In the twentieth century it would be hard to find a better prose writer than Russell Amos Kirk. The competition is certainly stiff. Some of the best prose writing in the history of the English language sprang from the souls, minds, and hands of G.K. Chesterton, George Orwell, Albert Jay Nock, and William F. Buckley.
Indeed, I’m rather convinced—by conviction and anecdote rather than statistical surety—that our immediate intellectual ancestors and patriarchs (and some matriarchs—Cather, Wolff, and others) achieved so much so quickly in the several decades following World War Two because they waged many of their best battles armed with superior arguments and a superior writing styles.
Just as an experiment, pick up any issue of The Progressive, The Nation, and National Review from the late 1950s or during any part of the 1960s. Pick a random article from each and read them carefully. Whatever one’s politics, there is no contest when it comes to writing. The Progressive and The Nation didn’t stand a chance. Writers such as Buckley, Kirk, and Whittaker Chambers were some of the greatest wordsmiths of the entire century.
I did not first encounter the writings of Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994) until my senior year of college. That was, appropriately, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not surprisingly, Kirk admired Reagan from his first day in office to his last, believing him to be endowed with audacity of imagination. He also, of course, despised communism as a most virulent and pernicious ideology. In the 1970s, he came to possess and wield a profound admiration for John Paul II and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Though Kirk did not put it this way, one might readily see the sacred offices of priest, prophet, and king in JPII, Solzhenitsyn, and Reagan. I once flirted with the idea of Kirk holding the role of prophet in this late western triumvirate declared above. Armed with the middle name of Amos, he could write and speak jeremiads with the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Kirk was indeed a prophet, wandering through the deserts of North America and North Africa and through the slums and castles of Europe, observing, writing, and warning. Solzhenitsyn, though, deserves the title more, no matter how much we might admire and love Kirk. In the appointed grace of the time, it seems, God chose Solzhenitsyn to suffer and reveal the horrors of atheistic materialism under the iron heel. In his own paganism and mysticism (especially his life-long belief in ghosts) and his middle-arrival to Catholicism, Kirk much more resembles an Essene, perhaps John the Baptist, or even St. John the Revelator.
So, again, given my own instinctive as well as cultivated hatred of all ideologies—left, right, above, below, and in between—it seems appropriate, if not somewhat providential, that I encountered Kirk and his Conservative Mind in my last year at the University of Notre Dame. As it turned out, Kirk’s home of Mecosta was only a few hour drive north of my dorm, Zahm Hall. One of my close friends even lived with the Kirks for a bit. Sadly, I never even contemplated such a trip, which is odd, especially given my own rather obnoxious audacity about meeting important and famous folks. I have few regrets in my life, but I very much regret not having taken the opportunity to meet Russell Kirk. I’m rather skeptical that I’ll make it to heaven, but, if God willing, I do, Kirk will be the fifth person on my list to greet. I need to see my daughter Cecilia Rose, my maternal grandparents, and my dad first. After though, I’ll seek out Kirk. Then, probably St. Augustine, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More, and Willa Cather. Of course, they might all be busy. We’ll see.
When I first read The Conservative Mind, I was stunned to the very depths of my soul by the possibilities of historical writing and analysis. During my high school years, I had read much Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, George Stiegler, Friedrich Hayek, Ben Rogge, and Israel Kirzner. These are all fine writers in the best of the social science tradition. If I’m able to think and write logical and coherent arguments, I very much credit my reading of these figures (along with the Sherlock Holmes stories).
It was the writing of Kirk, though, that convinced me great thinkers could also be great writers. Not just good, solid writers (which is what I’d found in the best of the social sciences and in the better journalism—U.S. News, Christian Science Monitor, etc.—of the 1980s), but truly great writers in the line of Tolkien and Bradbury. Kirk, as it seemed to me and still does, is the Eliot, the Bradbury, or the Tolkien of the intellectual, nonfiction world. Kirk also wrote spectacular fiction— his Lord of the Hollow Dark is arguably the greatest thing he wrote and one of the finest pieces of writing in the last 100 years–but I didn’t encounter any of this for another decade or so after first reading The Conservative Mind.
In The Conservative Mind, I also found an entirely new vocabulary. At least, new to me. My first copy of the book remains heavily marked. Every time I encountered a word I didn’t know, I marked it and copied the definition in the margins. My book is as marked up by the exclamation points, new ideas, and new figures I encountered as it is by definitions.
What The Conservative Mind demonstrated to me in 1989 is that serious thinkers can also be the best writers, penetrating in thought, while also humane in soul. And, as anyone who has had the pleasure of reading The Conservative Mind for the first or the seventh time knows, each reading of the book is a liberal arts education in and of itself.
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