According to Kirk, those seeking a viable future “will endeavor to make the family function as a device for love and education and economic advantage, not simply an instrument of the feeding-and-housing-and-procreative process.”
In his autobiographical The Sword of Imagination, Russell Kirk labels himself “a Northern Agrarian.” The same label surfaces in ISI’s American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, where Jeffrey Nelson also calls both poet Robert Frost and the Democratic politician Eugene McCarthy Northern Agrarians. What is meant by this curious term?
A possible answer would be to reference the great Northern Agrarian of a century ago, Liberty Hyde Bailey. In that era, farming news was still national news, and Professor Bailey, largely forgotten today, was then a celebrity of near rock-star proportions. Like Kirk, Bailey was born in a village in Western Michigan: albeit sixty years earlier. Also like Kirk, Bailey graduated from the Michigan State College of Agriculture in East Lansing and later returned to teach there. Bailey went on to assume, in 1888, the chair of Practical and Experimental Horticulture at Cornell University. He was the founding editor of the journals Country Life in America and the Cornell Countryman. In 1904, Bailey founded the pathbreaking College of Agriculture at Cornell, becoming its first dean. Four years later, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Bailey as Chairman of The National Commission on Country Life. Its 1909 Report called for rebuilding a great agricultural civilization in America. Bailey’s important agrarian books included The Outlook to Nature, The Holy Earth and The Country-Life Movement in the United States.
Was Kirk in the mold of Bailey? There are similarities. For example, they shared a love of the garden and the forest. Dean Bailey had a life-long interest in raspberries, blackberries, and other brambles by the woods, and authored several massive volumes on this genus. At his upstate New York home, he maintained a large garden, including a portion devoted to weeds, studying and praising these usually despised plants for their role in renewing damaged soil. Kirk, too, relished the time he devoted to the care of his five acres in Mecosta, Michigan. He loved his garden and planted hundreds of trees on his family land and in the village. As daughter Andrea recalls:
Agrarian life was well understood and appreciated by my father. Under the dimming September sun he and I worked together planting and pruning. He loved to watch the progress his labors had achieved; the growth of new life from his ancestral earth.
Bailey and Kirk also shared a sympathy for Thomas Jefferson’s vision of agrarian democracy. For Bailey, the farmer remained “the fundamental fact in democracy” because he had been granted “the keepership of the earth.” Farmers formed “a natural correction against organization men, habitual reformers, and extremists.” For his part, Kirk also declared early on his admiration for the free rural yeomanry. As he wrote in his first published essay appearing in 1941:
To plan effectively the nation’s future we must foster Jeffersonian principles. We must have slow but democratic decisions, sound local government, diffusion of property-owning, taxation as direct as possible, preservation of civil liberties, payment of debts by the generation incurring them,…a stable and extensive agriculture,…and, above all, stimulation of self-reliance.
“Jeffersonianism may die, but, stand or fall, it has made manifest its essential rightness and its essential virtue.”
And yet, there were large differences between the two. Bailey’s Northern agrarianism was rooted in the sciences, in botany, horticulture, and ecology. Kirk’s agrarian vision rested more on history, biography, and literature. Bailey was a great believer in agricultural education and in the extension service, which would bring plant and animal sciences from the universities into the countryside. Kirk held Michigan State College and other land-grant agricultural schools somewhat in contempt, dismissing them as “cow colleges.” Bailey was an activist and progressive, seeking to “uplift” the farm population into a new civilization. Kirk was a conservative, distrusting novelty: “change is not reform,” he learned from the past. Kirk wanted to save and protect farm families, not “uplift” them.
Indeed, Kirk’s real sympathies lay with a different sort of agrarianism, the Southern kind. He seems to have discovered the Southern Agrarians in 1938. When browsing through the Michigan State bookstore, he found poet and essayist Donald Davidson’s new volume, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States. Kirk reported later: “It was written eloquently, and for me it made coherent the misgivings I had felt concerning the political notions popular in the 1930’s. The book was so good that I assumed all intelligent Americans… were reading it.” In fact, Kirk later learned that the publisher, the University of North Carolina Press, had pulped most of the printed copies after distributing but a few hundred.
Davidson’s influence on him grew. Kirk grew fond of the Southerner’s poetry. Kirk quoted frequently from one of Davidson’s anti-city poems, “The Long Street”:
The grass cannot remember; trees cannot
Remember what once was here…
And the baked curve of asphalt, smooth trodden
Covers dead earth that once was quick with grass.
Snuffing the ground with acrid breath the motors
Fret the long street. Steel answers steel. Dust whirls.
