It is no exaggeration to suggest that the idea of the gentleman stands as the lynchpin of Russell Kirk’s entire social theory. Well-educated, well-read, and virtuous, the gentleman stands as the living link between the present and the past; in many ways, he is the moral imagination embodied.

After decades of neglect, the Gothic fiction of Russell Kirk has risen again from the shadows to haunt the American conservative mind. Indeed, the past year witnessed a small surge in Kirk appreciation: essays in the New Criterion, Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Herald have invited readers to pay attention to Kirk’s stories, while his best-selling novel The Old House of Fear was reprinted in the past few months. This rediscovery of Kirk’s fiction is an encouraging development (Kirk was a fine storyteller, and deserves to be remembered)—and it could not have come at a better time. The American conservative movement has yet to emerge from its post-Trump crisis; when it does emerge, it is unclear whether it will bear any resemblance to the conservatism of decades past. Amidst these uncertainties, conservatives can do little better than to turn to Kirk’s fiction; in them the godfather of modern conservatism presents his political and social ideas in their most lively and attractive form.

Though primarily a political theorist, Kirk was keenly aware of the social importance of literature and devoted a significant amount of time to literary criticism. The dominant term in Kirk’s criticism is the moral imagination. This term is ultimately drawn from a passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France where, reflecting on the devastation wrought by the revolutionaries, Burke laments

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

Put simply, the moral imagination is the storehouse of ideas that make a well-ordered life possible. For Kirk, the cultivation of this moral imagination is the special task of literature—and especially of the greatest and most enduring poets. As he wrote in his study of T.S. Eliot, “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. It was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Virgil and Dante.”[1] Sustained by the practice of religion, the moral imagination is, according to both Burke and Kirk, that which separates man from beast and connects one generation to another in an enduring human community. In “The Perversity of Recent Fiction,” Kirk details what happens when the moral imagination fails: it decays into the idyllic imagination, “which, rejecting old dogmas and old manners, rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention”—and thence into the diabolic imagination, reveling in the “perverse and subhuman.”[2]

On Kirk’s account, then, the restoration of the moral imagination in the commonwealth requires the restoration of literature. Kirk knew well that the moral imagination is built up not by straightforward argument but by illation—the collection of a thousand impressions and inferences often occurring below the threshold of consciousness (see, for instance, his Enemies of the Permanent Things, p. 47). Because of this, the author’s appeal comes through “imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation.”[3] We should not be surprised to discover that this is precisely what Kirk attempts in his fiction. As he admitted in his “Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Story,” his stories are “experiments in the moral imagination” as “the tale of the preternatural . . . can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”[4] And so Kirk bends every element of his art—style, setting, diction, plot—to make the conservative conclusion seem not only plausible, but natural—or perhaps even inevitable—and to transmit his vision, whole and entire, to his reader.

Let us consider one concrete example of this. Those who know Kirk’s life or political writings know his fondness for ordered liberty—the freedom of people to act as they choose in accordance with moral law and human nature. Kirk was convinced, however, that such ordered liberty can only be secured by men of culture. Kirk found this idea most clearly expressed in the writings of James Fenimore Cooper: as Kirk has it in The Conservative Mind, Cooper sees that “the hope for democracy lay in the survival of gentlemen, leaders of their communities, superior to vulgar impulses, able to withstand most forms of legislative and extra-legal intimidation.”[5] Kirk certainly shared this view himself: in America’s British Culture, he argues that the gentleman is—or ought to be—“the guardian of culture.”[6] It is no exaggeration to suggest that the gentleman stands as the lynchpin of Kirk’s entire social theory. Well-educated, well-read, and virtuous, the gentleman stands as the living link between the present and the past; in many ways, he is the moral imagination embodied.

This idea of the gentleman, which loomed so large in his thought, was reinforced by his experience and upbringing. His grandfather, Franklin Pierce—after his mother, the most important influence on the development of Kirk’s character and intellect—was just such a man: self-educated and well-read, he was a “village Hampden” and “champion of the working-class” who commanded respect from all he met[7]—even from the notorious gangster Machine Gun Kelly, who once robbed Pierce’s bank at gunpoint. And of course Kirk himself—soldier, scholar, author, and Justice of the Peace—sought to fashion himself along similar lines.

