Kirk, Russell Amos

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Kirk, Russell Amos

(b. 19 October 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan; d. 29 April 1994 in Mecosta, Michigan), conservative man of letters noted for defining and articulating a traditionalist philosophy descended from Edmund Burke, paving the way for the post—World War II conservative movement in America.

The first of two children of Russell Andrew Kirk, a locomotive engineer, and Marjorie Rachel Pierce, a home-maker, Kirk was born and raised in the town of Plymouth, some twenty miles west of Detroit. He was shy and bookish as a boy, given to long walks and discussions with his grandfather, Frank Pierce, a well-read community leader in Plymouth. Through these precocious talks with his grandfather, Kirk came to appreciate at an early age the works of Edmund Burke, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and other writers of centuries past, drawing upon Pierce’s extensive personal library. At Plymouth High School, Kirk captained the debate team, which scored numerous wins throughout the state thanks in large part to Kirk’s leadership and strong skills as a well-prepared debater.

In 1936 Kirk graduated from high school and enrolled in the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, in East Lansing (later known as Michigan State University), where he studied history and literature. He received his B.A. in history in 1940. Kirk then went to Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, where he earned a master’s degree, writing his thesis on the fiery nineteenth-century conservative politician John Randolph of Roanoke. (This thesis, completed and accepted in 1941, was brought out ten years later as Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought, becoming Kirk’s first published book.) The year he spent at Duke and in the South impressed upon Kirk an abiding affection for the best of the traditionalist South: a strong sense of heritage and living history, a slower, more humane pace of life than that offered in America’s big cities, and a life of conservative faith, lived close to the soil amid a largely agrarian setting.

Kirk was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent the duration assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service, stationed in the Utah desert. There, with relatively little to do, he read and contemplated the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism reminiscent of Aurelius became a firm element of Kirk’s mindset. He also entered into a correspondence with Albert Jay Nock, a man of the right and founder of the respected periodical The Freeman (1920–1924), with Kirk coming to admire the self-styled “superfluous man” who had labored to reach America’s thinkers through his writings and editorship. Having attained the rank of sergeant, Kirk left the service at the end of the war and returned to Michigan State, where he taught courses in the history of civilization. From 1948 through the early 1950s he spent roughly half of each year teaching in East Lansing and the other six months in Scotland, where he researched and wrote his doctoral dissertation at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh. His dissertation was accepted in 1952, with Kirk thus becoming the first American to earn the revered degree of D. Litt, from Scotland’s oldest university. While he enjoyed tramping about Edinburgh and Scotland on long walking tours and conversing with Scottish writers and academics, his time at Michigan State became increasingly dissatisfying. Over time Kirk had come to disagree with the lowering of academic standards in order to attract more students. In 1953 Kirk resigned from Michigan State and moved to his family’s ancestral home, “Piety Hill,” in upstate Mecosta, Michigan. From this old farmhouse, Kirk set up to become a writer unattached to any institution of higher learning.

By this time he was established as a respected contributor to historical and literary journals in the United States and Britain, but in 1953 Kirk saw his star ascend even further. That year he met and began corresponding with the Anglo-American man of letters T. S. Eliot, with each man recognizing in the other a philosophical kindred spirit. That same year, the publisher Henry Regnery brought out Kirk’s doctoral dissertation in the United States, titling it The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana. Appearing at a time when the statist, liberal heritage of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman was still very much alive, Kirk’s book was hailed by reviewers as an intelligent and articulate history of ideas which identified, drew together, and illuminated the disparate strands of Anglo-American conservative thought from Burke through John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Russell Lowell, and many other political and literary figures. Subtitled in later editions “From Burke to Eliot,” the book was widely and, for the most part, favorably reviewed in influential venues.

Over the next decade Kirk wrote a succession of books on conservative themes, articulating a conservatism grounded in the tradition of what his friend Eliot had termed “the permanent things”—those timeless norms that humanity ignores at its peril, including honor, character, humility, virtue, and other elements of the natural law, chief among them being prudence. The conservative statesman combines the disposition to preserve with a talent for effecting prudent change, as such change is the means of our preservation, wrote Kirk on numerous occasions—and the conservative layman is of like temperament. To make prudent change requires that conservative men or women possess what Burke called the “moral imagination,” that faculty that descries man as a being flawed by passion, selfishness, and self-centeredness, yet beloved by God and made for eternity, for which he must be made fit through a combination of self-discipline and providential shaping and molding. Specifically, Kirk adopted certain key principles articulated by Burke, which the Burke scholar Peter J. Stanlis identified as belief in “moral natural law, prudence, legal prescription, limited power under constitutional law, normative appeals to Providence and religion, appeals to history and tradition as preceptors of experience and prudence, a defense of private and corporate property as essential to civil liberty, and respect for party government.”

In 1955 Kirk began contributing a regular column on American education to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s new conservative magazine, National Review. This widely read column, “From the Academy,” appeared in that periodical for the next twenty-five years, lambasting the harmful fads and the general lowering of standards in American education at all levels. Emulating Eliot and Nock, Kirk himself founded a periodical to reach American conservatism’s thinking minority; Modern Age appeared in 1957, and he edited this quarterly for two years before turning over the review’s editorial responsibilities to a successor. Almost immediately he founded another quarterly, The University Bookman, devoted almost entirely to reviews of books that would be of special interest to conservatives. Kirk edited this magazine from his library in Mecosta from 1960 until his death.

