With Gratefulness to dead ancestors and the living family.

russell kirk's childhood

Of early memories, Kirk’s most painful is his crying for water in a hospital at Ann Arbor. At the age of three, Russell had contracted acute nephritis, fell scourge, and was puffed up to the likeness of a large ball, too hideous for his mother to be permitted to see him in his sickbed. Even water, being saline, was denied him; in the hospital he was given to drink only a vegetal slime denominated Imperial Drink, not much more welcome than the molten gold said to have been poured by Parthians down the throat of the defeated Crassus.

With this distasteful recollection is mingled a glimpse, perhaps illusory, of a silent blind man, his great-uncle Raymond Johnson, standing at the foot of his hospital bed. Certainly Uncle Ray at that time was dying of a brain tumor in an Ann Arbor hospital—though not the same hospital. At the Traverse City insane asylum, where Ray Johnson had been an attendant, he had been beaten on the head by a madman; and he died in Ann Arbor a year later. Made melancholy from an early age by seances in his father’s house, Uncle Ray never had married. Young Russell was to inherit his books, good ones all of them, from Don Quixote to a history of Switzerland to Beckford’s Vathek. Uncle Ray entered into the little boy’s imagination. There was something spectral about Raymond Johnson, homesteader, soldier, male nurse: perhaps his bedside appearance at the hospital was spectral too.

Refuting gloomy common expectation, the little boy survived his nephritis. Until the age of seven, he would not be strong—kept in this world, indeed, by the devotion of his mother and his grandmother (who churned unsalted butter for him); even to have consumed a banana, after leaving the hospital, might have ended his life. Much of his time during those tender years was spent in the Land of Counterpane, marshaling imaginary hosts of chivalry on the bedspread, with images drawn from a rendering—was it Sidney Lanier’s or Howard Pyle’s?—of the Arthurian legends.

Hawthorne Centenary BooksThat sort of childhood had benefited, blessing in disguise, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Theodore Roosevelt, in like fashion cribbed, cabined, confined. Young Russell taking it for granted, naturally enough, that he would be read to lifelong by his mother, in school he did not trouble himself to learn how to read for himself. At last, when he was not quite seven and a sibling was in prospect, his mother insisted that he acquire the art, for she would not be able to spend so much time with him thereafter. In a fortnight, by some means he could not recollect in later years, that affectionate mother contrived to make him literate; and already he had acquired a large vocabulary by attentive listening. His mother presented him with second-hand sets of the select works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fenimore Cooper, and Walter Scott; he dashed into them. This precocious introduction to the immense corpus of English literature may have impeded, in later years, any accomplishment in ancient and foreign languages: there was so much to read in English that he could not trouble himself with other literatures. He would acquire some Latin in high school and some Spanish in college; otherwise, once he ventured into the world, he would find himself confined to asking in a variety of tongues the hour of a train’s departure.

The child fell victim to every conceivable childhood disease, then unrestrained by ingenious vaccines and antitoxins. Yet he would emerge from these afflictions deep-chested and hearty, able in manhood to stroll forty miles a day, a hill-walker and on occasion a mountain-climber. From the age of three until that of sixty-three, he never was bedded in a hospital.

During those months before the birth of a sister, Carolyn, Marjorie Pierce tried to fix in her boy’s memory everything they did together: it was the close of their isolated intimacy. Long later, during his teens, she asked him imploringly if he did remember; with a boy’s perversity, he said “No.” Yet recollect he did, perfectly well; and when he was in a desert camp, and she lay dying of cancer at Plymouth two thousand miles away, he wrote to her confessing his full recollection of those tender months. A small atonement, his letter reached her eyes the day before she died. Like his father, the boy kept his emotions to himself, tight-locked except in some desperate hour: for the most part, a pity, that pretended apathy. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Between the ages of seven and eight, the boy came to suspect that he already knew everything of importance. He was right, at bottom: mind and character often have taken form by that venerable age, and the Jesuits were not mistaken when they declared, “Give us the boy until he is seven, and we care not what you do with him afterward.” Afterward comes experience—a hard master, Ben Franklin wrote, though fools will have no other; afterward comes the accumulating of a mass of facts, which with difficulty may be fitted into some pattern of knowledge. Yet reason and imagination are shaped early, for good or ill, and what else one learns is mere buttressing of persuasions or fragments of worldly wisdom. The boy’s cast of mind was more mystical than metaphysical. Now and again he would stand between two tall mirrors, glimpsing the terror of infinity—diminished image reflecting dwindled image, until the optic nerve could not suffice to detect what presumably continued ad infinitum. “We see through a glass, darkly”—or, as a recent translation has it, “Now we are looking into the riddle of a mirror.” What was infinity? What was eternity?

