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Remembering Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Great Neoconservative Woman Of Letters

Noah Adamitis Contributor
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The historian and intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose influence on the conservative movement has been immense, passed away just before the new year. She leaves behind an extensive body of work as a historian and woman of letters, and was a founder of the neoconservative movement, together with her husband, Irving Kristol.

Himmelfarb was a first generation immigrant, born in Brooklyn in 1922 to Jewish-Russian parents who came to America shortly before the first world war. Her family was never well off and her father’s glass manufacturing business went bankrupt several times before the Great Depression. Himmelfarb graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn.

Despite growing up poor to parents lacking formal education, she said that college was the expectation for her and that her upbringing instilled a respect for religious books that carried over to literature in general. In a C-Span interview per The Bulwark she said, “My parents had no formal education at all, but it was understood from the very beginning that both my brother and I would go to college.” (RELATED: WWII Hero Who Helped Sabotage The Nazis’ Nuclear Weapons Ambitions Dies At 99)

Gertrude met her husband, Irving Kristol, in 1940 at a gathering for the Young People’s Socialist League. Irving later wrote that he thought he fell in love with her on the spot. They were married six weeks after Pearl Harbor and had two children together, William Kristol and Elizabeth Kristol Nelson.

Her career began following World War II, when her Irving Kristol, who had been drafted, returned from the war. The two of them moved from Chicago to New York and joined up with the “New York Intellectual set that surrounded Partisan Review,” a small publication, that according to the Atlantic, published writers such as “James Baldwin, W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Norman Podhoretz, T. S. Eliot, and Hannah Arendt.” (RELATED: Finding My Grandfather’s Legacy: Going Back To The Battle Of The Bulge)

Himmelfarb is considered by some to have been more important to the Neoconservative movement than her husband. Jonathan Bronitsky, writing for National Affairs, wrote that  Himmelfarb’s discovery of Edmund Burke led the Anglo-Irish statesman to “soon became one of her and her husband’s foremost historical and intellectual inspirations.” Bronitsky also attributes the influence Herbert Butterfield’s “The Whig Interpretation of History” had on Kristol, to Himmelfarb introducing Butterfield’s work to him.

“History, as it is often depicted,” Kristol echoed in Commentary in 1952, “is the record of the struggle between Freedom and Authority, Reason and Prejudice, Left and Right, with the victory of the former assured by the growing preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct.”

Additionally, when Irving Kristol was disavowing Hayek and Hayek’s economics, his wife was beginning to communicate with him. She eventually brought Kristol around, and they concurred with Hayek that the “Anglo-Saxons…possessed — in a higher degree than most other people” the basic virtues of “independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility … respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.”

Much of her work focused on Victorian era England. She saw similarities between 20th century America and 19th century Britain and studied the British attempts to replace the gradual loss of religion in their culture with a moral code, as well as the lessons America could take from the shifting mores of England during that period.

How Victorian England addressed poverty was of particular interest to her. Himmelfarb argued that the Salvation Army and the Settlement-house movement in England were examples of good, productive ways of helping the poor, rather than a “self-indulgent” way. Gertrude was instrumental in shifting the common narrative around the period away from one of disregard and derision by arguing that Victorian values were more “democratic” and “beneficial” to the working class than elite condescension.

Her influence shaping the modern conservative movement has been enormous. But Himmelfarb, among all conservative elder statesmen and stateswomen, stands out as having made a mark on mainstream scholarship that few others have.