russell kirk

[The following is a speech given to the Hillsdale College faculty, April 3, 2013. These faculty forums allow a Hillsdale professor to explain and consider his or her current scholarship. My presentation, “The Awful Humanity of Russell Kirk,” comes from the research I’ve been doing for an intellectual biography of the great man himself, Russell Kirk.]

Though without an official title yet, this book is tentatively entitled, The Humane Republic: The Christian Humanism of Russell Kirk. The University Press of Kentucky, under the excellent editorial direction of Steve Wrinn, will publish the book in 2014.

I’ve been asked to talk about my research on Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994). Of course, his connections to this college should be somewhat legendary. He wrote our statement of academic freedom, helped create our Program in American Studies, and influenced at least two of the freshmen core courses. Many of you taught with him, and a few of you studied with him. We, of course, house his library.

I never had the chance to meet Dr. Kirk, though I know his widow, Annette, extremely well and count her as one of my closest friends. She is, to be sure, a ball of energy, perhaps a force of nature herself. Those of you who know Annette will not be surprised in the least that during her high school and college years in New York City, she would model in the late afternoon, joining her brother Regis after work to share a coffee, read some great work (such as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations), and then record her own meditations in her diary.

But, as I mentioned, I never met Kirk. Sometime toward the end of my senior year of college or my first year of graduate school, I composed a long, insane letter criticizing The Conservative Mind for not being blatantly individualist or libertarian enough. At the time, I was much more into Hayek. I never sent the letter, and I’m not sure if that was good or bad.

So, I’ve been reading Kirk for well over two decades, and I’ve been studying him closely or teaching his works for about a decade now. I’ve been working on this biography of him just short of three years. I’m quite taken with a line that C.S. Lewis puts in the mouth of his doomed character, William “Bill the Blizzard” Hingist, in his 1943 novel, That Hideous Strength. When comparing the physical sciences to the social sciences, Hingist, a world famous physicist states: “I happen to believe that you can’t study men; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.”

In my own experience teaching history and writing what I’ve had the privilege to write, I agree with this completely. I have done everything possible to “know” Kirk, to try to get into his mind and his soul and see the world from his perspective.

From that perspective–however extensive my own failings and inadequacies as a scholar and biographer–I have been overwhelmed by two things, the very things I’d like to discuss in this talk. First, by his sheer dedication and tenacity. Second, and perhaps much more importantly, by his utter humanity.

First, his dedication, tenacity, abilities, and successes.

Kirk began winning awards for his writing while in high school, and he won “best essay for a high school senior in the nation” by Scholastic in 1936.

Kirk began publishing in scholarly journals while still an undergraduate at Michigan State. One academic journal convinced that Kirk was joking that he was an undergraduate called him “Dr. Kirk,” labeling him an Assistant Professor of History.  This made state-wide news, with the Detroit Free Press joking about it in its May 13, 1940 issue. The article, interestingly enough, had been written sometime during Kirk’s first or second year in college. A fascinating discussion of literary criticism, Kirk chided the modern literary establishment for demeaning “greatness of soul.” His modern-day example of greatness of soul was Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian king also worshiped by Bob Marley as the second coming of Christ.

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.

Between 1948 and 1964: Over these sixteen years, Russell Kirk’s scholarly and literary output is nothing short of astounding. During this time, he published nine books of history and cultural criticism, his first novel, over four-hundred articles, twenty-six reference articles, sixty book reviews, seventeen book introductions, and ten short stories. He also founded and edited two journals during the same years.

Between 1962-1975: ca. 3,000 newspaper columns. These columns covered everything imaginable, comparable to today’s blogs: everything from Kirk praising the defacement of highway billboard signs as an act of justice to condemning Barbra Streisand as a no-talent hack made popular by sheer marketing.

And, between 1965-1994 (and into 1995, posthumously): 14 books of history and cultural criticism, 408 articles, 32 original chapters for anthologies, 182 book reviews, 2 novels, 8 short stories.

