Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb

First published in the May/June 1991 issue of Humanities magazine.

Published on

NEH Chairman Lynne V. Cheney talks with historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, the 1991 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, about the cultural and historical legacy of Victorian England. Himmelfarb is professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York and the author of eight books, among them The Idea of Poverty, The New History and the Old, and the forthcoming Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians.

Lynne V. Cheney: Why is it that the Victorians are either ignored or vilified today?

Gertrude Himmelfarb: They represent almost everything that the modish groups in our culture denigrate—morality, tradition, self-discipline, “high culture,” the whole humanist range of values. Matthew Arnold, for example, is the humanist par excellence, and our culture finds him difficult to understand and respect. I know you did your dissertation on Arnold. When were you working on that?

Cheney: Sixty-eight, sixty-nine.

Himmelfarb: That was the same year, 1969, that I taught Culture and Anarchy for the first time in a graduate seminar. It was an extraordinary experience. You know it, of course.

Cheney: Oh, it’s wonderful.

Himmelfarb: What made it especially wonderful then was the fact that, exactly a hundred years after it had been written, we were in much the situation Arnold had anticipated. 1969, you remember, was a time of student riots, strikes, and a general rebellion against authority, in and out of the academy. There were the students, priding themselves on this great new liberating movement, the counterculture. And there was Arnold exposing that counterculture as a form of anarchy, the very antithesis of real culture. It was wonderful to watch my students trying to come to terms with this book. I don’t think I converted many of them to Arnold’s point of view, but I certainly convinced them that their ideas had been anticipated—and powerfully criticized.

Cheney: He is amazingly relevant. If you’re looking for a quote on cultural topics or on the kind of cultural conflict that we've seen of late in the academy, Arnold is rich with possibilities. Every once in a while he sounds a little elitist to my ear. He talks about “the masses” a little more than I’d like.

Himmelfarb: On the other hand, his analysis of society is not elitist. He divided society, you remember, into three classes: the populace, the philistines (corresponding to the middle class), and—do you remember his name for the aristocracy?—the barbarians. The barbarians are not the masses, not the lower classes, which is what my students always assume, but the upper class, the aristocracy. And they are barbarians because they are mindless, uncultivated, because they’re not pursuing the free play of the mind, the best that has been thought and said, and so on.

Cheney: Well, that whole notion of the free play of the mind over ideas has always struck me as a scholarly ideal, and it is so amazing to me to be so often faced today with this notion that there is no such thing as the free play of the mind, and so the sooner you admit that, Mrs. Cheney, the better off we’ll all be.

Himmelfarb: That’s right. We’re constantly told that everything is predetermined by class, race, and gender.

Cheney: Everything is political. You know, in a sense that’s true, that everything is political, but it’s political with a little “p.” And what happens today is that the fact that there is a generalized political dimension to our lives is used to justify politics with a big “P.” You have people talking about how their scholarship is an extension of their Politics—or, worse even—how their teaching is.

Let’s talk about your lecture. In “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets,” you point out a scholarly tendency to give us the valet’s point of view of great people—a view from the underside, so to speak. Are scholars the only ones guilty of this? I thought of journalists immediately when I read your essay for the first time.

Himmelfarb: When Hegel used the word “schoolmasters,” he meant historians and critics—men of little experience and great pretensions, who think that they know so much more than a Caesar or an Augustus, that their moral sensibilities are so much finer than theirs, that they can sit in judgment on them. To Hegel they are little more than valets imposing their valet mentality on their betters. In the lecture I trace this hero-valet theme through the Victorians and on to the present generation of historians, biographers, and literary critics, culminating with the deconstructionists. At some point there takes place a reversal of roles between the hero and the valet, so that while the biographer or literary critic is denigrating the hero, reducing him to the level of a valet, that biographer or critic is elevating himself to the level of hero. He knows better than the hero what is going on, he can interpret Shakespeare’s plays better than Shakespeare can, and so on. And that applies a fortiori to the kind of journalist today who does precisely that in relation to public figures. I think you’d have to recast the argument a little bit to make this point. You’d have to talk not about heroes and valets, but about public figures and journalists.

