NEW YORK (AP) — Gertrude Himmelfarb, the matriarch of one of the right’s most prominent families and a scholar of Victorian England who argued forcefully for conservatives in the modern “culture wars,” died Monday night at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 97.
Himmelfarb was the widow of neoconservative “godfather” Irving Kristol. Her son, neoconservative publisher-commentator William Kristol, says the cause was congestive heart failure.
Few families contributed as much to modern conservatism, although they did so in different ways. While her husband helped organize an influential network of politicians, think tanks and media outlets, and her son became a leading Republican pundit and strategist, Himmelfarb concentrated on social criticism and history’s lessons for the present.
In dozens of books and essays, Himmelfarb scrutinized the life and culture of England before, during and after the reign of Queen Victoria, from the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke to the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot.
Through debates of the past, she directly and indirectly addressed the so-called “culture wars” of recent decades.
She disputed the dull, corseted image of Victorian England, finding it a time of surprising dynamism and an admirable willingness to confront moral and ethical issues.
She challenged the idea that the poor and working class were more liberal than the rich and warned against the post-Victorian Bloomsbury circle of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and other artists and intellectuals.
“Today more than ever, we have reason to be wary of the kind of ‘civilization’ celebrated by Bloomsbury, which dismissed conventional morality as ‘a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion,'” she wrote in 1985.
Like her husband and other neo-conservatives, Himmelfarb was a political radical in her youth disgusted with the upheavals of the ‘60s. Himmelfarb and her liberal opponents agreed that Victorian “virtues,” as she preferred to call them, had been discredited in the 20th century.
Yet their fall was not a sign of enlightenment and open-mindedness, she often said, but of breakdown, a perspective that made her an important influence on advocates for “family values.” In 2004, Himmelfarb received a National Humanities Medal “for her critical analysis of history, which has yielded insights into Victorian England and the foundations of our culture.”
Himmelfarb was widely respected as an authority on the Victorian age, but opinions about her social and political views were, unsurprisingly, divided.
She was criticized for finding an “obvious connection” between the “homosexuality” of liberal economist John Maynard Keynes and his famous — and often misunderstood — observation that “In the long run we are all dead.” In The New York Review of Books, Alan Ryan wrote that her conservative views damaged her standing as a historian.
“There is room for disagreement about the quality of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work as a historian and room for concern about the extent to which it has been damaged by her political preoccupations — some might say obsessions,” Ryan, a Princeton University professor and political scientist, wrote in 2004. “What leaves no room for disagreement is the quality of her writing, which has a verve and sharpness absent from most academic prose.”
A manufacturer’s daughter, Himmelfarb was born in New York City in 1922. She attended Brooklyn College as an undergraduate, while also studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The enemy at this time of her life was not the welfare state, but capitalism. She was a Trotskyist who attended meetings of the Young People’s Socialist League, if only because she enjoyed the company of the “smartest people around.”
One was a fellow traveler named Irving Kristol, who proposed to her after just four dates. They married in 1942. She received a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and her first book, “Lord Acton: A Study In Conscience and Politics,” came out in 1953. Other works included “Victorian Minds,” “The Idea of Poverty” and “Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians.”
She taught for years at City College of New York and served at various times as an adviser for the Library of Congress, the National Council on the Humanities and the American Enterprise Institute.
Kristol and Himmelfarb remained together until his death in 2009 and had two children: Elizabeth and William. Himmelfarb, known privately as Bea Kristol, did allow for at least one modern detail in her life: she continued to write under her maiden name. The decision was practical, she would explain, not political, since she already was known professionally as Gertrude Himmelfarb. But it didn’t keep reviewers from comparing her to her husband.
“Critics never fail to mention the fact that I am married to the notorious conservative Irving Kristol and so on,” she told C-Span’s Brian Lamb during a 1991 interview. “One critic … the whole theme of his essay on me was, ‘Gertrude Himmelfarb is a brilliant historian so long as she’s Gertrude Himmelfarb, but she fails dismally as soon as she becomes Mrs. Irving Kristol.’”