Russell Kirk 1918–-1994
American historian, social critic, short story writer, novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and journalist.
Kirk was one of the principal founders of modern American conservatism and the major voice of its most culturally minded, traditionalist wing. His doctoral thesis, The Conservative Mind, was acknowledged on its publication in 1953 as garnering for American conservatives the intellectual patrimony and respectability they had to that point lacked. Over the next four decades Kirk wrote more than thirty books, thousands of essays, and dozens of short stories broadly concerned with reviving Americans' understanding of the critical role moral habits play in maintaining a good life for the individual and society. His work spanned the realms of intellectual history, politics, constitutional law, journalism, and horror fiction. He played a leading role in several conservative journals of opinion, including William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review, and tirelessly pursued travels on the lecture and debating circuit. But it was as a social critic, analyzing and at times mocking American materialism and the drive for economic equality, that he most excelled in the eyes of critics and his conservative followers.
Russell Amos Kirk was born on October 19, 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan. He graduated from Michigan State College in 1940 and received a Master's Degree from Duke University in 1941. After serving in the military during World War II, he completed his graduate work at St. Andrews University in Scotland, receiving his Doctorate in 1952. Kirk's doctoral thesis was published as The Conservative Mind (1953). The book was an instant success. It was praised by critics from across the political spectrum in such magazines as Time and The New York Times Book Review and helped bring together political and literary figures as diverse as Southern Agrarians, libertarians, Cold Warriors, and orthodox Catholics to form the post-war American conservative movement. The success of his first book enabled Kirk to leave his only permanent faculty appointment, at Michigan State College, to return to his family's ancestral property in rural Mecosta, Michigan, where he resided for the remainder of his life. From this isolated base Kirk traveled America and the world lecturing, debating, and writing. He was an early contributor to National Review, publishing a regular column on academic issues in its pages for over twenty-five years. He also published a syndicated newspaper column for thirteen years. In 1957 Kirk founded a scholarly journal, Modern Age, which survives to this day, as does The University Bookman, the scholarly review he founded in 1960 and edited until his death. Kirk also became well known as a writer of horror stories, which received positive reviews for their insights into human nature and people's fascination with the supernatural. But the bulk of Kirk's output was concerned with the need to recover the bases of ordered liberty. One of his best known works was The Roots of American Order (1974), in which Kirk traced the habits and customs necessary for liberty back through England to Rome and Israel. Kirk's work garnered him numerous awards in the realm of fiction, history, and politics, perhaps the most prestigious being the Presidential Citizen's Medal bestowed on him by Ronald Reagan in 1989. Kirk died on April 29, 1994.
Kirk's master's thesis, an intellectual biography of early American congressman and Southern conservative John Randolph, Randolph of Roanoke, was published in 1951. His second and to many his most important work was The Conservative Mind. This book traced American conservatism's intellectual lineage through American humanists like Irving Babbitt and nineteenth-century opponents of unlimited mass democracy such as Alexis de Tocqueville to the progenitor of modern conservatism, British statesman, philosopher, and critic of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke. The next year, in 1954, he produced A Program for Conservatives, a book that eschewed political platforms in favor of explaining the need for community and historical continuity. Two years later, in Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956), Kirk brought together essays of social criticism pillorying what he saw as the shallow materialism of American culture. In 1961 Kirk published his first novel, Old House of Fear, a Gothic tale of suspense exploring the role of myth in contemporary life. This novel met with great popular and critical success, as did Kirk's later novels and short stories. The novels are A Creature of the Twilight (1966), an adventure tale set in Northern Africa and mocking ideological meddling in the former European colonies, and Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979), a horror story bringing together images of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Kirk's short stories were brought together in three collections, The Surly Sullen Bell (1962), The Princess of All Lands (1979), and Watchers at the Strait Gate (1984). They share a concern to use images of supernatural beings and events to show the individual's role in his own salvation or damnation. Kirk's fiction was important to his view of himself as a writer seeking to reawaken the moral imagination, by which he meant an attention to ethical realities beyond our individual experience. But the bulk of Kirk's writings continued to reside in the realm of history, politics, education, and cultural criticism. He returned to intellectual biography in his Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1967). That same year his The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (written with James McClellan) portrayed Taft as an exemplar of imaginative politics aimed at reviving Americans' moral habits. Two years later his Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969) brought together essays on literature, economics, and social dysfunction, emphasizing Americans' failure to keep vital the ties of local community and common morality. In 1971 Kirk published Eliot and His Age, a work which demonstrates Kirk's ability to discern the interior meanings of literary as well as political and philosophical works. A highlight of Kirk's career came with publication in 1974 of The Roots of American Order, a book which has been used by various conservative groups as a primer on America's “unwritten constitution” of moral habits supporting the nation's political structure. Later in life Kirk published fewer sustained works, concentrating on producing essays on various political and cultural topics. In 1990 he published The Conservative Constitution, a collection arguing that the constitution must be interpreted in light of the American people's cultural and historical roots. In addition, Kirk delivered a series of lectures at the conservative Heritage Foundation, many of which were published in the volume The Politics of Prudence (1993).
