Russell Kirk Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.