Within a few months of its release in early May 1953, Russell Kirk’s dissertation-turned-massive-best-selling book, “The Conservative Mind,” became an international media sensation. But few know of his later work, “An Intelligent Citizen’s Guide to Conservatism.” It is a deeply profound book, exploring the very depths and widths of the human person.
Editor’s Note: This essay was intended as an introduction to a new edition of Russell Kirk’s Intelligent Citizen’s Guide to Conservatism. We publish it here in the hopes that our readership would benefit from its biographical insight into Dr. Kirk’s life and works, and that it would inspire more recognition for one of his lesser-known books.
Within a few months of its release in early May 1953, Russell Kirk’s dissertation-turned-massive-best-selling book, The Conservative Mind, became an international media sensation, especially in the English-speaking world. Almost every serial and newspaper of any serious nature reviewed it, sometimes twice, and sometimes three times. Perhaps most importantly, under the direction of Whittaker Chambers, Time magazine devoted its entire book review section to The Conservative Mind for its important July Fourth issue of that year.
The thirty-five-year-old author had expected attention, but not fame. Yet, fame was his, and fame would remain solidly his until the disastrous defeat of the Goldwater presidential run in 1964.
Kirk had already decided to resign his professorship from Michigan State College, aggravated with the university’s desire for popularity and wealth rather than integrity and standards, and he hoped to make his way in the world as a full-time writer and public speaker.
What to write, though?
He had published a number of well-received (deservedly so) short stories in the horror genre, and he had at least one novel planned. With the writing and publication of The Conservative Mind, though, he feared that he had written all that could be written on conservatism. Conservatism, as expressed in the first edition of The Conservative Mind might very well serve as the best way to understand and critique the past, but it did not seem to provide much in any concrete fashion when dealing with the problems of the immediate and the near future. Conservatism, as Kirk had defined it, was far more literary and cultural than it was political, and its significance rested in the rarest appearance of the ultimate truths in the here and now, and almost never consistently.
The events of the summer of 1953, not surprisingly, overwhelmed the young author. In addition to the fame and recognition—a hotel clerk in remote Scotland recognized him from the Time article—he enjoyed, he also met T.S. Eliot. It became one of the most important encounters of his life, and the two men became close in friendship as well as in intellectual kinship, despite the huge age difference.
After that meeting, as well as his growing interest in Catholicism, Kirk decided that his future rested upon his own understanding and exploration of Christian Humanism. Much as The Conservative Mind had followed a train of thought, he hoped to write a prequel to it: The Age of Humanism. It would consider the entire history of humanism from the pre-Socratics through T.S. Eliot, connecting the Stoics to the Medievals as well as to the Christian Humanists of the Renaissance. Just as Kirk had connected Burke to Adams, Hawthorne, Calhoun, and others in 1953’s The Conservative Mind, the next book would define the intellectual, moral, and ethical lineage of Heraclitus and Socrates, tying them to Zeno, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, Petrarch, and Sir Thomas More.
Though he never actually finished that book, though letters indicate he had finished chapters for it, he did explore Christian Humanism in some depth over his next several books, but especially in A Program for Conservatives (1954), Academic Freedom (1955), Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956), and this book you now hold in your hands, originally entitled An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (1957) a mischievous play on a similarly titled book on socialism by G.B. Shaw.
This book, retitled and edited as An Intelligent Citizen’s Guide to Conservatism, per Kirk’s wishes and instructions expressed in his private papers written around 1967, is a forgotten and neglected classic. It was Kirk’s first book not to appear with Henry Regnery’s publishing firm after the success of The Conservative Mind. Indeed, that Kirk went with a different publisher angered Regnery quite a bit. Their relations were already near the breaking point for a variety of reasons, and Kirk’s 1956 book, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, would prove to be his last book with the Chicago publisher until the 1978 book, Decadence and Renewal. Instead, Kirk went with the less well known conservative publisher, Devin-Adair.
As Kirk often did, he began with a set of lectures and smaller papers he had written, using these as the basis of Intelligent Woman’s Guide. In particular, he had written the chapters that appear in this book as a series of pamphlets and lectures for a number of women’s associations: conservative clubs, Republican meetings, and book discussion groups.
The book never sold well, and Devin-Adair lost interest in promoting it. Additionally, upon a first reading, it has a somewhat superficial feel, especially when compared to other Kirk books. This book, however, is deceptive in the way that a Willa Cather novel can appear simple at first glimpse. As with all of Cather’s novels, Kirk’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide is a deeply profound book, exploring the very depths and widths of the human person.
Not surprisingly, it’s beautifully written. But, more importantly, it anticipates almost every major contribution the Vatican II Council would offer with its understanding and doctrine of personalism. As such, it holds its own when compared to the works of Thomas Merton, Josef Pieper, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, Romano Guardini, and Max Picard, all of whom influenced Kirk mightily in the 1940s and 1950s.
Author’s Note: In 2013 and 2014, Winston Elliott, Publisher of The Imaginative Conservative, and I proposed publishing a revision of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism. This edition, as we edited it through the summer of 2013, had been revised according to Russell Kirk’s wishes, ca. 1967, as found in notes and letters in the archival papers of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Mecosta, Michigan. The Kirk Estate, however, decided to go with a different publisher, Regnery, and a different scholar, Wilfred McClay, publishing the new edition as the Concise Guide to Conservatism. We wish Dr. McClay and the book well, of course.
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Editor’s note: The featured image of Russell Kirk is by Rik Dalvit and is original to The Imaginative Conservative.