Cheney: I suppose that’s why it’s on my mind.

Himmelfarb: There are, of course, journalists and commentators who make serious and important contributions to public discourse. But there are others who demean and degrade it, who know less than the people involved in public affairs but are quick to pronounce judgment upon them and who tend to interpret public issues and controversies in terms of personal, preferably sordid and scandalous, motives. This kind of journalist (who too often brings discredit to the profession) cannot accept the fact that public figures might have genuine differences of opinion, differences of policy and principle. Instead—in good valet fashion—he reduces public affairs to private interests, personal rivalries, and political maneuvers.

Cheney: To go back in time just for a minute, what was it that happened that suddenly made this style of history interesting to people and interesting to biographers? I mean, what was the crack in the temper of the times that suddenly gave us this form of history where there was interest in the degrading detail?

Himmelfarb: I think this mode of history— to put it very sharply—reflects a kind of democratization of history, a suspicion of “elites,” of people in positions of authority. There’s a muckraking impulse which unfortunately comes with democracy.

Cheney: I see.

Himmelfarb: H. G. Wells once boasted that he would write a truly populist history in which Napoleon would be seen strutting on the crest of history “like a cockerel on a dung hill.”

Cheney: How much effect did it have on society as a whole? How much effect does the valet approach to history have on our society as a whole? Are people taken in by it?

Himmelfarb: Journalists, if not historians, do have a great deal of influence. They set the tone of public discussion, of public discourse. And to the extent that they interpret public affairs in terms of scandals and personalities, they do trivialize and degrade the issues. But the interesting thing is that the public is more resistant to this than one might think. In this sense, the public culture is much healthier than the elitist culture—that is, the culture of the media and of the academy. For example, the public wants to read biographies of great men.

Now, in the academy, biographies are looked down upon as an inferior mode of scholarship, as too traditional, not “innovative.” History departments often discourage good students from writing dissertations that are biographical. “You don’t want to do that. That’s old hat, that’s biography.”

Cheney: And narrative history?

Himmelfarb: And narrative history, exactly. Here, too, the public is more traditional-minded than academics. They want to read not only about great men but about great events—biographies of Lincoln, for example, and narratives of the Civil War.

Cheney: You said some nice things about The Civil War in your Jefferson Lecture, speaking of narrative history, because it certainly was a good example of that. But George Will recently wrote a column about The Civil War and suggested that it was an antiwar film. Is that how you thought of it as you were watching?

Himmelfarb: I thought it was a grand assertion of national purpose and nationhood, a very patriotic film. But I am aware that there have been two views of it. On the one hand, all the misery and the violence . . .

Cheney: Which is true of war.

Himmelfarb: That’s right. But I thought the genius of that film—and the genius of the real Civil War—was that it was both things. Of course war is ghastly and murderous and dirty and miserable and tragic. But the Civil War was all of that for a very noble purpose, and it had a very noble end—or rather two noble ends. One is the emancipation of the slaves, and there is no more noble end than that. The other is nationhood, keeping the nation together, preserving the union. In that sense it’s a very patriotic film, it seems to me.

Cheney: It’s almost like a great poem in the sense that it admits different interpretations—which is not to go so far as to say any interpretation is correct, but events are complex.

Himmelfarb: It admits different interpretations, but I think any interpretation that focuses only on the one aspect and not at all on the other is simply wrong.

Cheney: It is both things.

Himmelfarb: The war was not merely miserable, dirty, violent, ugly, tragic. It was a heroic experience too. Those wonderful letters written by ordinary soldiers to their wives—they knew what they were fighting for and what they were ready to die for.

Cheney: And you did have the sense of people who were caught up in something larger than themselves and ennobled by that. In My Antonia Willa Cather writes that happiness is “being dissolved into something complete and great.”

