Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb
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The De-Moralization of Society:  From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
ISBN: 0679764909
The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
Professor Himmelfarb discussed her book The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The book concerns the development of modern values from the Victorian virtues, and the differences between modern values and Victorian virtues. She lists four Victorian virtues: wisdom, justice, temperance and courage. The author asserts that the Victorian virtues of hard work and deferral of gratification are the tools to fix current social problems in America.
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The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
Program Air Date: April 2, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of The De -- Moralization of Society, deep in your book you suggest that the bicycle had more to do with liberating women in the Victorian age, or some age, than the feminist movement. Is that true?
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB:, AUTHOR, "The De-Moralization of Society: From victorian Virtues to Modern Values": I think that is true. I think one of the interesting things about feminism, about all ideologies, is how in the end they are less influential than an awful lot of other things that are going on in society at the same time, and so while the feminists are talking about getting the vote or higher education for women or more job opportunities or anything of that sort, what's really happening is something else in the world, and that something else may be the bicycle, for example, which liberated women in all kinds of ways. It meant that they didn't have to have chaperons, for example; they could go off on their own. They didn't have to be accompanied all the time, didn't have to tell people where they were going at every point, and so it gave them the kind of liberty which the feminists, however strident they might be about all kinds of other issues, could not have given them.
LAMB: Are you a feminist?
HIMMELFARB: I think not as the term is used today. I think I would be as the term was used in Victorian times, and I find those feminists whom I describe very congenial. I use the word "feminist" cautiously in the book. The term itself doesn't come up until the end of the century, but I think it is applicable to the earlier period. The word that is not quite so applicable is the word "feminism" as we use it today, certainly, but even just as a noun it's not really appropriate. It's a singular noun; it suggests something homogeneous. It suggests a single movement, and that's not what the Victorian women were about, the Victorian feminists. They all were pursuing different causes. They were very strong-minded, independent women, and they weren't part of the group necessarily and they didn't follow each other's leads and they often conflicted with each other and contradicted each other and even opposed each other publicly, and so there were many different kinds of feminism. There were the women who were intent upon the suffrage and there were those who focused on higher education and there were those who wanted greater job opportunities and there were those who were interested in divorce reform or property reform or the dissemination of birth control information. All those things were going on at the same time, and different women were involved in those different causes. There was some overlapping, but not all that much.
LAMB: You have a whole list of famous women that were not feminists, and one of them was Florence Nightingale. When did she live?
HIMMELFARB: Isn't that interesting? She was really mid-Victorian, and, of course, she was enormously prominent in Victorian society. She was very active, and she was not one of your retiring women. She was not one of the women who stayed at home, who was involved only in her domestic affairs and who was, as feminists now say, who was being put on a pedestal and not permitted to engage in public life. She was very, very active; she was very important.
LAMB: Who was she?
HIMMELFARB: Florence Nightingale was involved in nursing.
LAMB: Lived where?
HIMMELFARB: I think she lived in London most of the time. She was unmarried. She was very much involved in the Crimean War, in the nursing reforms that took place at that time. She was being consulted on all kinds of other issues as well, and she did her thing and she did her job and she was engaged in whatever she was engaged in in a very public, prominent way, but she did not feel the need to engage in other causes. When she was approached by John Stuart Mill, for example, to sign a petition in favor of the vote for women, she refused. She said that's not her thing. She thought women could do a great many things that they wanted to do without having the vote.
LAMB: Early on in your book you mention a couple of familiar names in this day and age. One of them is Margaret Thatcher and a statement she made back in 1983 about Victorian values_or is it virtues?
HIMMELFARB: That's what's interesting. That as much as anything else provoked me to write that book. In 1983 she was involved in one of her electoral campaigns, and she was being interviewed by a young woman reporter who was rather hostile to her and who at one point said, "Mrs. Thatcher, it does sound to me as if you were approving of Victorian values," to which Mrs. Thatcher said, "But of course. Exactly. Those were the values that helped make our country great." Then she subsequently went on and she picked up this expression "Victorian values." It was used throughout the campaign and in later campaigns. I discovered one occasion when, in fact, she used the expression not "Victorian values" but "Victorian virtues," but it was reported in the press as Victorian values. That's the way we now understand, and she herself later picked up that expression.
LAMB: Listed here are the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, temperance, courage. Which one of those is your favorite?
HIMMELFARB: Well, it's awfully tempting, of course, to say wisdom. Isn't that what we all want? I think from a social point of view, from a public point of view, the most important of those is probably temperance, moderation, and that of course is what the Greeks emphasized, and I think that's a virtue that is singularly lacking in our time. I think if you ask me what one virtue, what one classical virtue, what one of these Aristotelian cardinal virtues we were most in need of today, I think I might say temperance.
LAMB: Another person you mention, and I think it has even a family connection for you, is Bill Bennett. You mention that The Book of Virtues has sold a million copies at least, and it's been on the bestsellers list for over a year. The reason I say family, didn't your son work for him at one point?
HIMMELFARB: He did indeed. When he came to Washington he worked in the Department of Education with Bill Bennett.
LAMB: And your son is?
