What Russell Kirk did was to demonstrate that intelligent conservatism was not a mere smokescreen for selfishness. It was an attitude toward life with substance and moral force of its own…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join George Nash as he examines the life of Russell Kirk, his enduring message, and the significance of his writing for conservative thought. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
In the book of Ecclesiasticus, it is written: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” Today, I propose to honor the memory of a famous man, a man who earned his fame by writing about those who, in an intellectual and spiritual sense, were our fathers. In the great chain of being that we call Western civilization, Russell Kirk was a sturdy link.
Some years ago, a young libertarian wrote a book entitled It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. I do not know how many young conservatives in 2017 would say that their intellectual awakening began with the books and essays of Russell Kirk. But certainly many readers of The Imaginative Conservative can testify to his continuing influence and especially to the impact of his masterful book, The Conservative Mind.
As most everyone knows, The Conservative Mind was Russell Kirk’s magnum opus. Nearly sixty years after its publication, it remains in print in several languages. For most scholars, the publication of a book of this distinction would be the culmination of a career. For Kirk, who was only thirty-four at the time, it was just an opening salvo. In the years to come, he founded two influential journals (Modern Age and The University Bookman); published a regular column for more than two decades in National Review; wrote a major biography of T.S. Eliot and a classic history entitled The Roots of American Order; did more than anyone living to revive Edmund Burke as a fountainhead of conservative thought; completed a superb memoir called The Sword of Imagination; and churned out a prodigious torrent of other writings.
How prodigious? According to Charles Brown, who recently published a comprehensive bibliography of Kirk’s works, Dr. Kirk wrote twenty-six nonfiction books, nine volumes of novels and collected short stories, 255 book reviews, sixty-eight introductions and forewords to other peoples’ books, 814 essays and short pieces published in periodicals, and nearly 3,000 newspaper columns. Among all the founding fathers of modern American conservatism, only William F. Buckley Jr. rivaled him in productivity.
Surely a man of such phenomenal intellectual output and versatility deserves to be honored, and so Kirk has been and continues to be. At the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., for instance, you will find a portrait of him on the wall. If you exercise your imagination a little, you may hear echoes of his voice in the Heritage Auditorium, where he delivered nearly sixty lectures in the course of sixteen years.
Sometimes it is hinted that Kirk is slowly becoming a forgotten figure. The evidence suggests otherwise. Many of his books remain in print, and others are in the pipeline for republication. Just a few years ago a collection of his most outstanding essays, impressively edited by Professor George Panichas, was published. The title of this volume, The Essential Russell Kirk, is doubly meaningful. It suggests, first, that the essays therein contain the essence of Kirk’s teaching, and secondly, that Kirk himself is essential—essential to American conservatism. No, Kirk has not been forgotten, nor is he likely to be anytime soon. And yet there is a sense, at least in some corners of the American Right, that in 2017, almost two decades after his passing, Kirk has come to be a figure more admired than studied. Writing in the journal Humanitas a few years ago, for example, Wesley McDonald asserted that two of the American Right’s superstars, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, have not been influenced by Kirk’s brand of conservatism at all. Other observers have suggested that much of the praise heaped upon Kirk since his death has been “empty homage” by people who covet his prestige but care little for his teaching. Others lament that American higher education—the recurrent target of Kirk’s fusillades—seems more degraded than ever, at least by the standards Kirk struggled to uphold. Is Kirk’s conservatism, then, a “live option” for Americans in 2017? To put it another way: Is Russell Kirk still essential? Before we can ponder these questions, we need a clearer sense of just what kind of conservatism he espoused and of where he fits in the jigsaw puzzle of modern American conservatism.
To understand his message, we need to know the messenger. Who was Russell Kirk? He was born in 1918, in the village of Plymouth, Michigan, a few miles outside Detroit. His father was a railroad engineer who dropped out of school before the sixth grade. In Plymouth, and in the hamlet of Mecosta in the “stump country” of central Michigan, Kirk lived and grew to young adulthood. A romantic traditionalist by instinct, as it were, he came early to share his father’s prejudices against the “assembly-line civilization” already penetrating Michigan under the aegis of Henry Ford.
Kirk was a shy boy, bookish, and precocious. By the impressionable age of eight, he was devouring the novels of the man he later called his “literary mentor,” Sir Walter Scott. The imprint on the boy’s imagination was indelible. By the time he was ten (he tells us), he had read all the works of Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. By the time he was a teenager, Kirk’s cast of mind was fixed. Growing up almost as an only child (his one sibling, a sister, was seven years younger), he lived in a world of old houses, old villages, old books, and elderly relatives, many of whom believed in spirits and ghosts.
