The Historian of Moral Revolution

Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that a great deal is lost when a society stops aiming for civic virtue and is content to aim merely for civility.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, also known as Bea Kristol, spent much of her time thinking about and writing on the moral questions of the Victorian era. (Sylvia Johnson)

Economists measure economic change and journalists describe political change, but who captures moral change? Who captures the shifts in manners, values, and mores, how each era defines what is admirable and what is disgraceful? Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died at 97 last night, made this her central concern. She was a physician for the national soul.

Himmelfarb was born in 1922 and grew up with her parents and brother in a one-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her parents immigrated from Russia and spoke Yiddish at home. Her father cut glass and sold engraved saucers and jars to department stores, going bankrupt a few times during the Depression. She made it into Brooklyn College, where she amassed enough credits to have majored in history, economics, and philosophy, while taking the subway at night up to the Jewish Theological Seminary and earning a simultaneous degree there. At a Trotskyite gathering, she met her husband, Irving Kristol.

She went to the University of Chicago for graduate school and was told that she would never get an academic job. She was a woman, a Jew, and a New Yorker. She didn’t care. World War II was raging; the Holocaust was her daily obsession and horror; the atmosphere was apocalyptic. “The future was not something I worried about, because I wasn’t sure I was going to have a future,” she told The University of Chicago Magazine decades later. Kristol, who’d trailed out to Chicago with her, was drafted into the Army. So she found some roommates, including Saul Bellow.

After the war, she and Kristol went back to New York and joined the New York Intellectual set that surrounded Partisan Review, the small powerhouse magazine that published figures such as James Baldwin, W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Norman Podhoretz, T. S. Eliot, and Hannah Arendt.

Intellectuals played a different role then. They were more of a secular priesthood than today. The intellectual vocation, Irving Howe wrote, meant standing up for values that have no currency in commercial culture. It meant wrestling with the big questions, upholding the high ideals, and using the power of ideas to shape the mental life of the nation. Himmelfarb and Kristol were part of all that—the earthshaking essays, the feuds, public statements, and cocktails. Himmelfarb was one of the last remaining members of that set, and her passing marks the dusk of what was arguably the high-water mark of American intellectual life.

Himmelfarb’s great hero, and in some ways the de facto leader of that circle, was Lionel Trilling, the one Jew in Columbia University’s English department. Trilling believed that the manners, mores, and morals of a nation touch people everywhere, while politics touches people only in some places, and so morals are more important than day-to-day politics. To understand a nation, you have to understand its literary and moral imagination—the way artists and writers reflect the times, the way the greatest minds of the day express their ideals and spread beliefs.

Himmelfarb focused her attention there, too, on the moral imagination. She became a historian of Victorian England, eventually one of the most eminent in the world. It’s easy to see why the period attracted her. Britain in the 19th century, like America in the 20th century, was losing its religious faith and searching for a moral code to replace it.

One burning question was how a decent person should regard poverty. For most of human history, poverty was an inevitable fact of life. Christianity offered a clear response: Christ was in the poor and in service to the poor. The poor were closer to the kingdom of God.

But with the economic growth fueled by industrialization, the possibility of reducing poverty became apparent. All of a sudden, as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it, poverty was no longer seen as a misfortune, but as a crime. The misery of the poor was suddenly understood as the great moral indictment of Victorian civilization. The social order was unjust and in decay. Millions of Britons were locked in poverty, a separate nation unto themselves.

In the midst of this fervor, Parliament passed the Poor Law, which sought to discriminate between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and Victorians made a useful distinction between “sympathy” and “compassion.” Sympathy is fellow feeling, moving with another person. Compassion is feeling for the sorrow of another. “In its sentimental mode,” Himmelfarb wrote, “compassion is an exercise in moral indignation, in feeling good rather than doing good; this mode recognizes no principle of proportion, because, feeling, unlike reason, knows no proportion, no limit, no respect for the constraints of policy or prudence.”

Himmelfarb argued that the Victorians who started the Salvation Army, the various aid societies, and the settlement-house movement worked hard to serve the poor in a disciplined, realistic, sacrificial way, not in a self-indulgent way that would make them feel good but do nothing for those in need. This was the crossroads Himmelfarb always admired. She wrote two books on this transformation of ideas and values, The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion.

In many of her books and essays, Himmelfarb pits two groups or thinkers against each other, to let us see how contrasting moral ecologies live out in real time. The French Enlightenment versus the Scottish Enlightenment. The optimism of Adam Smith against the pessimism of Thomas Malthus.

One of her greatest essays is “From Clapham to Bloomsbury: A Genealogy of Morals.” First, she shows us the early-19th-century Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Anglicans who ended the slave trade and fought for decades to reform the prison system. They were morally upright, self-abnegating, adherents to respectable middle-class morality, a little priggish and self-righteous. They were lampooned as “The Saints” in their day.

Bloomsbury was a group of writers and social activists who emerged in the early 20th century, which included people such as Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey. Bloomsbury was in open revolt against the Victorian morality that Clapham represented. Art was their religion. Rebellion their pose. They slept around and looked down on the masses. “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventional and traditional wisdom,” Keynes wrote. “We recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case.”

A society that has moved from Clapham to Bloomsbury has undergone a moral revolution. So has one that has moved from Lionel Trilling to Ken Kesey. So has one that has moved from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump.

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.”

But she came to admire the optimistic British Enlightenment, especially Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. We are endowed with a moral sense. We want not only to be loved, but to be lovely. We may have differences along race, class, and gender lines, but deep down we are much alike, longing to lead a life that transcends the individual self.

Accordingly, Himmelfarb didn’t fear immorality so much as demoralization, the sense that our age has lost a moral vocabulary and with it the ability to think subtly about moral matters. A great deal, she wrote, is lost when a society stops aiming for civic virtue and is content to aim merely for civility.

It should be said in closing that none of us who knew her personally knew her as Gertrude Himmelfarb, her professional name. She was Bea Kristol. Her marriage to Irving Kristol was said by their friend Daniel Bell to be the happiest marriage of their generation, one that produced their children, Elizabeth and Bill Kristol. I knew her as someone who was kind, precise, and warm. Like all great teachers, she loved being around young people, who brought vibrancy, asked the big questions, made great talk possible. For such a brilliant and eminent figure, she listened more than she spoke. Something her husband said near his death is also true about her. “I’ve had such a goddamn lucky life.”

There are now generations of people, myself included, who not only learned from her and were warmed by her; we came to see reality through Gertrude Himmelfarb’s eyes.