We often forget, but Kirk was only 35 when he published his second book, The Conservative Mind. For the next decade, his status in America was nothing short of celebrity. Harvey Breit of the New York Times wrote in 1955: “We wish him well, not because we are so wildly conservative but because we think Mr. Kirk is a thoughtful man with scruples… We plan to hang around a while and listen.” A year later, Time magazine named Kirk one of the fifteen most important intellectuals in America, comparing him to Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, Franz Oppenheimer, and Jacques Barzun.

What else can I state about Kirk

He was fiercely loyal to his friends and teachers; he was deeply romantic and could, despite his quiet demeanor, reveal great outbursts of passion, anger, and joy; he was also profoundly original and eccentric. After marriage, Annette would try to gauge these moods, sometimes intervening by removing letters from the mailbox if overly antagonistic.

As to his eccentricities, these are legion: from his walking across much of North Africa during 1963, being pursued by (especially) Bedouin children, fascinated with his three-piece tweed suit and felt hat, armed with a cane (hiding a sword) and a typewriter. In the 1970s, he threw a TV out the third floor of house, and in the 1980s, he threw rock albums into the fire when he found his daughters in possession of such cultural depravities! Sometime in the last decade of his life, he fell out of a canoe. Presuming it was his time to die, he simply floated cross legged to the river bed. He never came close to death, however, as his student assistant dove deep into the river and pulled him out.

He spent a great part of his life attempting to build communities, to connect one bright and interesting person with another. He revered, in the western tradition, Plato, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, more recently, the anarchist Albert Jay Nock and the humanists Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More.

Of his contemporaries, he adored a wide assortment of thinkers and artists and enjoyed serious friendships with most of them: Robert Nisbet, Flannery O’Connor, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and Ray Bradbury.

One story is more than worth repeating, though it might seem to contradict my claim of Kirk’s awful humanity.

Flannery O’Connor confided to a friend that she and Kirk in conversation resembled “the efforts of two midgets to cut down a California redwood.” Attempting to break one such moment of silence, O’Connor said,

“I read old William Heard Kilpatrick died recently. John Dewey’s dead too, isn’t he?

Kirk: Yes, thank God. Gone to his reward. Ha ha.

Me: I hope there’re children crawling all over him.

Kirk: Yes, I hope he’s with the unbaptized infants.

Me: No, they would be too innocent.

Kirk: Yes. Ha ha. With the baptized infants.

Me: Yes.

In politics, he usually identified first with personality, second with ideas and political alignment. He equally admired (though, to varying degrees) Robert Taft, Malcolm X, Norman Thomas, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan, and Pat Buchanan.

Most, though, he liked and respected T.S. Eliot in the literary world and Barry Goldwater in the political world. Goldwater proclaimed Kirk the greatest thinker of the age, and it’s difficult (if not impossible) to imagine the early Goldwater drive without Kirk as its fountainhead.

Certainly, he considered Eliot the greatest man, artist, and thinker of our day, and the two cherished the friendship and respect they held for one another. Eliot even encouraged Kirk to write his intellectual biography, Eliot and His Age, as he believed Kirk one of the only men to understand him or his thought.

The awful humanity of Russell Amos Augustine Kirk

Probably the thing that has most impressed me about Kirk is his dedication to the dignity of the human person. This comes out in his life in some minor ways and in some major.

As a few examples that I won’t go into detail about here:

Kirk founded his journal MODERN AGE when a learned journal attacked the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss unjustly.

In the fall of 1953, Kirk left Michigan State, claiming very publicly that the college president had sold out the future of the student for media acclaim, noting that President Hannah had radically decreased academic standards for the purpose of increasing enrollment.

Never again would Kirk accept a full-time academic position, though the University of Chicago offered him a position at least three times over the next decade.

In 1973, when radical and well-armed Lakota Indians took over the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, holding at bay the FBI, Kirk couldn’t decide whether it would be worth risking jail time to aid the Sioux and those helping the Sioux or not.

And, as is well known, Russell and Annette gave indefinitely long shelter to the homeless, to pregnant women, and to refugees from around the world. Kirk’s daughters never quite knew who might be at breakfast on any given morning: there might be any number of persons from Ethiopia, Vietnam, or Eastern Europe. Our own wonderful Ivan Pongracic’s family, in part, escaped Yugoslavia with the aid and shelter of the Kirks.