Kirk held a peculiar position within the American conservative movement and within American literary life in general. The Conservative Mind, published at the beginning of his career, was generally acknowledged as an important contribution to intellectual history and a powerful force in shaping political debate in the post-World War II United States. His fictional works, occasionally criticized on account of the author's politics, nonetheless received generally favorable reviews as well as significant popular acclaim. But Kirk's role as cultural critic and spokesman for those conservatives most attached to tradition and local autonomy garnered him significant criticism, including from powerful figures within the conservative movement. What is more, Kirk's public influence was limited because he openly opposed wholesale attempts to export the American system of government and economics. Kirk's persistent criticism of what he deemed Americans' rampant materialism, along with his habit of sometimes writing in an archaic style reminiscent of nineteenth-century Scottish prose, led some of his opponents (and even some allies within the conservative movement) to dismiss him as an antiquarian. Nonetheless, his cultural criticism continues to receive significant attention because of the central role it plays in conservative thinking about the American tradition, its roots, and the forces that continue to influence it.
Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought (biography) 1951; revised as John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics with Speeches and Letters, 1978
The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (nonfiction) 1953; revised as The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, 1960
A Program for Conservatives (nonfiction) 1954; revised as Prospects for Conservatives, 1956
Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (essay) 1955
Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (essays) 1956
The American Cause (nonfiction) 1957
Old House of Fear (novel) 1961
The Surly Sullen Bell: Ten Stories and Sketches, Uncanny or Uncomfortable, with a Note on the Ghostly Tale (short stories) 1962
Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career (essays) 1963
The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics (essays) 1965
A Creature of the Twilight: His Memorials (novel) 1966
Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (biography) 1967
The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft [with James McClellan] (philosophy) 1967
Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics...
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SOURCE: Chalmers, Gordon Keith. “Goodwill Is Not Enough.” New York Times Book Review (17 May 1953): 7, 28.
[In the following review, Chalmers attests Kirk's The Conservative Mind as an effective aid to understanding and countering Soviet intentions during the Cold War.]
The author of The Conservative Mind is as relentless as his enemies, Karl Marx and Harold Laski, considerably more temperate and scholarly, and in passages of this very readable book, brilliant and even eloquent. All American thought, whether religious, political, literary, or ethical, should now be preoccupied with the recent intellectual blunder of this learned nation: the mistake in judging the nature and intentions of the present Russian Government. This mistake was made so consistently for two decades that when our politicians in the Nineteen Forties had to decide whether and how to deal with the Russians, they went wrong simply because they had learned too well the lesson taught by the most vocal and most heeded of the scholars. The seeds of the intellectual mistake lie deep—fully fifty years deep, perhaps a round hundred. Russell Kirk's able and timely book examines the values and ethical illusions which produced the blunder.
Against the Hegel-Marx-Laski axis he analyzes and describes the affirmative tradition of Burke, de Tocqueville and Irving Babbitt. This is not a book about anti-communism,...
(The entire section is 868 words.)
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SOURCE: Gay, Peter. Review of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, by Russell Kirk. Political Science Quarterly 68, no. 4 (December 1953): 586-88.
