Gertrude Himmelfarb 1922-2019

I have for a long time been an admirer of the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died on December 30, 2019 at the age of 97.

A tribute by David Brooks is found in the Atlantic Magazine here.

“Himmelfarb was a great historian, and reported fairly on all sides, but it was always clear which side her heart was on. She grew up working-class and preferred the prosaic bourgeois values that fueled her family’s rise: work, thrift, temperance, self-discipline, cleanliness, moderation, respect for tradition. These are not aristocratic virtues, such as honor, genius, and heroism, but they are sensible virtues available to everyone. In its original definition, a neoconservative was a leftist who broke with the left when, in the 1960s, its leaders rejected bourgeois values for the counterculture. By this definition, she was a neoconservative.

“Himmelfarb shared the Victorian awareness of sin. She detested the snobbery of cultural elites and narcissism in all its forms. She quoted George Eliot with approval: “We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.”

From the eulogy in the New York Times-

“In more than a dozen books and many articles and essays, Ms. Himmelfarb melded scholarship of Victorian Britain with barbed reflection on contemporary affairs. Her subjects ranged from the pitfalls of modern approaches to history and philosophy to the moral relativism she perceived, with dismay, in the public’s attitude about the conduct of President Bill Clinton — his lying about a sexual affair — that led to his impeachment in the 1990s.

“Her cause was to imbue today’s social policies with a Victorian moral sense. Conservative politicians cheered. Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, cited her in his book “To Renew America” (1995), writing that the time had “come to re-establish shame as a means of enforcing proper behavior.”

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