HIMMELFARB: And my son is Bill Kristol, WIlliam Kristol, otherwise known as Bill Kristol, who's always identified as the Republican strategist. I'm not sure I know what that means.
LAMB:And your husband you give a lot of credit to in this book as you start it out, saying you almost can't give him enough credit. And who is your husband?
HIMMELFARB: Irving Kristol, who's a writer, an editor and publisher and who's acquired the tag, the label of the godfather of neoconservatism.
LAMB: So what does that make you?
HIMMELFARB: It makes me the wife of Irving Kristol and the mother of Bill Kristol is what it makes me.
LAMB: Are you a Republican strategist or a neoconservative?
HIMMELFARB: I'm not a Republican strategist. In private life I suppose I'd be a neoconservative. As far as my writing goes, I'm simply a historian.
LAMB: How did you and Irving Kristol originally hook up?
HIMMELFARB: That's a rather peculiar story; it goes back to our youth. I was very young. I think I was 18 when we met, and I think he was probably all of 20 or something like that, and we were both Trotskyists. We were both_you're surprised at that_we were very much involved in the radical movement, and we met at a Trotskyist meeting and we were married a year later.
LAMB: Where?
HIMMELFARB: In New York, in Brooklyn. The meeting was actually in Brooklyn.
LAMB: What were those meetings all about?
HIMMELFARB: They were rather ludicrous from any point of view, and even at the time I think we thought that they were rather odd, rather bizarre. There we were young, very militant socialists who thought we were going to reform the world. I forget_the Young People's Socialist League Fourth International I think was the grand name that was given to this little group, and we were going to convert this little group of_we, this handful of people were going to convert the masses to socialism, I suppose, was the idea. So that was the ostensible background of all of is.
LAMB: Where did that come from in your life? Why were you even interested in doing that?
HIMMELFARB: Socialism was very much in the air. Remember, this was just before the Second World War. This was post -- Depression period. We were still, in fact, in the middle of the Depression, but socialism was a very powerful influence among young people. There was this socialist impulse that was very, very strong_social justice, social reform, equality and all of these things and trying to overcome the very desperate poverty of that period. So it seemed to me to be perfectly natural to be a socialist. Now, what made our condition just a little bit different is that we were also very, very strongly anti -- Stalinist, which is why we became the Trotskyite version of socialism.
LAMB: Who was Leon Trotsky?
HIMMELFARB: Leon Trotsky was the great Bolshevik leader who, a rival in the beginning with Stalin for power and who was then deposed and then finally assassinated by Stalin's henchmen, as we used to say.
LAMB: Why would he be somebody you would follow? What was so strong about him?
HIMMELFARB: He was a socialist, he was a Marxist, he was unlike Stalin. He was an intellectual. He was a man of great quality, and at the same time he was anti -- Stalinist and he was against what was happening in the Soviet Union, so that made him a rather attractive figure for us. It was all a wildly utopian dream, and even at the time, as I say, we took it with a certain sense of frivolity. We weren't totally serious about it. It was intellectually very stimulating, and we actually read Marx, for example, and we had very heated debates about the meaning of this or that Marxist dogma.
LAMB: What were your families like at that time?
HIMMELFARB: We both came from immigrant families, both very poor, both struggling very hard to make ends meet and to lead very respectable lives, both very Jewish, and they were both good Roosevelt Democrats in their politics, but we young people were going to go beyond that, and that's the way we did it.
LAMB: When did you get married?
HIMMELFARB: We got married_I was all of 19, and my husband was all of 22, and this was just the month after Pearl Harbor.
LAMB: Had your families stimulated your interest in reading and thinking and all that?
HIMMELFARB: Well, they had, absolutely, but almost unintentionally. It was unwittingly. It was an enormous respect for learning as such. They could not have predicted the way in which, the direction in which I would have gone or whatever, but there was an enormous respect for the book. There was a tradition among Jewish families, and mine was a rather observant Jewish family. There was a tradition in Jewish families that when a book of the Bible or the prayer book fell on the floor, you kissed it when you picked it up in order to preserve its kind of purity. I must say, that respect for the book transferred itself to secular books as well. I'm not suggesting that we kiss secular books when we_ we're rather hard on books in that we annotate them wildly and so on, but there was that respect for the book. There was a respect for learning. 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, for example. So that is the intellectual background.
LAMB: What countries had your parents come from?
HIMMELFARB: Russia.
LAMB: Both Irving Kristol's and yours?
HIMMELFARB: Yes. That's right. Different parts of Russia, parts of Russia that were later Poland and so on, but essentially Russia. They regarded themselves as Russian Jews.
LAMB: If you go to your book The De -- Moralization of Society, you go back to 1948 for your first book, where you edited a book about, I believe, Lord Acton.
HIMMELFARB: Lord Acton, that's right. I edited his essays.
LAMB: So if you had gotten married around Pearl Harbor, where did you go to school?
HIMMELFARB: What was I doing in between there? I went to undergraduate school at Brooklyn College. As I said, my family was poor and this was a free college. Then I did graduate work at the University of Chicago.
LAMB: How about Dr. Kristol? Where did he go?