After graduating from high school in 1936, Kirk entered Michigan State College (now Michigan State University), whose spirit of “conformity,” utilitarianism, and “dim animosity toward liberal education” grated against his sensibility. Possessing little money (the Great Depression was still on), he lived frugally, subsisting much of the time on a diet of peanut butter and crackers, and graduated as a history major in 1940.
For the next year, Kirk was a graduate student in history at Duke University, where he wrote a master’s thesis later published as Randolph of Roanoke. In it he clearly sympathized with the antebellum Virginian’s aristocratic, states’ rights agrarianism. During this year, the young scholar from Michigan began to get acquainted with the conservative South. He read approvingly the Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. For the rest of his life, he considered himself a “Northern Agrarian.” In the summer of 1941, Kirk found himself working at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Even before his experiences at the Ford company, Kirk had developed a distaste for big business, big labor, and big government. His year or so at Ford did nothing to change his attitude. Indeed, his dislike of bureaucracy and what he called federal “parasites” was, if anything, increasing. He denounced the military draft as “slavery.” He published his first scholarly article, in which he advocated a return to “Jeffersonian principles.” All in all, his was the Midwestern libertarian conservatism of Senator Robert Taft. Kirk’s drifting ended abruptly in August 1942, when he was drafted into the army. For nearly four years he lived in the desolate wastes of Utah (and, later, at a camp in Florida) as a sergeant in the Chemical Warfare Service. In one respect, Kirk’s wartime experience proved to be invaluable: as a clerk with largely routine duties, he found a large amount of time to read. And read he did—Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership, the political thought of Walter Bagehot, and countless classics of English and ancient literature.
After his discharge from the army in 1946, Kirk was appointed an assistant professor of history at his alma mater, Michigan State. On the side, he founded and operated a used bookstore. But the young scholar with antiquarian interests was not long for the world of East Lansing. In 1948, Kirk—who was partly Scottish by ancestry—undertook doctoral studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. In 1952, he earned the university’s Doctor of Letters degree—the only American ever to do so.
The years 1948 to 1952 were more than just a time of intensive study, however. In many ways they set the mold for the rest of Kirk’s career. Already deeply attached to rural and ancestral ways, and already an Anglophile in his literary tastes, Kirk fell deeply in love with his ancestral homeland. There, he became a connoisseur of ancient castles, old country houses, and the lore of old St. Andrews. There, and in rural England, which he avidly explored on foot, he found “the metaphysical principle of continuity given visible reality.” There, Russell Kirk found a way to live. Some years later he himself became a country squire, as we shall see, recreating at the old family house in Mecosta something of the lifestyle he had cherished in Scotland. Not without reason did he come to refer to himself as “the last bonnet laird of the stump country.”
The St. Andrews experience affected Kirk in another way: It powerfully reinforced his staunchly classical philosophy of education. Reflecting some years later upon his St. Andrews days, when he had lived in a garret and skimped on the consumption of food, he wrote:
It is good for a student to be poor. Getting and spending, the typical American college student lays waste his powers. Work and contemplation don’t mix, and university days ought to be days of contemplation.
For the rest of his life, Kirk held unswervingly to his approach to higher education, embodied in St. Andrews, and excoriated the decadence symbolized for him by Michigan State. In still another way, St. Andrews left an indelible imprint upon this highly imaginative young man. Even before he arrived in Scotland, Kirk knew—as he later wrote—that [m]ine was not an Enlightened mind.” It was (he said), “a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure.”
I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.
In misty, medieval St. Andrews and the Scottish countryside, Kirk found enough to nourish his imagination for the remainder of his life. His later gothic novel, Old House of Fear, was set in Scotland. It sold more copies than all his other books put together. Finally, it was at St. Andrews University that Kirk discovered—or, more precisely, discovered more deeply—the great intellectual hero of his life: Edmund Burke. To Kirk’s Midwestern, grassroots, American conservatism, and to his “aristocratic” literary humanism, was now added another layer of thought: Burkean traditionalism, which Kirk acclaimed as “the true school of conservative principle.” Burke’s writings formed the basis for his doctoral dissertation, which was published in 1953 as The Conservative Mind. Of the detailed substance of Kirk’s book, I will say little, since most of you, I presume, have already read it. But its significance for American conservatism deserves further comment. What Kirk did was to demonstrate that intelligent conservatism was not a mere smokescreen for selfishness. It was an attitude toward life with substance and moral force of its own. A century earlier, John Stuart Mill had dismissed conservatives as “the stupid party.” In 1950 an eminent American literary critic had dared to assert that liberalism was “the sole intellectual tradition in the United States.” After the appearance of The Conservative Mind, the American intellectual landscape assumed a different shape. Kirk’s tour de force breached the wall of liberal condescension. He made it respectable for sophisticated people to identify themselves as men and women of the Right.
