Monday, January 06, 2020

Gertrude Himmelfarb 1922-2019 RIP: conservative historian

Notes on the death, at 97, of Gertrude Himmelfarb, the Brooklyn American who became a historian of Victorian Britain and a pillar of conservative ideology in the United States, have been appropriately mixed. Douglas Martin, in the New York Times, describes her as a "historian of ideas who applied cool intelligence and elegant writing"  but observes that her "cause was to imbue today's social policies with a Victorian moral sense." Martin goes on to note how her acolyte Newt Gingrich, the famously adulterous American politician, cited her in asserting that it was "time to re-establish shame as a means of enforcing proper behaviour" (except among Republicans, presumably).

She did seem to believe that Victorian England had achieved the highest-possible and universally-applicable "moral sense" of all time, and worked hard to counter not only Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians from 1918 had begun to re-evaluate their rectitude, but even Charles Darwin. Her sceptical study of Darwin, whose scientific work undermined the Victorian certainties she admired, is still cited by advocates of "intelligent design."

I long ago read her The New History and the Old (mostly an attack on the new) and concluded that the unique qualities she found in the Victorian British might as easily be ascribed to, say, the Assiniboine or the Burmese by their admirers.

Image: Fred Conrad, NY Times

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