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.
Read: Three decades ago, America lost its religion. Why?
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.”