Above all, The Conservative Mind stimulated the development of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement in America in the early years of the Cold War. In the words of the book’s publisher, Henry Regnery, Kirk gave an “amorphous, scattered” opposition to liberalism an “identity.”
All this was a remarkable accomplishment for a single volume by a little-known author in 1953. The magnitude of Kirk’s achievement becomes even more impressive when we observe that The Conservative Mind was not, in the conventional sense, a political book. In its 450 pages, he laid out no elaborate agenda for legislation. Instead, he tirelessly reminded his readers that political problems were fundamentally “religious and moral problems” and that social regeneration was a goal which required action at levels beyond the political and economic. This is one reason why The Conservative Mind has outlived the special circumstances of its birth: it focuses our attention on ends and not just on means.
Kirk did this, moreover, by fearlessly grounding his conservatism in religion, particularly Christianity. In an age of predominantly secular public discourse, he unabashedly spoke of the soul and of his conviction that God rules society. In an age of the growing hegemony of the social sciences, he defiantly quoted poetry and wrote ghostly fiction with a moral twist. Indeed, I can think of no conservative in the past half century who resorted as frequently as did Kirk to works of literature to buttress his social and political commentary.
The author of The Conservative Mind was not indifferent to the worldly concerns of politics and economics. A little later in his career, for example, he helped to launch the Goldwater-for-President movement. But fundamentally, Kirk realized that political activism was not his calling. He was, rather, a moralist and man of letters whose vocation, as he saw it, was to remind us, of the truths embodied in the permanent things.
It was to these truths that Kirk returned, in more ways than one, in 1953. In that year—the very year he became an academic celebrity—Kirk courageously resigned his teaching position at Michigan State—appalled, he wrote, by the administration’s deliberate dumbing-down of educational standards. (The president of the university at the time had only one earned degree: a bachelor of science degree in poultry husbandry. Kirk disparaged him as a “chickenologist.”) Preferring “unsalaried independence” (as he put it) to the corrupting mediocrity of academe, he took up the uncertain life of a professional writer and lecturer. Declining a host of academic job offers, he instead went back to remote Mecosta, Michigan (pop. 200), and to the old family house on Piety Hill, to live with his widowed grandmother and two maiden great aunts.
In his history of National Review published in 2006, Professor Jeffrey Hart, who knew Kirk, described him as a “self-invented work of art, prodigiously learned.” By the mid-1950s his distinctive persona seemed complete. Not yet married, the peripatetic bachelor proudly called himself a “Bohemian Tory.” He defined a bohemian as “a wandering and often impecunious man of letters or arts, indifferent to the demands of bourgeois fad and foible.” He hated television, which he called “Demon TV.” He refused to drive an automobile, which he labeled a “mechanical Jacobin.”
It is entirely possible that Kirk would have a remained a brilliant, if somewhat reclusive, social critic, writing for literary journals and Sunday supplements, had not William F. Buckley Jr. come calling in Mecosta in 1955. Buckley was about to launch a conservative magazine called National Review, and he wanted Kirk to write a regular column for it. To Buckley’s delight, Kirk immediately agreed to do so. But to Buckley’s dismay, his host refused to be identified on the magazine’s masthead as one of its editors. And therein hangs a tale which illuminates much about modern American conservatism and Kirk’s place in it.
For in 1955 Kirk’s Burkeanism was not the only school of rightwing thought vying for prominence. Another intellectual tendency, known in those days as “classical liberalism” or “individualism” but generally known to us today as libertarianism, was also stirring in the United States. Among its adherents, broadly speaking, were such free-market economists as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, and the novelist Ayn Rand.
To Russell Kirk, “true conservatism”—Burke’s conservatism—was utterly antithetical to unrestrained capitalism and the egoistic ideology of individualism. “Individualism is social atomism,” he exclaimed; “conservatism is a community of spirit.” Spiritually, he said, individualism was a “hideous solitude.” On one occasion Kirk even criticized “individualism” as anti-Christian; no one, he asserted, could logically be a Christian and an individualist at the same time.
