Himmelfarb received the Alumni Medal in Washington, DC, in February.

Himmelfarb received the Alumni Medal in Washington, DC, in February. (Photography by Sylvia Johnson)                                                                                      

Victorian values

Social critic and Victorian historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, AM’44, PhD’50, looks back on her Chicago education.

When Gertrude Himmelfarb, AM’44, PhD’50, began her graduate studies in history at Chicago, she couldn’t have imagined the career ahead of her. The 90-year-old historian, who’s been called “the reigning authority on Victorian social thought,” has written 15 books, edited and contributed to many others, and collected more than a dozen honorary degrees. As a teacher she has mentored undergraduate students at Brooklyn College (her alma mater) and graduate students at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her lengthy list of awards, which includes the National Humanities Medal she received from President George W. Bush in 2004, just got longer: in February the University of Chicago Alumni Board of Governors bestowed on her its highest honor, the Alumni Medal.

But then, Gertrude Himmelfarb couldn’t imagine a career at all. When history professor Louis Gottschalk interviewed her as an applicant to the University, he told her that the department would be delighted to accept her, but thought it unlikely she’d find employment when she finished her doctorate. Asked why, Gottschalk responded, “Because you have three strikes against you,” Himmelfarb remembers. “Two of them were perfectly obvious, of course: being a woman and being Jewish,” she says. “The third, he told me, was because most of the graduates from the University were employed by Midwestern colleges. And most of them had a very decided bias: they did not look kindly on easterners, let alone New Yorkers.” She laughs. “I then had to assure Gottschalk that was not a problem for me, that I had no expectations of any employment, let alone professional career, that I was still very much a Depression baby. I was coming to the University not for professional reasons but simply to have an education, an education for its own sake.”

Himmelfarb applied to no other schools, “against the advice,” she says, “of all of my advisers, who thought it would have been much more appropriate for me to have gone to one of the more venerable universities in the East.” She chose Chicago, she recalls, because of the intellectual reputation its maverick president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, cultivated with his two great innovations: the Great Books curriculum and the Committee on Social Thought. “It is the wide-ranging, free-spirited, intellectual character of the University that I remember,” she says today.

Himmelfarb is best known for such volumes as Victorian Minds (Knopf, 1968), The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (Knopf, 1984), and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (Knopf, 1991), sweeping works of polymathy that ransack every field in her endeavor to understand a much-misunderstood time. She’s also written books on other eras—for example, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Knopf, 2004) and The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Vintage Books, 1996)—and frequently engages in contemporary cultural and political debates, as in One Nation, Two Cultures (Knopf, 1999).

The end of the world?

The whole notion of a career was foreign to me. This was wartime, and I can’t overestimate the sense of precariousness that the war gave me, more than it did most students. As a Jew and the daughter of immigrants, I had a sharp identification with the Holocaust and the plight of European Jews. During the ’30s, the radio in my house was on all the time recounting one after another disaster. There, I felt, but for the grace of God go I. This made for something like an apocalyptic vision of the world. The future was not something I worried about because I wasn’t sure I was going to have a future. My husband, Irving Kristol, was about to be drafted, about to go off into the Army, to a war which, as Winston Churchill reminded us, was nothing less than a war for Western civilization. And the outcome of the war was very much in doubt.

An intellectual trial

Louis Gottschalk gave me an apprenticeship in history that was invaluable—a rare combination of historical rigor and breadth. This was exemplified in the term paper assigned to graduate students in the required course on methodology. You had to select half a dozen or so pages from the most recent and most reputable historian in your field of study—in my case, the French Revolution. And you had to subject that to a minute, meticulous examination. You had to check every quotation. Was it accurate and quoted in context? Was the source reliable? Were all the relevant and available documents cited? Were the historian’s assertions warranted on the basis of those sources and documents? The examination of those few pages doesn’t sound like much, but it resulted in many, many hours in the library and a term paper that could be 30 or 40 pages long. It was a daunting exercise, especially when you realized that your own dissertation, to say nothing of future writing, should stand up to that scrutiny. I adopted that exercise in my own courses on methodology and later discovered that other students of his did as well.

Gottschalk reminds me of another distinguished Chicago professor, Leo Strauss. I didn’t have the privilege of studying with Strauss because he came to Chicago a few years after I left. But when, several years later, I came to read and admire him, I realized that what Gottschalk was doing was subjecting the texts, so to speak, of history to the same kind of close, rigorous textual analysis that Strauss made famous applied to the texts, the classics, of philosophy.

Surprise guest 

The rigorous historical scholarship I was initiated into by Gottschalk was accompanied by an expansive, interdisciplinary view of history itself. That, I discovered, was typical of the University as a whole. Appearing for the defense of my dissertation, I thought I knew who all the members of my committee would be. But there was one unfamiliar face, the sociologist Edward Shils [X’37], whom I knew by reputation as a rather awesome, almost fearsome character. I later discovered that he had not been invited by the committee. He had heard that someone he did not know was defending a dissertation on Lord Acton. Lord Acton just happened to be someone who interested him. So he appeared and proceeded to ask some of the most penetrating and provocative questions. At first, I must say, I was rather dismayed by this, but then I found myself almost enjoying what turned out to be, in effect, a very interesting and stimulating seminar. Years later, when we became good friends, I reminded him of this episode and how strange I thought it was at the time. He didn’t understand that—he thought it was perfectly natural and proper.

Hedgehog and fox

There’s the familiar quip about the intellectual who knows a little about a great many things. By the same token, one could say that an academic is someone who knows a great deal about some very few things. I never had that derisive view of either the intellectual or the academic, because I knew them in New York and in Chicago, and I knew that the same person could have both qualities and inhabit both places at the same time, the academy and the world at large. Lionel Trilling was a perfect exemplar of that. He was one of my great intellectual heroes. Today I find that unity of intellectuality and academic seriousness personified by my friends Leon [U-High’54, SB’58, MD’62] and Amy Kass [AB’62], who were brought up in the Chicago tradition of Great Books, transmitted it to their students at the University, and perpetuate it in their books and activities.