De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values

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Gertrude Himmelfarb, like so many Americans, is appalled by crime, drug addiction, illiteracy, juvenile delinquency, illegitimacy and welfare dependency. The solution she proposes, in this follow-up to her much-praised On Looking into the Abyss, is as simple as it is radical - and has the further advantage of solid historical substantiation. We must look back on the Victorians with open minds; they must cease to irk us. And then, Himmelfarb hopes, we can begin to learn from them.

One of America's leading intellectual historians asserts modern Americans have much to learn from the Victorians. Himmelfarb shows that, while today we quarrel over highly subjective "values, " the Victorians believed wholeheartedly in "virtues": respectability, self-help, discipline. Himmelfarb's prescribes a deeper espousal of moral responsibility on the part of us all.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although Himmelfarb concedes that Victorian England was rife with class rigidity, discrimination and hypocrisy, she nevertheless believes Victorian society has much to teach us because it preserved a core of ``virtues'' such as hard work, self-reliance and deferral of gratification. The compartmentalization of the sexes into separate spheres of activity in that era was more flexible than is generally acknowledged, she argues, pointing to women's involvement in social work, education, government and philanthropy. Professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York, Himmelfarb draws on oral histories, memoirs, newspapers and the writings and personal behavior of William Gladstone, John Stuart Mill, Anthony Trollope, H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and others to bolster her arguments. Her challenging study urges liberals and conservatives to move beyond moral relativism in addressing such problems as crime, illiteracy, poverty, welfare and substance abuse. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at CUNY and the author of several works on Victorian England, including most recently Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (LJ 7/91), here contrasts the Victorian "virtues" of respectability, self-help, orderliness, cleanliness, and obedience with today's vague concept of "values." The author debunks the popular perception of Victorians as repressed and materialistic. Instead, according to Himmelfarb, their "manners and morals" created a society that emphasized a strong family life for all classes and gave rise to a prosperous economy and the early feminist and social service movements. Furthermore, the influence of these virtues caused the incidence of illegitimate births and violent crimes to drop significantly and remain low until the 1960s. This provocative and important book is recommended for all academic and large public libraries.-Kathryn Moore Crowe, Univ. of North Carolina Lib., Greensboro
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780255363594
  • Publisher: Institute of Economic Affairs
  • Publication date: 4/28/1995
  • Series: Choice in Welfare Series
  • Pages: 314

Table of Contents

Prologue: From Virtues to Values 3
I Manners and Morals 21
II Household Gods and Goddesses 53
III Feminism, Victorian Style 88
IV "The Mischievous Ambiguity of the Word Poor" 125
V "Gain All You Can.... Give All You Can" 143
VI The Jew as Victorian 170
VII The New Women and the New Men 188
Epilogue: A De-moralized Society 221
Postscript: The "New Victorians" and the Old 259
Notes 265
Index 309
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