HIMMELFARB: He went into the Army at that point. I was married in my last year at Brooklyn College and then he was already out of college and he was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, would you believe. This was, as I say, the very beginning of the war years and prepared to go into the Army. At that point I then, when I was graduating, after spending a year in New York, decided to go to graduate school and I chose the University of Chicago because it had the reputation of being the most intellectual of all of the universities. This was the great day of_I don't know if the name means anything to you or to people today_Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was the president of the university at that time, and there was a Great Books program that was very active at that time, and all of that seemed very attractive to me.
LAMB: And did he go out there also?
HIMMELFARB: He went out for a very short time, as I say, waiting to be drafted, and I think he was there for perhaps nine months or something until he did go off to the Army. I stayed on and went to graduate school and did my graduate work there.
LAMB: What were you studying?
HIMMELFARB: Originally I specialized in the French Revolution, and I did a master's thesis on Robespierre, the political philosophy of Robespierre. I did that mainly because I thought the most interesting person on the faculty there was this very eminent and very, very interesting historian who specialized in the French Revolution, but then I came across Lord Acton, who had written a book _no, he hadn't written a book, but a book had been published on the French Revolution. It was actually his lectures that were published, and this was very, very stimulating. He was reputed to have been the most learned man in Europe at that time. He knew everything.
LAMB: What years did he live?
HIMMELFARB: He was very much a Victorian. The queen died in 1901, he died in 1902, so his life span covered pretty much the Victorian period.
LAMB: Is he the fellow who said, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely"?
HIMMELFARB: "Tends to" is what he said, and everyone's always correcting everybody on that. "Power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely," yes.
LAMB: Why did he say that?
HIMMELFARB: He was a great, great liberal. He was two things; he was a very complicated man. This, of course, is what attracted him to me. He was a great liberal who was terribly distressed_one of the things he was interested in about the French Revolution is how did a revolution that started out with such noble ambitions_liberty, equality, fraternity_how did it degenerate into the terror that it did? So one of the great themes of his life was liberty, and that became almost an obsession. The great enterprise he was working on all of his life was to be a history of liberty, and that is said to have been the greatest book that was never written. He never did get around to write it, but he did write about liberty in antiquity, he wrote about liberty in modernity and so on, and it was the theme that ran through his whole life.
LAMB: Where does that statement come from?
HIMMELFARB: In one of his essays.
LAMB: Why has it lived so long?
HIMMELFARB: Because it's just a very powerful and very true statement, isn't it, about the relationship between power and liberty. What happens when you give a man or you give a party or you give even a dogma that kind of power?
LAMB: Here you are editing a book on Lord Acton back in 1948, and 1995 you're writing about the Victorian age. I think Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post called you the "foremost authority on the Victorian age." What does that sound like to you? Are you?
HIMMELFARB: I hope I'm an authority. I wouldn't presume to say "the foremost." But it is true. I have spent a good chunk of my life reading and thinking about the Victorians. It's an enormously stimulating period, and these were very, very thoughtful men. Mind you, while I was doing this I was doing other things as well. When I taught, for example, I taught not only English intellectual history, but I also taught about the continental traditions of the Germans and the French_Kant, Hegel, Marx and so on_and it was very interesting to see my Victorians in contrast to the continental thinkers, the continental thinkers very often much more profound, more systematic, more ambitious as philosophers than the English but lacking in a kind of humane quality that I always found in the English.
LAMB: What was Queen Victoria like?
HIMMELFARB: Very upright, very proper, occasionally given to rather unusual bits of humor. She was capable of being rather witty on occasions, not very often but very occasionally. I don't want to exaggerate the influence of Queen Victoria, but nevertheless there is a very real sense in which she was a symbol of the age. She represented that kind of domestic virtues that the English regarded so highly, that the Victorians regarded so highly, and she epitomized that and people at the time were very much aware of that. Disraeli, for example, would comment upon that often.
LAMB: And who was he?
HIMMELFARB: Disraeli was a great, I think one of the greatest prime ministers that England has ever had and on very good terms with the queen.
LAMB: You also write a lot about William Gladstone.
HIMMELFARB: Yes, he was Disraeli's great opponent, Disraeli being the great conservative, Gladstone being the liberal prime minister.
LAMB: Do you think that we as a country ought to go back to the way it was?
HIMMELFARB: No, that would truly be ridiculous. One cannot emulate a society in a totally different stage of economic and political and technological and cultural development. No, of course I wouldn't say that. By the way, I should say, I feel that I ought to say this every time I speak about this subject. I ought to say it every five minutes while I'm talking about the subject: I do not mean to defend or justify or condone everything in Victorian England. That's not my intention at all, but I do think that the Victorians had a great deal to teach us, and those are the things that I think that we ought to be thinking about and that I think we ought to be learning about from the Victorians. I think some of the Victorian virtues are very commendable and would be very, very useful if we could in fact take them seriously today and also the idea of virtue in general, the idea that a society does depend upon a moral base, a moral consensus. That was very strong in Victorian England. You must remember this was a time of very, very sharp class differentiations, and yet in spite of that there was a very powerful moral consensus running right through the classes.
