Russell Kirk Essay - Critical Essays

Kirk, Russell


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 (essays) 1969

Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (criticism) 1971

The Roots of American Order (nonfiction) 1974

Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (essays) 1978

Lord of the Hollow Dark (novel) 1979

The Princess of All Lands (short stories) 1979

Reclaiming a Patrimony (lectures) 1982

Watchers at the Strait Gate (short stories) 1984

The Conservative Constitution (essays) 1990; revised as Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution, 1997

The Politics of Prudence (lectures) 1993

The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (memoir) 1995

Redeeming the Time (lectures and essays) 1996


Gordon Keith Chalmers (review date 17 May 1953)

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...

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Peter Gay (review date December 1953)

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...

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John Crowe Ransom (essay date 1953)

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...

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Brainard Cheney (review date winter 1954)

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...

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George Scott-Moncrieff (review date fall 1972)

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.


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Donald Atwell Zoll (essay date fall 1972)

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...

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W. W. Robson (review date winter 1973)

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...

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John P. East (essay date winter 1984)

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...

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Don Herron (essay date 1985)

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...

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Bruce Frohnen (essay date winter 1994)

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...

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William F. Buckley, Jr. (essay date 30 May 1994)

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...

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Robert Champ (essay date fall 1994)

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...

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Mark C. Henrie (essay date fall 1994)

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...

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David Frum (essay date December 1994)

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...

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Eugene D. Genovese (review date 11 December 1995)

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,...

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Stephen J. Tonsor (essay date winter 1995)

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...

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John R. E. Bliese (essay date winter 1996)

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...

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Henry Regnery (essay date summer 1996)

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...

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Gerald J. Russello (essay date fall 1996)

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,...

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John Attarian (essay date winter 1998)

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...

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R. Andrew Newman (essay date summer 1998)

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...

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James E. Person, Jr. (essay date 1999)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 648 words.)