Himmelfarb: This is why I am so disturbed by the enormous emphasis that is put on race, gender, and class. It not only reduces individuals to categories and confines them within those categories; it makes it difficult for them to see themselves as part of a larger, more elevated, more universal whole. It is this sense of universality that is being denied all the time now.

Cheney: That there is anything universal.

Himmelfarb: That there is anything universal. One is a woman or one is a black or one is gay, but one is not part of a larger culture, a culture that transcends these particularities.

Cheney: There is no such thing as the human condition, so we’re told. Only your condition and mine and each individual’s.

Himmelfarb: Exactly.

Cheney: It’s a discouraging assessment of the humanities when you talk about the balkanization that has gone on. Are there places to look and feel positive about the humanities, or is your assessment of them a gloomy one?

Himmelfarb: I’m not normally given to optimism, as you may have noticed, but I must say I now feel somewhat optimistic—although for the most pessimistic reasons. I think the situation has gotten so bad, so overtly, patently bad, that people are reacting against it. This is especially true of the universities—the politicization of the universities, PC, as it is known—political correctness. The fact that it has acquired the status of an acronym suggests how prevalent it is and how everyone is becoming terribly aware of it.

Cheney: And satirizing it.

Himmelfarb: And satirizing it and being extremely critical of it. Even those professors who’ve been going along with the balkanization of the university are now pulling back and saying, “Is this what I want? Surely this can’t be right.” And so, too, with the politicization of the university. PC has been carried so far as to discourage and even prevent any expression of dissent. Instead we have public denunciations, humiliations, consciousness-raising sessions—this is Orwellian thought control. And I think more and more people are beginning to realize that.

Cheney: Should people be able to say anything? What we’re talking about, really, is an interference with freedom of expression, and many of the expressions being censored are thought by those doing the censoring to be racist, to be sexist, to be homophobic. Should people be able to say things that are sexist?

Himmelfarb: A university has the right to insist on civility of discourse. But most of the examples of sentiments denounced as racist, sexist, or elitist that I have heard were not that at all. They were expressions of the kinds of opinions that have always been voiced, in and out of the university. Professors have been accused of racism, for example, for referring to “American Indians” rather than “native Americans.” To characterize this as racist is outrageous. There are outrageous racist and sexist diatribes, mainly in novels, rap records, and the like. These are far more violent and objectionable than anything one hears in the university. For some reason the same people who are quick to denounce racism and sexism in the university are willing to tolerate much more egregious examples of these in the popular culture.

Cheney: Yes. It has struck me as extremely ironic that 2 Live Crew is held by some academics to be a kind of humor that we simply have failed to appreciate, when it’s really violent against women, extremely so.

Himmelfarb: It’s hardcore pornography.

Cheney: This may be a point on which you and I have some difference of opinion. I think I probably am less inclined to think that there are things that shouldn't be said, unless they cause danger somehow. And I know that you think—you’ve told me before—that when things are allowed to be said, the society is giving its blessing to the kinds of thoughts being expressed.

Himmelfarb: I think that things that are legally permitted are in a sense morally legitimized. Now, I agree with you that there should be a very large area of freedom for expression and action. Nevertheless, I think there comes a point when it's quite proper to say that some things are and should be illegal. This applies to drugs, and also to some forms of expression—obscenity, pornography, violence—which are morally as well as physically harmful. The decision to prosecute such cases is a prudential one, and I would try to use the courts as little as possible. But I would not preclude the use of the courts in extreme situations. As a matter of principle, I would not preclude it, because I think that society requires laws, and one of the functions of law is to legitimize—or illegitimize—behavior.

Can I come back to a point we discussed earlier? This is about my being optimistic. Let me give you one other ground for optimism, a very pessimistic ground for optimism. Together with the politicization of the university, we are witnessing a new segregationist movement in the university. Did you happen to read an article by Dinesh D’Souza on this subject?

Cheney: In The American Scholar, I did read it, yes.

Himmelfarb: It is a hair-raising article. The segregation he talks about is very widespread, and I hadn’t been aware of it. Dorms, cafeterias, student unions, classrooms are, in effect, segregated. I’m not talking about white racist segregation but segregation on the part of blacks and minorities, a self-imposed segregation, which is also imposed on those who would prefer not to be segregated. This is an appalling development.

