Saturday, April 09, 2005

Russell Kirk

This review appeared in Gilbert Magazine a few years ago

Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind
By James E. Person Jr.

The child Russell Kirk was visiting the family’s ancestral home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan. He woke up one night in the front parlor and saw two men looking in the bay window. Thinking he must be seeing things, he put on his glasses and saw two men—one tall with a tall hat, the other short with a round hat. Frightened, he hid under his covers; the next morning, Kirk looked for footprints in the snow but didn’t see any. Years later, his old Aunt Fay—a long-time resident of Piety Hill—told Kirk how, as a young girl, she played with two men outside the bay window who no one else could see—Dr. Cady, a tall man with a tall hat, and Patti, a short man with a turban. She knew nothing of Kirk’s experience years earlier.

A fascinating story. And not one you’d normally associate with Kirk, a pioneer of the modern conservative movement in America.

This story is recounted in James Person’s Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, an excellent primer on Kirk’s life and enormous corpus of writings (thirty-two books and thousands of columns and articles).

A primer was needed. Many people have read Kirk, but few have fully understood him. Kirk had a tendency to use terms and phrases without concisely explaining them. His readers often walk away from his books with an amorphous appreciation for what he was saying, but not knowing exactly what he meant, especially when he used phrases like “the permanent things” or “the moral imagination” (two of Kirk’s favorites that are found throughout his works).

Person clears away any fogginess. The permanent things, for instance, are mores or norms that transcend the world’s cultures. A basic list, Person tells us, can be found in the appendix of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, such as the duties to help others, to take special care of family members, to be faithful to one’s spouse, and to be brave. The moral imagination is the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events, especially as embodied in poetry and art and sustained by religion. (“The democracy of the dead” was another of his favorite phrases, Kirk being a big fan of Chesterton.)

Person’s book touches all areas of Kirk’s thought and writings, from his most famous book that shaped the modern conservative movement, The Conservative Mind, to his landmark study on T.S. Eliot, Eliot and His Age. Person recounts Kirk’s writings on education, history, social criticism, and economics.

Person also devotes a substantial amount of time to a line of Kirk’s writings that many people don’t know about: his fiction. Like Chesterton, Kirk’s talents as a writer were diverse. In addition to his non-fiction books, columns, and articles, Kirk became an accomplished fiction writer, publishing numerous ghost stories and three novels, including a Gothic romance, Old House of Fear, that would sell more copies than all his other books combined. His story-telling was good enough to earn him various awards, including appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of Count Dracula, an honor bestowed by the Count Dracula Society.

Person’s book also makes it clear that Kirk was not wholly conservative, at least as that term is popularly understood today. Again like Chesterton, Kirk’s worldview transcended the pettiness of party politics, and he can’t easily be pinned down on the political spectrum. Kirk, for instance, admired the trust-busting and early conservationist Teddy Roosevelt and listed him as one of the top ten conservatives of all time. Kirk also endorsed environmental protection legislation that was opposed by some conservatives at the time.

Perhaps most significantly, Kirk, like Chesterton, did not have an unquestioning confidence in the competitive market economy. Kirk, an admirer of Wilhelm Roepke, the man who architected Western Germany’s economic recovery after World War II, favored what Roepke called a humane economy: “an economic system suited to human nature and to a humane scale in society, as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of counterproductive personal and social consequences.” Person points out that Kirk’s economic views were similar to distributism. Person devotes much space to exploring the merits of Kirk’s economics, and in the process sheds much light on the merits of distributism.

Finally, like Chesterton, Person tells us that Kirk was a convert and led a life marked by Christian virtue. He was a good father and husband, and a charitable man who cared for the poor and downtrodden, taking many of them into his own home for extended stays.

Overall, Kirk was a writer who labored in God’s vineyard in an age that tramples His grapes. A few more such Christians and, as Kirk would often say about other great men and women of the twentieth century who spoke out against vulgarizing modernity, contemporary civilization might be redeemed by now.

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