By the time Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservative,” as he came to be called) was nominated as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1964, Kirk’s national reputation had solidified: not only for his writings on politics and educational matters, but through a nationally distributed column called “To the Point” he wrote for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He also wrote a popular Gothic novel titled Old House of Fear (1961), which prompted a resurgence of interest in the genre of Gothic fiction, and a small number of ghost stories. In 1964 Kirk also took instruction in Roman Catholic doctrine and joined the Church, not long before he married Annette Yvonne Cecile Courtemanche, a Thomist, schoolteacher, and vivacious conservative activist from Springfield Gardens in the borough of Queens in New York City.

During the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, Kirk engaged in campus debates with such leftist icons as Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and William Kunstler, often with striking success in winning the respect of student audiences. He also published several books that were favorably reviewed, perhaps the best of these being Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (1969), a prolonged statement of literary principles and appraisal of contemporary writers. At Piety Hill, the Kirks opened their home to a steady succession of political refugees from communist nations, unwed mothers, hoboes in need of work, and other individuals who needed a place to stay and learn job skills before striking out again into the world at large. Also, beginning in the early 1970s, numerous college students also came to Piety Hill to study in Kirk’s library, ask his advice, assist him in publishing The University Bookman, and write their own dissertations. Amid this crowded, mildly chaotic household, between 1967 and 1975, the Kirks welcomed four daughters into their lives.

In 1974 Kirk published the book that stands, with The Conservative Mind, as his most significant: a detailed history of America’s cultural heritage called The Roots of American Order. In this work, Kirk traced the origins of four key elements of American order to four great cities: Athens, the source of America’s reason and art; Rome, the source of America’s law and sense of public order, Jerusalem, the fount of faith and pious submission; and London, the springhead of the concept of liberty under law. The Roots of American Order was widely praised by critics, with the English man of letters Malcolm Muggeridge writing that he could not imagine “how this so essential task of referring back to the origins of order as it has existed in North America could have been more lucidly, unpretentiously, unpedantically and yet informatively executed.”

With the election of the conservative Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1980, Kirk found himself an increasingly sought-after speaker at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and at university campuses throughout the United States and Europe, as well as a sometime-visitor to the White House. Ironically, during this time of conservative ascendancy, his own books were reviewed with decreasing frequency, even among some right-wing publications. Although conservative columnists and speakers were in high demand, Kirk was sometimes forgotten as other, more media-savvy conservative speakers—really “neoconservatives,” who tended to focus upon economics and American foreign policy—came to the forefront. Unlike many of his fellow conservatives, Kirk was a regionalist rather than a nationalist, an advocate of fair trade rather than free trade, a proponent of agrarian and small community life rather than a cosmopolitan one, a champion of the free-market economy on a humane scale rather than no-holds-barred laissez-faire capitalism, a believer in a prudent rather than an interventionist foreign policy, and a strong conservationist, believing that humankind is responsible for the stewardship of the earth, not the pillaging of it. Upon leaving office in 1989, Reagan, who had spoken of Kirk in glowing terms during his presidency, presented the conservative Michiganian with the Presidential Citizens Medal.

In the final years of his life, Kirk lectured frequently at the Heritage Foundation and elsewhere, and his publications tended to be collections of speeches, along with a pithy counterblast to the excesses of multiculturalism titled America’s British Culture (1993). In early 1994, having learned that he had congestive heart failure and but a short time to live, he put the finishing touches on his long-anticipated memoir, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (1995). He died peacefully at his Mecosta home on 29 April 1994. Kirk is buried in the cemetery of his local parish church, St. Michael’s, in the nearby town of Remus.

As a founder of the post-World War II conservative movement in America, Kirk, held by “the permanent things,” articulated these truths through both the well-turned essay and the well-told tale in an adept melding of the intellect and the imagination. The historian Wilfred McClay has written that Kirk defended American culture against those who would radically alter or replace it, while at the same time challenging many elements of that culture by comparing it to its classical and Judeo-Christian antecedents. The hallmark of Kirk’s career was its uninterrupted consistency in terms of conveying much wisdom in an accessible manner. Of Kirk, Buckley has written, “It is… inconceivable to imagine an important, let alone hope for a dominant, conservative movement in America, without his labor.”

Most of Kirk’s private papers are on file at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan. Many details of his life are contained in his posthumously published memoir, The Sword of Imagination (1995). James E. Person, Jr., Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999), is a full-length biographical and critical study. Other important examinations of Kirk’s life and accomplishments can be found in Bruce Frohnen, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville (1993); the Festschrift The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk (1994), edited by James E. Person; Wilfred M. McClay, “The Mystic Chords of Memory: Reclaiming American History,” Heritage Lecture 550 (Heritage Foundation, 1995); and George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (2d ed., 1997). Kirk’s most important works include The Conservative Mind (1953; 7th rev. ed., 1986), A Program for Conservatives (1954; rev. ed., as Prospects for Conservatives, 1989), Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (1969), The Roots of American Order (1974), and America’s British Culture (1993). A detailed primary and secondary bibliography is provided by Charles Brown’s Russell Kirk: A Bibliography (1981). An obituary is in the New York Times (30 Apr. 1994).

James E. person, JR.