Acton Institute Powerblog

Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019): The historian of moral revolution

I just heard some devastating news. Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian, moralist, wife, and mother, has passed. David Brooks has written a touching obituary detailing the life and legacy of this fascinating woman:

Economists measure economic change and journalists describe political change, but who captures moral change? Who captures the shifts in manners, values, and mores, how each era defines what is admirable and what is disgraceful? Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died at 97 last night, made this her central concern. She was a physician for the national soul.

Himmelfarb was born in 1922 and grew up with her parents and brother in a one-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her parents immigrated from Russia and spoke Yiddish at home. Her father cut glass and sold engraved saucers and jars to department stores, going bankrupt a few times during the Depression. She made it into Brooklyn College, where she amassed enough credits to have majored in history, economics, and philosophy, while taking the subway at night up to the Jewish Theological Seminary and earning a simultaneous degree there. At a Trotskyite gathering, she met her husband, Irving Kristol.

She went to the University of Chicago for graduate school and was told that she would never get an academic job. She was a woman, a Jew, and a New Yorker. She didn’t care. World War II was raging; the Holocaust was her daily obsession and horror; the atmosphere was apocalyptic. “The future was not something I worried about, because I wasn’t sure I was going to have a future,” she told The University of Chicago Magazine decades later. Kristol, who’d trailed out to Chicago with her, was drafted into the Army. So she found some roommates, including Saul Bellow.

The entire obituary is well worth reading. Himmelfarb authored many books on great Victorian luminaries from the scientist Charles Darwin to the novelist George Eliot. She was one of those rare thinkers and writers who were the total package: prolific, scholarly, and a virtuoso of the writing craft itself.

Her first book was the masterful, Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and PoliticsIt was also the first book of hers I read and is still unmatched as a concise, lively, and insightful account of Lord Acton’s life and thought. When the book went out of print I worked on bringing it back into print in a new typesetting from the Acton Institute. It was my first major book project, my introduction to editing and the intricacies of book publishing, and an honor to work on.

When thinking of potential introducers and endorsers for my first named edited volume, Lord Acton: Historical and Moral Essaysshe was the first to come to mind. Himmelfarb’s biography had been an inspiration for the project from the beginning. She kindly offered her endorsement:

A new volume of essays by Lord Acton is more welcome than ever.  In the present state of cultural and social disarray,  his reflections on history and modernity are as perceptive and prescient today as they were over a century ago.

She also paid me one of the greatest compliments I have ever received when she graciously declined to write the foreword saying:

Thank you for asking me to contribute to it.  But your fine introduction would make any foreword by me redundant.

I keep this correspondence by my desk as a daily encouragement. The world has lost an unparalleled scholar, writer, and a generous spirit. Gertrude Himmelfarb, her family, and many friends will be in my prayers.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.