The Corner

Culture

On the Splendid Gertrude Himmelfarb, Etc.

Winston Churchill (Library of Congress)

My Impromptus today begins with Made in China — yes, but by free labor or prison labor? — and ends with shots of small-town Indiana (“shots” meaning pictures). In between are various other subjects: Iran, James Harden, the Earth, Wind & Fire song “September” . . .

One of those subjects is the recent spate of violent attacks on Jews, particularly in New York City and environs. I will do a little quoting from the relevant section of my column:

Jews have been scapegoats from time immemorial. They have been scapegoats for all sorts of people, in every corner of the earth. When people work out their grievances, they often “work them out” against the Jews.

I treasure something that Churchill wrote, about England’s King Edward I: He “saw himself able to conciliate powerful elements and escape from awkward debts, by the simple and well-trodden path of anti-Semitism.” That was in the 13th century, mind you.

(Churchill always chose the right words, didn’t he? “. . . the simple and well-trodden path of anti-Semitism.”)

I’ll tell you where I learned that quote, or whom I learned it from: Gertrude Himmelfarb, in a little, wonderful volume she published in 2012: The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill. I was so taken with this work — this study — that I wrote a three-part series on it: here, here, and here. I kept wanting to quote from the book, and share thoughts about it.

This is how I ended my series:

Not long ago, I was listening to a lieder recital of Marlis Petersen, the German soprano. As usual, I was thinking of what I would say in my review. I thought of a line I’ve used about Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo, more than once: “A recital by her is an evening in the company of a civilized woman.”

To read a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb is to be in the company of a civilized woman: erudite, understanding, eloquent — civilized. How gratifying.

Five years later, in 2017, I reviewed another wonderful Himmelfarb volume, Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists. An introductory paragraph from that review:

Himmelfarb is a historian, born in 1922. She is particularly known for her work on Victorian England, and she has a special interest in morality: the moral tempers of various places in various times. Our society has been “de-moralized,” she says. Morality has been erased from it, or shoved to the sidelines. Society needs to be “re-moralized.” I don’t like those terms, but I don’t know better ones. And I agree with Himmelfarb entirely.

Another brief paragraph, of an introductory nature:

She has illustrious relations, starting with Milton Himmelfarb, her late brother. He was a social researcher. Her late husband is Irving Kristol, the “godfather of neoconservatism.” Their son is William. There are grandchildren to keep an eye on too.

Yes, and they have blossomed even more in the last few years, including grandchildren-in-law.

A little more, from that review:

In all her essays, Himmelfarb is graceful and learned. She is also concerned with truth. Is this necessary to say? Aren’t we all concerned with truth? No. Lately, there has been a virtual war on the idea of truth, the idea that something can be true or false. People speak of a “post-truth age.” . . .

In an essay on Leo Strauss, Himmelfarb writes, “Truth does not change; only beliefs do.” Elsewhere, she quotes Lionel Trilling, on the liberating effect of truth. You can, as she knows, and as you know, find that in the Bible as well.

These days, “neocon” is an epithet, on both the left and the right. But Irving and Bea and their gang? (Gertrude Himmelfarb, in private life, was known as “Bea Kristol.”) They were giants. And I am forever grateful to them for their influence on me, and the world. You know who else was grateful? Bill Buckley. He expressed this in many ways, on many occasions.

In one of the very first issues of The Weekly Standard — 1995 — WFB reviewed Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. Well worth your time, of course (both the review and the book).

I’ll always remember what Bill said about Jeane Kirkpatrick: “She ought to be woven into the flag as the 51st star.” When I remembered this line to Kirkpatrick, she said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone ever said about me.” I said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone ever said about anyone.”

Mona Charen has written about Gertrude Himmelfarb today — here. Marvelous column, of course. Mona knew her well. Gertrude Himmelfarb passed away on December 30. Here is Mona at the end of her column: “On a personal note, I report with a heavy heart that this is the first time in two decades that I will not be e-mailing her a copy of my column.” Mona’s friend Bea had requested that she do so.

The two situations are not the same, but I could not help thinking of Sally Jenkins, the great columnist for the Washington Post. When her father, Dan Jenkins, that extraordinary writer, passed away last March, she wrote a column about him. She ended unforgettably: “‘I don’t know who to try to impress anymore,’ I told my mother.”

Just one more memory, please: One year, George F. Will gave the big lecture at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute. As I recall, James Q. Wilson was set to introduce him but could not make it, owing to illness. Gertrude Himmelfarb read his introduction in his stead. When it was Will’s turn at the mike, he said something like this: “To be praised by Jim Wilson and Bea Kristol simultaneously is to be afforded an almost physical pleasure.”

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