The conservatism that Russell Kirk represented stretches us by requiring greater acceptance of the ineffable and the mysterious and an appreciation of the magical and the supernatural.
As an undergraduate, my first encounters with Professor Jeff Hart and The Dartmouth Review eventually led to my discovery of the works of Russell Kirk. Like William F. Buckley Jr., Kirk wrote about the need to raise, as historian George Nash put it, a “full-scale challenge to modernity”—in the arts, literature, religion, and politics. While both Buckley and Kirk enchanted me with their obvious love of language and mastery of words, it was Kirk who also managed to stir my spirit with an affection, kindness, and warmth that I did not find elsewhere. Here was a gentle, conservative aesthete.
But I’m not the only one who was affected in such a way by Kirk. And last year, to mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, The Conservative Mind, there were several tributes. Last summer, The University Bookman, which Kirk founded in 1960, published an on-line symposium discussing the book. In July, the Liberty Fund also published a tribute, along with three excellent rejoinders. In September, two more events took place: Lee Edwards at the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel with Matthew Spalding, Yuval Levin, and Peter Wehner to discuss the book’s impact; and a few days later, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The Imaginative Conservative, and the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal co-sponsored a one-day seminar at Houston Baptist University.
One of the more interesting commemorations took place October 18-20 in Scotland, where a distinguished group of students and academics joined members of the Kirk family and their close friends at the University of St. Andrews to discuss The Conservative Mind—and to remember, in Willmoore Kendall’s words, the “benevolent sage of Mecosta”.
Some people aren’t aware that Kirk was a doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews; in fact, he remains the only American to have received a Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from that esteemed university. His dissertation, titled “The Conservative’s Rout”—later re-named The Conservative Mind in discussions with publisher Henry Regnery—is still on file at the university, and the anniversary celebrations in Scotland began, appropriately enough, with a viewing of the original dissertation on Friday afternoon.
Attending the weekend’s events were a dozen or so promising young Americans, all current or former Wilbur Fellows who, after working for Russell and Annette Kirk, went on to study at St. Andrews. It was impressive to hear the deep affection with which each of them spoke about the Kirks—and about the time they spent at his ancestral home at Piety Hill.
Various Europeans also joined the celebrations—for, despite his focus on an ‘Anglo-American’ political tradition, many of Kirk’s published works are known across Continental Europe. Some have even been translated into Spanish, German, and Italian, and his ideas have influenced a range of European scholars. In Germany, Kirk’s contributions as a ‘conservative man of letters’ were recognized as so important, that he merited a lengthy entry (and photograph) in the Lexikon des Konservatismus (Dictionary of Conservatism), a 1996 work edited by the German noble, Caspar von Schrenck-Notzing. Today even young members of Sweden’sKonservativt Forum are wont to quote Kirk approvingly.
The always charming and energetic Annette Kirk was also present in Scotland, along with two of her daughters and their families. On Friday evening, she hosted a private reception and dinner at the cliff-side Russell Hotel, where guests were treated to a talk by André Gushurst-Moore, currently Director of Pastoral Care at Downside School, an institution attached to the Benedictine Downside Abbey in Somerset, England.
Gushurst-Moore elaborated on some of the principal themes in Kirk’s works, speaking of Kirk’s defense of humane learning, the moral imagination, and “the permanent things.” Not coincidentally, these are precisely the themes closest to Gushurst-Moore’s own work. In his recent The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk (published in 2013 by Angelico Press), he profiles 12 great ‘Christian Humanists’ through the centuries, including Thomas More, Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke, Orestes Brownson, and Russell Kirk, among others.
His was an eloquent and respectful tribute, which many found quite moving. It was a testament of sorts to the impact that Kirk’s writings—and his gentle character—had on people. And nearly two decades after his death, Kirk continues to touch people with the evocative power of his words (the late Frederick Wilhelmsen said “Kirk was essentially a poet who wrote in prose”). What a reminder of those T.S. Eliot lines from Four Quartets which Kirk was so fond of quoting: “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
Piety Hill Revisited
Later that evening, I spoke to Gurshurst-Moore. A gentle Oxonian, he wears his knowledge lightly. Before moving to Somerset, he and his family spent three years in the U.S. on a farm in Maine, living the life of what Kirk might have termed a “Northern Agrarian.” A ‘Jeffersonian squire,’ I thought to myself. (Rod Dreher has other labels for such men: “Birkenstocked Burkeans” or “crunchy cons.”) Like Kirk, Gurshurst-Moore had sought to “redeem the time” by re-imagining a rural existence in active “opposition to the spirit of the age.”
Such thoughts brought to mind Kirk’s long, country walks and, as long as he was physically able, his penchant for planting trees on his land in the “stump country” of central Michigan. This was a very real act of reconstruction and recovery—a modest attempt to re-imagine the rural life that the modern world had all but swept away.
Kirk seemed to attract people who sought to commit such acts of recovery, and his family and literary legacy still do. In fact, those gathered in his name at St. Andrews two weeks ago were of this type: sensitive, imaginative young conservatives on their way perhaps to some obscure but rewarding academic post far away from the halls of power along the Potomac.
Men of Letters & Politics
The main event in Scotland took place on Saturday morning, with lectures at Parliament Hall along South Street. There, from a lectern located near a portrait of Lord Acton, an energetic welcome was offered by Michael Bentley, professor of political and intellectual history at the University of St. Andrews. He also gave a brief but deeply respectful overview of Kirk’s life, his work at St. Andrews, and the friendships he cultivated in Scotland.
Bentley then introduced the eminent historian of the American conservative movement, George Nash, senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and celebrated author of the 1976 classic, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America—since 1945 . A friend of the Kirk family for decades, the highly articulate and soft-spoken Nash provided a more detailed biographical look at Kirk, delving into some of the early experiences that provided the insights leading to the development of The Conservative Mind—and elaborating on Kirk’s life-long opposition to the dehumanizing forces of “big business, big labor, and big government.”