LAMB: What's moral?
HIMMELFARB: Moral, ethical, codes by which you live by, the principles by which you govern your lives and by which you hope other people govern theirs.
LAMB: Is it immoral to get a divorce?
HIMMELFARB: No, no. The Victorians had divorce. They had divorces going way back; as a matter of fact, in 1857, I think it was, there was a reform of the divorce laws that liberalized the laws and made it much easier to get divorces, so, no, it's not immoral to get divorces, but it would be immoral to get divorces easily or too readily or too frivolously, I think as the English would believe. The other day someone mentioned something about no -- fault divorce law under which we now live. The Victorians would have been appalled by the idea of a no -- fault divorce law.
LAMB: Is it immoral to have an illegitimate child?
HIMMELFARB: Yes, that they would have said was immoral_understandable, forgivable under certain circumstances. All vices are ultimately forgivable in some sense, but, yes, immoral. They would have had no problem with that.
LAMB: You spend a lot of time with that and a lot of time with statistics.
HIMMELFARB: Yes, this is the first book in which I did very serious number crunching, as the economists say, and it was a fascinating thing, and I think I came across some very extraordinary statistics which are very revealing both for the Victorians and even more so I think for us. The contrast between them is very striking. You mention illegitimacy. The illegitimacy rate at its peak in Victorian England_it seemed to have peaked around 1845_was 7 percent. At the end of the century it was 4 percent. It had gone down by over 40 percent in the course of that half century. The illegitimacy rate in both England and the United States in 1960 was about 5 percent. Three decades later it was 30 percent, a rise of 600 percent. That's an extraordinary rise.
LAMB: Is it unusual for Gertrude Himmelfarb to have graphs in your book?
HIMMELFARB: Very unusual, first time I've ever done it. It introduced me to the whole arcane mode of graph making. I knew nothing about it before then.
LAMB: Was this a difficult thing to decide to do?
HIMMELFARB: Once I had those figures I had to do it. How could I not dramatize this decline in Victorian England from 7 to 4 percent and the rise in our period from 5 to 30 percent? It just called; it just shouted for graphs.
LAMB: When you're telling folks what you think about why this is happening, what reason do you give them? Why did we go from 5 to 30 percent illegitimacy?
HIMMELFARB: I think one important reason, and that explains the title of my book, is the fact that we have undergone a kind of general state of de -- moralization. Now, I've hyphenated that word "de -- moralization" in my book. I had to battle with my copy editors to do that because the ordinary way of spelling the word, of course, is without the hyphen. Demoralization in its familiar sense means simply a loss of morale. De -- moralization, as I am using it, means a loss of a sense of morality, which is rather more serious, and that I think is one of the primary causes for not only the statistics about illegitimacy but the statistics about crime, about drunkenness, about welfare dependency, about drug addiction and so on. I think that is one of the causes of it, and it also helps explain the subtitle of my book, which is From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. The Victorians had a sense of virtues as firm, fixed principles that should govern the lives of all Victorians, all individuals, all classes, all groups. Our modern notion of values is a very relativistic term. Every person is presumed to have the right to his or her own values_every individual, every group, every class, whatever that individual or group happens to value for any reason at any time.
LAMB: What caused the change?
HIMMELFARB: I can almost pinpoint the change as far as intellectual history goes. I think the first person to bring it in is Nietzsche around 1888, the German philosopher who wanted to transcend the virtues of his time. His famous enterprise was called the Transvaluation of Values. He wanted to go beyond the values of his time, to go beyond Christian morality. He wanted to deny Christian morality. He did that by using the term values, which deliberately relativized it rather than the old term virtues.
LAMB: You also mention Marx in connection with him as being an important figure in history. Who was he?
HIMMELFARB: Karl Marx, the great ideologist of . . .
LAMB: But who was he in the sense of where did he live and what years did he live and what kind of person was he and why do people care about him?
HIMMELFARB: About Karl Marx?
LAMB: Yes.
HIMMELFARB: Partly because he's regarded as the intellectual father of all subsequent socialism, communism and so on. He was a German, of course. He was exiled from Germany after his involvement or presumed involvement in some revolutionary activities, revolutionary journals, and he came to England and therefore he lived a good chunk of his life in England. He didn't get involved in any revolutionary or even radical movement in England, but he was the intellectual father of socialism and of communism.
LAMB: What are the chances that in a hundred years Gertrude Himmelfarb will be the absolute authority, like we're talking about Karl Marx today, on the Victorian age?
HIMMELFARB: I'm not going to try to even address that kind of question.
LAMB: How do you think it happens that Karl Marx is so important in intellectual history?
HIMMELFARB: He first enunciated a doctrine which then threatened to take over the world_it did take over for a while a whole chunk of the world, didn't it?_the communist world. Before that it was an ideal that an enormous number of very serious and thoughtful and reasonable people aspired to; it then did actually come to power in Russia and in then the satellite countries. It has subsequently failed, and there are still people who would like to regard themselves as in some sense Marxists. It's still regarded as an ideal of justice and of the quality that we can aspire to. I think it has been a terribly, tragically flawed ideology and has misled an enormous number of people and has been the cause of great distress and great, true horror, some of the true horrors of our time.
