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January 3, 2020

Gertrude Himmelfarb, RIP

When I emailed Mary Ellen Bork that our mutual friend, Gertrude Himmelfarb, aka Bea Kristol, had passed away at 97, she replied, after expressions of sadness, “Now she and Irving can resume their conversation.”

When I emailed Mary Ellen Bork that our mutual friend, Gertrude Himmelfarb, aka Bea Kristol, had passed away at 97, she replied, after expressions of sadness, “Now she and Irving can resume their conversation.”

Irving was Irving Kristol, Bea’s husband of 67 years. It was one of the great marriages of our time — two towering intellects who were also devoted to one another and to their family and friends. Irving would not have been the giant he was without Bea, and vice versa. They were also completely down to Earth.

Born into an immigrant Jewish family in 1922, Bea attended Brooklyn College where she managed a triple major in history, economics and philosophy while simultaneously studying Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, more than an hour-long subway ride away. Like many young Jewish intellectuals of the day, she was briefly drawn to communism (in its Trotskyite variety). It was at a Trotskyite meeting that she met Irving, who had the good sense to propose marriage after just a few dates. I once asked her whether there was a Bohemian atmosphere among leftists at the time and she allowed that there might have been, but it skipped her.

It would, because one of Bea’s insights was that the “bourgeois virtues,” which very much included marriage, were key to human happiness. She brought this focus to her in-depth study of the Victorian thinkers.

When she began her scholarship, the Victorians were held in low esteem. The very notion of virtue as they perceived and attempted to practice it had been scorned and rejected, first by the Bloomsbury circle in the early 20th century and later by Marxists. As Himmelfarb put it in a 1988 essay for the Wilson Quarterly:

“‘Respectable’ — there’s another Victorian word that makes us uncomfortable, which we can scarcely utter without audible quotation marks. An influential school of historians now interprets the idea of respectability, and all the virtues connected with it, as instruments of ‘social control,’ — the means by which the middle class, the ruling class, sought to dominate the working class: a subtle and covert way of conducting the class struggle.”

Himmelfarb sought to banish those “audible quotation marks.” She argued, in more than 12 books and a stream of articles published over many decades, that Victorian virtues were actually more democratic and more beneficial to the working classes than the condescension of the radicals. “One wonders,” she wrote, “which is more condescending: to attribute to the Victorian working class a radically different set of values from those professed by the rest of society, or to assume that most workers essentially shared these so-called middle-class values, and that if they sometimes failed to abide by them it was because of the difficult circumstances of life or the natural weaknesses of the human condition.” Besides, the workers had affirmed these values themselves. She cited the memoirs of the Chartists, who bolstered their claim to universal suffrage by seeking to be hard-working, frugal, clean and sober despite “all temptations to the contrary.”

Himmelfarb defended middle-class Victorian moralists against the charge of hypocrisy. While acknowledging that human beings always fall short of their ideals, she noted that reformers declined to patronize the poor by applying standards to them that they would not apply to themselves. The virtues they preached were actually democratizing. “Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight — these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace — or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people.”

This is but a small taste of the lively, stimulating and tremendously erudite corpus Gertrude Himmelfarb leaves us. In person, and on the page, intelligence glinted from her like gleams off a diamond. But intelligence is common. Himmelfarb personified something much rarer — wisdom. She could detect and dissect intellectual cant at 40 paces, yet she was scrupulously fair, balanced and good-hearted. She lived the virtues she taught, and died at 97 surrounded by her family. She was a paragon of intellectual accomplishment, personal grace and solid integrity. On a personal note, I report with a heavy heart that this is the first time in two decades that I will not be emailing her a copy of my column. She surprised me many years ago by asking that I do so, advising that she wouldn’t always respond, but she would always read.

May her loved ones be comforted and may her memory be a blessing to the country she loved.


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