For this reason, it is not surprising to find that the figure of the gentleman—usually gentleman opposed to decadent culture—occurs repeatedly in Kirks fiction: in those stories of his that possess a clear moral center (this is by no means all of them) that center is almost always a gentleman. So Daniel Kinnaird, the hero of “Uncle Isaiah,” is the last scion of a respectable old family in Boston’s decaying North End, “a boneyard of defaced and degraded old houses.”[8] Kinnaird is the only man in town with the mettle to defy the local mob boss; the eponymous Uncle Isaiah (who finally defeats the mob boss) has some shades of Franklin Pierce as well. Titus Moreton, of “Fate’s Purse,” is a Cicero-reading former cavalry officer and current judge of probate in the savagely rural Pottawattomie [sic] county. He is also, it should be noted, an only slightly fictionalized Russell Kirk—the bulk of this story being a straightforward retelling of one of Kirk’s adventures as a Justice of the Peace. Several other of Kirk’s heroes—the professorial protagonist of “The Surly Sullen Bell,” the cleric-colonel of “Reflex-Man,” or old Fr. Justin O’Malley of “Watchers at the Strait Gait”—are drawn along similar lines. So too was Manfred Arcane, Kirk’s greatest literary creation and the hero of two of his novels. This “creature of twilight” was born and educated before the revolutionary turmoil of the First World War, and represents—in a playful, swashbuckling form—the virtues of the old European gentry against the religious and social chaos of the later twentieth century.

Though the figure of the gentleman looms large throughout Kirk’s entire literary corpus, two tales deserve special attention here: The Old House of Fear and “Sorworth Place.” The former provides what is probably Kirk’s pithiest and most direct expression of his idea of the gentleman. In this story, a communist-turned-occultist and his gang have seized control of a remote island in the Outer Hebrides—dominating the rightful owner (an ancient Scottish lady), terrorizing her young and beautiful heiress, and oppressing the neighboring commoners. A Hebridean peasant explains why he and his clan have tolerated the villains’ occupation of the island. “We have watched them for a week, but we did not understand what they did, and there was no gentleman to lead us.”[9] Fortunately, the gentleman emerges in the person of the Scottish-American hero Logan, who leads the peasants in an uprising against their oppressors. In all this, the allegory is nearly perfect. The peasants are clearly identified with tradition and the past: we are told that, in the face of an oppressive modernity, they “withdrew more and more from the modern world, so far as modernity had ever touched them at all.”[10] They are marshaled and led by the gentleman; the communist oppressors are overthrown, the damsel is rescued, and the peasants are restored to their proper homes on the island. The gentleman, by respecting the past, has secured the future, both for himself and his (presumptive) descendants; as James Person notes in his Russell Kirk, Logan “has restored the contract of human society” by “the linking of generations past with generations yet unborn.”[11]

If The Old House of Fear gives the most direct expression of Kirk’s theory, the short story “Sorworth Place” gives it in its fullest and best-developed form. Kirk leaves no doubt about his intentions here: the tale begins with Edmund Burke’s famous lament for chivalry:

But the age of chivalry is gone. . . . The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.[12]

At first glance, the characters seem poor representatives of the lofty epigram. We have the hero, Ralph Bain, M.C., a partially disabled and “thoroughly déclassé” veteran of the Second World War; Lady Ann Lurlin, the elegant but possibly mad widow of a predatory and reprobate Scottish peer; and that peer’s malevolent ghost: not at all guardians of culture envisioned in Kirk’s nonfiction. The setting shows the natural result of cultural decay: “In defiance of a faint ancient charm that perfumes its name, Sorworth today is a dirty and dreary little town, fouled by the colliery since the pit was sunk and a blot of hideous industrial workers’ houses began to spread about it.”[13] The town has rotted and is about to rot further—the coal pit that drives its economy is nearly exhausted; when it fails, the last semblances of community will fall with it. The decay is written even in the crumbling stones of the ancient manor house, Sorworth Place—lately stripped of its lands, servants, and most of its furniture; inhabited only by the solitary widow. The house still stands, but only for a moment—and then, as Bain’s innkeeper prophesies, the rack and ruin will come.