[In the following review, Gay defends liberal politics as humane while attacking Kirk's brand of conservatism as flawed ideology.]
When Lionel Trilling published The Liberal Imagination in 1950 he argued that American conservatism had no philosophy. “The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse,” he wrote, “do not … express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” In this comprehensive survey of the Anglo-American conservative tradition since the French Revolution Mr. Kirk enters a vigorous dissent and attempts to show, instead, that “conservative ideas are struggling toward ascendancy in the United States” (p. 428).
Mr. Kirk appropriately begins his history [The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana] with Burke, to whom he devotes the longest chapter in the book. His narrative continues with briefer glimpses at a familiar cast of characters: John Adams, Coleridge, Randolph, Calhoun, Tocqueville, Disraeli, Henry Adams, and a small assortment of twentieth-century figures. While the account is largely free from the vituperation to which liberals have had to become accustomed in recent years, the analysis is often marred by Mr....
(The entire section is 897 words.)
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SOURCE: Ransom, John Crowe. “Empirics in Politics.” In Poems and Essays, pp. 135-45. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1953, Ransom categorizes Kirk as a religious humanist before finding that Kirk's and other conservatives' attitudes are impractical for the second half of the twentieth century.]
About thirty political theorists figure in Mr. Kirk's big book [The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana]. He picked them as the most distinguished examples of the conservative mind, and it was to be expected that they would be very unequal in the degrees of their distinction. Mr. Kirk himself is no common conservative, but a religious humanist, and it seems that he would like to recover to conservatism the whole body of doctrine as Burke delivered it to the moderns. Perhaps half of these figures are equipped almost as he would have them; the number is surprising. Practically all are British or American. For the fact must be as Mr. Kirk states it: among all the nations the English-speaking ones have conserved their polities the best, and it is their statesmen who should know how this is done. Exceptional in the series are only Tocqueville the Frenchman, who made himself conversant with both these polities, and was of a congenial temperament; and Spanish Santayana, who lived many years at Cambridge, Massachusetts, without coming any nearer to liking...
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SOURCE: Cheney, Brainard. “The Conservative Course by Celestial Navigation.” Sewanee Review 62, no. 1 (winter 1954): 151-59.
[In the following review, Cheney reviews The Conservative Mind and takes serious issue with arguments advanced by John Crowe Ransom in his own review of the work published a few months earlier in The Kenyon Review.]
As our renowned ship, Materialism, nears the Rock of atomic explosion and the Suck of Russian sovietization, athwart the passage to Utopia, all aboard are appalled. In the choppy waters, her timbers creak with growing stress. There are noisy and frightened exclamations among the passengers. The men on the bridge look grim and belligerent in their effort to look confident. There is a hasty and confused search going on in the chart room.
Any one coming forward with a new course for evading the perils of our Scylla and Charybdis at this hour risks the charge of temerity, especially when his map has the look of a Mercator rather than a Lambert or polar projection. Mr. Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, nevertheless, has done something of the sort—although he identifies lodestars, rather than the buoys and reefs one would expect to find marked for so close a passage.
At the outset, Mr. Kirk sets forth his compass readings in six canons of conservatism: (1) belief that a divine intent rules society as well as...
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SOURCE: Scott-Moncrieff, George. “Eliot Remebered.” Sewanee Review 80, no. 4 (fall 1972): 632-38.
[In the following review of Kirk's Eliot and His Age, Scott-Moncrieff—a longtime friend of Kirk—favorably assesses the work's scholarly intent and accomplishment.]
Dr. Kirk might almost have called this notable tribute [Eliot and His Age] to the thought of T. S. Eliot “Eliot contra His Age”. He sees Eliot as standing in opposition to the general tide of literary thinking of his day with its gravitation towards political rather than moral effort and its tendency towards liberal in preference to conservative principle.
When Prufrock and The Waste Land first appeared they shocked those who considered themselves conservative but who were in fact often merely conventional in their judgments, and tightly bound by convention. It was the neoterists, the young in quest of revolution, who applauded and called for more. I remember when I was very young and was first taken to meet Eliot by my father's former student from New Zealand, whom we knew as Mr. George but who wrote under the name Robert Sencourt. I told Eliot that my friends commonly regarded him as a satirist, but I did not think he was, and I was gratified that Eliot smiled and nodded approvingly. It was not scorn at man's inadequacy with which Sweeney, Burbank, Bleistein, the Princess Volupine,...
