Gertrude Himmelfarb

National Humanities Medal


As one of the leading scholars of Victorian studies, Gertrude Himmelfarb has tried to dispel stereotypes about the Victorian world.

"It's not quite a respectable word yet," she says. "It's now used as an epithet, as a derogatory or pejorative word meaning excessively puritanical, repressive, oppressive, hypocritical, and so on. And, of course, in some ways it was all of that compared to our society." Considered from the perspective of its own time, "Victorian society was the least exploitative, the least repressive, the least tyrannical society in the world," says Himmelfarb. "In many respects it was the most open, the most reform minded, the most tolerant. It gave the most promise for improvement--economic, social, and political improvement."

Himmelfarb's path to Victoriana was roundabout. As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, she earned enough credits for a triple major in three disciplines--history, economics, and philosophy. "But to me, they weren't separate disciplines," says Himmelfarb. "What I was really interested in, although I didn't know it at the time, and I certainly didn't know it under that label, was what we now call the history of ideas."

The subjects of Himmelfarb's master's thesis were Rousseau and Robespierre, on the relationship between the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution. "But one of the works that fascinated me was Lord Acton's lectures on the French Revolution. It was that book that brought me to an interest in Acton himself."

The English historian Lord Acton became the subject of Himmelfarb's doctoral dissertation and of her first book. "Acton introduced me to the very rich, very intriguing realm of Victoriana--Victorian thinkers, institutions, events," says Himmelfarb. "Victorian thinkers, by the way, were far more varied, more subtle, more complicated than we generally give them credit for. This is true, not only of Acton but of those other Victorian eminences--Mill, Carlyle, Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and scores of others."

Himmelfarb, who earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago, is the distinguished professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where for many years she was also chairman of the doctoral program in history. In a long and fruitful career, she has received many honorary degrees, a National Book Award for Victorian Minds, as well as a number of fellowships from organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the American Philosophical Society. Himmelfarb served on the National Council for the Humanities and in 1991, she was the NEH Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.

Himmelfarb's interest in how the Victorians thought about and dealt with the social problem of poverty has led to two of her eleven books: The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. Although there was a law in England dating from the Elizabethan age that acted as a safety net for the temporarily or permanently unemployed, for widows and children, and for the disabled, most charitable organizations were private as opposed to governmental. And they were designed as much as possible to help the poor help themselves: "To help restore paupers, a distinctly Victorian term, to the class of the working poor," says Himmelfarb.

According to Himmelfarb, Victorians used the word compassion in an unsentimental way. "As the Victorians understood it," she says, "there was nothing sentimental, nothing utopian about compassion. It was hardheaded, rational, pragmatic--and at the same time moral and humane."

Helping others was a communal as well as individual obligation rather than a job for the government. In Poverty and Compassion, Himmelfarb writes, "The ethos implicit (sometimes explicit) in matters of social policy and behavior was not a lofty or exalted one. It did not celebrate heroism, or genius, or nobility, or spiritual grace. Its virtues were more pedestrian: respectability, responsibility, decency, industriousness, prudence, temperance. These virtues depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money. They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints--and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones."

Himmelfarb sees continuity between Victorian society and our society today. "There's a reformist, ameliatory, moral temper that we've inherited from the Victorians and that has stood us in very good stead," says Himmelfarb. "And it is even more valuable today as we are confronted, not with a new industrial revolution, but with a new and very radical technological revolution."

By Caroline Kim

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.