I have few regrets in my life. At least major ones. Of course, there are always things I could have done differently. And, though some of my life has been pretty rocky, especially childhood, I have had it pretty good. I have a great family, I have a solid and fulfilling career, and I get to write as much as I want.
Only two major regrets linger. First, I passed up the opportunity to work on an Indian reservation immediately after college. This would have been a teaching position in Montana. I didn’t pursue it once I’d found out that I’d been accepted to graduate school. Looking back, though, I might have grown a lot there—probably much more than I did in graduate school.
Second, and more immediate to the concerns of this post, I never met Russell Kirk. What a tragedy. We walked on the same earth together for twenty-six years, and yet I never made the pilgrimage to Mecosta or to a meeting or lecture at which Dr. Kirk was present.
I first read The Conservative Mind sometime during my junior or senior year of college. Most likely, I read the book during the fall of 1989. I remember already missing Reagan but I also remember being elated by the events in Eastern Europe that fall. I still have that copy of the The Conservative Mind, and my marginalia reveals much about my then-current state of mind. I’ve always argued with my books, and almost every book I own bleeds with commentary and marginalia. Sometimes, especially when I was younger, I offered some rather blunt criticism that now embarrasses me, and quite frankly, my mouth was not as clean as it should have been. My mother would not be proud; not should she have been. It’s clear from my notes, however, that I loved Kirk. The Conservative Mind certainly intrigued me, confused me, and prompted me to look into a million new ideas.
My notes from that first reading reveal how different my vocabulary was then. I have words circled throughout the book with my specific notation to look up the actual definitions. I assume I must have followed up on these notation prompts to myself, as I know the meanings now! This must have been an education in and of itself.
By looking at that first copy I read, I find I was also quite intrigued with the use of the organic imaginary Kirk employed. Not surprisingly, I also liked his criticisms of anything that even hinted at utilitarianism, calculation, and materialist absurdities.
Finally, I rather surprisingly admitted to myself that: “Maybe I am a conservative. At least in history.”
Up to this point in my life, I had read quite a bit, but outside of fiction, I had read mostly the works of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, and Robert J. Ringer. Despite being a huge Reagan fan, I had identified most with the libertarian wing of the conservative movment, broadly understood. Raised on the glories of Barry Goldwater, I had rarely encountered anything that resembled a straightforward Kirkian view of the world. To my mind, real conservatives were the disgusting, money-grubbing televangelists one tended to find on weird channels in the 1980s. They were, as I saw it, tacky, stupid, and bigoted. To my mind, they were only a slight bit better than the left and this only because they voted the right way more often than not. Still, I distrusted them.
Reading Kirk changed all of this for me. Here was a conservative who was not a simpleton and who was not willing to compromise with the left. Additionally, unlike the barbaric gorillas I saw on TV speaking in the name of Jesus, Kirk was clearly not a fraud.
At the time I read The Conservative Mind, I wrote Dr. Kirk a long, long letter. The gist of it was fairly straightforward: how could an author who was so clearly brilliant downplay the nature of virtue and sacrifice in personal decision? That is, I thought the figures he depicted too devoid of free will and too easily accepting of their own personal fates in the world. Oh, to be twenty-one again and to be so certain of myself!
For better or worse, I never sent that letter. For better, as Kirk would have dismissed me—properly—as a crank. For worse, as Kirk might have taken me seriously and answered me in my obnoxious hubris.
Once I fatefully read Gleaves Whitney’s stunning 1991 article, “Decadence and Its Critics,” I was firmly on the road toward Kirkian conservatism, though I’ve certainly never lost my love of free market economics, my distrust of leviathan, and my reservations about unearned authority.
Sometime in the early to mid 1990s, I began to read everything of Kirk’s I could. I even made a game out of my monthly trips to the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame. Every visit meant the discovery of a new article or two by Kirk. I then photocopied, filed, and scanned each article. Not surprisingly, my love and appreciation of the man only grew and grew.
Sometime around a decade ago or so, I talked to the then-editor of ISI Books. When I suggested and proposed a biography of Russell Kirk, he rather adamantly turned me down. I’m still not exactly sure why, but the denial only made me want to write the biography even more. And thus I began, determined to write it with all Kirk’s published papers. His private papers had been closed for years.
After a number of talks with Annette Kirk, Russell’s extremely lively and capable widow, she finally allowed me to look through his private papers. I’ll never forget that call. It was sometime in the early part of 2010. “Brad,” she said in the course of normal conversation, “I’d like to open up the papers to you, if you’re still interested in writing on Russell.” Oh! Manna from heaven.
I also still remember celebrating with Winston Elliott, grand master of The Imaginative Conservative.
Since 2010, I’ve spent most of my free moments reading Kirk, thinking about Kirk, and writing about Kirk. What began as a long letter written in a fit of hubris never sent became a six-hundred page biography.
I must admit, it feels quite satisfying. On Guy Fawkes Day, this year—that is, November 5, 2015—the University Press of Kentucky will be releasing my biography of Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994).
It’s been quite a journey. Twenty-six years in the making. And, with the best companion imaginable.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.