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SOURCE: Zoll, Donald Atwell. “The Social Thought of Russell Kirk.” Political Science Reviewer 2 (fall 1972): 112-36.
[In the following essay, Zoll presents an overview of Kirk's conservative writings, concluding that Kirk is a neo-Platonist who balances his Roman Catholic faith with conservative social beliefs.]
It is not merely an obvious affection for Edmund Burke that links Russell Kirk with the eighteenth century. His emergence in the arena of contemporary letters reveals the transmigration of an eighteenth century spirit, the revival of the literary grace and versatility of the century of the high baroque. He personifies the still lively arete of a more leisurely age, the urbane versatility of the literati of the era of Addison and Steel, Swift, Pope, Chesterfield, Johnson and Burke.
Such diverse interests and talents are manifest in the character and range of Kirk's works. These volumes exhibit Kirk in three major roles: (a) the historian of ideas; (b) the essayist and social critic; (c) the practitioner of belles lettres. Indeed, his imposing shelf of book-length works can be rather neatly divided in accordance with the above categories. In the first group should be placed biographical and analytical studies of Burke, Randolph of Roanoke, Robert Taft and T. S. Eliot, along with The Conservative Mind.
In the second category are such works...
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SOURCE: Robson, W. W. “The Unread Eliot.” Partisan Review 40, no. 1 (winter 1973): 136-41.
[In the following review, Robson examines the shared conservative philosophies of T. S. Eliot and Kirk, comparing it with several other contemporary books on Eliot, finding much to commend in Kirk but finding his explications and paraphrases of the Eliot's poems “long-winded and bluff and his breezy manner somewhat incongruous,” among other flaws.]
There is no sign at present, at any rate in Great Britain, that T. S. Eliot's fame as a poet is likely to suffer the fate of Abraham Cowley's. It is true that the present generation of poets shows no trace of his influence; but even in his heyday no good poet seems to have been able to assimilate much from Eliot. It is also true that in the literary world in general there is still an intransigent minority—vocal again recently when the original drafts of The Waste Land were published—which dismisses his poetry as sterile, over-ingenious, concocted from other people's poetry, and lacking in true inspiration. But these dissenting voices have been heard ever since Eliot's verse became widely known, and I suspect that they always will be; after all, the similar debate on whether Pope was really a poet shows no tendency to die out after more than two centuries. It would appear that, for good or ill, Eliot's poetry is the kind of poetry that provokes that...
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SOURCE: East, John P. “Russell Kirk as a Political Theorist.” Modern Age 28, no. 1 (winter 1984): 33-44.
[In the following essay, East examines the manner in which matters of the spirit, specifically Christian humanism, inform Kirk's political theory.]
Born on October 19, 1918, in Plymouth, Michigan, the son of Russell and Marjorie Kirk, Russell Amos Kirk was destined to become the principal intellectual founder of the American conservative movement in the post-World War II era. Graduating from Michigan State College (now University) in 1940, he received his Master's degree from Duke University in 1941. A doctoral degree was conferred upon him by Saint Andrews University, Scotland, in 1952. He married Annette Courtemanche in 1964, and they are the parents of four daughters. The family resides on the Kirk ancestral property in Mecosta, Michigan, known as Piety Hill.
Kirk was the founding editor of Modern Age, which he edited from 1957 until 1959. In 1960 he founded and has since edited The University Bookman. From 1955 to 1980 he wrote the column “From the Academy” for National Review. Kirk has been an extraordinarily prolific writer of articles and books.1 His classic work, The Conservative Mind (1953), described by publisher Henry Regnery as “one of the most influential books of the post-war period,” has emerged as the definitive work...
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SOURCE: Herron, Don. “Russell Kirk: Ghost Master of Mecosta.” In Discovering Modern Horror Fiction, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, pp. 21-47. Mercer Island: Starmont House, 1986.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Herron examines the elements of Gothic horror in Kirk's fiction, noting Kirk's skill at grappling with serious themes in both his fiction and nonfiction.]
