Below are quotes from Russell Kirk’s first published academic article, “Tragedy and the Moderns.” The article appeared in January 1940, when Kirk was just beginning his second semester of his senior year in college. He wrote it, however, during either his freshman or sophomore year at Michigan State, under and with the encouragement of his favorite professor, John Abbott Clark.
It should be remembered, then, that Kirk wrote this paper when he was either 18 or 19. Somewhat shockingly, Kirk’s first article carries with it a depth both in thought and writing style—as well as an originality—that is sorrowfully absent in most academic writings today. And, yet, the young man who wrote it was still a teenager. Kirk’s professor, Clark, published little, but he was, Kirk thought, the greatest of the undergraduate professors at Michigan State. And, yet, the administration in East Lansing treated Clark with nothing but contempt. I’ve yet to find out if Clark studied directly with Irving Babbitt, but he very much considered himself a disciple of Babbitt and Paul Elmer More.
Though Kirk’s grandfather, Frank Pierce, had read Babbitt and More during Kirk’s childhood, Kirk had not become aware of the men until their writings were introduced to him by Clark. Immediately, Kirk devoured all six of Babbitt’s books and many of Paul Elmer More’s. Though strikingly original, especially given the author’s age, Kirk’s article can and should be classified as a New Humanist piece.
When the literary journal published the article, it claimed Kirk to be an “instructor in history at Michigan State College” who “has for the last seven years been making a hobby of the study of Abyssinia.”
The latter part was true. Kirk had studied Ethiopian history, culture, and religion extensively, and, in the article quoted below, he rather lovingly claimed “Haile Selassie” as his modern man of tragedy. At the same time Kirk was praising Selassie, a significant minority of Jamaicans were developing a cult around the Ethiopian king, claiming him to be a second manifestation of Jesus Christ.
As far as I know, no one has ever written on the connections between Russell Kirk and Bob Marley.
When the journal first addressed Kirk through formal correspondence, they did so as “Professor Kirk,” assuming him to be a full member of the Michigan State faculty rather than an undergraduate student. Kirk corrected the editor, but the editor clearly refused to believe the young man, citing him as “instructor” rather than professor. The Detroit Free Press caught wind of this and published a short article teasing the journal for its misunderstanding.
Russell Amos Kirk, “Tragedy and the Moderns,” College English (January 1940): 344-353.
“But do adherent to these views hold the right concept of the essentials of tragedy and of the nature of our world? Are they not attempting to mourn over the corpse of a tragic spirit which has not perished but has only changed its somber garments? Are they not confounding the mediums the classic traditions used to express the tragic spirit with that spirit itself? The world has changed since Sophocles’ day and since Shakespeare’s day, but the world still turns; tragedy has changed since those times, but tragedy survives. We maintain the essentials of the Aristotelian definition of tragedy.… And that statement is, in its simplicity, the best definition of the spirit that endures while philosophies whirl.” (344-345)
“It would seem that a great lost struggle against overpowering forces, whether or not we know what those forces are and why they operate, constitutes tragedy. Defeats must come through human weakness, but it need not result from a conflict with some immutable scheme. A definition attempting to limited to narrower bounds would be, in some degree, unnatural. The struggle must have significance or magnitude, but it need not have purpose. The introduction of destiny, omnipresent in Greek drama, was a natural development from the forms of Greek thought—though often it is overemphasized by our writers—but it is not apparent why our modern tragedies must contain invariably the same suggestion of an inexorable fate—a fate of a mystic order, that is. If there must be Fate, need it be a supernatural Nemesis? Cannot it be the natural consequence of the ways of man to man?” (345)
“It is true we no longer believe in elemental forces, elemental virtues and vices, as such; we have given them other names. We call them “social forces,” “psychological forces,” and “moral forces.” Is a struggle any less heroic, any less disastrous, because it is waged against the powers of society rather than against abstract might?” (346)
“Only a society simpler and less sophisticated than ours could understand the tragedy, it is asserted; we are too skeptical of man’s powers, too settle and peaceful a folk to grasp the immensity of the emotions of great souls. Today there are some few who appreciate tragedy, and the rest give it lip service. But has it not been so always? Only those who have within them some shadow of capacity for tragically noble actions can understand tragedy; the great majority can speak of it but never can comprehend fully its power. It was so with the turbulent Athenians of Sophocles’ day; it was so with the coarsely hearty English of Shakespeare’s day; and it is so with us.” (346)
“We do not believe that all life is noble, nor that all of any man’s life is great; neither did the Greeks and the Elizabethans. We do not contend that all existence has a tragic significance; neither did the classic tragedians. But we do hold, as they did, that sometimes there arise among us men agreed in spirit who struggle in vain against the bonds of this Earth, and that their failures are man’s mightiest triumphs, and that our emotions are purged, our thoughts ennobled, and her ideals vindicated by their defeats. We know that certain qualities in man are grand throughout time and space, whether they be displayed by a Lear in the storm or a Chinese soldier in a rice field.” (346–347)
“There is little attempt to make tragedy disclose the purpose of existence. We are not, indeed, so sure what its purpose is. But we have a sense of the tragic, and a tragic world is ours. If we have not produced a mighty author of tragedies, it is because no such genius has chanced to develop in our society, not because he lacks the field. The complexity, the frustration that all too often characterize modern life, might be a suitable theme. I imagine a potentially great individual crushed by adversity, crushed by it all his life, with no hope of throwing it off, his imagination, his powers of action overwhelmed by the inertia of a static society. Are there not possibilities for tragedy here?” (347)
“Each age has forms of expression peculiar to it, and drama in verse finds little favor today, despite our T.S. Eliot’s. A dignified and moving narration, be it in prose or poetry, still could convey tragedies depth, for tragedy is far more a matter of spirit than of style.” (352)
“Man is all the nobler if he has arisen from the slime and will go but into the dust, and yet can struggle so. Materialist critics and philosophers and psychologists have woven about themselves a net of dismaying elaborations so thick they cannot see through its stifling strands to the realities of life. For in the world men still fight for the things they have always fought for, and often fight in vain—for their honor and for a defense of others.” (352)
“There is little difference between heroically defying mighty natural, social forces and heroically defying mystic, moral forces; the materialists themselves proclaim that the moral forces of old were, in the beginning, merely an unconscious allegorization of the social good. And if this be so, the distinction between the old tragedy and the new is that yesterday tragedy championed a disguised individual good and social good, while today it draws its blade for good unveils.” (352)
“For chance is as great an influence as are the times in developing the man of genius. The greatness of a writer comes through the coinciding of a number of factors during one period of time; this blue moon has not shown of late. And men not only are made by their epochs, but sometimes make them.” (353)
“Human nature still is with us, and ours is a tragic era. Men still pit their lives and their souls against fate.” (353)
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