Russell Amos Kirk (October 19, 1918 – April 29, 1994) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, and literary critic, 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. Kirk was considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism. He was also an accomplished author of Gothic and ghost story fiction.
Kirk in 1962.
|Born||Russell Amos Kirk
October 19, 1918
Plymouth, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||April 29, 1994 (aged 75)
Mecosta, Michigan, U.S.
|Alma mater||Michigan State University
|Spouse(s)||Annette Courtemanche (m. 1963; d. 1994)|
|Politics, history, fiction|
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 BA 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 a libertarian writer, Isabel Paterson, who helped to shape his early political thought. After reading Albert Jay Nock's book, Our Enemy, the State, he engaged in a similar correspondence with him. After the war, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the only American to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by that university.
Kirk "laid out a post-World War II program for conservatives by warning them, 'A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.'"
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 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.
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 converted to Catholicism and 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. After his conversion to Catholicism Kirk was a founding board member of Una Voce America.
Kirk did not always maintain a stereotypically "conservative" voting record. "Faced with the non-choice between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey in 1944, Kirk said no to empire and voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate." In the 1976 presidential election, he voted for Eugene McCarthy.
The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), which Kirk edited, contains sample writings by most of the above.
Biographer Bradley J. Birzer argues that for all his importance in inspiring the modern conservative movement, not many of his followers agreed with his unusual approach to the history of conservatism. As summarized by reviewer Drew Maciag:
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."
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:
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 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, Kirk, quoting T. S. Eliot's expression, called libertarians "chirping sectaries," adding that conservatives and libertarians share opposition to "collectivism," "the totalist state," and "bureaucracy," but otherwise have "nothing" in common. 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. Kirk, therefore, questioned the "fusionism" between libertarians and traditional conservatives that marked much of post-World War II conservatism in the United States.
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."
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.
Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation also responded to Kirk.
[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.
He also commented the neoconservatives were "often clever, never wise."
Midge Decter, director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's remark "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives." 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 T. Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives." He described Decter's response as 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.
Toward the end of his life, Russell Kirk was highly critical of Republican militarism. President Bush, Kirk said, had embarked upon "a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf".
Excerpts from Russell Kirk's lectures at the Heritage Foundation (1992):
Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world. Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a "One World" candidate, Wendell Willkie, they were sadly trounced. In general, Republicans throughout the twentieth century have been advocates of prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Unless the Bush Administration abruptly reverses its fiscal and military course, I suggest, the Republican Party must lose its former good repute for frugality, and become the party of profligate expenditure, "butter and guns." And public opinion would not long abide that. Nor would America's world influence and America's remaining prosperity.
Yet presidents of the United States must not be encouraged to make Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, nor to fancy that they can establish a New World Order through eliminating dissenters. In the second century before Christ, the Romans generously liberated the Greek city-states from the yoke of Macedonia. But it was not long before the Romans felt it necessary to impose upon those quarrelsome Greeks a domination more stifling to Hellenic freedom and culture than ever Macedon had been. It is a duty of the Congress of the United States to see that great American Caesars do not act likewise.
Kirk's other 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.
Beyond his scholarly achievements, Kirk was 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 varied and distinguished as T. S. Eliot, Robert Aickman, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ray Bradbury.
Though modest in quantity—it encompasses three novels and 22 short stories—Kirk's body of fiction was written amid a busy career as prolific nonfiction writer, editor, and speaker. As with such 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 the plot is concerned with an American assigned by his employer to a bleak locale in rural Scotland—the same country where Kirk had attended graduate school. This was Kirk's most commercially successful and critically acclaimed fictional work, doing much to sustain him financially in subsequent years.
Later novels were A Creature of the Twilight (1966), a dark comedy satirizing postcolonial African politics; and Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979, 1989), set in Scotland, which explores the great evil inhabiting a haunted house. During his lifetime, Kirk also oversaw the publication of three collections which together encompassed all his short stories. (Three more such collections have been published posthumously, but those only reprint stories found in the earlier volumes.)
Among his novels and stories, certain characters tend to recur, enriching the already considerable unity and resonance of his fictional canon. Though—through their themes and prose-style—Kirk's fiction and nonfiction works are complementary, many 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 1980s, while continuing his nonfiction writing and research through his last year of life. For a comprehensive bibliography of his fiction, see the fiction section of his bibliography.
Russell Kirk is a Distinguished Scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on April 19, 1988, delivering the second of four lectures on the 'Varieties of the Conservative Impulse.' ISSN 0272-1155 [webpage notes]. OCLC 20729276
Modern Age articles available online via Ebsco.
Kirk, Russell, "Introduction: The Canon of Ghostly Tales" in The Scallion Stone';' by Canon basil A. Smith. Chapel Hill, NC: Whispers Press, 1980.