Or he would stare puzzled at his mirrored face—with which he was not much pleased—asking himself silently who or what he was. Cogito ergo sum? Of course the seven-year-old boy, deep in marchen, never had heard of Descartes; nevertheless he rejected the Cartesian hypothesis. He knew that he possessed an organic thinking-contrivance called a brain; yet he knew, or rather was mysteriously aware, that he was more than brain. Confronting the mirror, he received the intuition that he had a soul; no, that he was a soul. No one had told him so, yet he knew it.

The doctrine of the soul, which the old Plato proclaimed his principal teaching, is denied by many today—especially by those styling themselves intellectuals—and uneasily neglected by many more. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century dictionaries are vague about that word “soul.” The Christian dogmas of the soul and of the resurrection of the flesh, preached early in three continents, created a new order for mankind. Men and women are made for eternity: such was the first postulate of that order. How so? Because they are souls.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

For expression and action, Aquinas tells us, the soul requires a corporeal envelope. That premise is far more readily apprehended today than it was in Saint Paul’s age; for physicists instruct us that we of this seemingly too-solid flesh actually are collections of electrical particles, held in an ephemeral suspension and arrangement by some “laws” that we do not understand in the least. We are energy—and energy, which we can neither create nor destroy, incessantly is being transmuted into new forms. No longer need we say, with Tertullian, credo quia absurdum est. For the science of quantum mechanics has undone nineteenth-century concepts of matters; and it becomes conceivable that whatever power has assembled the negative and positive charges composing us may reassemble those electrical particles, if it chooses, in eternity. What survives (if stained) this present existence is the anima, the animating soul transcending mind and body.

Naturally, seven-year-old Russell knew nothing of atomic theory or of Platonic and Christian insights, faded in modern minds quite as old pictures grow dim with the passing of centuries, and—to carry the analogy farther—are thickly coated over, during the past two centuries, with the varnish of mechanism and materialism. Nevertheless, in erring reason’s spite, the precocious boy, possibly through a perception beyond the five senses, found in the riddle of a mirror the answer to his inquiry, “What am I?” He became aware that he was more than a person: the persona, after all, means a mask merely. He was a soul; if a soul in a fleshly prison, still a soul.

That conviction sweeps away the “identity crisis” so much written about in recent years. Few philosophical intellects remain that venture to discuss the soul; it is daring enough nowadays to try to analyze “consciousness.” But if the reality of the soul is admitted, mere consciousness ceases to be a problem. A soul is conscious of its own existence—unless blinkered by twentieth-century scientism. The axiom is not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am, therefore I think.” Or perhaps it should be put, “I really am, therefore I imagine.” With recognition of one’s soul, identity is established.

This insight gave the boy whatever strength he was to possess in later years. He knew who he was, with his failings and his powers. The insight did not make him religious: a few Sundays he attended a Baptist Sunday school—encouraged by his parents, who never entered any church themselves—but departed disappointed. Skeptical from early years, in his teens he would twit his elders by professing militant atheism—actually he was too skeptical to accept atheism’s dogmata.

Confronting a glass darkly at the age of seven, the boy could not surmise whither imagination, reason, experience, and formal learning would lead him in the end. He did nothing more than seize upon the truth, never doubted afterward, that he was a soul—subject to the infirmities of the flesh, and yet rejoicing in the flesh. For the time, that grand perception sufficed.

Ancestors and elder kin were much with the small boy. While still an infant, Russell commenced, with his mother, pilgrimages by train to the village of Mecosta, away up north. There, in a tall clapboard Italianate house of angular charms, lived his widowed great-grandmother, Estella Russell Johnson, with her two devoted spinster daughters, Norma and Frances. Long later, the Mecosta property would become Russell’s.