Such sentiments, which Kirk expressed with gusto in The Conservative Mind and elsewhere, did not exactly endear him to libertarians. Nor did his frequent fulminations against classical liberalism and the gospel of Progress. In 1955, the editor of the libertarian Freeman magazine, a man named Frank Chodorov, commissioned a critical article on Kirk and his so-called new conservatism. The author of the article was an argumentative libertarian (and former Communist) named Frank Meyer. The trouble with Kirk and his allies, said Meyer, was a lack of grounding in “clear and distinct principle.” For all the froth and evocative tone of their writings, they failed utterly to provide a crisp analytic framework for opposing the real enemy—collectivism—that was threatening to engulf us all. Kirk had no standards, said Meyer, no principle for distinguishing between what was good and bad in the status quo. Meyer was additionally angered by Kirk’s sweeping condemnation of “individualism.” The fiery ex-radical, who believed that “all value resides in the individual,” felt that Kirk did not comprehend the principles and institutions of a free society. To underscore the point, Meyer’s attack on Kirk was given the title “Collectivism Rebaptized.”
For Kirk, such an assault was disagreeable, if not surprising, considering its source. Far more disturbing to him was what transpired next. As it happened, Kirk in 1955 was in the process of founding his own magazine—Modern Age—when Meyer’s blast appeared. Someone—Kirk believed it was either Meyer or Chodorov—sent a copy of Meyer’s critical article to every member of Kirk’s board of advisors. To Kirk, this was a blatant attempt to undercut him with his sponsors and perhaps kill Modern Age in its womb. So when Kirk learned that Buckley intended to publish Meyer and Chodorov in National Review, the Bohemian Tory declined to be listed on the masthead as an editor. He was not about to accept any appearance of responsibility for publishing the likes of Chodorov and Meyer, whom he labeled “the Supreme Soviet of Libertarianism.” And when Kirk discovered that Chodorov and Meyer had been placed on the new magazine’s masthead, he ordered Buckley to remove his own name from that page, where he had been briefly listed as an associate and contributor. Kirk vowed that though he might write for the same magazine as Meyer and Chodorov, he would not be “cheek by jowl with them in the masthead.”
Buckley, who was trying to forge conservatism’s diverse elements into a coalition, was perturbed. He insisted that Meyer was not out to “get” Kirk and undermine his influence—although Kirk had what he considered evidence to the contrary. But Kirk did not relent. For the next twenty-five years, he wrote steadily for National Review—in fact, wrote more for it, I believe, than any other person except possibly Buckley himself. But he did not add his name to its masthead. He remained in National Review but not quite of it.
It is not possible to give you here a full account of the subsequent feud (as some have called it) between Kirk and Frank Meyer. So far as I know, they never met nor fully reconciled, though they did correspond and did, I think, develop a measure of respect for each other. Interestingly, each became a convert to Roman Catholicism—Kirk in 1964 and Meyer on his deathbed in 1972. Perhaps, in the end, they were not so far apart as it seemed.
Nevertheless, for a long time they personified the two polarities in postwar conservative thought: Meyer the arch-libertarian, for whom freedom to choose was the highest political good, and Kirk the arch-traditionalist, who sought to instruct his readers on the proper choices. The important point is that the difference between them was more than personal. Other conservative intellectuals in the 1950s and beyond were also disturbed by Kirk’s seemingly nostalgic and indiscriminate yearning for a premodern world. Kirk’s repeated invocation of “the wisdom of our ancestors” was no doubt useful, the conservative scholar Richard Weaver remarked on one occasion, but the question was: Which ancestors? “After all,” said Weaver, “Adam is our ancestor….If we have an ancestral legacy of wisdom, we have also an ancestral legacy of folly.”
Nor was Meyer the only rival with whom Kirk had to contend for intellectual leadership of the emerging conservative movement. Another was the political scientist Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s mentors at Yale. Never a man to shy from a rough-and-tumble argument, Kendall openly repudiated what he called the “Burke ‘cultists’”—above all, Russell Kirk. Privately Kendall called his own book The Conservative Affirmation (1963) a “declaration of war” against Kirk.
So much for Kirk’s critics on the Right. Suffice it to say here that from the mid-1950s forward Kirk responded vigorously to the challenges hurled against his formulation of the conservative creed. Toward doctrinaire libertarianism (especially as expounded by someone like Ayn Rand), he remained utterly uncompromising. It was, he declared in the 1980s, “as alien to real American conservatism as is communism.” It was “an ideology of universal selfishness,” and he added: “We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.” To those who asserted that his Burkean conservatism was insufficiently principled and mired in historical contingency, he reinterpreted Edmund Burke as a thinker in the “natural law” tradition—a tradition transcending national borders and mutable social conditions. To those who thought that Kirk slighted the role of reason in his defense of what he called the Permanent Things, he increasingly grounded his insights on what he called the moral imagination. To those who disparaged his conservatism as an alien hothouse plant, he reaffirmed Burke’s intellectual influence on American statesmen and emphasized the premodern roots of American order. Repeatedly, for example, he highlighted the most conservative features of the American War for Independence and its culminating achievement, the Constitution.