“For the sake of his art, the author of ghostly narrations ought never to enjoy freedom from fear … so the ‘invisible prince,’ Sheridan Le Fanu, archetype of ghost-story writers, is believed to have died literally of fright. He knew that his creations were not his creations merely, but glimpses of the abyss.”
So wrote Russell Kirk in his essay “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” whose knell brings to an end his first collection of supernatural tales, The Surly Sullen Bell (1962). In the intervening two decades, Kirk, an author haunted by his characters, has emerged as the premiere writer of classical ghost stories in America.
Yet his renown in the supernatural arena is possibly the least of Kirk's fame. With the publication of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana in 1953 Kirk was hailed as a major conservative political thinker and writer, and soon became a prominent figure among the New Conservatives. His...
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SOURCE: Frohnen, Bruce. “Has Conservatism Lost Its Mind?: The Half-Remembered Legacy of Russell Kirk.” Policy Review, no. 67 (winter 1994): 62-66.
[In the following essay, Frohnen reexamines what Kirk meant by “conservatism” and applies his conclusion to the economic policies and events of the 1990s, especially as they were affected by the “conservatives” of the post-Reagan era.]
It's been 40 years and seven editions since the first publication of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. As one observer recently put it, Mr. Kirk “is like ol' man river: he just keeps rollin' along.” And so does his work. The Conservative Mind still is widely considered the single most influential book for modern conservatism. But are the leading ideas and policy proposals of today's conservative movement truly conservative in the sense in which Mr. Kirk used the term? The answer is both yes and no.
This question is difficult to address because Mr. Kirk produced no schematic blueprint for “the good society.” As he pointed out, “Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.”
Nor do Mr. Kirk's conservatives attempt to construct any one, specific form of government. Instead they seek to maintain what Mr. Kirk called the “permanent...
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SOURCE: Buckley, William F., Jr. “Russell Kirk, RIP.” National Review 46, no. 10 (30 May 1994): 19-20.
[In the following essay, Buckley laments the passing of his friend and longtime National Review columnist, relating some personal anecdotes and saluting Kirk's accomplishment as a writer.]
In the next issue of National Review we will pay appropriate tribute to a figure whose death on April 29 left the conservative community desolate. He was omnipresent, coming at us from every direction. He wrote a seminal book and, for many years, a syndicated column. He lectured, gave speeches, wrote ghost stories and histories, and edited anthologies. Through it all he maintained a special presence as ever so faintly bohemian, the orthodox husband of a beautiful wife, father of four daughters, obdurately professorial in demeanor, yet those who noticed never needed to wait too long before catching the wink, in what he said, and did.
Much of all this in the issue to come, so that here, we pause merely to remark his loss, reach out our hands to one another, expressing our shared grief.
Our own association with him—and I clutch in here to the personal mode—is older than the life of National Review. I had of course read his important book, but I had not met Russell Kirk. The publication of National Review was now anticipated, to begin about a year...
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SOURCE: Champ, Robert. “Russell Kirk's Fiction of Enchantment.” Intercollegiate Review 30, no. 1 (fall 1994): 39-42.
[In the following essay, Champ examines and praises Kirk's novels and short stories, tracing their origins and purposes.]
Long before I became aware of Russell Kirk as the author of The Conservative Mind, I knew him as a teller of deliciously scary ghost stories. Indeed, it was not until I had worked my way through Old House of Fear (1961), his first novel, and The Surly Sullen Bell (1962), his first short story collection, that I began to poke around to see if this author, who seemed to have so much more substance to him than other modern adherents of ghostly and Gothic tales, had produced anything in a more philosophical vein. I found, thank heavens, more than I bargained for and thereafter sought out his social and literary criticism with a will. Yet anyone who has shared with Kirk, as I continue to do, a taste for “variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful,” and who has an interest in the man himself, will find his or her way back to these fictions and to others Kirk produced over the years.
With the fiction of his time mired in the conventions of naturalism, by which we must mean finally the conventions of a fiction grounded in materialism, it is not surprising that Kirk was drawn early to genres so far removed from the...