LAMB: Go back to when you were a Trotskyite or whatever you wanted to call yourself back then.
HIMMELFARB: For a very brief period, I must tell you. This did not last very long.
LAMB: Did you ever follow Marx?
HIMMELFARB: Yes, I regarded myself as a real Marxist.
LAMB: What changed your mind?
HIMMELFARB: I read more. I read more widely. I read people like the American philosopher John Dewey or religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Tillich and so on, and they broadened my horizons. Even as I was a Marxist, I think I was a rather dissident Marxist, always rather suspicious of a good deal in Marx, never any pure or orthodox Marx.
LAMB: What about the dinner table conversation with Irving Kristol, your husband? Did you spend a lot of time intellectualizing about these things in the early days?
HIMMELFARB: One talked a lot with friends and at parties and so on. I cannot honestly say that at a private dinner between my husband and myself that Marx was the hot subject of conversation. In college Marx was one of the great figures, was one of the people we talked about all the time, if you were an intellectual and if you were a radical. He was the man you talked about.
LAMB: But if we were at your dinner table_you say you have two sons?
HIMMELFARB: No, I've one son and one daughter, Elizabeth.
LAMB: Where is your daughter?
HIMMELFARB: She's in Washington now. She too was an editor, a writer. She still manages to write occasionally while she's bringing up two very, very young children.
LAMB: Let's say we eavesdrop on a dinner conversation between Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, your daughter and you. Will we ever find the four of you disagreeing strongly on something.
HIMMELFARB: Oh, yes. Not on very basic things but on the margin we might disagree. I think we tend to be a rather contentious group, we don't easily go along with each other, and sometimes we argue for the sake of arguing too, but we have different emphases and so on. I don't know whether many families are like that, but I think we are all basically very like -- minded. I think my daughter would, I'm sure, identify herself as a conservative.
LAMB: Where did you spend most of your life, and are you living in Washington now?
HIMMELFARB: I'm living in Washington now. I regarded myself as a New Yorker all the time, although, in fact, I wasn't in New York all the time. I went to the University of Chicago, as I say. I was there for three years, went to London for a year, and then my husband and I spent, and the children, were in England for about six years while my husband was editing an English journal called Encounter, and we've been in Washington for the past seven or eight years so that in fact we've spent some time out of New York, but I had always until very recently regarded myself as very much a New Yorker.
LAMB: When did the neoconservative thought start and why did your husband get labeled as the one who started it?
HIMMELFARB: I think the term first came up in the mid -- 1960s in the middle of the counterculture of that period when neoconservatism emerged as an alternative to a certain extent to the counterculture. The counterculture was moving people very much to the left, and neoconservatism was really trying to keep them where they had always been, but by comparison with those who were going left it seemed to be rather more conservative. I take that back. The term itself did not come up in the mid -- 60s. I think it came up in the 70s. I think it was invented by Michael Harrington, who was himself a socialist, and he intended it to be an invidious term and then some people accepted it very happily. I think my husband was the first person, and this now is in the 70s, to accept the label.
LAMB: When did you see your attitude toward what you thought shift? We talked about Trotsky, we talked about Marx, and now how would you label yourself?
HIMMELFARB: I suppose neoconservative would do it as well as anything else, but, you know, if I look back upon my own intellectual development I find that there was always a very strong conservative streak in it in spite of that early Trotskyite period. I remember as an undergraduate of Brooklyn College, the major paper that I had to write was on Metternich, and I admired Metternich.
LAMB: Who was?
HIMMELFARB: Who was the very conservative statesman of early 19th century who, as it happened, Henry Kissinger has written a book about, a very interesting book about Metternich. So there I was, attracted to this very conservative statesman, and if I again look back upon it I find that some of my first writings were on Edmund Burke, for example, who was a great 18th century_ he called himself at the time a Whig, but from our perspective he's very much in the conservative tradition. Lord Acton himself was in one sense a great liberal, but he had a very strong conservative streak in him. He was a very pious Catholic, for example, and therefore a great believer in tradition, in institutions, in authority and so on, so that I think that throughout my life I've had this kind of predilection even in my most radical period.
LAMB: In the front of this book there's a list of some 13 books that you've written plus this book, four that you've edited and nine that you've actually written.
HIMMELFARB: Yes, that's right. This is my 10th book, right.
LAMB: Why do you do this? Why do you write?
HIMMELFARB: Why do I write all those books?
LAMB: Yes. What's the pleasure in all this?
HIMMELFARB: It's what I've always done. I find that if I want to think in any satisfactory way, I have to write about what it is that I'm thinking, and I find that history gives me the occasion to think about varieties of subjects in varieties of ways. I find that kind of endlessly stimulating.
LAMB: How do you write?
HIMMELFARB: You mean how do I actually write? Oh, on a word processor these days. I'm a total convert to it. I'm an enthusiast for it.
LAMB: Do you write quickly?