Amos Johnson, a massive man with somber dominating eyes and a red beard, one of Russell’s great-grandfathers, had laid out the village of Mecosta and had been elected its first president; later, judge of probate in Mecosta County. Giles Gilbert, Johnson’s uncle and mentor, had been a lumber baron of central Michigan; the towns of Stanton and Mecosta were his creations, although after the depletion of Michigan’s forests he pursued the retreating trees to Oregon, where he prospered mightily.

russell kirk

Russell Kirk at Piety Hill

Amos and Estella Johnson, with their children, had stuck to Mecosta and their white-pine house on Piety Hill—the western quarter of the village, so styled by the hard-drinking lumberjacks about the saloons down by the east branch of the Little Muskegon river.

Swedenborgian and Spiritualist doctrines, fetched along from upper New York, fascinated the Johnsons and the Pierces and their friends in the boomtown; a Spiritualist church was erected on Piety Hill, but soon burnt. Then, in the 1880s and 1890s, the Johnson house became a center for seances.

Stella Johnson, with the manners of a grand lady, would be levitated in her rocking chair to glide in the air about the upper regions of the high-ceilinged front parlor—so family tradition came down to Russell. The heavy mahogany Third Empire round table, also levitated at those seances, still is among Kirk’s goods and chattels. As easily as it had come to the young William Butler Yeats, acceptance of the uncanny came to the young Russell Kirk: it was a matter of course in his family. In the fullness of time, the uncanny would enter into Kirk’s mystical tales as it entered into Yeats’. In that haunted house at Mecosta, where time had a stop, Russell’s boyhood summers would be spent. The seances had ended with Amos Johnson’s death, in 1901, but memories and shadows lingered.

With its bay windows, its kitchen redolent of sage and peppermint, its curious corners, its plaster busts of Plato and Homer looking down from advantageous elevations, the house seemed infinitely old to the boy. Possessing faded grandeur—so far as Mecosta County, a poor land, ever had known grandeur—the place was crowded with good old furniture and books.

The family had been nearly ruined by the Panic of ‘93—losing much land, a lake, and a partnership in the bank. Eight years later, the death of Amos Johnson had left his widow and his daughters to genteel poverty lifelong—though one might not have fancied them straited, what with the table they set for guests and the hundreds of jars of preserves in the deep Michigan cellar. They retained the house, a cornfield, forty acres of swampy cutover land, a cow, and chickens.

At the height of the lumber boom, in the 1880s, there may have been two thousand people in the village and Giles Gilbert’s nearby lumber camps. Four decades later, during Russell’s boyhood, the place had shrunk to two hundred souls—living souls, that is. It had become one of Michigan’s more pleasant ghost-towns: no one seemed to stir except on Saturday nights. Mecosta was a village with a broad street one mile long, white clapboard shops with false fronts scattered along it, with many a gap worked by fire. The hamlet would have suited Wyoming or Colorado well enough, being a perfect set for a Western shoot-out; the country round it, however, belonged peculiarly to the lake states. Glaciated and ravaged, Mecosta County was like the empty land that peers out of the pages of the Mabinogion. Thirty-six lakes lay in a six-mile radius, and picturesque swamps to explore by boat. Curtis Stadtfeld, in his moving book From the Land and Back (1972), touches upon Mecosta’s eeriness. Grown up some miles to the east, two decades after Russell’s boyhood, Stadtfeld describes Mecosta village as

…an odd little place left over from the logging days, getting a bit of resort business in the summer from people who stayed at the lakes nearby. There is no particular reason for Mecosta to survive…. The single street is so wide it makes the town seem abandoned much of the time; stores change hands, businesses come and go, and there seem to be no roots going out from it. When we were boys, we used to call it “Brigadoon” and drive over now and then to see if it was still there. Even after I drive through it now, I am never quite sure…strange winds blow there, and odd sounds are heard in the night. Perhaps the ghosts of the lumbermen are keeping it alive, knowing they will need it later.