Kirk often referred to his own home as Rivendell, the last “homely house,” a refuge from “progress.”

And, as a side note, he also planted thousands of trees, calling it penance for the European rapacious attitude toward North America. “I am best content when planting little trees,” he wrote in 1963, “To plant a tree, in our age when the expectation of change commonly seems greater than the expectation of continuity, is an act of faith. Also it is an act of historical penance, restoring the fairness of the land.”

But, I’d like to focus on two things Kirk obsessed about in the 1940s.

The first was his opposition to the internment of Japanese Americans under Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. As is well known, the Japanese had not legally (by gentleman’s agreement) immigrated to the United States since 1905. These Japanese Americans, then, were fully American. Additionally, not one act of treason or disloyalty had been committed by any member of the Japanese-American community. Despite this, state governments and the federal government rounded up all persons of Japanese descent, confiscated their property (auctioned off), and concentrated all displaced persons in camps throughout the American West.

“Principle latest cause of fury is the expulsion of the American Japanese from the West Coast, which might, if necessary, be compared to a number of other well-known exoduses,” Kirk wrote to McCann.

We have indeed become a government of men and not of laws. Without legislation–without even a presidential–or dictatorial–proclamation, the army and the bureaucracy can force hundreds of thousands of citizens into the desert west of the Sierras, without even compensation. We must crush that Hitlerian tyranny which commits such atrocious crimes as deporting Polish Jews into Eastern Poland.

In America, nothing so heinous had occurred since the progressives of the federal government had stolen Indian children from their parents to reeducate them in schools in the eastern part of the United States. Sadly, such an American tradition of theft of property and destruction of families had its roots as far back as Andrew Jackson’s presidency. All of it horrified Kirk who had no time for prejudices dealing with the accidents of birth.

What the young Michigander found in Idaho only confirmed his greatest worries, expressed in his letter to McCann the previous March. In a late September 1942 letter to McCann, he described one horrific incident he witnessed in detail:

Pocatello has a Japanese colony of thousands; I saw many Japanese boys and girls at a bowling alley. They’re now persecuted in earnest. A butcher refused to buy vegetables from his usual Japanese truck-gardener, cursing him as a Yellow Scum; the Japanese asserted, resentfully, that the day would come when he would own that butcher shop; the butcher pinned him to the wall with a knife. The Japanese gradually recovered in the hospital.

In his diary, he scoffed at the pure bigotry and hypocrisy of American government and the American war effort. “We’re out to stop the persecution of the Jews,” Kirk recorded later in the day, sarcasm dripping from his pen.

Certainly, Kirk never forgot any of this, seeing the internment of Japanese Americans as the logical consequence of nationalism (liberal or conservative) and progressivism. “And even when bullying became actual maltreatment, and thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were thrown into ‘relocation centers,’ without any charges against them,” Kirk brutally asked in 1953, “how many liberals protested?” When the liberals speak of liberties, he continued, they really mean “friendliness toward the rights of collectivists” and “absolute freedom for ‘liberals’ of their own kind.”

What could a war to liberate oppressed peoples mean when we, as Americans, could not admit that we treated various peoples in nearly the same manner, though admittedly less brutally than the Stalins and Hitlers of the world? Did we, as a nation, have a right to pass judgment on other nations when we failed to understand our own failings, our own sins, of the past and the present, Kirk asked?

The dropping of the Atomic Bomb

The dropping of the Atomic bombs on civilian populations, though, took American cruelty and brutality to a level previously unimagined by Kirk and most civilized women and men.

On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, under the command of Paul Tibbits, dropped the first atomic bomb. The 130-pound bomb, known as “Little Boy,” detonated directly over Hiroshima’s Shima Surgical Center.