The external disorder is reflected in the protagonist’s soul: Bain wastes his life away in cards and drink and meaningless liaisons, drifting from town to town as the mood takes him, thoroughly cut off from the human community. The action of the tale centers on the physical salvation of Ann Lurlin through the spiritual salvation of Ralph Bain: Bain learns to love selflessly and act heroically; to become, in other words, the embodiment of Burkean chivalry. He gives his life to save Ann with no hope of even emotional reward, and it is his sacrifice that finally exorcises the malevolent spirit of the late Lord Lurlin. Though the work is clearly less optimistic than The Old House of Fear—the hero’s death denies any hope for the restoration of temporal order. But for precisely this reason, the moral and spiritual triumph is greater. In Bain, the spirit of chivalry finally triumphs over the spirit of the self-indulgent and decadent elite; the moral order is restored.

Kirk was clearly pleased with his creation: he brings his gentleman-hero Bain back in two later works as a sort of guardian angel. In “Saviourgate,” we learn that Bain was not wholly ready for the Beatific Vision at the moment of death. As a result, He passes the time in his own version of Dante’s terrestrial Paradise—a homely and charming Northminster Pub—and doing the occasional good deed; in this tale, saving an old friend from suicide. In Lord of the Hollow Dark, his purgation is a more active affair: he sacrifices his own life to save his friends (including a young woman and her baby) from a coven of Satanists. This, we learn, is a regular part of his Purgatory: he is to die heroic deaths in the service of others until he is ready to receive the Beatific Vision. Innumerable glorious deaths: as another character observes, “the ancients would have said he was favored of the gods above all men.”[14] Even in Purgatory, the gentleman has his reward.

There are, of course, limits to the virtues of the gentleman. Kirk knew as well as Newman that neither gentility nor chivalry will save a soul; he knew, too, that the monstrosity of vice may hide behind a fair-seeming exterior. The villains of his “Sorworth Place” and “Reflex-Man” and several other stories make this point all too clear. But Kirk also knew, with C.S. Lewis, that “as long as we live in merry middle earth it is necessary to have middle things”—culture and courtesy and humane letters among them.[15] To lose these middle things is to guarantee disaster, and if the gentleman disappears from the public square, knaves and fools will soon take his place. Or, as Manfred Arcane puts it, “[w]ere there no owls . . . rats would inherit the earth.”[16]

It is now more than a quarter of a century since we lost the great and gentle Russell Amos Kirk, and events since then have, regrettably, proven his instincts correct. But there may yet be cause for hope. “The past is a ghost to some people,” wrote Kirk in his Bohemian Tory, “but . . . the dead alone give us life.”[17] All things are uncertain in the year of Our Lord 2020—but there remains some hope that a return to a Kirkean past may yet guide the future.

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Notes:

[1] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008), 7-8.

[2] Russell Kirk, “The Perversity of Recent Fiction,” in Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1996), 47.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4] “Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Story,” in Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004), 402-3.

[5] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Washington, DC: Gateway Editions, 2016), 176.

[6] Russell Kirk, America’s British Culture (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993), 3.

[7] See Kirk’s Sword of the Imagination, 7.

[8] “Uncle Isaiah,” in Ancestral Shadows, 34.

[9] Russell Kirk, Old House of Fear (New York, NY: Criterion Books, 2019), 170. (Emphasis mine.)

[10] Ibid., 179.

[11] James Person, Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1999), 143.

[12] Russell Kirk, “Sorworth Place,” in Ancestral Shadows, 178.

[13] Ibid., 178.

[14] Russell Kirk, Lord of the Hollow Dark (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 357.

[15] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1961), 137.

[16] Russell Kirk, A Creature of the Night: His Memorials. A Baroque Romance, (Fleet Publishing, 1966), 320.

[17] Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career (Fleet Publishing, 1963), 106.

The featured image is “Young Knight in a Landscape” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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