In his 1976 classic (and elsewhere), Nash called Kirk a “romantic traditionalist”. And given the ugliness of the modern industrial state, the horror of urban sprawl, and the “reign of King Whirl” in the U.S., it is easy to understand why Kirk would have chosen to move to the U.K. to do doctoral work in Scotland. It was there, Nash noted, that Kirk saw “the metaphysical principle of continuity given visible reality”.
The Right Honorable David Willetts, a Member of Parliament, and Minister of State for Universities and Sciences, followed Nash with a speech that was surprisingly scholarly yet inspirational. He raised provocative philosophical questions (for example, if modern conservatism is essentially Anglo-American, then what might, say, a Chinese account of conservatism look like?) and identified two of the biggest challenges facing conservatism today: the anti-state libertarianism that has taken over the movement, and the role of religious belief.
It is in regard to these two last points that Willetts found some of the most important and insightful contributions in Kirk. In fact, he demonstrated an uncommon familiarity with Kirk’s entire oeuvre and referred easily to pertinent passages in a well-thumbed copy of The Conservative Mind. In short, Willetts proved that there are still some engaging, principled intellectuals in Britain’s Tory Party.
The day ended with a gala dinner held in Parliament Hall and a final closing lecture by Owen Dudley Edwards, a renowned BBC writer and broadcaster, and reader in Commonwealth and American history at the University of Edinburgh. His was a long and discursive talk that took in many literary greats—including John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and T.S. Eliot, but he concluded with a spirited tribute to Russell Kirk, who he placed among the greatest belletrists of history.
Two Scottish Families
On Sunday, the last day of the anniversary celebrations, guests boarded two small buses and traveled to Kellie Castle, the ancestral home of the Catholic Lorimer family, who Kirk had befriended as a student. It was here, in one of the large, yellow rooms on an upper floor, that Kirk wrote parts of The Conservative Mind. Today the Castle, whose origins date back to around 1360, is in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland.
Kirk’s friendship with the Lorimers—especially sculptor Hew Lorimer—was sealed over common attitudes and shared beliefs. Lorimer was steeped in religion and tradition. Along with his father, Lorimer was part of the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’: “a reaction against manufactured goods and the effects of the Industrial Revolution on art and design.” In Lorimer, with his affection for the old medieval craft guilds of Europe, Kirk recognized a conservative mind.
Kirk would later write about the Lorimer family with wistful affection in The Sword the Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, his posthumously published 1995 autobiography. And if one visits Piety Hill today, one should take note of the stone reliefs above the fireplace (which appear on the cover of the 2002 collection The Essential Russell Kirk edited by the late George A. Panichas): Sculpted by Hew Lorimer, they are allegorical figures representing history, theology, and law.
As we exited Kellie Castle and walked down its muddy driveway, I had an impromptu conversation with the gracious Peter Christie, Laird of Durie House, who also participated in the weekend’s events. Christie—who spent time as a teenager with the Kirk family in Michigan—spoke fondly of his old friend (as he does here in an interview conducted several years ago). He, like so many others, had grown to love and admire Kirk. Along with his wife, he recalled Kirk’s gentleness, his playful sense of humor, and the almost child-like wonder with which Kirk viewed the beauty of the world.
On the drive back to St. Andrews, the buses stopped by a small white house that Kirk had once owned. Hew Lorimer had convinced him to buy it in order to save it from demolition by developers. Mrs. Kirk described how run-down and decrepit, it had been inside—but how painstakingly she and her husband had attempted to reconstruct and rehabilitate the little gem. What a perfect metaphor for Kirk’s life’s work, I thought.
Imagination, Humility & Love
I now think perhaps there was something else in mind, too—something more elusive and less readily identifiable, yet something that Kirk himself had beautifully given voice to in his stories, essays, and books. Only now in middle-age do I realize that the conservatism that Kirk represented requires greater acceptance of the ineffable and the mysterious, and an appreciation of the magical and the supernatural. Such things, of course, cannot be easily apprehended with the senses or understood with the marvelous faculty of reason; they are best approached through the imagination. And this was one of Kirk’s great insights.
The importance of The Conservative Mind is that it can point the way to a recovery of a proper understanding of our flawed human nature—which could then lead to a recovery of our American political tradition. It is, to be sure, a long book, requiring patience and commitment; and one has to also recognize that most readers today—accustomed to the truncated expressions of emails and SMS messages, and the rapid-fire banter of modern television entertainment—may find that Kirk’s careful, evocative writing requires more effort than they are used to. Still, it remains a necessary read, especially if one claims to be a conservative thinker: for on Kirk’s shoulders, the rest of us stand.
And this is a perfect image with which to conclude, for recognition that we are “inheritors and guardians” of something that came before us requires a great deal of humility, a virtue about which few people speak today—but which Kirk knew was necessary for a truly authentic conservatism.
The other important requirement—especially in a world from which the True, the Good, and the Beautiful have been banished—is simply charity or, more plainly, love. I thought of this tiny, misunderstood word as I savored a double dram of Balvenie on the final evening of Kirk’s celebrations and recalled that in 1994, Francis J. Canavan had written that a “principal characteristic” of Kirk’s interpretation of conservatism was his emphasis on affection, loyalty, and love. Owen Dudley Edwards said as much on Saturday night.
So perhaps The Conservative Mind is not merely “a genealogy of good men and valuable thoughts”; perhaps it is about men who so passionately loved the world that they refused to allow it to fall into decadence, decay, and barbarism—choosing instead to commit imaginative acts of re-enchantment, re-integration, and redemption, like Kirk.
We should strive to be such men.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative.
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