Cheney: But what’s the answer to it? I know one school has decided to force people to live together whether they want to or not. I’m not sure that’s an answer.

Himmelfarb: No, that’s obviously not the answer. That, in fact, is part of the problem. It is another form of PC—the idea that there is only one correct, compulsory answer to every problem. It’s a typically totalitarian way of trying to handle the situation. Either you oblige students to live in separate dorms or you oblige them against their will to live together.

Cheney: Where’s the optimism here? Just that this has gotten so bad?

Himmelfarb: It’s gotten so bad that liberals are beginning to rebel against it. They are saying, “Of course we were all for ethnic studies, we were all for black studies, we were all for women’s studies. But this is not what we had in mind at all. We don’t want to encourage separatism and segregationism. We’re integrationists, not segregationists.” This, after all, is what the civil rights movement was all about. And it is ironic—and tragic—that the people who were in the forefront of that movement should now find themselves unwittingly betraying it.

Cheney: Why don’t you tell me about your new book. You’ve just finished a book that you had worked on for a very long time.

Himmelfarb: Yes. It was meant to be a sequel to an earlier book that I had written on the idea of poverty.

Cheney: I knew your new book was on poverty, and you also have the old book on poverty, so I was confused.

Himmelfarb: It is confusing. I originally thought of the new book as a sequel to my Idea of Poverty. But it turns out to be not quite that, for it has a distinctive theme. The earlier book covers the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries; the new book is on the late-nineteenth century. It’s called Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. It deals with a quite extraordinary generation, the men and women of the 1880s and 1890s, who were truly dedicated to public service—philanthropists, social workers, settlement house residents (the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall, was started then) reformers, investigators, critics, and philosophers. It was a time of great social, political, and intellectual ferment about what was called the social problem, the problem of poverty. It was at this time, too, that several socialist parties were founded—not socialist as we understand it, but socialist in a very latitudinarian sense, meaning almost any kind of social reform or social change.

This period was interesting for two reasons. First, because it witnessed a total personal involvement on the part of these people. They gave of their time and their energy and their money. There were no foundations to support them, no government subsidies to finance their philanthropies, no national endowment for their research. They did it all by themselves out of their own resources, voluntarily and individually.

The other thing that I find very interesting is the spirit in which they approached the problem of poverty. As I said, the book is called Poverty and Compassion. Some of my friends are put off by this title because they regard “compassion” as a sentimental, wimpish word. I use it—as the Victorians used it—in a totally unsentimental sense. My introductory chapter is called “Compassion ‘Properly Understood.’” As the Victorians understood it, there was nothing sentimental, nothing utopian about compassion. It was hard-headed, rational, pragmatic—and at the same time moral and humane.

Cheney: Have you started thinking about your next book yet?

Himmelfarb: Yes, but I also wonder: Must I write another book? Is there any law that says I have to be working on a book all the time? I’ve been working on books ever since I left college. I’m trying now to think in terms of essays, although I suspect they might turn into a book. I've also decided to leave the Victorians and enter the twentieth century—the period of the early modernists. I’ve started an essay that takes off from that wonderful quotation of Virginia Woolf’s.

Cheney: About human nature changing . . .

Himmelfarb: That’s right. “In or about December 1910, human character changed.” Even in the very early stages of modernism, I think you can see the later developments of modernism and even postmodernism. Yet the innovators of that period would surely have been appalled by their successors.

Cheney: Do you write easily? I mean, you write so well. In your book about Darwin there’s a description of Erasmus, the grandfather. It’s marvelous in terms of the detail that makes Erasmus come alive. Do you accomplish that easily?

Himmelfarb: I do some things more easily than others—lectures, essays more easily than books. But I rewrite constantly, compulsively.

Cheney: Do you use a computer?

Himmelfarb: The computer was invented for me. I don’t think I would have done this last book otherwise. It’s glorious. One can write and rewrite and rewrite ad infinitum.

