For Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, books and ideas were the lifeblood of America, a country created ex nihilo on the strength of ideas, which had welcomed their forebears from despotism

A brilliant life of ideas, insight and politics

Gertrude Himmelfarb: an intellectual giant who believed history could save us

When Gertrude Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn, the 1920s were already roaring. When she died aged 97 on 30 December, the 2020s were just dawning. Her parents, Max and Bertha, were Jewish immigrants from Russia who spoke Yiddish at home. They were poor yet hardworking and fiercely self-reliant: Max’s glass business went bust in the Depression, but he recovered and his family flourished. Having had little formal education themselves, they ensured that not only their son Milton but Gertrude, too, earned degrees, from Brooklyn College and City College respectively.

Milton went on to become a leading figure at the American Jewish Committee and an expert on what is still the largest urban Jewish community in the world, whose politics he wryly summed up thus: “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

Gertrude, outwardly at least, left her Jewish heritage behind as she worked her way up the academic ladder in New York and later Chicago. Like many of her milieu, she began as a Trotskyist; at a political meeting in Brooklyn, she met her future husband, Irving Kristol. After a brief courtship, they married in 1942, though she kept her surname. After the war Irving and Bea Kristol, as Gertrude Himmelfarb was always known to her friends, spent time in Britain and always felt at home here. 

They ended their days in DC. But the Jewish milieu in Brooklyn that had brought them together remained their lodestar: the omnivorous appetite for knowledge, politics and discussion, the intellectual ambition. For 67 years they remained inseparable; only death parted them. Their friend, the sociologist Daniel Bell, said of the Kristols that they had “the best marriage of [his] generation”. It was a partnership of ideas, too. Irving and Bea were swimming against the tide of the political and academic cultures of their time. 

They cared little for the criticism they invited or how it waxed and waned; they did care about posterity. For them, books and ideas were the lifeblood of America, a country created ex nihilo on the strength of ideas, which had welcomed their forebears from a hostile despotism. Their duty, as they and their comrades in arms saw it, was to breathe new life into the abstractions of the constitution and the monuments of our civilisation. 

So how did I come to know this remarkable couple, let alone persuade Gertrude Himmelfarb to join the editorial advisory board of Standpoint? It still amazes me.

It is a truth seldom if ever acknowledged that a single man in possession of no fortune must be in want of an intellectual mentor. Forty-two years ago, with nothing to my name but a history degree, I decided to be an historian of ideas. In the Oxford of 1970s, the only example available was Isaiah Berlin. He indulged, even encouraged me, but Berlin’s kind of “pluralist” liberal — perpetually teetering on the brink of relativism — didn’t ultimately appeal. 

It took me a while to realise that what had attracted me was his subject matter — Russian revolutionaries and German reactionaries — rather than his methods. Besides, who could hope to be Isaiah Berlin? He had his admirers, some of them distinguished in their own right: John Gray, Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash. But he had no successor. Even after his death, there was no vacancy.

Berlin may have been the most celebrated historian of ideas of my acquaintance, but Gertrude Himmelfarb was by far the better role model. My field, however, was the history of German thought; hers Victorian England. She was, moreover, a conservative. A neoconservative, indeed — a hybrid species too exotic to flourish in the frigid climate of opinion in these islands. Even at Peterhouse, where the High Tory historian of “public doctrine” Maurice Cowling held court, I don’t recall her work being discussed. 

By the time I encountered both the woman and her work, many years later, I had given up academic life and begun a journalistic career at The Times and Daily Telegraph. But my ambitions were always transatlantic. A longing to write on high culture for a congenial readership inevitably led me to New York. 

There I came into contact with the American neoconservatives: in particular Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter, and Neil Kozodoy, successive editors of the New York magazine Commentary. Then there were the “theocons”, Catholic intellectuals led by Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel. Through them I met the Washington neoconservatives, including Charles Krauthammer and his wife Robbie. The Kristols were from Brooklyn, and she taught for most of her career at the City University in New York; but by the time I got to know them, they were living in an apartment in the Watergate building in Washington.

The neoconservatives were outstanding, not only as writers but as public intellectuals. Their personalities were what is meant by “larger than life” — but above all they lived the intellectual life, the life of an intellectual, to the full. In his book on The Immigrant Jews of New York, the neocons’ liberal rival Irving Howe wrote of his fellow New York intellectuals that they “developed a characteristic style of exposition and polemic. 

“Let us call it the style of brilliance . . . Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, wilfully calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle — such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the Jewish intellectuals.” As much as the ideas that they embodied, it was this combative virtuosity that attracted me. 