HIMMELFARB: When I finished a book called The Idea of Poverty, which was a very large book and a very fully researched book based upon archival material and so on and had masses of footnotes, when I finished that book I said I'd never write another book because I'm an obsessive reviser and rewriter, and so I would keep putting in footnotes in the middle of the chapter that had already been completed and then I would have to renumber all the footnotes, and it drove me absolutely mad. I said I'd never do it again. Then the word processor came along, and it did it all for me, and I must say it makes for someone like myself who is, as I say, a compulsive rewriter, it is absolutely heaven.
LAMB: This is a relatively small book. It's about 300 pages, but it's still a small book. Who's your audience in your opinion? Who are you writing for?
HIMMELFARB: I would like to think that I have a general audience, not merely an academic audience. I think my style is that. I think it's not at all an academic style; I think the academic style today is almost poisonous. It's almost unreadable by an ordinary literate person. So I would hope that my audience would be a general audience.
LAMB: Of all these books that you've written_and you edited one on Malthus, two on John Stuart Mill_which one sold the most?
HIMMELFARB: Of all the books that I've written? I'll tell you, the one book that's never gone out of print is the book on Darwin.
LAMB: That was early.
HIMMELFARB: And that was early; that was 1959.
LAMB: And what was it?
HIMMELFARB: That has never gone out of print, and that was called Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, and it was an intellectual biography of Darwin and also of the movement of Darwinism that resulted from his great discovery of the theory of evolution and of natural selection.
LAMB: Is it getting easier or harder to write an intellectual book in this society and get it sold and get people to pay attention to it?
HIMMELFARB: I think it's perhaps harder to do without your medium. I think your medium has almost transformed the audience for a general book of this sort. It's made it very important for a writer to also be visible publicly, and I think that's an important difference that one isn't thinking about enough these days, that enough thought hasn't been given to.
LAMB: When do you know that you've had a success? You just had a book in 1994 called On Looking Into the Abyss. What was that about?
HIMMELFARB: That was a book that was not an historical book. That was different from most of the work, and that had nothing to do with the Victorians, and that was on the present state of our culture, what is happening to our culture, particularly in the universities but even more generally. What are we thinking? What are the concepts that we are using? That was a collection of essays, and I reprinted a lecture I had given, the Jefferson lecture on "Heroes, Villains and Valets." I was interested there in what is happening to our idea of heroes, what is our conception of great men. I was also interested in what was going on in the universities in the discipline of history, of philosophy, of law, of English literature and so on. Enormous transformations are taking place in the universities and I think in the cultural world at large.
LAMB: In your book on the Victorian period, someone you write a lot about is someone you said was a socialist; you say that she wasn't a feminist. I'm not sure this is the way you'd pronounce it, but it looks like Beatrice Webb. You can get surprised at some of these names.
HIMMELFARB: Beatrice Webb, right.
LAMB: Who was she?
HIMMELFARB: She was a fascinating character, in some ways just extra -- ordinarily admirable and in other ways someone who provoked you to great irritation. I think it was Winston Churchill who once said that he wouldn't be caught dead in a soup kitchen with Beatrice Webb. She was a great nag in some ways, trying to convert everyone to her point of view. She was a Victorian intellectual is what she was and became converted to socialism rather later, particularly after she became married to Sidney Webb, who was and had been for some time a dedicated socialist. She wrote some memoirs about her own life which are fascinating and very revealing about Victorian England, and she was a very strong -- minded woman, a woman of very strong opinions, so that for varieties of reasons she's interesting. She was a very prolific writer, very much involved in affairs of her time, and so it was interesting to me that for a woman like that who was an intellectual, who was so strong -- minded and independent and a public figure that she was not in fact a feminist and she was against the vote for women. She actually signed a petition at the time opposing the vote for women.
LAMB: On what basis?
HIMMELFARB: She felt it wasn't important. First of all, it was a distraction from the socialist struggle; the vote for women wasn't important; what was important was creating a socialist society, nationalizing property, getting more government regulation and so on. Those were the things that were important, and the suffrage was a matter of no concern for the socialists, she felt; and a lot of socialists, by the way, agreed with her as did a lot of trade union people. They were against the vote for women.
LAMB: You said that several women took a man's name. You mentioned George Eliot. Who was she?
HIMMELFARB: George Eliot was surely the greatest novelist of Victorian England; I think one of the great novelists of all times. I think she may be one of the most interesting Victorians, one of the most eminent Victorians, although that label has never been assigned to her. She was not only a novelist, she was an intellectual. She wrote great novels. Her other writings aren't known, aren't as familiar to most people but they are very interesting. She was an interesting essayist. She learned German, for example, on her own and so mastered the language that she actually translated_I think it was either Strauss or Feuerbach or perhaps both of them who were very, very difficult German theologians and philosophers of the 19th century. She had views about a very great many things, and she had a very interesting life. She was very much an English moralist, for example, but she happened to live a life that was rather unconventional from any Victorian point of view. She lived with a man with whom she was not married, for example. She wasn't married to him for the very simple reason that he could not get married_he couldn't get divorced from his wife_and some modern feminists regard this as a great blow for women's liberation, this woman who dared flout the conventions of her time and so on, but that's not the way it was at all. She didn't want to flout those conventions. She had no choice. She would have dearly loved to have been married to George Lewes but she couldn't, and so she reproduced in her life the kind of domesticity, a kind of fidelity and loyalty and so on that she would have had, had she been a properly married woman.