Skulls hurry past with the pale flesh yet clinging
And a little hair.
Kirk himself also read the Twelve Southerners’ great 1930 Manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, a volume informally edited by Davidson. Here Kirk found:
Christian humanism, stern criticism of the industrialized mass society, detestation of communism and other forms of collectivism, attachment to the ways of the Old South—such were the principles uniting the Southern Agrarians.
Kirk himself moved south in 1940, earning a Masters degree at Duke University. He wrote his thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke, the early American statesman who believed that “the agricultural life is the best state of society man can ask.” As Kirk explained, Randolph “declared the real substance of society to be the independent planters and farmers of small freeholds.” Judging Old Republicans like Randolph, Kirk concluded: “in many ways the life they sought to perpetuate was good.”
Kirk also befriended Richard Weaver, the Southern-born professor of English at the University of Chicago and author, most famously, of Ideas Have Consequences. While “a declared Southerner,” as Kirk put it, Weaver was somewhat unusual in his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, a legacy of the pro-Union Mountain Whigs of Eastern Tennessee. All the same, both Weaver and Kirk, in the latter’s words, “were defenders of immemorial ways, old morals, old customs, old loves, the wisdom of the species, the life of rural regions and little communities.”
Another attachment by Kirk to the Southern way came through his fondness for the work of Orestes Brownson. Kirk saw this Yankee convert to Roman Catholicism as “the most interesting example of the progress of Catholicism as a conservative spirit in America.” The Texan M. E. Bradford once labelled Brownson as Kirk’s “neglected predecessor in American thought,” particularly as a Northern defender of the Southern people and way of life. Indeed, Kirk often lamented “the disappearance of [the] Southern architectural style” and of “the sort of schooling” that had produced men like Davidson and his brother agrarians. Kirk concluded:
Southern agrarians proclaimed when I was a child that the southern culture is worth defending; that society is something more than the Gross National Product; that the country lane is healthier than the Long Street; that more wisdom lies in Tradition than in Scientism; that Leviathan is a devourer, not a savior.
Surely, it is no coincidence that a majority of Kirk’s “canons of conservatism” are distinctly “Southern Agrarian” in tone, notably:
• “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence…;”
• “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…”
• “Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse…”; and
• “Innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress.”
However, a better way to understand Kirk as a Northern Agrarian may be through other, and in some ways more primordial themes that run through his work: themes that reveal the hard edge of Kirk’s defense of the permanent things.
First, Disdain for the Modern City.
Kirk noted John Randolph’s “detestation of towns;” Kirk focused his own ire on ugly urban sprawl, the desecration of landscape and soil by suburbs and malls. As he wrote in his textbook on Economics: “Some of the best soil in the United States has disappeared before urban sprawl or has been covered by great highways.” Referring to Long Island, he wrote:
During the late fifties and early sixties, I watched…the devastation of what had been a charming countryside, as dismaying as what was being done to our cities. To make room for a spreading population was necessary: but to do it hideously and stupidly was not ineluctable.
Looking closer to home, Kirk remarked:“This brutal destruction…of the very landscape, in this age of the bulldozer, constitutes a belligerent repudiation of what we call tradition. It is a rejection of our civilized past.”
The Second Theme: Wariness Toward Industrial Civilization.
John Crowe Ransom, one of the Twelve Southerners, called industrialism a force “of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence.” Kirk, too, wrote of “The collective cunning” possessed by “industrial forces.” In 1941, he held a job at Ford Motor Company’s mammoth Rouge plant: “a fearful and wonderful sight,” Kirk called it, a place which made him “shiver.” He wrote of the Industrial Revolution as a powerful foe: it “turned the world inside out. Personal loyalties gave way to financial relationships….Industrialism was a harder knock to conservatism than the books of the French equalitarians.” Kirk blasted the Austrian neo-liberal economists for not seeing “the ugliness, the monotony, the ennui of modern industrial existence”; he labeled the factory city of Flint, Michigan, as “one of the most grim and hideous towns in the whole world.” He saw “modern industrial production…using up forests, fossil fuels, mineral deposits, and other natural resources at an alarming rate.” Writing in 1991, he despaired over “the industrial unification” of the earth, explaining:
…nowadays the whole of the world must be subjected to those environmental mischiefs and social discontents that already have worked immense harm in the ‘developed countries.’
Third, a Suspicion of Raw Capitalism.