The boy Russell scarcely understood how the sparse surviving population of Mecosta subsisted—perhaps by taking in one another’s laundry. His two maiden great-aunts occasionally shucked and husked at the village’s elevator, since vanished. The township’s farms, of arid sand or heavy clay, belonged principally to the descendants of Mosel peasants, Catholics, a hard-working grace. Also there were colored farmers—rare in the North—called the Old Settlers, descendants of free blacks or escaped slaves who had migrated to Ontario; there (some of them) married Scottish girls, and shifted back to Michigan after the Emancipation Proclamation, homesteading land in southern and eastern Mecosta County. The Berry family, eminent among the Old Settlers, lived across Franklin Street from the Johnsons. (A lively account of the Old Settlers may be found in Richard Dorson’s book Negro Folktales in Michigan (1956); it would be Russell Kirk, in 1955, who would introduce Professor Dorson to this unique community.) Indian blood was noticeable among the Old Settlers, but no pure Indians remained at Mecosta in Russell’s boyhood—only tales of the squaws who often had sat in a silent circle in Estella Johnson’s kitchen, and sticks of a balsam medicine for splinters in the flesh that the squaws had taught Mrs. Johnson to compound.

That hospitable autocrat Estella Johnson, in her ankle-long black dresses and high-buttoned black shoes, throughout Russell’s boyhood presided over Piety Hill, seeming almost never to exert herself. She was an intelligent old lady, reading many good books; Willa Cather was her favorite author. She had been a pioneer at Mecosta—not a pioneer woman, but a pioneer lady.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

In the early years, while, seated upon a plush sofa, she read Emanuel Swedenborg, outside on the lawn growled the watch-bear, chained to a log. The creature had been caught as a cub—the name Mecosta, incidentally, signifying in Potawatomi “cub bear”—and pressed into service; later, having grown surly and menacing, he was emancipated to lumber off to Hughes’ Swamp, sixteen miles long, with its jungle of cedars. Fifty years earlier, making their way through the forest toward Saginaw, Tocqueville and Beaumont had been greeted at a farmyard by just such a watch-bear. “What a devilish country this is,” Tocqueville exclaimed, “where they have bears as watchdogs!” A century ago, Mecosta must have remained devilish still. For that matter, a reputed witch survived in the neighborhood until recent decades, drying up rival farmers’ cattle by her curses.

Aye, they were eerie enough, Mecosta Village and Morton Township; they would supply themes and backgrounds, long later, for the stories and vignettes in Kirk’s volume The Surly Sullen Bell (1965) and other collections of his tales. The Old Sand Road and Lost Lake, in particular, worked upon the boy’s fancy. (In 1952, Adrian Smith, Kirk’s partner in a bookshop, would tell him, “Russell, you are the last of the Romantics, and probably the greatest: for nobody else could make tales out of that God-forsaken Mecosta County.”)

In Kirk’s entrance hall today hang seven heavy-framed big portraits: those of Amos and Estella Johnson, one pair of great grandparents; of Isaac and Caroline Porter, another pair; of Frank and Eva Pierce, his mother’s parents; and of Raymond Johnson, the only son of Amos and Estella. Those faces, too, set the boy to imagining.

Isaac Pierce was an adventurer who left Caroline in 1850 to seek riches in the Californian gold-fields; after years there and in Montana (where he was a cowboy), and after having eaten pounded grasshoppers with the Digger Indians, he returned with only a poke full of gold dust and some other gold that he had made into trinkets. At Mecosta, he became a builder of pleasantly simple little houses and for a time village president, Caroline, his wife, struggled tirelessly against poverty; Russell would inherit her pocket-book, still with her tiny savings in archaic dollar bills and fractional currency safe inside.

Those big faces on the wall, Johnsons and Pierces, like death-masks in a Roman triclinium, did not dismay the boy: They told him that he participated in a continuity of the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. From those dead on the wall came his energies.

Over everything at Piety Hill brooded an air, by no means oppressive, of vanished lands, frustrated ambitions, forgotten expectations. One learned not to lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt. The vanity of human wishes was writ large at Mecosta. Still, the old house abounded still in little treasures dear to a boy’s heart, family souvenirs: Amos Johnson’s silver-mounted pistol, carried in the vanished lumber-camps; enormous earrings of California gold; a half-dozen gold watches; antique toys; no end of books. Such bric-a-brac, evocative of ancestors, would supply the subject for Kirk’s first nationally-published essay, “Mementoes,”written when he was sixteen.