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SOURCE: Henrie, Mark C. “Russell Kirk's Unfounded America.” Intercollegiate Review 30, no. 1 (fall 1994): 51-57.
[In the following essay, Henrie offers a ruminative examination of Kirk's intent and accomplishment as an historian, drawing primarily upon The Roots of American Order and America's British Culture.]
In the very first Federalist paper, Alexander Hamilton claimed that at stake in the process of American constitution-making was a matter of world-historical importance. He wrote that the outcome of the American experiment would determine “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”1 From this perspective, the new American republic would constitute not simply a new nation among others, but a novus ordo seclorum, “a new order for the ages”; for the first time, the characteristically modern project of controlling fate through human ingenuity and craft would have been achieved. Furthermore, because of the principles made to prevail in the American Constitution, this country would emerge as the first “universal nation,” a people bound not by blood, history, or divine election, but solely by political right. Indeed, the American people—as a people—would be a people without a past, a...
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SOURCE: Frum, David. “The Legacy of Russell Kirk.” New Criterion 13, no. 4 (December 1994): 10-16.
[In the following essay, Frum distinguishes Kirk as one of the great political voices of the 1950s and 1960s.]
Russell Kirk, who died this spring at his home in Mecosta, Michigan, at the age of seventy-five, has left behind an intellectual and literary achievement as huge as it is difficult to categorize. He was not exactly a political theorist, nor really a philosopher, certainly not a historian; and yet his work speaks profound truths about politics, philosophy, and history. An ardent enemy of Communism, he was barely more enthusiastic about the commercial civilization of America. An unrelenting critic of “King Numbers,” he championed a Goldwaterite conservatism that owed far more to the populism of Jefferson, Jackson, and Tom Paine than to the prescriptive politics of Edmund Burke and John Adams. A scourge of ideology and abstraction in politics, he determinedly refused to pay any attention to the circumstances and context in which the thinkers he studied had lived. He loved old cathedral towns and country fields, ancient mansions and Gothic universities; he hated cars, television, and shopping malls. For all his patriotism, one has to wonder how comfortable he ever really felt in late-twentieth-century America. “Against the lust for change,” Kirk wrote of his admired John Randolph, “[he]...
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SOURCE: Genovese, Eugene D. “Captain Kirk.” New Republic 213, no. 24 (11 December 1995): 35-38.
[In the following review, Genovese favorably reviews Kirk's memoir, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict.]
When Russell Kirk died last year at the age of 76, America lost one of its most respected intellectuals and strongest conservative voices. Just before he died, Kirk completed his memoirs. They provide a delightful account of his extraordinary and idiosyncratic life, and a valuable introduction to his voluminous writings—essays, reviews and thirty books, on John Randolph of Roanoke, Edmund Burke, T. S. Eliot, the Constitution, political theory and much else.
Kirk's reputation was launched in 1953 with the appearance of The Conservative Mind, which has gone through edition after edition and continues to serve the conservative movement as an exposition of principles and a history of ideas. Kirk conceived The Conservative Mind as “a lesson in normative Politics,” which would “open eyes to a central concept of politics, not born yesterday, by which the claims of freedom and the claims of order may be kept in healthy tension, avoiding extremes.” He was especially influenced by Burke, who provided a kind of baseline for the discussion of conservative principles, and a wide array of British and American conservative thinkers....
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SOURCE: Tonsor, Stephen J. “Russell Kirk: 1918-1994.” Modern Age 37, no. 2 (winter 1995): 99-101.
[In the following essay, Tonsor credits The Conservative Mind with igniting and legitimizing contemporary conservatism.]
New eras, whether in religion, science, or politics, usually begin with a book. When The Conservative Mind was published by Regnery in the spring of 1953 few suspected the book was the harbinger of the most important political changes of the twentieth century. Its author, Russell Kirk, was an unknown assistant professor at a Midwestern cow college whose president had been a professor of poultry husbandry. Providence has a strong sense of irony.
