Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk (19 October 1918 – 29 April1994) was an American political theorist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, "The Conservative Mind", gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke.


Russell Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan. He was the son of Russell Andrew Kirk, a railroad engineer, and Marjorie Pierce Kirk.

Kirk obtained his B.A. at Michigan State University and a M.A. at Duke University. During World War II, he served in the American armed forces and corresponded with libertarian writer Isabel Paterson, who help shape his early political thought. After the war, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the first American to be awarded the degree of doctor of letters by that university.Fact|date=November 2007

Upon completing his studies, Kirk took up an academic position at his alma mater, Michigan State. He resigned in 1959, after having become disenchanted with that university's academic standards, rapid growth in student numbers, and emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and technical training at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Thereafter he referred to Michigan State as "Cow College" or "Behemoth University." He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were "as a breed--dull dogs." [ Kirk, Russell, ed., 1982. "The Portable Conservative Reader". Viking: xxxviii.] Late in life, he taught one semester a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.

Kirk frequently published in two American conservative journals he helped found, "National Review" in 1955 and "Modern Age" in 1957. He was the founding editor of the latter, 1957-59. Later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave a number of lectures. [Many published in his "The Politics of Prudence" (1993) and "Redeeming the Time" (1998).]

After leaving Michigan State, Kirk returned to his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, where he wrote the many books, academic articles, lectures, and the syndicated newspaper column (which ran for 13 years) by which he exerted his influence on American politics and intellectual life. In 1963, Kirk married Annette Courtemanche; they had four daughters. She and Kirk became known for their hospitality, welcoming many political, philosophical, and literary figures in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill"), and giving shelter to political refugees, hoboes, and others. Their home became the site of a sort of seminar on conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill now houses the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

Kirk declined to drive, calling cars "mechanical Jacobins", and would have nothing to do with television and what he called "electronic computers."

Russel Kirk converted to Catholicism in 1963.


"The Conservative Mind"

"The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana" [Which went into 7 editions, the later ones with the title "The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot". Regnery Publishing. 7th edition (2001). ISBN 0-89526-171-5] , the published version of Kirk's doctoral dissertation, contributed materially to the 20th century Burke revival. It also drew attention to:
*Conservative statesmen such as John Adams, George Canning, John C. Calhoun, Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, and Arthur Balfour;
*The conservative implications of writings by well-known authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, George Gissing, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot;
*British and American authors such as Fisher Ames, John Randolph of Roanoke, Orestes Brownson, John Henry Newman, Walter Bagehot, Henry James Sumner Maine, William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, William Hurrell Mallock, Leslie Stephen, Albert Venn Dicey, Paul Elmer More, and Irving Babbitt."The Portable Conservative Reader" (1982), which Kirk edited, contains sample writings by most of the above.

Not everyone agreed with Kirk's reading of the conservative heritage and tradition. For example, Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) wrote: "Kirk was a poor Burke scholar. Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning related only to modern philosophy's attempt to eliminate skeptical doubt from its premises and hence from its conclusions." [cite web |author=Harry V. Jaffa |url= |title=Harry V. Jaffa Responds to Claes Ryn |publisher=The Claremont Institute |accessdate=2007-05-10 |date=2006-04-13]

Russello (2004) argues that Kirk adapted what 19th century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to articulate a version of federalism that was based on premises that differ in part from those of the Founders and other conservatives. Kirk further believed that territorial democracy could reconcile the tension between treating the states as mere provinces of the central government, and as autonomous political units independent of Washington. Finally, territorial democracy allowed Kirk to set out a theory of individual rights grounded in the particular historical circumstances of the United States, while rejecting a universal conception of such rights.


Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Russello (2004) described as follows:
#A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
#An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
#A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;

#A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
#A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
#A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another." [] and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief." []

Kirk and Libertarianism

Kirk grounded his Burkean conservatism in tradition, political philosophy, "belles lettres", and the strong religious faith of his later years; rather than libertarianism and free market economic reasoning. "The Conservative Mind" hardly mentions economics at all.

In a polemic essay, Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians "chirping sectaries," adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common (despite his early correspondence with the libertarian Paterson). He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." He said a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category. [A copy of Kirk's "Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries" can be found [ here] ] [Nevertheless, many paleolibertarians respect Kirk's cultural conservatism.] Kirk, therefore, questioned the "fusionism" between libertarians and traditional conservatives that marked much of post World War II conservatism in the United States. [ [ The Volokh Conspiracy - Russell Kirk, Libertarianism, and Fusionism: ] ]

Kirk's view of "classical liberals" is positive though; he agrees with them on "ordered liberty" as they make "common cause with regular conservatives against the menace of democratic despotism and economic collectivism." ["A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians" in "The Politics of Prudence" (1993)]

Tibor R. Machan defended libertarianism in response to Kirk's original Heritage Lecture. Machan argued that the right of individual sovereignty is perhaps most worthy of conserving from the American political heritage, and that when conservatives themselves talk about preserving some tradition, they cannot at the same time claim a disrespectful distrust of the individual human mind, of rationalism itself. [ [ A Passionate Defense of Libertarianism] ]

Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation also responded to Kirk. [ [ An Open Letter to Russell Kirk] ]

Kirk and Neoconservatism

Late in life, Kirk grew disenchanted with American neoconservatives as well. On December 15, 1988, he gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, titled " [ The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species.] " As "Chronicles" editor Scott Richert describes it,

[One line] helped define the emerging struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. "Not seldom has it seemed," Kirk declared, "as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." A few years later, in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk repeated that line verbatim. In the wake of the Gulf War, which he had opposed, he clearly understood that those words carried even greater meaning. []

Midge Decter, director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's line "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives." [She claimed that Kirk "said people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty." [] Decter is the spouse of Norman Podhoretz.] She told The New Republic, "It's this notion of a Christian civilization. You have to be part of it or you're not really fit to conserve anything. That's an old line and it's very ignorant." []

Samuel Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives. [" [] He called Decter's response untrue, [] "reckless" and "vitriolic." Furthermore, he argued that such a denunciation "always plays into the hands of the left, which is then able to repeat the charges and claim conservative endorsement of them." [] ]

Man of letters

Kirk's more important books include "Eliot and his Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century" (1972), "The Roots of American Order" (1974), and the autobiographical "Sword of the Imagination: Memoirs of a Half Century of Literary Conflict" (1995). As was the case with his hero Edmund Burke, Kirk became renowned for the prose style of his intellectual and polemical writings. [Nash (1998).]


