The New History & its Critics: A Look at Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Complaint

The New History & its Critics: A Look at Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Complaint

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s engaging, censorious collection of essays brings to mind how little the neoconservatives have affected American historical writing.* Surely no one could have predicted this failure, given both the resources at the neocons’ command and history’s notorious exposure to shifting political winds. Recent conservatizing trends have certainly touched historical scholarship in other Western democracies. Yet in the United States, it has fallen to economists, philosophers, and political scientists to fashion an academically plausible neoconservativism. Among popular and academic historians alike, liberals, radicals, and old-line conservatives—not the reborn neocons —have produced the most influ- ential and widely read work of the last fifteen years. After eight years of Reagan, the most conspicuous neoconservative historical genre remains the tub-thumping diatribes in Commentary, the New Criterion, and the American Scholar.’

Himmelfarb’s writings are a cut above these. An important intellectual historian of Victorian Britain, Himmelfarb has at least contributed, in The Idea of Poverty (1984), an ambitious, if tendentious piece of scholarship about the English Industrial Revolution. And these essays—a series of assaults on the so-called “new history” — stand as monuments of reasoned criticism compared with the sputtering of professors like Norman Cantor.

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