When Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind was published in 1953, conservatism was not yet a political or philosophical movement, and in fact the word conservatism was barely in the American lexicon. If not a movement, a few conservatives were beginning to be recognized as a growing political and intellectual force, largely because of their criticism of the dominant liberal establishment and the postwar leftward trend of politics and the culture. As such, these critics were gaining devotees and advocates in the political world, the media, and the universities. But if a movement were to coalesce, criticism of liberalism, no matter how brilliant, was not enough; conservatism would need a definition of its beliefs. Few people knew what the word conservatism even meant beyond restraining government growth and spending, and fewer still knew its philosophic and historic foundations. The Conservative Mind was the catalyst that began the transformation of a band of disparate conservative critics into the political, cultural, and intellectual force that it is today.
My father, who had started the Henry Regnery Company in 1947, was introduced to Russell Kirk by a mutual friend in early 1952. Kirk was then a thirty-five-year-old history instructor at Michigan State College (later Michigan State University), who was simultaneously pursuing a doctorate at St. Andrews in Scotland. My father described Kirk as a shy but self-confident fellow, articulate despite his slight stutter, highly intelligent, and well-educated. It was evident from the manuscript, my father said, that one of Kirk’s strong suits was that he had a mind that could assimilate a vast amount of material, and present it in an understandable manner, and all in a superb style.
My father describes reading the manuscript in his book Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher: “The manuscript was in beautiful shape,” he wrote, “and could have been sent out for typesetting as it came in, except for the original title, ‘The Conservative Rout.’” Kirk readily accepted the new title, little editing was done, and publication was scheduled for June of 1953. My father goes on to say that “we gave great care to the design of the book, which I wanted to be appropriate to the dignity of the language and the importance of what it had to say. The jacket confidently and, as it turned out, correctly predicted that the book would become a landmark.”
Although he had only been involved in book publishing for a few years, my father was well aware of the pitfalls so prevalent in the industry, and although he was infatuated with Kirk’s book, he was not, as he wrote, “at all sanguine about its possible commercial success…we limited the first printing to a modest 3,000 copies.” He was not disappointed, however, and the book was in its fourth printing within six months.
For an unknown author writing about an unpopular subject, Kirk received an astounding response. The New York Times review by Gordon Chalmers, president of Kenyon College, said Kirk was “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.” Whittaker Chambers, who was still a senior editor at Time magazine’s, weighed in with the magazine’s book review section on Kirk’s behalf, telling them that The Conservative Mind was the most important book of the century; they responded by devoting the entire July 4 book section to it. “Kirk tells his story of the conservative stream with the warmth that belongs to it,” Time enthused in its review essay. It suggested, with an appraisal “appropriately conservative in understatement,” that the book “has an interest that is not mainly antiquarian.” Clinton Rossiter, soon to author a rival study of conservatism, hailed Kirk’s effort as “one of the most valuable contributions to intellectual history of the past decade,” whose “scholarship is manifestly of the highest order.” In it, he said, “the so-called ‘new conservatism’ of the postwar period takes on new substance and meaning.” Many other positive, and a few negative, reviews followed, including a column by Harrison Smith in the Washington Post which welcomed the book by saying “Thoughtful Americans concerned with the rapidity with which totalitarian theories and revolutions are spreading over a large part of the world should read Russell Kirk’s landmark in contemporary thinking.” But there were also negative reviews. Norman Thomas concluded, in the United Nations World, that “what [Kirk] has given us is an eloquent bit of special pleading which is, in part, a false, and, in sum total,a dangerously inadequate, philosophy for our time.”
It did not take long after publication of Kirk’s book for conservatism to become intellectually respectable. Kirk, for the first time, presented conservatism as a plausible and reasonable alternative to liberalism, along with reasonable and plausible criticisms of liberalism. He demonstrated to conservatives that it was possible to remain an intellectual while still acting and thinking constructively about practical politics.
The Conservative Mind had the added impact of launching the career of one of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectuals. Kirk had published one book on John Randolph of Roanoke and numerous essays, many in British magazines before The Conservative Mind. He spent the remainder of his life writing over forty books, thousands of columns, essays and reviews, made countless speeches from one end of the world to the other, and his work remains, to this day, as a significant segment of the intellectual foundation of modern conservatism.
The Conservative Mind is, of course, still in print sixty years later after dozens of editions and continues to sell thousands of copies every year. There are foreign editions in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and perhaps more. To say that it has had vast impact on many people would be an understatement, and has undoubtedly changed the way countless people think. My father, always a modest man, wrote that “it would be too much to say that the postwar conservative movement began with [its] publication, but it was this book that gave it its name and, more important, coherence.” It has certainly been at least that, and perhaps considerably more.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.