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True Minds

In response to:

Couples from the May 9, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher Ricks’s reply to Midge Decter’s letter was singularly disingenuous. Mr. Ricks is aware, I am sure, that what is at issue here is not the very fact of his having “identified the husband” of Gertrude Himmelfarb as Irving Kristol, but the use to which he had put this less than sensational bit of information.

It is one thing for Mr Ricks to wonder how so incisive an intellectual historian could write so “illconsidered” an essay on John Buchan. It is quite another to blame this alleged contradiction on Irving Kristol’s corrupting proximity. The query is legitimate if a bit naïve: highly intelligent people are not immune to lapses of judgment. The answer, as Midge Decter correctly says, is “beyond the pale.” An author who deserves as much intellectual respect as Mr. Ricks lavishes on The Victorian Minds, can be trusted to make her own errors….

Victor Erlich

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

Christopher Ricks replies:

I agree that it is not for me to have an opinion on whether proximity to Mr. Kristol is “corrupting”; unlike some of those who are angry with me, I have never been in proximity to him. But I am happy to accept the implicit assurances of Miss Himmelfarb’s friends that her political attitudes owe nothing whatsoever to Mr. Kristol. (Would that nobody’s political attitudes owed anything to him.) So I shall school myself to see as a mere coincidence the fact that Miss Himmelfarb’s worst essay happens to be the one which most coincides with Mr. Kristol’s attitudes, and that this essay (alone of all those in Victorian Minds) happened to be published in the journal of which Mr. Kristol was a founding editor. And I shall studiously ignore Miss Himmelfarb’s own explicit acknowledgment to Mr. Kristol of the “intellectual stimulation” which she says this book owes to him. I note that those who impugn my manners make no attempt to defend Miss Himmelfarb’s arguments on some matters more important than manners: anti-semitism and color prejudice. As to “beyond the pale,” I suspect that this mainly means “won’t be invited to our parties.” Geography will help me to bear this with equanimity. And since this is a political dispute, I’d point out that historically those who were beyond the pale showed themselves, in some important respects, less politically noxious than those who were within it.

I slightly regret this quavering furore, since it distracts attention from the praise which it seems that I “lavished” (Mr. Erlich sounds hard to please) on Miss Himmelfarb’s brilliant book. But I find some compensation in the discovery that to imply a book was influenced by the politics of Mr. Kristol is to cast a slur upon it. On that, at least, we can come together.

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