Cheney: There’s a wonderful quote from E. B. White. His wife was a writer, and she edited constantly. And he described why her progress was so slow by saying she was like a county sheriff. No sooner would she get the sentence on the paper than she would shoot it dead.

Himmelfarb: That’s wonderful. (laughter).

Cheney: I’m curious about how you got to be what you are. Were you a studious child? Did you have parents who put books in front of you? What was growing up like?

Himmelfarb: The main fact about growing up for me was that mine was an immigrant family. I think that was absolutely crucial. Did I have books put in front of me? The answer is no. Every book I read was a library book or school book. We owned no books—at least no English books. What we did have were the Bible, prayer books, and some of the classics of Yiddish literature. Perhaps because the book was the Bible, my parents had an enormous respect, almost a veneration, for books in general. Did you know that in families like mine (and we were only moderately religious), when a religious book, even a children’s text of the Bible, fell on the floor, one kissed it when one picked it up? Something of that sense of sanctity carried over to secular studies as well. My parents, for example, had no secular education, but they were very eager that their children have that—and not for vocational reasons but simply for the sake of education. Although my parents did not read to us, they encouraged us to read.

Cheney: That’s very interesting.

Himmelfarb: My parents didn’t read to us because English was not their native language. They could speak English, but they were much more comfortable speaking Yiddish, as they did with each other. My brother’s first language—he is older than I—was Yiddish; this was the first of many languages that he mastered.

Cheney: What kind of school did you go to?

Himmelfarb: Public schools all the way through, and large second-rate public schools —not the “elite” schools.

Cheney: Did you go to religious school, too?

Himmelfarb: Yes, Hebrew school, every afternoon for two hours.

Cheney: And what does one do at Hebrew school?

Himmelfarb: Well, you learn the language, the prayers, and the religious rituals. You read the Bible, the prophets, and in the upper grades, passages from the Talmud. Later, while I was at Brooklyn College, I also attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, so that my Hebrew education paralleled, to some extent, my secular education.

Cheney: I had a stereotype of you that turns out not to be true. I had assumed that you came from a long line of New York intellectuals and grew up in a hothouse environment.

Himmelfarb: It was another kind of intellectual tradition that I grew up in. My grandfather was a learned man in a very parochial, religious sense.

Cheney: He was a Talmudic scholar?

Himmelfarb: Yes, although not in the modern Enlightenment sense of “scholar.” It used to be said of him as it was said of many pious, learned Jews (the Jewish culture is full of myths of this kind that one mustn’t take literally, although they do have a symbolic significance), that he could put a pin through the Talmud and know what word was on every page that the pin had hit. Another myth in our family—that I later discovered was shared by most Jewish families with any pretension to learning—was that we were descended from Maimonides.

Cheney: Your parents came from Russia.

Himmelfarb: My parents and grandparents came just before the First World War.

Cheney: How did they live in Russia? Who were they?

Himmelfarb: Theirs was a typical ghetto experience of Jews in a very small town. My maternal grandfather was not a rabbi—he didn’t want to be a paid functionary, so to speak. But because he was learned, he became the village Hebrew teacher, which was not a demanding—or remunerative—occupation, and which gave him lots of time for study and prayer. His name was Lerner, which suggests his primary occupation. My grandmother and mother—the oldest of the children—ran a little store that gave them their livelihood.

Cheney: So that he could spend time studying.

Himmelfarb: So he could spend the entire day in the synagogue.

Cheney: He could lead the life of the mind and not be expected to earn money by doing it.

Himmelfarb: The life of the mind and of religious devotion. This was a very common ghetto pattern. And it affected—I hadn’t thought of it until just now—the relations between men and women. The women, as often as not, worked in the store, did the purchasing and selling, took care of the family finances, as well as running the household. This was not your typical patriarchal family.

Cheney: Those are the grandparents who came to this country?

Himmelfarb: Yes. I knew them—at least my maternal grandparents—very well. I had enormous respect for my grandfather, a very gentle, modest, kindly, as well as learned man.

