health. She cites the remarkable recent statistics showing the fall in crime, including the 75-percent drop in the annual rate of homicides in New York City. In the latter half of the 90's, the number of people on welfare dropped by a third, and decreases were likewise recorded in illegitimate births, teenage pregnancies, abortions, and the rate of divorces.

Another fact she notes is that while, from 1990 to 1996, undergraduate enrollments in public colleges increased by only 4 percent, and in private colleges by only 5 percent, in evangelical colleges they rose by a whopping 25 percent. Catholic and Jewish “day schools,” which maintain traditional standards of discipline and hard work, are flourishing as never before. Think about that: in an age where knowledge is more closely linked to wealth than ever before, parents wishing to give their children a head start must send them to a religious school. There is another rich paradox here, one that recalls John Locke's complacent judgment about the birth of commercial society in England: “Today, morality is much the best bargain.”

But then, America is the land of paradox as well as the land of excess. At the beginning of her book, Himmelfarb quotes Adam Smith's opinion that, “in every civilized society,” it is normal to have “two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time”—the one “strict or austere,” the other “liberal or loose.” The industrious working class, Smith argued, has to be strict, because its members will not physically survive if they give way to vice; by contrast, “people of fashion” can afford to indulge in bad habits. The same remains true today, with this difference: the entire population, from skilled workers upward, can now afford a bit of debauchery if it pleases. To that extent, working-class morality is no longer a countervailing social pillar—a fact that, in my view, saved Bill Clinton from removal from office, or in any event sustained his poll ratings.

At the same time, and by still another of those American paradoxes, Clinton is a despised figure, held in contempt and largely rejected. As this one example shows, it is impossible these days to present a simple picture of moral trends in America. The nation is bigger and more diverse than ever before, its hedonism more frenetic but its puritanism also taking new forms. An example of the latter, and one that both amazes Europeans and makes some of them envious, is that up to two million American children, whose parents have become appalled by the disastrous condition of the public schools, are now educated at home—something Europe does not permit by law.

America is the freest country on earth, and that freedom is its salvation. It is freedom that makes it possible for every American to fight the good fight in the culture wars that seem periodically to be America's lot—and that Gertrude Himmelfarb dissects here with her customary luminous intelligence, her finely balanced sensibility, and her sharp pen.

Alan Brinkley (review date 21 January 2000)

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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 emphasizes personal fulfilment, desire and identity. The old culture, which Himmelfarb generally (although not unreservedly) admires, she defines as “Victorianism”, a set of essentially bourgeois standards, rules and truths passed down from the nineteenth century, which survived, she argues, with impressive tenacity through much of the twentieth. The new ethos has brought to the fore what was once a dissenting subculture, the world of the bohemians of the early twentieth century, of the Bloomsbury circle in England, of the “Lost Generation” intellectuals in the United States, and eventually of the Beat writers and poets of the 1950s and the counter-cultural Left of the 1960s.

The tension between these “two cultures” has had a long history, but a reasonably consistent one until relatively recently. Through the first six decades of the twentieth century, Himmelfarb argues, the dissenting subculture remained just that—a subculture, capable at times of shaking the dominant world of Victorian values but never of overturning it. The many crises and upheavals of the 1960s, however, strengthened the counter-culture and weakened the dominant one, “fostering a growing disaffection with established institutions and authorities and a rejection of conventional modes of thought and behavior”. In the aftermath of those years, she claims, the counter-culture became in fact the dominant culture. The Victorian order it had challenged survived as a pale shadow of its former self, observed at times in a formalistic way but increasingly mocked and reviled by most of society. (Himmelfarb writes here of the United States, but she notes that similar changes have occurred in many other Western nations.) It was, she claims, a genuine “cultural revolution”. And while some good things came from it—most notably, perhaps, the assault on racial injustice—most of its results have been dismaying and socially destructive.

This tale of declension and loss is, of course, a familiar version of recent American history, a staple of conservative political rhetoric and of the publications of right-wing intellectuals and think-tanks. But Himmelfarb tells this story, on the whole, with more restraint and intelligence than is visible in most versions, and with considerably more erudition. Because the interpretation of the recent past she is presenting has become so powerful a part of American politics and culture, this book—which may be the best brief statement of that interpretation—is of considerable value to those who wish to understand an important area of contemporary intellectual life and the way many conservatives view the nation's problems.

But is it of value to those who want t