On August 9, 1945, the United States B-29 bomber, the Bockscar, under the command of Charles Sweeney, dropped the atomic bomb known as the “Fat Boy,” on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. According to estimates, the bomb created winds of over six hundred miles per hour and a heat at close to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 persons died either instantly or over the next two months from injuries sustained from the detonation of the Atomic bomb. Nagasaki, it is true, did possess considerable manufacturing and war-production capabilities, but it was also one of the older cities in Japan, one of the most intensely pro-Western and Christian cities of Japan, feared and distrusted by the Japanese mainstream and especially the Japanese military. Nagasaki had served as the center of all Asian Christianity since the Jesuits had first arrived several centuries before. Those “Made in America” six-hundred mph winds and nearly 4,000 degree heat, Kirk knew with pure disgust, provided the Christian church with one of the single largest groups of martyrs in the entire century.

As soon as Kirk heard the news, he wrote to a close friend, Warren Fleishauer, “It will not be long before we are reduced to savagery.  We are the barbarians within our own empire.”

To McCann, he wrote “The knell of civilization ha[d] been sounded.” Perhaps such devastation would at least bring a little peace to the world as it reacted to such explosive power with complete awe. “This humanitarian nation has discovered the means of wiping out every inhabited place, apparently,” he wrote. That the U.S. could maintain a monopoly on Atomic power, Kirk doubted. Now that every other power in the world knew what was possible with atomic energy, he feared, each would soon possess “its own improved atomic bomb.”

It would seem, Kirk wrote, “the last vestiges of old-style war are to vanish. We may find ourselves at the mercy of a new autocracy of flyers and gadgeteers.”

Having cooled down a bit after the dropping of the bombs, Kirk continued to ponder their meaning to the contemporary world. Though the bomb, it now appeared from the news reports, was incapable of destroying the entirety of a city, its power was still immense. “The fact remains,” Kirk wrote privately, “that modern civilization–although not humanity–can be destroyed by this weapon.”

From Kirk’s perspective, the atomic bomb was the logical consequence of progressivism. “We crush an insect with the club of Hercules,” Kirk recorded shortly after the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Progressivism, Kirk had thought and the events of the world seemed to confirm now, would always lead to dehumanization.

This doctrine of progress is a most interesting instance of the blind and foolish confidence of Americans in the God Progress. None of them—not Joseph Smith, not William James, not John Dewey—know what this progress is toward, not even what direction it is to take. Thus far, apparently, it has been progress toward annihilation, an end to be accomplished, perhaps, by the improved atomic bomb? We have dealt more death and destruction in the space of ten years than the men of the Middle Ages, with their Devil, were able to accomplish in a thousand.

With our successful conclusion to the Second World War, Kirk feared, America had embraced a new world of total war, becoming no better than the totalitarian societies of the world. If a just god or gods exist, the skeptical Kirk feared, he or they would make America pay for its crimes against humanity.

Such a fear, it should be noted, on this 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, was shared by Robert E. Lee, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, and U.S. Grant, each assuming God would punish us for our atrocities committed during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848.

The topic depressed him deeply. “Five months have elapsed since Hiroshima was destroyed,” Kirk recorded. In that time, Americans should have reflected on their sins and considered alternatives to such mechanized destruction of innocents.  Instead, Americans, more docile than ever when it came to the tyranny of their government, had proven themselves no better than “little puppets.” The dropping of the bombs was the “trump of doom; it was sounded, and the gulf yawning; and we got on listening to ‘the Hit Parade,’ striking, drinking, fornicating, cheating, hating.” Americans, Kirk wrote, “are miserable animals in the shambles.”

Further, Kirk wrote in a letter to McCann,

I see no hope for us. We cannot expect to rid ourselves, in ten years, of all the follies and vices that have been ours for twenty-thousand years; and probably we have not even ten years in which to make our wills and say our prayers.

The end of the world might be near, and Americans went on with their little, meaningless lives, as he saw it.

Even if we maintained a physical presence in the world and avoided an atomic war, without repentance, we would grow more and more violent, accepting the habit of dehumanization, Kirk explained. “Most human passions and longings as we know them are done for, too; refined affections and desires cannot exist in the abyss of violence and poverty.” All this has been the result of so-called moral and scientific progress, Kirk held.  “Science and popular judgment have brought us to nihilism in thought and fission in substance.” And yet, Kirk admitted in his most private reflections, he possessed as much guilt as any other American.  Selfishly, he thought, he could give no real time to repenting or to contemplating the horrors of Hiroshima; his overriding thought was to escape the military.