Even in such illustrious company, the Kristols shone. Irving was always smiling and jovial, Bea gracious and wise. Irving gave me the best piece of advice I have ever received: “If you have a good idea, start a magazine.” I took it as a compliment and founded first Standpoint and later TheArticle. It did not detract from the compliment that, as I soon discovered, he had said the same thing to many others. Not so many, after all, have acted on it. He himself had started several of the best and most influential magazines ever published, including Encounter and The Public Interest

His no less brilliant son Bill went on to found the Weekly Standard. Irving Kristol had developed a powerful critique of the liberal establishment in America that had seemed omnipotent after Watergate. Along with Norman Podhoretz at Commentary, he had helped to create what is now known as the Reagan consensus, even before Reagan was elected in 1980. Without the battle of ideas fought by the neoconservatives, there might have been no Reagan presidency and certainly no Reagan consensus. The last quarter of the twentieth century and the first quarter of the twenty-first could have turned out very differently — and all because of those ideas embodied in magazines.

Bea Kristol, meanwhile, had a less obvious impact, yet one that was perhaps even more profound. She believed that history had the power to save us from our own follies. Like Lord Acton, the subject of her first book, she thought the historian had a duty to judge, even if that meant being a “hanging judge”. As Acton had famously put it in his letter to Creighton: “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men . . .” Himmelfarb preferred to write about ideas, which “are carried along, and carry men along, by an irresistible tide which often takes them far from their place of birth”. 

No century has been richer in its legacy of ideas than the nineteenth. Himmelfarb fell in love with the Victorians for all the reasons why their twentieth-century successors had shunned them. Yes, they could be moralistic and sentimental; they were certainly pious and bourgeois. But they also built the most successful, humane and widely imitated society the world had ever seen. Himmelfarb made it her mission to discover the secret of that triumph, by studying the ideas that animated them and the individuals who made it happen. In a very long life, she never tired of that mission. 

Her frame of reference extended back into the eighteenth century and forward into the twentieth, but her focus remained firmly on the nineteenth. She was often severe in her judgments, but never sneered at the “eminent Victorians”, as Lytton Strachey did and the innumerable epigones of Bloomsbury still do. Instead, she devoted many books and essays to the vindication of the Victorians and their often visionary ideas.

For Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, books and ideas were the lifeblood of America, a country created ex nihilo on the strength of ideas

If one were to summarise the quality that for Himmelfarb vindicated that era, it would be the title of one of her best books: The Moral Imagination (2007, new enlarged edition 2018). That phrase was a conscious allusion to The Liberal Imagination, the book with which her most important mentor, Lionel Trilling, made his name in the early 1950s. It was also the title of her essay on Trilling, in which she paid tribute to his insight that liberals are always in danger of making other people “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.” It is characteristic that Himmelfarb sees this legacy as relevant not only to liberals, but also to conservatives, who “are well disposed to that realism, being naturally suspicious of a moral righteousness that has all too often been misconceived and misdirected, confusing feeling good with doing good”. 

It was this distinction that drove much of her work, crystallised in The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion. The Victorians had confronted poverty in a new, post-Christian way: the poor were no longer blessed, but victims of injustice. How, in that case, did society motivate them to transcend their poverty? Was there a valid distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor? This debate re-emerged in the 1983 British general election, when Margaret Thatcher was asked whether she approved of “Victorian values”. “Very much so,” she replied. “Those were the values when our country became great.” In the 1990s, a similar phrase emerged in Clinton’s America: “family values”. This led Himmelfarb to study the consequences of “the great philosophical revolution of modernity”, whereby “morality became so thoroughly relativised and subjectified that virtues ceased to be ‘virtues’ and became ‘values’”. 

The contrast between virtues and values was elaborated in one of her most suggestive books, The De-Moralisation of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. She deplored the wilful abandonment of the bourgeois virtues of “work, thrift, prudence, temperance, above all self-reliance and personal responsibility”, in favour of what Pope Benedict XVI would later call “the dictatorship of relativism”. Himmelfarb concluded: “Today, confronted with an increasingly de-moralised society, we may be ready for a new reformation, which will restore not so much Victorian values as a more abiding sense of moral and civic virtues.” 

