America’s First Lady Of Letters

Gertrude Himmelfarb's essays are impressively erudite and wide-ranging

Tibor Fischer

Gertrude Himmelfarb: No substitute for common sense and decency (images courtesy Encounter Books)

When Gertrude Himmelfarb writes, “Nothing pleases a Labour MP more than to expose the faulty Latin of the honorable gentleman on the opposite bench,” I couldn’t help thinking that she had slipped badly and, in the classic American way, was out of touch with anything outside America. But a glance at the publication credits in Past and Present, a collection of her essays, reveals that her House of Commons observation dates from 1952, when indeed public-school socialists would have been shanking their opponents with deponent verbs.

The writings in Past and Present span 1951 to 2015, and in subject from Xenophon to Caitlyn Jenner. The essays are mostly of the nature of succinct magazine articles, rather than expansive Isaiah Berlin-style ruminations or fully-cited academic work. For once I missed the references because I would love to have known the identity of the 19th-century French writer who announced a chapter on the beaux arts in America, and then snidely stuck in some blank pages.

Himmelfarb’s erudition is impressive and I think I learned something, often a lot, from each essay. I would never have thought about looking to Edmund Burke for an insight on the “War on Terror” or to William James as an antidote to Richard Dawkins.  Nor do you read tributes to Lionel Trilling or Thomas Carlyle every day (I speculate that Lionel Trilling must have had great personal charm, because I find it hard to believe his books were responsible for his 15 minutes of fame).

The subtitle of the book, however — “The Challenges of Modernity from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists” — seems like an attempt to get hits on a library catalogue search. And is there anything older than modernity? The overseers at Stonehenge probably saw themselves as cutting-edge.

The famous quotation from William Faulkner (and in my opinion his only great line) “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is amply illustrated in this collection. The scenery and the costumes may change, but the same questions about how to live life, how to organise society, how to form laws and how they should be respected endure.

Much of the content is delightfully counter-intuitive. Himmelfarb mischievously compares the condition of Jews in France and the United States, and with the endorsement of Tocqueville elaborates how in the land of les philosophes and les libertins, the Jews have been getting it in the neck, whereas in a country where religion was always the bedrock, and not widely seen as antithetical to reason, things were very different.

Perhaps I never read Bagehot’s The English Consitution closely enough, or maybe the phrase quoted by Himmelfarb comes from somewhere else, but Bagehot is the only serious thinker I’ve come across who sincerely lauds stupidity as it is “the most essential mental quality for a free people”. He also berates the “educated classes as being too prone to theorise and generalise, to mistake abstractions for realities” (although I suppose Bagehot’s praise of dimness might tie in with George Orwell’s later assertion about the innate resistance of the British to political extremes).

The most entertaining piece is about Churchill and his dealings with Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Himmelfarb contrasts them brilliantly and highlights what may be Churchill’s least acknowledged accomplishment, laying down legislation that was one of the precursors of the Welfare State, the National Insurance Act of 1911. This, ironically, was opposed by the Fabian grandees. 

Churchill and the Webbs met a number of times, and Beatrice Webb gave an extremely perceptive assessment of Churchill in her diary: “No notion of scientific research, philosophy, literature or art, still less religion. But his pluck, courage, resourcefulness and great tradition may carry him far unless he knocks himself to pieces like his father.” The Webbs, like many great left-wing figures (Marx, H.G. Wells), loathed the lumpenproletariat. This essay again highlights a theme running through the collection that there is no substitute for common sense and decency, or as Matthew Arnold maintained: “States are saved by their righteous remnant.”

Disraeli gets a flattering write-up. I can’t think of any other heavyweight politician who also ran a serious fictional career on the side, apart from the Hungarian Miklós Bánffy, whose Transylvanian Trilogy has rightly got the attention it deserves (though Goebbels gave up after only one novel). Is Disraeli as good a novelist as, say, Dickens or Eliot? Certainly not. But I’d rate him as good as the weaker output of Thackeray or Trollope, and Disraeli was busy helping to run an empire.

I didn’t know quite how loud and proud Disraeli, Anglican by baptism, was about his Jewish background. Himmelfarb quotes a character from the novel Tancred: “We agree that half Christendom worships a Jewess, and the other half a Jew . . . Which do you think should be the superior race, the worshipped or the worshippers?” The question remains unanswered.

Having taken a beating earlier on, Beatrice Webb reappears exonerated in the essay “Victorian values, Jewish values”. Webb published a study on the Jewish community in the run-down East End of London in 1889. Typically immigrants from Poland and Russia, she marvelled at their discipline and how they would escape “the very refuse of our civilisation” to better things. Why were the Jews so successful, Webb wondered, and why were they so often resented? Indeed.

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