The previous summer Henry Regnery, while on vacation with his family at a farm he owned in West Virginia, read the impeccably prepared manuscript. Regnery knew immediately “that this was an important and perhaps a great book. …” The manuscript had been found—perhaps discovered is the better word—by Sidney Gair, who had been an old-fashioned bookman with a large Eastern publisher. It is a matter of interest that it is unlikely today that any bookman, hawking texts from campus to campus, would be able to distinguish Edmund Burke from Karl Marx.
The book appeared at an opportune, a providential, moment. The crack in the picture window of modern liberalism had been steadily widening....
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SOURCE: Bliese, John R. E. “Richard M. Weaver, Russell Kirk, and the Environment.” Modern Age 38, no. 2 (winter 1996): 148-58.
[In the following essay, Bliese depicts Kirk as a conservationist and compares him with other conservative figures for whom care for the environment figures prominently, such as Richard M. Weaver and Wendell Berry.]
Over the last thirty years or so, environmental and natural resource issues have been prominent in our public policy debates. During that time, many of these problems have become ever more compelling. We now realize that by our actions we are able not only to pollute our neighborhoods, but also to affect adversely the ecology of the entire planet.
Yet conservatives have largely ignored environmental issues. When conservative politicians and writers have taken part in the public debates, it has usually been merely to oppose measures to reduce pollution and to oppose protecting our natural resources. This is an unfortunate state of affairs. It is also rather surprising that traditionalist conservatives have not been at the forefront of the debate, calling public attention to the degradation of our environment and proposing solutions.1
If we go back to the “Founding Fathers” of American traditionalist conservatism, we will find a solid philosophical basis that would lead conservatives to be environmentalists. Here, I...
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SOURCE: Regnery, Henry. “Russell Kirk: A Life Worth Living.” Modern Age 38, no. 3 (summer 1996): 211-17.
[In the following essay, Regnery reminisces about the events that contributed to Kirk's political, moral, and social views.]
The publication of Russell Kirk's memoirs, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, marks a distinguished and fitting conclusion to a literary career that began in 1953 with the appearance of The Conservative Mind. The Conservative Mind was not Kirk's first book, but it was the book that launched his literary career and established his position as a major author. It provided a masterful account of traditional thought and lasting values. The Sword of Imagination, which was published posthumously and, like The Education of Henry Adams is written in the third person, provides us with an illuminating and fascinating account of the author's years as an active participant in the intellectual life of his time.
A singular man, Kirk was reserved, deferential, even shy, but he was a warrior for what he thought and believed. He seemed to have sprung fully armed into the arena of conflicting ideas. Possessed of a fine mind, he had achieved a superb education, mostly through his own efforts; he wrote in a clear, compelling style, enriched by his own learning and remarkable memory; and had seemingly...
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SOURCE: Russello, Gerald J. “The Jurisprudence of Russell Kirk.” Modern Age 38, no. 4 (fall 1996): 354-63.
[In the following essay, Russello examines Kirk's theories of jurisprudence.]
“Juris praecepta sunt haec, honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere.”1
The works of Russell Kirk contain a number of reflections on the place of law in society and its philosophical and cultural bases. Neither a legal philosopher nor a practical politician, Kirk rarely touched in any detail on particular legal issues or concentrated in any systematic way on the structure of legal institutions, with the partial exception of legal education. He was, however, concerned with discerning the twin bases of moral conduct. Kirk loosely grouped one under the term natural law, which provides a guide to our actions, and the other he called justice, which evidences a proper regard for what is rightly due to others.
Resting beneath these concerns is the question of order, in Kirk's thought a question logically prior to any question of law. Order gives rise to the laws, although a well-ordered state includes more than the law. Likewise, a just state will have just laws. Laws alone, even if “just” in an abstract sense, will not create a just society—a lesson learned all too well by any number of people who have suffered...
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SOURCE: Attarian, John. “Russell Kirk's Political Economy.” Modern Age 40, no. 1 (winter 1998): 87-97.
[In the following essay, Attarian discusses Kirk's economic theories and examines the influence of Kirk's Christian faith upon those theories.]