That moral reformation, unlike the one that ushered in the Victorian age, has so far failed to materialise. In 1985 Himmelfarb devoted one of her most celebrated essays for Commentary to the moral decline from the “high-minded Evangelicals” of the early nineteenth century, via the altruistic agnostics of the next generation, to the Bloomsbury Group and the Cambridge Apostles. “From Clapham to Bloomsbury: A Genealogy of Morals” began with the group of reformers who spearheaded the abolition of slavery and many other social evils in early industrial Britain and who were indeed aristocratic or upper middle-class Anglicans of an evangelical cast of mind. 

Decades later, one of their number, James Stephen, wrote an essay for the Edinburgh Review on “The Clapham Sect”. The name has stuck. “The doctrine,” he wrote, “is that of an all-embracing, all-enduring charity — embracing every human interest, enduring much human infirmity.” Stephen contrasted “the German mind”, which “soars towards the unapproachable and indicts the unutterable”, with “the Clapham mind”. “The practical Englishman . . . betakes himself to form societies, to collect subscriptions, to circulate books, to send forth teachers, to build platforms, and to afflict his neighbours by an eloquence of which one is tempted to wish that it really was unutterable.” 

She lived to see the defence of depravity on campus degenerate until it sometimes seemed that the beasts had actually taken over

The Bloomsbury Group, too, had their mission: “a liberation from Clapham itself and from those vestiges of Evangelicalism and Victorianism that still persisted in the early twentieth century”. For Himmelfarb, this liberation entailed a reorientation away from moral and civic responsibilities, and a new focus on the immediate circle of intimates: “This was the Bloomsbury credo: living for ‘our-selves’.” This, far more than their aestheticism or promiscuity, has been the Bloomsberries’ lasting legacy: they are the progenitors of the “selfie”. 

It is easy to find latter-day spiritual descendants of Bloomsbury: the narcissism and moral anarchy of the 1960s eventually morphed into the culture of Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the City of London. New transatlantic elites have emerged, guided by their strenuously hedonistic ethos of “work hard, play hard” — though the legacy of the counterculture has been devastating for the less monied classes below them, as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have shown. It was all very well for John Maynard Keynes to profess his secular religion: “I am, and always will remain, an immoralist.” It was quite another for those who lacked the abilities and resources to survive the wholesale abandonment of moral virtue.

But what is the equivalent of the “Clapham mind” today? The mentality of Extinction Rebellion? Philanthropy certainly flourishes, but it is seldom focused on the re-moralisation of society, still less the restoration of the bourgeois virtues to their rightful place in Britain or America. Himmelfarb herself would be the first to admit that her hopes of such a moral reformation have not been realised, but she might gently point to the role of the history of ideas in stimulating the moral imagination.Himmelfarb was always conscious that morals without a religious foundation stand on unstable ground. She even had a soft spot for Nietzsche, who said in 1889: “For the Englishman, morality is not yet a problem.” He saw, she thought, “the precariousness of that late Victorian morality” which was “too impoverished, too far removed from its original inspiration, to transmit itself to the next generation”. 

The title of her 1994 volume of essays Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society again alluded to Nietzsche, who was obsessed with the abyss that yawned beneath civilisation. But she read Nietzsche with hindsight and irony. Her teacher Lionel Trilling had already worried that his students found the most subversive works of modern literature and thought merely “interesting” or “exciting”.

Himmelfarb, too, invoked the German philosopher’s moral seriousness, contrasted with the frivolity of students who wore “Nietzsche is Peachy” T-shirts. As a more egregious example of such moral bankruptcy, she cited the academic apologists for the postmodernist guru Paul de Man, who proved to have been a Nazi collaborator and an antisemite. For her, the deepest abyss of all was the Holocaust; she was angry with those who sought to relativise it. 

One of these was the historian David Abrahams, who had dedicated his book The Weimar Republic to his parents, “who at Auschwitz and elsewhere suffered the worst consequences of what I can only write about”, thereby giving the impression that they had been killed by the Nazis. In fact, they were alive and well when the book appeared in 1979. His dedication was defended by a more senior colleague, Natalie Zemon Davis, and others who sought to “demystify” or “deconstruct” the most abysmal crime in history. Himmelfarb was “dismayed by the expenditure of so much ingenuity on a subject as solemn and unambiguous as this, an all too real abyss in which millions of people did in fact suffer the ‘worst consequences’.” 

By now herself a scholar of renown, she was repelled by the glibness of “our professors”, who “look into the abyss secure in their tenured positions, risking nothing and seeking nothing save another learned article”. In the decades since Trilling, she warned, “the abyss has grown deeper and more perilous, with new and more dreadful terrors lurking at the bottom. 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.” Nearly three decades have passed since Himmelfarb wrote these words. She lived to see the defence of depravity on campus degenerate still further, until it sometimes seemed that the beasts had actually taken over.