LAMB: Speaking of names, I suppose there's a period here in the last 10, 20 years when people would think you might be a feminist because you didn't take your husband's name.
HIMMELFARB: Right, I know, and young women tell me that all the time. They say, "Isn't it wonderful of you to have done that so far back when no one else was doing it" and "Wasn't it brave and bold of you" and so on. That's not the way it was at all. Like most things in life it was totally accidental_well, maybe not totally, but largely accidental. I think I mentioned the fact that I was married while I was still in college. Well, I wasn't about to change my name in midstream, so to speak. And then my letters had gone off to the university, letters of reference and my record and so in my maiden name, and I said, "Well, why not?" Later I think it was an advantage for me to have retained my maiden name simply because my husband was writing as well, and it was convenient not to be totally confused with each other, not that that has always helped. Critics never fail to mention the fact that I am married to the notorious conservative Irving Kristol and so on. One critic, one volume of essays_I shall never forget this_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." So that kind of thing has happened, and even feminists, by the way, tend to do that when they want to be critical of me. They identify me very carefully as "the wife of" or_these days more often "the mother of."
LAMB: Your son, William Kristol, was an aide to Bill Bennett, he was a chief of staff to Dan Quayle, and now he's kind of on his own out there.
HIMMELFARB: On his own, right.
LAMB: Did you notice when he started to really take all this politics stuff seriously in his life?
HIMMELFARB: Even retrospectively I find it hard to understand. I certainly would never have predicted it. He was very much an intellectual, a scholar. I assumed that he'd stay in the academy all of his life, that he'd do very serious, very profound books about political philosophy or whatever, and I thought when he first came to Washington to work for Bill Bennett, I thought, That's a nice reprieve from academic life, but it wouldn't last long, I thought, instead of which he turned out to be enormously interested in current politics and I think very, very talented at it. He has a very extraordinary ability of bringing his philosophical principles to bear upon current events.
LAMB: Do you remember when he first started getting interested in this early in his life? Was it at your knee?
HIMMELFARB: Yes, that's right. Politics was very much always a part of our _current affairs were always very much a part of our lives.
LAMB: Is he or Elizabeth older?
HIMMELFARB: He's the older, yes.
LAMB: And how old is Bill Kristol now?
HIMMELFARB: Bill is now 42. Do I get that right? I'd hate to have that wrong. He was born in 52. He's 42.
LAMB: And how did you start to bring him into the intellectual world?
HIMMELFARB: We didn't. He just was there; he was just part of our lives. When we had dinner guests, he would be around, I suppose, and we talked all the time. We talked about whatever was going on. I think this may help explain just how all this happens in our kind of family. My daughter, when she was very young_she must have been 7 or 8_had gone off on a weekend date with one of her friends. When she came back she said, "You know, other families aren't like us at all. Do you know, in other houses they just sit there and they listen to TV and they don't argue. They don't talk about it all the time." I suppose that defined our house. We always, I think, brought a kind of critical intelligence to bear upon whatever was happening. We weren't just passive about it, and I think the children acquired that just as a matter of course.
LAMB: In the introduction you mention an Edward Himmelfarb. Who is that?
HIMMELFARB: My nephew, my brother's son.
LAMB: How does he get into this? You thank a whole bunch of people.
HIMMELFARB: Oh, yes, because he's in the Justice Department, and at one point when I was engaged in all this number crunching, I wanted figures about crime in the United States. He was very helpful and he gave me some material, and so I thanked him in the book for it.
LAMB: Out front you have a dedication, a bunch of names. It looks like grandchildren to me.
HIMMELFARB: My grandchildren, my five grandchildren.
LAMB: And what are you doing to bring them into the intellectual world?
HIMMELFARB: Their parents are doing that, and they're doing a splendid job of that. That, fortunately, I don't have to do. I actually wanted to dedicate my previous book to them, but that was a book On Looking Into the Abyss, and that hardly seemed an appropriate place for a dedication to my grandchildren. I thought that a book on family values and Victorian values would be more appropriate.
LAMB: You say at the end that we may be ready for a new reformation. What about these grandkids? What kind of world are they going to live in from what you studied in history and what's going to happen in this country?
HIMMELFARB: I worry about the world that they're coming into. I do genuinely worry about that. I think they are very, very fortunate in having parents who will guide them and who will protect them, I think, from some of the influences in the world, but I think the culture out there is rather perilous for young people, just on the most primitive level. The kind of sexual promiscuity that goes on seems to me_at the teenage level_is very dangerous to young people.
LAMB: Why?
HIMMELFARB: I think promiscuity is an unnatural way for people to behave. It's an unhealthy way . . .
LAMB: Where does it come from?
HIMMELFARB: It comes, I think, from a kind of general permissiveness, a relaxation of moral codes. It comes from the de -- moralization, I think, that I was talking about.
LAMB: Let me just keep going through that though. Where does that come from?