16222-ghosts-1920x1080-fantasy-wallpaperWe all are full of ghosts, says Lafcadio Hearn: “All our emotions and thoughts and wishes, however changing and growing through the varying seasons of life, are only compositions and recompositions of the sensations and ideas and desires of other folk, mostly of dead people….” There are no dead, Saint Augustine tells us. Russell’s ancestors had taken that literally.

There survive at Piety Hill the slates employed at the Johnson and Pierce seances, with messages from the beyond still legible upon them. A traveling medium came to Piety Hill, in the 1980s, pairs of slates were fastened face to face; and upon the inner faces of those slates appeared sentences —some of them written in the colors of the parlor carpet.

Some of those communications were grim enough. Through the medium, the family had sought to learn what had happened to an older brother of Amos Johnson, vanished in the Civil War; and on a slate appeared the words, “I was shot, shot, shot to pieces.” But sometimes the wits of the departed seemed to have suffered by translation to another realm, the boy Russell reflected, inexplicable though the slate-writing seemed; some messages were platitudinous. Here is one that still may be discerned on a surviving slate, addressed to Frank Pierce:

My dear son, Frank, I will come tonight if I can, but the atmosphere is bad. The conditions are not going to be first class. Frank, I wish to say I am proud of my boy. Only learn everything well. Father Isaac W. Pierce.

Visible manifestations were more startling. A man who belonged to this spiritualist circle would come from Hall’s Corners, bearing a fiddle he did not know how to play; but the instrument would be snatched out of his grasp by invisible hands, carried up toward the ceiling; and there the bow would make music on the strings.

Such episodes preternatural had occurred at Piety Hill in former days, whatever the power behind them; and shadows of those episodes lingered long—indeed, until the house was consumed by fire in 1975. The boy’s very sensible and book-reading great-grandmother, Stella Johnson, who had been considerable of a medium herself long before Russell was born, was in the habit of retiring to her bedroom promptly after dinner, during the boy’s frequent visits to Mecosta. Later, though not while she lived, Russell was told that nightly in her room she had conversed with the dead. For decades, neighborhood children ran full tilt at night when they had to pass the Johnson house, they being mindful of its legendary terrors.

One strong seeming manifestation of the uncanny came to the boy himself. When eight or nine years old, he was at Piety Hill for Christmas. The house being crowded, he was bedded on a sofa in the front parlor. Setting his eyeglasses—which then he had not worn long—upon the floor, he crept between the covers. Snow was falling thickly outside the bay window, which his bed faced.

Abruptly, he perceived two men standing in the storm just outside that big window; heads and shoulders were clearly visible. They appeared to be staring into the room. One man, tall and bearded, wore a tall hat; the other, short, wore a round hat.

Who would be snubbing his nose against the pane in such weather, in the dead of night? This must be an optical illusion, possibly to be dissipated by a pair of spectacles. The boy put his glasses back on.

The two men still stared into the room.

Glasses or no glasses, might not this apparition be produced by a snow-laden branch of some tree close to the window, say—or some such natural cause? The hypothesis might be tested by the boy getting out of bed, proceeding up to the bay window, and standing nose to nose with the two men, but he did not relish that prospect. An alternative would have been to run out of the house barefoot, through the snow, to the bay-window front, there to challenge the intruders; but neither did that scheme please the boy.

Therefore, discretion being the better part of valor, he tucked his head under the covers and fell asleep. Rising early the next morning, he went out to investigate. No footprints appeared in the snow, and there was no tree-branch anywhere near that bay window.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

Until he was middle-aged, Kirk would keep that eldritch episode strictly private. Long later, in the course of a desultory conversation, his old Aunt Fay—to whom he had told nothing of his midnight visitants—happened to mention that when she was a little girl, given to playing outside the front parlor’s bay window, from time to time she had enjoyed the companionship of two men seen by no one else. Did she converse with them? She couldn’t say, precisely; but somehow they had communicated. The men had names: Dr. Cady and Patti. Dr. Cady was tall and bearded, and wore a tall hat; Patti was short and clean-shaven, and wore a turban.

