The Masses Are De-Moralized. '(The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values', by Gertrude Himmelfarb)

By West, Woody | Insight on the News, March 6, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Masses Are De-Moralized. '(The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values', by Gertrude Himmelfarb)


West, Woody, Insight on the News


To encounter the label "Victorian" in most political or literary contexts these days is to encounter a tone derisive or contemptuous. In conventional imagery, the Victorians were imperialist and paternalistic, hierarchical and hypocritical, repressed and repressive, among a host of other qualities that are frowned on in this brave new postmodernist world.

In fact, the society of that era was remarkably humane, creative and disciplined - a circumstance that speaks, or should speak, pointedly to Americans, Indeed, in her new book, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf, 288 pp), Gertrude Himmelfarb employs the Archimedean lever of historical analysis to comment austutely on contemporary American culture.

It is "the condition" of society that demands attention, writes Himmelfarb, referring to Thomas Carlyle's Condition of England, written a century and a half ago. While his contemporaries debated economic conditions, Carlyle observed the "disposition" of the English - the beliefs, attitudes and habits that would dispose them either to a "wholesome composure, frugality and prosperity" or to an "acrid unrest, recklessness, gin-drinking and gradual ruin." Of primary importance to Carlyle, in other words, were the intangibles that underwrite social order and civic self-respect.

"Current statistics are not only more troubling than those a century ago," writes Himmelfarb. "They constitute a trend that bodes even worse for the future than for present." Where the Victorians "had the satisfaction of witnessing a significant improvement in their condition, we are confronting a considerable deterioration in ours."

Himmelfarb makes her case persuasively by comparing statistics on illegitimacy then and now. in the United States and England during the 19th century, illegitimacy, allowing for modest fluctuations, was in the single-digit range, decreasing toward the end of the century. Illegitimate births in this country have since increased drastically, now accounting for more than a fifth of all births, "fourteen times the 1920 figure and eleven times that of 1960. …

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