The contemporary agrarian writer Wendell Berry labels capitalism “the economy of the bulldozer”; the Twelve Southerners called modern advertising “the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself.” Kirk was always careful to affirm his admiration for economic liberty, terming “free enterprise…the most productive and most liberal economic arrangement conceivable.” However, he faulted libertarian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek for the narrowness of their economic thought. “American conservatives,” Kirk declared, “ought to talk a good deal less about the laws of economics and a great deal more about the laws of justice.” He noted that von Mises dismissed traditionalism as hostile to scientific truth and then lamented the success of anti-capitalist propaganda. Kirk responded:
This bold economist seems willfully oblivious to the historical truth that men respect property, private rights, and order in society out of deference to the ‘myths’ von Mises tries to dissipate, the ‘myths’ of divine social intent, of tradition, of natural law.
Pointing again to the Austrian neo-liberals, Kirk continued:
Theirs is a doctrine which destroys itself in proportion as it is generally promulgated: once supernatural and traditional sanctions are dissolved, economic self-interest is ridiculously inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order.
Put another way, the market economy could only survive within a matrix of custom, religion, and community. Kirk agreed with economic historian Karl Polanyi that the laissez-faire system was not a natural product of history; rather, it “was brought into existence” as a companion to the centralizing state. He also praised sociologist Robert Nisbet’s call for a new kind of laissez-faire, “in which the basic unit” would not be the individual, but rather “the social group”: “church, family, guild or union, local community, school and university.”
The Fourth Agrarian Theme: A Respect for the Vital, Function-Rich Family.
Kirk favorably quoted John Randolph on the superiority of the rural, or yeoman, farm baby compared to both its urban or aristocratic counterpart:
The rickety and scrafulous little wretch who first sees light in a work-house, or in a brothel and who feels the effects of alcohol before the effects of vital air, is not equal in any respect to the ruddy offspring of the honest yeoman; nay, I will go further, and say that a prince, provided he is no better born than royal blood will make him, is not equal to the healthy son of a peasant.
Kirk attributed this advantage held by rural children to the function-rich nature of their homes. In an age largely celebrating the “companionship family” resting on psychological nuances, Kirk yearned for a hardier model. The skills of husbandry and housewifery; the varied tasks of the farmer and the farm wife; the foundation of children’s moral and practical education in their homes: these were the sources of healthy, happy, hopeful children. In economist Wilhelm Röpke’s work, Kirk found a “Third Way” economic humanism that would restore “property, function, and dignity to the mass of men.” According to Kirk, those seeking a viable future “will endeavor to make the family function as a device for love and education and economic advantage, not simply an instrument of the feeding-and-housing-and-procreative process.”
Fifth, a Regard for Economic Independence.
The agrarian novelist Louis Bromfield praised the “old economic independence of the farmer, his sense of security, that stability which a healthy agriculture gives to the economy of any nation.” While certainly not a farmer, Kirk personally aspired to the same end. As Bruce Frohnen remarks, Kirk wished to lead “a life of ‘decent independence.’” He sought “to provide for his family…free from compromising entanglements” and “without fear of the taxman, the bank repossessor, or an angry patron.” He became an independent scholar, an author and lecturer dependent only on his wit and skills. Kirk hoped that all persons would enjoy the same autonomy. He urged that they try “to make their profession, or trade, or craft an instrument not merely for private profit, but for satisfying their own desire to feel that somehow they matter.” To “deproletarianize” industrial workers, Kirk had his own prescription: create “[f]amily farms, family cooperation…, the diminution of the average size of factories, the gradual substitution for ‘the old-style welfare policy’ of an intelligent trend toward self-sufficiency.” He favorably quoted Röpke, who contrasted, at one end, the American cash-crop farmer who bought his food in a supermarket with “[a]t the other, more fortunate end…the industrial worker in Switzerland who, if necessary, can find his lunch in the garden, his supper in the lake, and can earn his potato supply in the fall by helping his brother clear the land.”
The Sixth Theme: A Respect for Communitarian Limits.
Kirk’s favorite story authored by the English agrarian-distributist G.K. Chesterton was “The Yellow Bird.” In it, an anarchist philosopher “liberates” a canary from its cage and a fish from its bowl. Both animals die. The lesson was that radical individualism would destroy the very limits that make life and happiness possible. Kirk called for the rebuilding of real communities. Referring again to the quintessential Michigan industrial town, he wrote: “Flint will never be made a decent place to live, or a safe one, by Manchesterian [economic] doctrines, preached in all their rigidity; but Flint may be civilized by a restoration of community.” In this quest for community, Kirk anticipated the “new urbanism” and urged intellectual and political leaders “to turn the amorphous modern city into a series of neighborhoods, with common interests, amenities, and economic functions.” He also praised the Roman Catholic Church for having shown, uniquely among the Christian denominations, “a consistent and intelligent appreciation of the necessity for true community.”
