Gertrude Himmelfarb is a remarkable woman. Remarkable, first, because in some respects she is a pioneer. Born in 1922, she has always retained her own name, and has combined raising a family on both sides of the Atlantic with writing and editing (thus far) seventeen books. And while the direction of her intellectual life journey–from the far left to the activist right–is scarcely an unusual one, few women of her generation have adopted this route with anything like as much conviction, success and aplomb. She met her husband, Irving Kristol, at a Trotskyist political meeting in Brooklyn in the 1930s and wrote her master’s thesis on the French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. Since then, however, she has gone on to earn praise from Newt Gingrich, lecture in front of Margaret Thatcher and collaborate with Lynne Cheney.
As this suggests, Himmelfarb is not simply a historian. Since the 1980s, especially, she has been a conspicuous and sometimes pugnacious cultural critic and commentator on public affairs. How she views her role is suggested by a remark she once made about Lionel Trilling, a friend and an intellectual model. Trilling, she wrote in On Looking Into the Abyss (1994), “was able to resist the insidious ideological and political fashions of his time without the coarsening of mind that often comes with doing battle, and also without the timidity and equivocation that retreats from battle in an excess of fastidiousness.” This latter quality is emphatically not one of her own failings, at least not in the face of perceived enemies on the left within academia and outside it.
Thus when social history was still fashionable, she attacked its more extreme exponents for having a “valet-like conception” of the past that lent itself to “denigration of greatness and heroism.” When post-structural literary criticism was in vogue, she accused some of its better- known practitioners of convoluted thought and convoluted prose. And she has since taken on postmodernist historians, claiming that they deconstruct the “texts” of the past and the “texts” of previous historians so as to create a tabula rasa upon which to impose their own radical agendas: a strategy tantamount, as she sees it, to “a repudiation of the historical enterprise as it has been understood and practiced until very recently,” which she does not mean as a compliment.
These polemics have been combined with more academic writings of a distinctive and unusual type. Over and over again, Himmelfarb has chosen to focus on Britain’s past, especially on its intellectual history, with a view to commenting as well on America’s present. She adopts this tactic once more in The Roads to Modernity.
It is, according to her publishers, a “revisionist history” aiming–among other things–to wrest prime credit for the Enlightenment from France and its philosophes by demonstrating the massive contribution of eighteenth-century British thinkers. As Himmelfarb herself concedes, she is pushing at an open door. To be sure, Peter Gay’s highly influential masterwork The Enlightenment (1967) reinforced a pre-existing tendency to view this as a single, pre-eminently French phenomenon, but in recent decades much has changed. J.G.A. Pocock has wisely urged the abandonment of the definite article and an exploration instead of Enlightenments. Recognition that many nations were implicated in the movement in very different ways has been accompanied by the argument that–even in the same country–plural manifestations of Enlightenment could coexist. Thus, in Robert Darnton’s vivid reinterpretation, even in France it was never simply a case of Olympian figures like Voltaire or Diderot running the show; Grub Street was involved too: the aspiring, the failures, the hacks. This wider process of revision has helped make possible a radical and highly flattering reassessment of the British experience as a whole. The late Roy Porter made the case triumphantly in his Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000). “To speak of enlightenment in Britain,” he argued, “does not merely make sense; not to do so would be nonsense.”