It is sometimes said that as men become old, they revert to the political mindset of their youth. In the final decade of his life, Kirk, it seems to me, returned more overtly—at least in his politics—to the noninterventionist, Taftite, bedrock conservatism of his boyhood. He did so, in part, under the stress of the growing quarrel between the so-called neoconservatives and their traditionalist right-wing critics, the most militant of whom took the label of paleoconservatives. In this imbroglio, which still continues today, a number of Kirk’s friends, such as M.E. Bradford, were firmly in the paleoconservative camp, and toward it Kirk tended to gravitate. In 1988, in a controversial address at the Heritage Foundation, he mixed considerable praise for the neoconservatives with mordant criticism. The next year he permitted his name to go on the masthead of the paleoconservative monthly, Chronicles, where it remained for approximately three years until he took it off. In 1991, he condemned the first Gulf War as an arrogant and imprudent “war for an oil-can.” The next year he served as chairman of Patrick Buchanan’s presidential campaign in Michigan.
In general, though, Kirk tried to stay aloof from the factional infighting that was once again afflicting the Right. Early in his career he had described himself as one who played “a lone hand,” and to a considerable extent he succeeded. It is one reason why, at his death in 1994, he was so widely respected by his fellow conservatives.
There was another reason for this respect, which I must touch upon before closing. In 1964, at the age of almost forty-six, Russell Kirk married. In the next eleven years, he became the father of four daughters. With his new station in life came new duties; as he remarked in his memoirs, “married men require money.” The years ahead brought little diminution in the pace of his intellectual activity, nor could there be, with a growing family to support. In a single, twelve-month period between mid-1967 and mid-1968 he delivered about 150 lectures around the country.
Although married life imposed new obligations on Kirk, it also created new opportunities to increase his influence on American conservatism. With his wife, Annette, as his helpmeet, the Bohemian Tory evolved into a Tory squire and paterfamilias: the laird of Piety Hill. Willmoore Kendall privately called him “the Benevolent Sage of Mecosta”—a designation I think Kirk would have enjoyed. And like all sages, he attracted inquiring students to his door. With the assistance of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, he held periodic conferences, called Piety Hill seminars, at his home in Mecosta: scores of them over a period of twenty years. According to Annette, a total of two thousand students and professors participated in these events. For some, it was a life-changing experience. With the help of the Wilbur Foundation, the impecunious refugee from what he called Behemoth University created his own informal campus in Mecosta—an endeavor that persists today in the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. If he had not married, probably none of this would have happened, and his impact on American conservatism would have been less. What, finally, may we say about Kirk’s place in the galaxy of American conservatism? First, a word about his message. More than any other conservative writer of his era, he elevated the tone and substance of conservative discourse. As Gregory Wolfe has put it, he was a “bridge-builder” to “the classics of our culture.” Whatever we may think about his interpretation of Burke, or of the American Revolution, or of any other past or present controversy, Kirk’s legacy as a moralist endures. He elevated our discourse—and our vision.
Secondly, a word about the messenger. Kirk’s antimodern persona did not win universal approbation on the American Right. It attracted some and repelled others. And it raised a perennial challenge for those who would propagate his teachings: namely, how adversarial toward modernity can one become without losing one’s ability to influence one’s fellow men and women? We might call this the dilemma of traditionalist conservatism in untraditional times.
Here Kirk himself gave us a clue on how to resolve it. In the words of an old Christian hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” Russell Kirk knew this, and because of that, he never withdrew bitterly into a “hideous solitude.” He never gave up on communicating with the world around him. “This is My Father’s World,” and as Kirk liked to say, cheerfulness keeps breaking in. He did not let his critique of modernity lead him into the Slough of Despond.
Of Kirk’s career, it can well be said that he took the road less traveled by. No doubt he paid a price for his independence—in diminished income, in caricature at times, and in lost prestige among the American professoriate. And yet his labors bore fruit, as the work of The Imaginative Conservative attests.
In a way, Kirk’s life illustrates the truth of a remark attributed to the historian Peter Viereck: “If you stand still long enough, sooner or later you’re avant-garde.” Russell Kirk did not stand still all his life, but on the issues that truly mattered he stood his ground. And because he did, we, his grateful heirs, can carry on.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in January 2013. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.