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January 2 2020

Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1922-2019

by Charlotte Hays

Whether writing about the Victorians or the French Revolution, the scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died Monday at the age of 97, upheld the notion that morality is essential for democracies to flourish

The New York Times summed it up this way in the subhead to her obituary:

Her arguments that a little more virtuousness trumps any number of government social programs made her a hero to some and a bête noire to others.

Unlike many readers of the paper of record, I’ll bet most of us fall into the virtue-trumps-excessive-social-programs camp, though I’m also guessing that it will take more than “a little more virtuousness” to ensure a flourishing society.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, as readers of IWF’s blog probably know, was married to the late Irving Kristol, dubbed the “godfather” of neo-conservatism. She is the mother of Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Nelson.

In two books on the Victorians and the Victorian error, she corrected contemporary notions about Victorial stuffiness:  

. . .  Himmelfarb contended that the old virtues—temperance, chastity, industry—didn’t repress individual creativity. Instead they enabled a century of cultural flourishing and political stability.

The Wall Street Journal further noted:

She also wrote with insight on the follies of the French Revolution and the assorted non-philosophies known as postmodernism, and she was unafraid to criticize eminent peers when she thought their writings wrongheaded or precious. She memorably found fault with Roy Jenkins’s biography of Winston Churchill for failing to acknowledge what every ordinary person knew: Churchill was a great man.

Bea, as friends called her, was a forceful personality who earned her reputation as a historian and intellectual in her own right before the age of identity politics. She was also married to Irving Kristol, the father of American neoconservatism who died in 2009. As a frequent presence in the nation’s finest intellectual magazines, she exercised a powerful influence on two generations of scholars, journalists and policy makers.

Particularly influential was her 1995 book “The De-Moralization of Society,” in which she argued that the modern policy of treating the poor as neutral objects instead of human beings—as recipients of perpetual aid instead of moral actors—had helped to create a dangerous culture of dependency. The following year’s reform of the welfare system, passed by a GOP Congress and signed by a Democratic President, bore the marks of her insight. 

Himmelfarb was an example of humanities scholarship for all to follow, and the American academy would be better today if more did.

I can’t help noticing that the New York Times obituary contained an egregious grammatical error:

Ms. Himmelfarb was a member of an accomplished intellectual clan that sprung from working-class roots. Her brother, Milton Himmelfarb, who died in 2006, was an essayist known for his observations on Jewish affairs. 

This error, which is particularly disgraceful in the obituary of a distinguished and meticulous scholar, sprang from a kind of intellectual decay we see all around us today.

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work stood in stark contrast to moral and intellectual decay.

RIP.

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 





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