Yet in her final years, Himmelfarb never succumbed to pessimism. She maintained a remarkable cheerfulness in spite of the apparent hollowing-out of Western civilisation. I believe her equanimity arose from a renewed immersion in and appreciation of the Jewish culture of her youth, a culture that always put family first and last. She announced this return to her roots with a short book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, published in 2009 with a dedication to “Bill and Susan, Liz and Caleb” — the two Kristol children, Bill and Liz, and their spouses. 

For Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, books and ideas were the lifeblood of America, a country created ex nihilo on the strength of ideas, which had welcomed their forebears from despotism

George Eliot was, for Himmelfarb, a kind of heroine. Her fiction, of course, speaks for itself, though in the case of Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s last novel, what she called “the Jewish element” baffled contemporaries; a century later it was still seen as a “deformity” by the critic F. R. Leavis, who tried to excise all things Jewish from the text. Though never given credit as the de facto editor of the Westminster Review, Eliot was one of the most brilliant journalists of her time. But for Himmelfarb, she was also a “formidable” intellectual: as the translator of Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza, she included an epigraph to one chapter of Deronda by Leopold Zunz, a pioneer of Jewish scholarship, rendered by her from the German: “If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of all the nations . . .”

In just 180 pages, Himmelfarb takes readers on their own odyssey, a journey that transcends George Eliot and stretches from the origins of Zionism and antisemitism in nineteenth-century Germany to the tracts on Jewish identity of Jean-Paul Sartre and Nathan Sharansky in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. En route, she investigates Eliot’s “initiation” into “the Jewish question” and Judaism itself, explaining how this notorious agnostic saw the role of religion for Jewish people in an unexpectedly positive light.

Eliot was also, it emerges, a cultural, social and political conservative. She admired Disraeli as much for his novels — proto-Zionist, like her Deronda — as for his politics. Himmelfarb dissects the reception of Daniel Deronda, including the charge of “orientalism” levelled at Eliot by Edward Said and those critics who have followed his critique of Zionism. Eliot herself, she suggests, “knew everything her opponents (and some of her friends) might say in refutation of her views, having once shared some of them”. Whereas “many novels of ideas die as the ideas themselves wither away”, she concludes, “Eliot’s vision of Judaism is as compelling today as it was more than a century ago, very much part of the perennial dialogue about Jewish identity and the Jewish question.”

Himmelfarb’s magnificent homage to George Eliot, published at the age of 87, might have been her final word on the subject of Jews and Judaism. Not a bit of it. Two years later, in 2011, she returned to the fray with The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill. Similar in scale but much wider in scope than her study of Eliot, this volume was Himmelfarb’s response to the post-9/11 “resurgence of antisemitism throughout the world”, including the UK. 

She wrote it to counter the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history, which is in perpetual danger of making Jews into victims and their history a chronicle of misfortunes: “Surely, I felt, Judaism is more than the history of antisemitism.” Himmelfarb wanted the Jewish people to be defined by the qualities that had enabled it to endure.

She was appalled by the re-emergence of antisemitism even in the land of George Eliot, on which she had observed in her book that it was “most ominous in England, because it is so discordant, so out of keeping with the spirit of the country”. Long before Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes took over the Labour Party, she wrote to me in 2012: “When I wrote my book [on philosemitism in England], I started to write a chapter bringing it up to date, in which your father [Paul Johnson] would have featured prominently. I gave up on it because I couldn’t weave it into the historical context that concluded so dramatically with Churchill (and that would have obliged me to engage at some length in the very disagreeable subject of the current surge of antisemitism in England).” 

By the end of a long and fruitful life, Himmelfarb had known the worst and the best years in Jewish history, the Holocaust and the creation of Israel. She refused to write about her own past, telling me: “Irving wrote wonderful memoirs. I don’t.” Yet through her ability to see the world through the eyes of others, she bequeathed to us, in her limpid prose, two volumes that conjure up that epic and not-so-distant past, when Jews and righteous Gentiles worked together to defeat their enemies and make possible the miracle of the Jewish state. The arc of her intellectual narrative brought her finally to that finest hour. 

She ended her last book by quoting her late brother Milton: “Hope is a Jewish virtue.” She once liked something I said about Western civilisation and commented: “I remember using that term in a speech and was accused of being not only reactionary but, worse, Eurocentric.” Future historians will look back on the life of Gertrude Himmelfarb and conclude that, as much as or more than any human being of her time, she actually was Western civilisation.

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