By using Google’s Ngram Viewer, we find that Russell Kirk’s reputation hit its highpoint in 1964, and then began a painful decline that remained unabated until his death in 1994. What does Ngram tell us about other conservative authors, like Robert Nisbet, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Christopher Dawson?
While I would never consider myself tech-savvy—at least not since the heyday of the Commodore 64—I do find various bits of modern technology indispensable for putting things in perspective. One of the best tools I use for scholarship is a little known search engine by Google, known as “Google Ngram Viewer” or “Google Books Ngram Viewer.” Ngram allows the user to track the number of times an author’s work is referenced in a given time-frame between, say, 1800 and 2008. Given how pervasive Google is—in all the good and bad senses that go with pervasion—Ngram has access to a considerable body of literature. While it can rarely provide enough accuracy to make a fact definitive, it can certainly indicate and reveal trends. Take, for example, the following slide, an Ngram monitoring Dr. Russell Kirk’s influence on others from the 1940s through 2008.
It must again be stated that this graph and information are not definitive, but they are telling. Though Kirk had garnered some reputation due to his few essays, his few short stories, and his biography (1951) of John Randolph of Roanoke, it was his 1953 work, The Conservative Mind, that propelled his career into the cultural zeitgeist of the time. If one merely looks at Kirk’s influence from 1952 to 1963, he would be tempted to believe Kirk’s career unstoppable. His reputation, however, hit its highpoint in 1964, and, by 1965, it began a painful decline that, for the most part, remained unabated until his death in 1994. There was a slight uptick in his reputation when he released 1974’s Roots of American Order, but it was really more of a slowing of his decline than it was a new success. At least as of 2008, Kirk’s reputation never even came close to reclaiming the glory he beheld in 1964.
To be certain, Russell Kirk’s reputation rose dramatically in the 1950s, but his attachment to the Barry Goldwater campaign doomed his reputation after the fiasco of the fall of 1964. Not only did Kirk’s candidate lose, but he himself had and always would carry the stench of politics about him.
In comparison, it is worth noting Robert Nisbet’s influence.
Never political, Nisbet’s reputation increased respectably throughout 1950s, but it soared in the mid 1960s until 1981, as both the new right and new left adopted him as a cultural icon. By 1981, however, the left had come to realize that Nisbet was not one of them, and his reputation began a slow, but steady decline. Unlike Kirk, whose death benefitted his reputation, Nisbet’s passing also meant the passing of his reputation.
Now, let’s take a much larger view of the twentieth century.
As noted on the slide itself, this slide compares and considers, arguably, the seven most influential male conservatives of the 20th century: Irving Babbitt; Friedrich Hayek; Christopher Dawson; Eric Voegelin; Leo Strauss; Russell Kirk; and Harry Jaffa. [As a sidenote, had I included Paul Elmer More, his reputation would have paralleled, almost exactly, Irving Babbitt’s, so I left it off for sake of clarity.] This chart makes several things clear. First, and most significantly, the most important conservative thinker of the century came at its beginning, not its end: Irving Babbitt. At his height, Babbitt soared above all others, and he experienced three peaks. Second, the most important conservative as of 2008, without compare, is Leo Strauss. Yet, interestingly, his reputation declined rather shockingly during the Clinton years, and only rebounded with the election of George W. Bush. Third, Christopher Dawson and, to a lesser extent, Eric Voegelin each enjoyed considerable and sustained popularity over decades.
Thus far, of course, I have only examined males, and, importantly, I’ve only examined males known best for their works of scholarship and non-fictional thought. As a prominent fiction writer, Russell Kirk somewhat taints this, but I’ll leave that argument for another time. When adding one of the most important non-leftist fiction writers of the last century, Willa Cather, to the overview, the results reveal much.
And, to state the obvious, something that every great thinker from Plato to Russell Kirk has understood, a cultural work of art moves a society more than do works of thought. Further, a non-academic can influence academics more powerfully than can fellow academics. During her own lifetime, Cather achieved a success greater than any other figure on the chart, though her ideas as expressed through literature are almost identical to those expressed by Irving Babbitt and Russell Kirk. Additionally, it was Cather’s death that shot her into superstardom. That she and Leo Strauss are at the same point, reputationally, as of 2008 also tells us how dramatically Strauss’s reputation has risen over the last few decades. Given that Cather and Babbitt once overlapped in their reputation also reveals how powerfully fiction and art can sustain an argument over time.
Finally, and just for fun. . .
In conservative circles, one often compares the ideas and works of Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin, each a significant influence on Russell Kirk as well as on Pope Benedict XVI and each a fierce opponent of Gnosticism. While Voegelin never reached the sustained heights that Dawson did, he seems to have fared better over the long term. Why? I have no idea. Fads, trends, faiths, styles? Each and every one of these things may or may not have played a role.
And, thus, we end where we began. Google Ngram is a blast, but it’s more indicative of what might be than what is. It forces us to ask certain questions that might not be asked in its absence, but it rarely yields promising and definitive answers. Well, as conservatives, we do prize mystery and humility, don’t we? Sometimes, even to a prideful fault.
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