Cheney: At what point did you know that you wanted to lead the life of the mind?

Himmelfarb: I never thought of it in such exalted terms, but I suppose I had always assumed that books and ideas would play a large part in my life. It never occurred to me, mind you, that I would be a professional intellectual, as it were. I assumed that if I were to write, I would do it on my own. As for being a professor, that was out of the question; Jews, still less Jewish women, did not become professors.

Cheney: So there were barriers based on ethnicity as well as gender.

Himmelfarb: And other barriers as well. When I was interviewed for graduate school at the University of Chicago, Professor Gottschalk, who was later to be my mentor, told me: “We are offering you a scholarship and we would be delighted to have you in our program. But I want you to know that you have three strikes against you and that you will never have a teaching job. If you’re entering this program with the expectation of teaching in a university, I want to disabuse you of that. That’s not going to happen.” I said, “I know two of the strikes against me. What is the third one?”

Cheney: I can’t imagine.

Himmelfarb: Well, the third one was that I was a New Yorker, and midwestern colleges had a strong bias against easterners.

Cheney: So it really was a love of learning as opposed to any kind of credentialing for a profession that interested you. What did you study?

Himmelfarb: My masters thesis was on Robespierre; I was fascinated by the French Revolution—how its high ideals degenerated into the Terror. I moved into English studies by way of Lord Acton, who had done a very provocative book on the French Revolution, on just that theme.

Cheney: Most of the people that you have written about have in some way taken up the question of how to lead a good life. Sometimes they found it difficult to live according to the ethic they believed in.

Himmelfarb: This was certainly the dominant motif in Acton’s life and mind. He had been working for years on a history of liberty, which was going to be his magnum opus. When I went to Cambridge University as a graduate student, it was to do research on his manuscripts, his huge collection of notes, and his magnificent library, all of which were designed to provide the material for his great history of liberty—“the greatest book,” it has been said, “that was never written.” In my biography of Acton, I speculated that he never wrote it because he was caught up in a profound moral dilemma. On the one hand he had an absolutist notion of liberty; liberty was the ultimate, absolute good. But he also had an absolutist notion of morality, so that liberty could not be purchased at the expense of morality. He admired the American Revolution as a great event in the history of liberty because the degree of violence and murder was minimal. But the French Revolution, which also aspired to liberty, was murderous and therefore immoral. He could never resolve this dilemma: How can the historian justify the French Revolution—or other events that contributed to the progress of liberty—without endorsing immoral acts?

Cheney: There was a quote about your book about Acton which you seemed to endorse. “The best political thinkers,” he wrote, “are often very poor politicians.” If you think very closely on events, sometimes you do find yourself paralyzed even from the act of writing, much less from the necessity of action. I suppose the question is, to what extent is strong intellectual drive incompatible with public service, for instance?

Himmelfarb: At the very least, there is a large degree of tension between the two. One can, and should, bring to political service ideas, principles, even a political philosophy. But political life is too complicated, too messy, and too untidy to accommodate abstractions. Ideas and principles have to be mediated by compromise and prudence—without, however, betraying those ideas and principles.

Cheney: Whose wonderful phrase is it? “All intellectuals should be bound by the necessity of seeing their ideas put into practice.” There is a difference between having ideas and having to make decisions.

Himmelfarb: A few, not many, Victorians fell into the trap of thinking that ideas could be applied mechanically and decisively in politics. I once wrote an essay called “The Intellectual in Politics,” about the Webbs, the Fabian socialists. Now, they had a very decided view of what politics should be like. They prided themselves on being “social engineers.” Their ideal was a fully regulated, organized, planned society, a society that was rational and tidy. That ideal would have been disastrous had it been put in practice. Fortunately it was not shared by most Victorians, who distrusted such “rationality.” One of the most interesting and admirable things about the Victorians is how acutely aware they were of the complexities of life—of political as well as private life. They valued principles in politics, but they also made a principle of prudence. And they valued morality in private affairs, but they also made a virtue of tolerance.