The cheerful pessimist

Recalling Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian and Standpoint advisory board member

In memoriam

On December 30, as the year ended, so did the life of Gertrude Himmelfarb. She was 97. When I last saw her about a month earlier, it was at a small meeting she convened in her apartment in response to a request by a colleague for comments on the manuscript of his new book. As sharp as ever, she led the discussion in the constructive, good-humoured but appropriately critical style we had come to expect of her. Now she is gone.

The bare facts tell us something, but constitute only a partial story of the great historian’s life. Born in Brooklyn in 1922 of Russian immigrant parents, she attended public schools in New York City—at a time when that system was actually educating children—and received her undergraduate degree from tuition-free Brooklyn College with a triple major, one of which subjects was economics, to the enduring benefit of this scribbler, while taking a subway at night up to the Jewish Theological Seminary and earning a simultaneous degree there. She gained a doctorate from the University of Chicago before studying at Cambridge University. She taught for 23 years at Brooklyn College and at the graduate school of the City University of New York. She received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush and the University of Chicago’s highest honour, the Alumni Medal.

Himmelfarb was married to the late Irving Kristol, whom she had met at an anti-Stalin, Trotskyist meeting at City College. He later became known as the godfather of neoconservatism and she as Bea Kristol to those who were privileged to call her friend. Daniel Bell, the sociologist, called it “the best marriage of our generation”. It surely was: I recall seeing them, then at a very advanced age, walking down the street after attending a lecture, holding hands as they disappeared around a corner.

Himmelfarb’s decision not to change her professional name was due not to any early feminist leanings but, she said, because it involved too much paperwork. There were 15 books and innumerable essays to write, ideas to develop, scholars to nurture over what scholar Yuval Levin, writing in National Review, calls “seven decades of wise, independent-minded, reliably fascinating and brilliantly expressed historical analysis”. 

It was Louis Gottschalk, a University of Chicago professor, who admitted her to the university while advising her not to pursue an academic career because she had three strikes against her: she was a woman, she was Jewish, and many midwestern universities did not look kindly on easterners. It tells much about Himmelfarb that she related this tale with a chuckle, and told her professor she had no expectation of such employment but came “simply to have an education, an education for its own sake”. And, as it turns out, for the sake of millions of others.

The rest, as they say, is history. Himmelfarb spent considerable time wrestling with the paradox of liberalism, the fact that by emphasising individual liberty above all else, modern liberalism undermined the moral foundations of individual liberty. She studied the morals of Britain’s Victorians not only as a historian, but as scholar in search of solutions to what she called the de-moralisation (that hyphen is vital) of Western societies; to poverty, that seemed more effectively addressed by the methods deployed by the Victorians than those put in place during Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”; to unfettered capitalism that encouraged an “economy of greed” that threatened social discord and the end of market capitalism. If that sounds like the work of a modern moralist looking to the future rather than a historian concerned only with commenting on the past, you have it right.

That relevance of Himmelfarb’s works to the way we live now leaps from the pages of her books and essays. Including her observation in a “modest . . . essay” on what she calls philosemitism  that “all-too persistent antisemitism . . . now more than ever, warrants nothing less than a massive tome”. Despite Himmelfarb’s self-described “apocalyptic vision of the world”, derived from listening to radio reports in the 1930s of the persecution of Jews in Germany, she concludes her essay by citing her brother Milton’s observation that “Hope is a Jewish virtue”. To the surprise of this writer, who often discussed the source of our shared pessimism with her, and who remembers her saying at one of our regular brunches with Robyn and Charles Krauthammer, “Optimists are always wrong”.

Those brunches, initiated by Bea , were the highlights of our stay in Washingtonwhen Irving persuaded us to follow him and Bea from New York. We and the Krauthammers were the regulars, with such as columnist George Will, political scientist Charles Murray, and (at least once) then-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a Himmelfarb admirer.

We came for a year, and stayed for a decade, in good part because Irving arranged a spot for me at the American Enterprise Institute, in greater part because Bea included us in some of the most intellectually exciting events we had ever attended—and arranged cocktail parties to introduce us to scores of scholars, journalists, diplomats and others with much to teach. That is the Bea Kristol we will remember: she changed our lives, changed our belief that that government is best which governs least (she was no fan of Thomas Jefferson, admirer of the French Revolution), to that government is best which governs wisely, incrementally adapting Victorian principles to the modern age; that an efficient economy unmoored from considerations of equity cannot long endure. We will sorely miss Gertrude Himmelfarb, the great historian. We will miss even more Bea Kristol, our dear friend.