HIMMELFARB: Where does that come from? It comes from everything that's been happening in the past 30 or 40 years. It comes from all kinds of things. It comes from, for example, the affluence of our society, so that young people have so much more money available to them to indulge their needs. Do you remember the great old Puritan principle of the deferral of gratification? Well, young people don't feel that for the most part anymore; they don't feel the need for that. There's an awful lot of ready money around. It comes from technology which has made enormous advances of all kinds, the birth control pill, for example, which permits for a much more liberal, much more permissive attitude towards sexual affairs. I find it interesting that we now, we don't use the word "promiscuity." You haven't heard that word in a long time, I think, in public life. The word now that is used of teenagers is "sexually active," which is a very neutral word which is presumed to have no moral implications at all. I find that a very interesting development.
LAMB: Where does the reformation come from then?
HIMMELFARB: This kind of moral reformation you mean . . .
LAMB: Yes.
HIMMELFARB: . . . that I'm hopeful will come. Most moral reformations actually come from religious reformations, and I think that in my period that the moral reformation of the Victorians did have its basis in a religious revival, the famous Wesleyan revival of the 18th century. I think great moral reformations very often do come from religion, but they may have other sources as well. I think that there's a large body of secular, secularists one might say, in America today who feel the need for something like a moral reformation.
LAMB: Speaking of religion, you have a whole chapter about being a Jew.
HIMMELFARB: Oh, yes, "The Jew as Victorian."
LAMB: Why did you feel the need to write that?
HIMMELFARB: That's a fascinating episode in intellectual history. The Jews come in, again, from Russia, from Poland, in the 1880s in England, in rather large numbers; and they form a rather well -- defined immigrant community in east London, which is the poorest part of London. Beatrice Webb, whom we spoke of before, this woman, this socialist who's also doing research in all kinds of subjects at the time_she's a great social researcher_decides to look at this Jewish community, and she finds that they are the typical VIctorians. They have all of the family values, they have the desire for self -- betterment, they have the kind of self -- discipline, and all of this somehow she finds is related to their religion, that they have a this -- worldly religion which puts an enormous emphasis upon moral behavior as well as the performance of one's religious duties. She finds this combination makes them a very powerful force and makes them very different from the other residents of east London, who tend to be more often drunk, who tend not to have the same desire for improvement, who tend not to be quite so devoted to their families, who tend to drink more and so on. So it is very curious to find that this group of people who can barely speak English at this point are being defined as pure Victorians, so to speak. They have, in other words, the Victorian ethic because that is so intimately related to the Judaic ethic.
LAMB: When you talk about her you talk about the Fabians. Who were they?
HIMMELFARB: The Fabians were the socialists, this particular group of socialists whom the Webbs were identified with. The Webbs were in fact the leaders of this Fabian group.
HIMMELFARB: There are a lot of references to Aristotle and Plato and Tennyson, jumping way ahead. What about Oscar Wilde?
HIMMELFARB: I do talk about Oscar Wilde, and I think its the penultimate chapter, which I call "The New Women and the New Men." This is the fin de siecle. We are now at the very tail end of the Victorian period, and there is among a very small group of people_and this, I think, should be emphasized; this does not apply to Victorian society in general_this is a very small group of people who are very consciously, very deliberately rebelling against the Victorian ethos, and they are truly throwing off the shackles insofar as they can. The new women_and this was a term that was used at the time_the term appears here in novelists; there are "new women" novels that are appearing at this time. This is the first time when marriage as an institution is being challenged by the women, and they write novels about this and so on, and some of them act it out in their lives with disastrous consequences. It's interesting that even in the novels they always have disastrous consequences. The other interesting thing about these new women is that, while they are rebelling against marriage, they are not rebelling against monogamy. What they want is a monogamous relationship based upon free love but without the shackles, as they would say, of marriage.
LAMB: You said you spent a year in London in those early years. Where did you really capture the Victorian age in your own experience? How did you do it?
HIMMELFARB: I think I did it through books almost more than through_the London experience was enormously helpful, obviously, but long before that I had simply been immersed in this literature, and I had been reading the Victorian novels, not only George Eliot but Trollope and Thackeray, you know, just all of them, and that sense of a society does communicate itself to you.
LAMB: What would Queen Victoria say if she were watching us today?
HIMMELFARB: I think she might even enjoy this media. I think she might enjoy this kind of thing. She was very much a public woman. I think she wouldn't have minded voicing her opinions publicly in this kind of format. I think you would have found her a great, great subject for interview.
LAMB: Do you have any idea where the little graphic on the cover of your book comes from?
HIMMELFARB: No, I don't. The Knopf people came up with that. I had actually proposed something quite different which is wonderful, which I still have at home, but which turned out to be just too difficult for them to work into the cover of the book, and that was a wonderful etching of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria playing on the floor with their children. There you had the wonderful regal background, and there you had the prince and the queen on the floor playing with their multitude of children. I proposed that for the cover, but, as I say, the production department found it too difficult to deal with.
LAMB: Here's what the cover of the book looks like. It's called The De -- Moralization of Society, and our guest has been Gertrude Himmelfarb. Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.