Seventh, a Regard for the Attachment of Man to Soil and Property.
Wendell Berry yearns “with a kind of homesickness” for the “naturalness of a highly diversified, multi-purpose landscape, democratically divided” and “hospitable to the wild lives of plants and animals and to the wild play of human children.” Kirk anticipated and shared these sentiments. He agreed with Edmund Burke’s depiction of Jacobinism as “the revolt of the enterprising talents of a nation against its property,” with his sympathies clearly lying with property. Kirk admired the economics of the physiocrats, who combined respect for “free economic competition” and “free trade” with the agrarian view that “society’s real wealth comes from the land.” And he urged direct action to restore vital rural life:
The conservative will do everything in his power to prevent the further diminution of our rural population, he will recommend the decentralization of industry and the deconcentration of population, he will seek to keep as many men and women as possible to the natural and customary world in which tradition flourishes.
If we were to apply half as much energy and thought to the preservation of rural life and the old structure of community as we have to consolidation, we might be as well balanced in these relations as in Switzerland.
The Eighth Agrarian Theme: A Wariness Toward War.
John Randolph had noted that the agriculturalist bore the brunt of war and taxation. In January 1941, ten months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Donald Davidson warned against America entering the war in Europe. Such intervention would only feed the Roosevelt administration’s “highly industrialized, centralized, and socialistic order.” He added: “I should have thought agrarians and decentralists would oppose our entry into the conflict when such, no matter what results might be achieved in Europe, would probably be ruinous to their hopes for a healthy reconstruction in America.” Kirk shared these views. He opposed American entry into the war; he believed that President Roosevelt was maneuvering the nation into the European conflict; he denounced the peacetime military draft as “slavery;” after Pearl Harbor, he was furious over the Federal government’s internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps; and in 1944, he actually voted for the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas, in gratitude for his pre-war anti-imperialist speeches. All the same, Kirk was not a pacifist. Drafted in 1942, he served honorably for nearly four years in the Chemical Warfare Service. He blamed the Vietnam War debacle on the Caesarism of Lyndon B. Johnson. All the same, when asked in 1968 by incoming President Richard Nixon what to do about Vietnam, Kirk urged “going to Haiphong”: that is, an escalation of the war involving the mining of North Vietnam’s chief harbor. However, Kirk opposed the first Gulf War of 1991, largely due to the destruction of small places that it entailed. As he wrote (describing himself in the third person): “…Kirk would come to detest [George H.W.] Bush for his carpet-bombing of the Cradle of Civilization with its taking of a quarter of a million lives in Iraq.”
And finally, Ninth: A Deep Attachment to One Small Place.
Writing to John C. Calhoun, John Randolph had once declared that “the love of country is nothing more than the love of every man for his wife, child, or friend.” Wendell Berry sees the social order composed, not of nations, but of “the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each on its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.” Kirk was a firm believer in this local patriotism. As Kirk’s autobiography simply relates: “he remained rooted in Mecosta.” Some writers, trying to be kind, have described this village and its environs as “beautiful” or “lovely.” In fact, they were neither. This was the Michigan “stump country,” where great forests had been brought down to feed the lumber and furniture mills of Grand Rapids and beyond. Kirk’s landscape lay stripped and bare; his village in decline; nonetheless, he loved them because this was his place, an ancestral home embracing memories and obligations. One visitor to Kirk’s house at Piety Hill likened it to Rivendell, the fictional home of Elrond Halfelven in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Called “the last Homely House,” Piety Hill, like Rivendell-was “a place of learning, of merriment and quiet, beside a running stream, deep in a forest-clad northern valley.” Father Ian Boyd ably captures the harmony that existed between Kirk’s public work and his private domain in the tiny village of Mecosta:
…the happy domestic life at Piety Hill was a sort of extension of his written work, a lived parable which illuminated everything he wrote about the primacy of private life over public life, about the family as the essential human community, and about the basic loyalty to the villages, neighborhoods, and regions in which human beings were most likely to find fulfillment and a measure of happiness.
A Glimpse of God
Father Boyd adds that Kirk lived under a “sacramental faith,” where one finds God in earthly realities. Kirk gave attention to the little things in and around Piety Hill, because he “understood the truth that ever since the Incarnation, material things are luminous and transparent rather than opaque, because it is through them that one can sometimes catch a glimpse of God.”