As American conservatism sifts its soul regarding political economy, scrutiny of the economic thought of Dr. Russell Kirk, who more than anyone else gave post-war conservatism coherence and intellectual respectability, is appropriate and timely. Kirk's economics, and its treatment by modern conservatives, afford an invaluable perspective on this controversy.
Kirk believed that economics has been overstressed. “The true contest in our time is not between economies merely, but between opposing concepts of human nature.”1 Are we embodied souls created by a transcendent God, whose purpose it is to struggle upward toward Heaven? Or are we creatures of matter, rational animals, pleasure-seeking and pain-shunning, with utility maximization as our life's goal? Kirk affirmed the former; economic utopians of Left and Right, the latter.
Underlying this is a metaphysical conflict: between belief in a transcendent reality and the order it implies, and denial of that reality and belief that only matter matters. Like his mentor Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk concluded that the economic problem is ultimately a religious...
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SOURCE: Newman, R. Andrew. “Pilgrimages and Easter Destinations in the Ghostly Tales of Russell Kirk.” Modern Age 40, no. 3 (summer 1998): 314-18.
[In the following essay, Newman examines the theme of Christian pilgrimage as it appears in Kirk's ghostly fiction.]
For Russell Kirk ghost stories were not mere exercises in gore or terror without purpose. A gulag-and-gas-chamber-infested twentieth century provides demonic fright enough. With scary stories he sought to reawaken a sense of a greater reality, of a world that touches the physical, in an age smothered by materialism and the decay of traditional religion—and to partake in a bit of eerie fun as well. As for ghosts, Kirk thought them very real and claimed ghostly folk lived right alongside his family at Piety Hill, his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan. “Have I ever seen a ghost?” the conservative philosopher and historian asked. “Why, I am one, and so are you—a geist, a spirit, in a mortal envelope.”1
The traditional religious imagery—demons, heaven, purgatory—that animates his work is neither window dressing nor a useful convention around which to stretch a yarn. “I venture to suggest that the more orthodox is a writer's theology,” he maintained, “the more convincing, as symbols and allegories, his uncanny tales will be.” The modern tale that “isolates itself from this authority drifts...
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SOURCE: Person, James E., Jr. “Horror and Redemption: Kirk's Short Stories and Lord of the Hollow Dark” and “Novels Gothic to Baroque: Old House of Fear and A Creature of the Twilight.” In Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, pp. 109-35, 136-50. Lanham: Madison Books, 1999.
[In the following essays, Person discusses Kirk's short stories and novels, tracing the extent and manner in which they are permeated with the author's moral vision and elements of Christian faith.]
The locale was to me … just the sort of mindless, mundane place where the horrors of a Hitchcock or a Polanski might have been inspired. There was horror in the very vegetation spreading under the hazy sun—an everyday buzz of nothing that bred the violent and bizarre. Those old woods, fields, shacks, sparse people—all ticking and withering in the sun—their stories clamped my heart in cold, calloused fingers.
—from “Two Stories from Lenoir County,” by Thomas N. Walters …
… for history is a pattern Of timeless moments.
—from “Little Gidding,” by T. S. Eliot
“How amazingly versatile and prolific you are. Now you have been writing what I should have least suspected of you—ghost stories!” wrote Eliot to Kirk in...
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Brown, Charles C. Russell Kirk: A Bibliography. Mount Pleasant: Central Michigan University, Clarke Historical Library, 1981, 172 p.
Comprehensive, book-length bibliography of Kirk's books, essays, novels, and other writings, which also includes a partial listing of works about Kirk.
Filler, Louis. “‘The Wizard of Mecosta’: Russell Kirk of Michigan.” Michigan History 63, No. 5 (September-October 1979): 12-18.
Accurate and insightful biographical essay on Kirk's life and accomplishments.
Person, James E., Jr. “Memory and the Continuum of Time: Russell Kirk's Life.” In Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, pp. 1-29. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1999.
Provides an overview of Kirk's life within the context of an intellectual biography. Person also identifies and elucidates four key terms and concepts he deems essential to understanding Kirk's works: the permanent things, the moral imagination, the illative sense, and the contract of eternal society.
Frohnen, Bruce “The Quest for Virtue.” In Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville, pp. 176-204. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
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