Remembering the Great Jewish Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb
by Edward Alexander
Gertrude Himmelfarb, prolific historian of the Victorian period, professor emeritus of history at City University of New York, graduate of New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College, student at both University of Chicago and Cambridge, and powerful voice for moral and political conservatism, died in December at her home in Washington, DC. She was 97 years old.
She belonged to one of the first families of American conservatism, broadly defined: She was the sister of Milton Himmelfarb, long a brilliant contributing editor at Commentary and the widow of conservative thinker Irving Kristol — with whom she had formed a husband-wife team to equal Lionel and Diana Trilling. Their son, William Kristol, was the influential editor of the now defunct Weekly Standard.
Himmelfarb also belonged to that remarkable knot of New York Jews who were the children of immigrants yet chose to relocate themselves imaginatively within a European culture: Irvin Ehrenpreis from Manhattan became the biographer of and supreme authority on Jonathan Swift; Lionel Trilling, from the Bronx, became the biographer of Matthew Arnold; and Brooklynite Himmelfarb became the biographer of statesman Lord Acton (not only English but Catholic).
Unlike Ehrenpreis and Trilling, Himmelfarb did not distance herself from her Jewish roots. Quite the contrary. She found and celebrated Jewish values that were deeply rooted within Victorian values, firm ideas of right and wrong, the recognition that “thou shalt not” predominates over “thou shalt.” It was that link which brought her to the attention of Margaret Thatcher, who had been derided by her “progressive” political opponents for embracing Victorian values as the foundation stone of British greatness.
Himmelfarb herself always demonstrated a lively interest in Jewish values, but wrote mostly about how they were expressed by non-Jews like Beatrice Webb and — far more importantly — George Eliot, about whom she published a book-length study entitled The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot in 2009. She was a formidable literary critic, much influenced by Lionel Trilling, from whom she learned to respect ideas — and to despise ideology.
Her last book, entitled Past and Present: The Challenge of Modernity From the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists (2018), showed that she not only had the most fully-achieved career of modern American historians but that her mind remained acute and vigorous and contentious to the end. She writes brilliantly about the Romantics and Victorians, but always with tact and discrimination. She treats Carlyle (from whom she had ostentatiously borrowed her book’s title) as a “moral desperado” who nevertheless was once a powerful voice. Her essay on Cardinal Newman, entitled “Education and Christianity,” shows how much the American university system might benefit from requiring candidates for college presidencies to read Newman’s Idea of a University, from which they would learn, among other things, why “diversity” contradicts that idea, and not only etymologically.
The gloomiest essays in Himmelfarb’s final book deal, not surprisingly, with contemporary America. In “Democratic Remedies for Democratic Disorder,” she applies Disraeli’s famous description of England as “Two Nations” to her own country. Disraeli’s two nations were England’s rich and poor, but “the distinctive features of our two nations are ethos and culture rather than class, race, or ethnicity.”
Nineteen years ago, when writing about our “two nations,” Himmelfarb saw some hopeful signs of a change for the better. But the book’s final essay, “From Postmodernism to Transgenderism,” first published in 2015, is much grimmer, and the closest to polemical sharpness of anything in the book. “For an old-timer like myself, transgenderism recalls the post-modernism that swept the universities several decades ago [and is] more dramatic, audacious and perhaps perilous than the old,” she writes.
She recalls how, in literary studies, postmodernism, largely a French import but with adroit Americans waiting in Charlottesville and New Haven eager to unpack and domesticate it, brought denial of the fixity of texts and also of the authority of the writer over the critic and reader in determining their meaning; in philosophy it brought denial of any essential reality; and in history a denial of the reality of the past, indeed of the idea of truth itself. Everyone now had license, she observes, to offer his or her “narrative” of events.
In America, the academic hero of postmodernism was Yale professor Paul de Man, who had been virtually deified by his academic admirers as “the only man who ever looked into the abyss and came away smiling.” But the air went out of the postmodernist balloon when it was revealed that, in one of Himmelfarb’s classic utterances, “the abyss that de Man confronted, and came away from smiling, was the Holocaust.” This was because, after his death in 1983, it was revealed that de Man had, during the war, written hundreds of antisemitic articles for a pro-Nazi journal in Belgium.
Looking back on this debacle, Himmelfarb linked it to transgenderism and other forms of mass hysteria now invading America.
Her prophetic voice is now silent. But we should be grateful that it has been sounding for over “threescore and ten” in a body of scholarly work that has rarely been equaled for range, depth, and eloquence.
Edward Alexander is author of Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill, Jews Against Themselves, Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew, and numerous other books. This article originally appeared in different form in Society, Vol. 47, No. 2, March/April 2010, published by and with thanks to Springer-Science.