Later still, after Kirk had married, his first daughter, Monica, two years old, was found waving from the second parlor to an invisible being on the lawn, calling out “Hi, Patti! Hi, Patti!” Many children have invisible playmates of fancy; but this coincidence of names was remarkable, and Monica insisted that her Patti was a rather short man. Spectres persisting through three generations at Piety Hill? And perceived only by innocents, but in consistent form? There are “thin places” here below, says an eminent living minister of the Kirk, where something may be glimpsed as through a veil. Certainly Russell’s forebears had labored diligently to peer through that veil; conceivably they had succeeded better than they knew.

The old Arthur Koestler, never encountered by Kirk, might have been fascinated by this brief narration; and William Butler Yeats still more. Whatever it was, it occurred; but Kirk never subscribed to any particular theory of occult phenomena. C. G. Jung might have made much of another of Kirk’s experiences: a recurrent dream coming to Russell from childhood until his fifties, dreamed only at Piety Hill.

In this recurrent dream, Kirk would find himself in the dining room of the old house, looking at a sealed door. (That door did have a real existence, and as a little boy Kirk often tried to open it, in vain; it led, actually, to a disused cellar stair.) In the dream, he did find it possible to open that door at last, and descended the stairs leading to a region of the house previously unvisited by him—though he long had suspected its existence.

He found himself in a windowless subterranean apartment, consisting of several rooms, low-ceilinged, with floors of packed earth. Heavy timbers showed in walls and ceilings. The rooms were furnished, sparsely, with heavy rustic chairs and tables and beds. All this was apparently much older than the Italianate house above.

The dream-adventurer penetrated to the furthest room, and there saw in the opposite wall a stone tablet set. Approaching and bending to read the inscription, he became aware suddenly that the tablet was a tombstone. Before he could make out the inscription, he sensed something at his back; and turning with a shriek, he confronted an amorphous white figure rising out of the earth. At that he awoke. This nocturnal vision of the House of the Dead made its way into his sleeping consciousness a dozen times at least, over the years. One cannot say that it plagued him; for he took a certain dreadful joy in the adventure. Sometimes he wondered whether the subterranean apartment might bear a resemblance to the log house of one or another of his ancestors; down to his father’s time, many of them had been born in log cabins. But those dwellings had been demolished, burnt, or greatly modernized; there was no telling.

Let it not be thought that young Russell, at Piety Hill, suffered an existence of terror, a Gorgon round every corner. Au contraire, the preternatural seemed to be part and parcel of the nature of things at Mecosta; he was early inoculated against the darkness at the bottom of the stairs; as he would tell his bride, when Piety Hill had become his, “The darkness belongs to us.”

russell kirk st. andrewsPerhaps a relish for the uncanny worked in his genes; he found such mysteries more entertaining than affrighting. In the course of a vagrant life he would collect narratives of the occult—in haunted St. Andrews, in the castles and country houses of Fife, in the Hebrides, in Ireland, even in the palazzi of Florence. At Mecosta, contrary to the usual course of psychic phenomena, the manifestations of strange presences would grow stronger with the passing of the years—until that house’s sudden destruction in 1975.

In fine, Russell’s was a childhood of wonder and love, mystery and familial memories. He never knew the tyranny of the “age-peer group,” having always the counsel and companionship of family—especially of his grandfather.

Nevertheless, he played and scuffled with the stalwart boys of Lower Town, dubbing them knights of the Round Table and outfitting them with wooden swords and cardboard armor. In his grandfather’s bank, he rubber-stamped endorsements on the reverse of checks and even (shocking to relate about a bank that called itself “Strong as the Rock of Gibraltar”) was permitted in the vault to pile up safety deposit boxes as if they had been building-blocks.

They are gone now, almost all of them, those kith and kin of the 1920s. How much more one should have said to them, while there was time! But the boy was shy, keeping his own counsel. They forgave much in him. Reticent though he remained, he was grateful, deep within, to the dead ancestors and the living family: He knew he would have been nothing without them.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1990).

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