Beyond his scholarly achievements, Kirk was skilled and talented both as an oral storyteller and as an author of genre fiction, most notably in his telling of consummate ghost stories in the classic tradition of Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Oliver Onions, and H. Russell Wakefield. He also wrote other admired and much-anthologized works that are variously classified as horror, fantasy, science fiction, and political satire. These earned him plaudits from fellow creative writers as distinguished and varied as T. S. Eliot, Robert Aickman, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ray Bradbury.

Though modest in quantity—Kirk’s body of fiction consists of three novels and 22 short stories—it was accomplished amid a busy career as prolific nonfiction writer, editor, and speaker. As with certain other speculative fiction authors as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien (all of whom likewise wrote only nonfiction for their "day jobs") there are conservative undercurrents—social, cultural, religious and political—to Kirk's fiction.

His first novel, "Old House of Fear" (1961, 1965), as with so many of his short stories, was written in a self-consciously gothic vein, here concerning an American who is work-assigned to a remote and disturbing Scottish locale. This was Kirk's best-selling and most critically acclaimed work of fiction and did much to sustain him financially for the years ahead.

Other novels were "A Creature of the Twilight" (1966), a caustic black comedy delving into the politics of postcolonial Africa, and "Lord of the Hollow Dark" (1979, 1989), an ominous portrayal of a haunted house in England. Kirk also oversaw the publication of three collections of all his short stories during his lifetime. (Three additional collections have been posthumously published, but those only repeat stories already in the earlier three.)

Among Kirk's novels and stories, certain characters tend to recur in more than one work, enriching the already considerable unity and resonance of his fictional canon. An interesting facet of his work is that, though the themes and prose style of Kirk’s fiction and nonfiction are complementary, many avid readers of the one have not known of his work in the other.

Having begun to write fiction fairly early in his career, Kirk appears to have stopped after the early ’80s, while continuing his nonfiction writing and research throughout his last decade of life.

See List of fiction by Russell Kirk for a bibliography of this material.


Further reading

"Modern Age" articles available online via Ebsco.
* Attarian, John, 1998, "Russell Kirk's Political Economy," "Modern Age 40": 87-97. Issn: 0026-7457.
*cite book | last=Brown | first=Charles | title=Russell Kirk: A Bibliography | location=Central Michigan University | publisher=Clarke Historical Library | date=1981
* John P. East, 1984, "Russell Kirk as a Political Theorist: Perceiving the Need for Order in the Soul and in Society," "Modern Age 28": 33-44. Issn: 0026-7457 .
* Kirk, Russell, 1995. "The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict". Kirk's memoirs.
* McDonald, W. Wesley, 1982. "The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk: `The Permanent Things' in an Age of Ideology". Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America. Citation: DAI 1982 43(1): 255-A. DA8213740. Online at ProQuest Dissertations & Theses.
* --------, 1983, "Reason, Natural Law, and Moral Imagination in the Thought of Russell Kirk," "Modern Age 27": 15-24. Issn: 0026-7457.
* --------, 2004. "Russell Kirk and The Age of Ideology." University of Missouri Press.
* --------, 1999. "Russell Kirk and the Prospects for Conservatism," Humanitas XII: 56-76.
* --------, 2006. "Kirk, Russell (1918-94)," in "American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia". ISI Books: 471-474. Biographical entry.
* Nash, George H., 1998. "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America".
* Person, Jr., James E., 1999. "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind". Madison Books.
* Russello, Gerald J., 1996, "The Jurisprudence of Russell Kirk," "Modern Age 38": 354-63. Issn: 0026-7457. Reviews Kirk's writings on law, 1976-93, exploring his notion of natural law, his emphasis on the importance of the English common law tradition, and his theories of change and continuity in legal history.
* --------, 2007. "The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk". University of Missouri Press.
* --------, 1999, "Time and Timeless: the Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk," "Modern Age 41": 209-19. Issn: 0026-7457.
* --------, 2004, "Russell Kirk and Territorial Democracy," "Publius 34": 109-24. Issn: 0048-5950.
* Whitney, Gleaves, 2001, "The Swords of Imagination: Russell Kirk's Battle with Modernity," "Modern Age 43": 311-20. Issn: 0026-7457. Argues that Kirk used five "swords of imagination": historical, political, moral, poetic, and prophetic.

External links

*" [ From The Academy.] "
*" [ Life with Russell Kirk] " by Annette Kirk.
* [ Biography] , at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. With links to a very incomplete bibliography.
*" [ Russell Kirk Web Site] " .
*Kirk, Russell, " [ Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries.] "
*Heritage Foundation lectures by Kirk:
**" [ The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species.] " Heritage lecture 178, December 15, 1988.
* [ Permanent Things] , a Yahoo group for the discussion of Kirk's life and works.
* [ Center for the American Idea] A Resource for Teachers who want to learn more about Dr. Kirk and his thought.

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