Like many others before me, I was privileged to spend some days with Kirk at Piety Hill; the time: February 1990. My eldest daughter, then ten years old, came along. It was a Rivendell experience: excellent private conversations; time to walk, read, and think alone; formal dinners with interesting guests each night; and, as my daughter will never forget, ghost stories told by Kirk before the fireplace after dinner. An openness to magic and the supernatural rooted in the stories of ancestors and grounded in a vital family home: this is the purest expression of the agrarian ideal.
In these ways, Kirk was an agrarian at least as much as he was a conservative. Or perhaps one could say that Kirk’s conservatism was actually agrarianism painted on a larger canvas. Avoiding the missteps of Yankee agrarians such as Liberty Hyde Bailey, Kirk was a “Northern” Agrarian only in the sense that his beloved, but not objectively lovely, place on earth was in the “stump country” of west-central Michigan. His rural sympathies clearly drew on the best instincts of Jefferson, Randolph, Calhoun, Weaver, Brownson, and the Twelve Southerners. It was a mindset illustrating, in Kirk’s own words, “the truth that conservatism is something deeper than mere defense of shares and dividends, something nobler than mere dread of what is new.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995): 178.
2. Jeffrey O. Nelson, “McCarthy, Eugene J. (1916-2005),” in Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson, eds., American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006): 552.
3. In Annette Kirk, “Life with Russell Kirk,” Russell Kirk Memorial Lecture at The Heritage Foundation, Nov. 17, 1995; (1/23/2007).
4. L.H. Bailey, What Is Democracy? (Ithaca, NY: The Comstock Publishing Company, 1918): 95-96, 99.
5. Russell Kirk, “Jefferson and the Faithless,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 40 (July 1941): 226-27.
6. Kirk, “Jefferson and the Faithless,” p. 227.
7. Russell Kirk, “Introduction to the Transaction Edition,” in Donald Davidson, Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States: The Attack on Leviathan (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1991): viii.
8. Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, p. 176.
9. Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1978 ): 123, 128, 131.
10. Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, p. 173.
11. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Seventh Revised Edition (Chicago and Washington, DC: Regnery Books, 1986 ): 245.
12. In Clyde N. Wilson, “Russell Kirk’s ‘Southern Valor,’” The Intercollegiate Review 29 (Fall 1994): 46.
13. Kirk, “Introduction,” p. xviii.
14. Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, p. 127.
15 Russell Kirk, Economics: Work and Prosperity (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Books, 1989): 305.
16. Quoted in: David Frum, “The Legacy of Russell Kirk,” The New Criterion (13 Dec. 1994); at (1/23/2007), p. 3.
17. Arthur Vershiris, “Strip Malls Across the Fruited Plain,” The American Conservative (5 May 2003), (1/23/2007), p. 2.
18. John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana University Press, 1977 ): 15.
19. Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, p. 124.
20. In: George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976): 69.
21. Quoted in Frum, “The Legacy of Russell Kirk,” p. 4.
22. Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives (Chicago: Regnery, 1954): 147-48.
23. Kirk, Economics, p. 305.
24. Kirk, “Introduction,” p. ix.
25. Wendell Berry, Remembering: A Novel (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1988): 96.
26. I’ll Take My Stand, pp. xxxix-xlvii.
27. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, pp. 143-47.
28. Ibid., pp. 154-55.
29. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 161.
30. See: Maclin Horton, “Prospects for Folks [A Review of Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives],” (1/23/2007), p. 3.
31. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, pp. 151, 161-62.
32. Louis Bromfield, Pleasant Valley (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944): 57.
33. Bruce Frohnen, “Russell Kirk on Cultivating the Good Life,” The Intercollegiate Review 29 (Fall 1994): 63.
34. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, pp. 162, 153.
35. Noted in Ian Boyd, “Russell Kirk: An Integrated Man,” The Intercollegiate Review 29 (Fall 1994): 19.
36. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, pp. 156-62.
37. Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays, Cultural and Agricultural (San Diego, CA and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972, 1970): 103-05.
38. Kirk, The Program for Conservatives, p. 141.
39. Kirk, Economics, p. 30.
40. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, pp. 308-09.
41. Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, p. 149.
42. In: “Decentralization: The Outlook for 1941. A Symposium of Opinion,” Free America 5 (Jan. 1941): 11-12.
43. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, p. 71.
44. Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, pp. 300, 303, 322-23.
45. Ibid., p. 465.
46. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 164.
47. Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990): 200.
48. Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, p. 195.
49. Ibid., p. 344.
50. Boyd, “Russell Kirk: An Integrated Man,” p. 18.
51. Ibid., pp. 19, 22.
52. See, for example: Bromfield, Pleasant Valley, pp. 60-61, 79.
53. Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 184.