Nine years after the dropping of the two bombs, Kirk still pondered the ferocity of American nationalism and progressivism in his book, A Program for Conservatives.

And now a few words concerning power among the nations.  It is ours already; and we have done with it what men always have done with pure power: we have employed it abominably.  I do not say that the Nazis or the Japanese militarists would have employed it to better advantage, or that the Communists would use it mercifully; on the contrary, I am certain that, to the best of their ability, they would have striven to accomplish still greater mischief.  But that does not excuse us.  The learning of physical science, and the perfection of technology, instead of being put to the improvement of Reason, have been applied by modern man to achieve mastery over nature and humanity; and that mastery has been brutal.  We Americans happened to be first in the race for the acquisition of the tools of mass slaughter, and we used those tools as the Roman used his sword and his catapult against Carthage.

Who could forgive such a thing, Kirk again asked.  “A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions, taken simply on the assumptions of worldly wisdom,” Kirk wrote in Pauline fashion.

The real conservative, he continued in 1954, “can urge upon his nation a policy of patience and prudence.  A ‘preventative’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field–and that is a question much in doubt–would be morally ruinous to us.”  Still, he thought, remembering the American atrocities committed against civilians in 1945, “there are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God,” Kirk concluded.

Depressed, Kirk found even the World War II victory celebrations offensive.  On August 17, Kirk walked through the streets of normally-conservative Salt Lake City to find “a raucous, disgusting mob of juvenile delinquents, halting automobiles, badgering policemen, and mauling girls.”  Lacking courage or, perhaps, morality, the crowd pretended not to notice or simply laughed it off.  “It was a most interesting commentary on the benefits of progressive education,” Kirk decided.


Thank you so much for listening to all of this.  There’s still much to explore.  I have 7 of 10 chapters written, and the manuscript is due January 15, 2014.  I still don’t have a title: Killing Medusa; Viewing Eternity in Time; The Humane Republic.  I assume the title is still to be discovered.

I don’t get to do this as often as I’m sure any of us like–but I want to thank you, my colleagues, for keeping me sharp, for keeping my sometimes craziness in check, and, ultimately, for making me a much better person.

I’ll never publish as much as Kirk, but I strive to always keep his integrity close to my heart and, if so blessed, my soul.

I’ll end with Kirk’s words–from a 1954 speech he gave to the national meeting of Chi Omega sorority:

The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learned that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. He apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine–operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars.

Outside of some writings from Eliot and Tolkien, I’m not sure we could find a more beautiful reminder about the meaning of existence than this.   After all, all you need is love.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Birzer may be found here.


Several acknowledgements are in order: to Sherry for organizing all of this and to Jon Fennell for inviting me to be a part of this.  About two years ago, I was a total ass to Jon, and in public.  The next time I saw him, he told me a number of jokes and asked me to share a drink with him.   I deeply appreciate his humanity.

And, an equally profound thanks to Winston Elliott, Mark Kalthoff, and Pete Blum for listening to my almost incessant discussion of Kirk over the last decade. Paul Rahe, too!  I must also add a former colleague: Harold Siegel.

Others, such as Mike Bauman, Mickey Craig, Richard Gamble, Carmen Wyatt-Hayes, John Miller, and Ivan Pongracic have offered me a number of excellent thoughts as well.  Additionally, Bob Blackstock and David Whalen have given me all kinds of support, moral and otherwise!

And, as I know we’re each aware, there’s little more intimidating than speaking in front of one’s colleagues–but that intimidation is about the highest complement I could pay any one of you.  I want you to like me, and I want you to respect me!  Whenever anyone asks what I think of Hillsdale, my first thought is always: there could never be a better faculty anywhere, and there could never be a student body that beats our its terms of its love of ideas.  I don’t care if we’re talking about the Polytechnic Institute lower-Mississippi State College or Princeton.  When it comes to colleagues and students, we win.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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