Yet Eliot herself was passionately committed to that novel, having prepared herself for it by an extraordinary feat of scholarly research in five languages (including Hebrew), exploring the ancient, medieval, and modern sources of Jewish history. Three years later, to reenforce that commitment, she wrote an essay, the very last of her writing, reaffirming the heritage of the Jewish “nation” and the desirability of a Jewish state – this well before the founders of Zionism had conceived of that mission.
Why did this Victorian novelist, born a Christian and an early convert to agnosticism, write a book so respectful of Judaism and so prescient about Zionism? And why at a time when there were no pogroms or persecutions to provoke her? What was the general conception of the “Jewish question,” and how did Eliot reinterpret that “question,” for her time as well as ours?
Gertrude Himmelfarb, a leading Victorian scholar, has undertaken to unravel the mysteries of Daniel Deronda. And the mysteries of Eliot herself: a novelist who deliberately wrote a book she knew would bewilder many of her readers, a distinguished woman who opposed the enfranchisement of women, a moralist who flouted the most venerable of marital conventions – above all, the author of a novel that is still an inspiration or provocation to readers and critics alike.
Contrasting the Enlightenments in the three nations, Himmelfarb demonstrates the primacy and wisdom of the British, exemplified in such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, as well as the unique and enduring contributions of the American Founders. It is their Enlightenments, she argues, that created a social ethic–humane, compassionate, and realistic–that still resonates strongly today, in America perhaps even more than in Europe.
The Roads to Modernity is a remarkable and illuminating contribution to the history of ideas.
In clear and vigorous prose, Himmelfarb argues that while the dominant culture pervades journalism, academia, television, and film, a "dissident culture" continues to promote the values of family, a civil society, sexual morality, privacy, and patriotism. The clash between these two cultures affects all areas of American society.
Despite her forceful critique, Himmelfarb sees encouraging signs for the future of American culture. She explores the place of religion, family, and the law in American life and proposes democratic remedies for the nation's moral and cultural diseases. Though there are many legitimate grievances against government, she contends, our citizenry cannot afford to delegitimize it. And she concludes that it is a tribute to Americans that, without serious social strife, we remain one nation even as we are divided into two cultures.
One Nation, Two Cultures is a stimulating work, one sure to provoke lively discussion and controversy.
From the Hardcover edition.
There is a poetic justice – or historic justice – in the fact that England, the first country to expel the Jews in medieval times, has produced the richest literature of philosemitism in modern times.
From Cromwell supporting the readmission of the Jews in the 17th century, to Macaulay arguing for the admission of Jews as Members of Parliament in the 19th century, to Churchill urging the recognition of the state of Israel in the 20th, some of England's most eminent writers and statesmen have paid tribute to Jews and Judaism. Their speeches and writing are powerfully resonant today. As are novels by Walter Scott, Disraeli, and George Eliot, which anticipate Zionism well before the emergence of that movement and look forward to the state of Israel, not as a refuge for the persecuted, but as a "homeland" rooted in Jewish history.
A recent history of antisemitism in England regretfully observes that English philosemitism is "a past glory." This book may recall England – and not only England – to that past glory and inspire other countries to emulate it. It may also reaffirm Jews in their own faith and aspirations.
From the Trade Paperback edition.