This week marks the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Russell Kirk. Kirk, who died in 1994, is best remembered for his role in helping to create the postwar conservative movement in America. His groundbreaking work, The Conservative Mind , received national attention when it was published in 1953, upsetting the settled elite consensus (as articulated most famously by Lionel Trilling) that liberalism was the only intellectual tradition in America.
The son of an engineer, Russell Amos Kirk grew up during the Depression in the Michigan railroad town of Plymouth. As a child, Kirk also spent time in the tiny town of Mecosta, Michigan, where his family—fallen-away Protestants and spiritualists—had a rambling place called Piety Hill, so named because of the séances and occult services held there. (Kirk later inherited the property and made it his own home.) He converted to Christianity as an adult but was still much influenced by this side of his family; among his many accomplishments, he became a collector, teller, and award-winning writer of what he called ghostly tales. His early exposure to the possibility of the supernatural convinced him that rationalist materialism could not explain the whole of life.
After service in the Army in World War II (an experience that soured him on big government), Kirk began graduate work at Duke, writing his masters thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke. He did his graduate work at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and his doctoral thesis became The Conservative Mind . The book was an intellectual sensation—full reviews were published in Time and the New York Times Book Review —and it launched Kirks career. He followed it with some two dozen other books on subjects ranging from Robert Taft to multiculturalism, hundreds of essays and reviews, and a long-running column on educational subjects for National Review .
The problem Kirk faced, along with most conservatives, was that the Enlightenment, with its universalizing equality, secularism, and blinkered rationality, was already destroying traditional Western culture. How can a tradition be preserved if it is already dissolving into what theorist Zygmunt Bauman called liquid modernity?
Kirks answer was twofold. First, he uncovered (some would say, created) a counter-tradition, one that rested not on the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the ideological fervor of the French Revolution, or the modern vogue for limitless rights. Rather, it began with Edmund Burkes defense of the lived experience of Britain as a bulwark of liberty and the protection of rights. Moreover, Kirk claimed that this tradition connected Britain and America, and included such varied figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson and Benjamin Disraeli, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, John Adams and W.H. Mallock.
The second strategy was more daring. Kirk was criticized, then and later, for writing in an anachronistic style, one not suited to confronting the seemingly rationalist arguments of liberalism. In order to defend what they thought to be worth conserving, some conservatives believed that they had to engage liberalism on its own terms, in a dialectic mode that is foreign to the conservative language of custom and tradition. Kirk rejected this approach.
As early as the 1950s, he had become convinced that liberalism would exhaust itself because it could not inspire and sustain what he called the moral imagination. For conservatives to buy into its premises would seal their defeat. Something else would replace liberalism eventually, and Kirk offered a richly imaginative vision of conservatism that could survive liberal modernitys collapse. One element of that vision was a revived respect for religious faith.
As early as 1982, in an essay for National Review , Kirk suggested that the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes [of postmodernism] may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives. He went so far as to state that he thought that it may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age. (One of the earliest uses of the word postmodern was by the conservative Episcopalian cleric Bernard Iddings Bell, in a book of that title published in 1926; not surprisingly, Bell was an early influence on Kirk.)
Kirk had little patience for the trendy radicalism and sometimes simply nonsensical expressions of postmodern hacks. Nonetheless, he saw in postmodernism a chance to escape the strictures of liberalism and reconnect with the older, pre-Enlightenment tradition of the West. This approach has its weaknesses—Kirk, for example, too often simply assumed the existence of historical continuity, and perhaps did not sufficiently confront the corrosive effects of liberalism on the kinds of social forces he believed could sustain tradition. Nevertheless, his work stands as a stark alternative to a much bleaker postmodern future.
Kirks intellectual legacy remains widespread, if too often unacknowledged by the movement he helped create. Two of the journals he founded, the University Bookman and Modern Age , continue to appear, and his books remain in print. The localist writer Bill Kauffman has outlined a defense of regionalism that is very much in Kirks spirit. Kauffman wants to reclaim the particularities of the American experience from the domination of big government and the monotone culture emanating from Hollywood, Washington, and New York. His lyrical prose elevates half-forgotten episodes and figures in American history and weaves them into a compelling counter-cultural story.
Scholars such as Robert Kraynak and Peter Augustine Lawler have followed Kirk in studying postmodernism through a traditionalist lens, and popular writers such as Rod Dreher, author of the provocative Crunchy Cons , draw from Kirk’s writings to support a localist, organic lifestyle. Despite Kirk’s suspicion of the cult of technology, a number of influential bloggers also look to him for inspiration in shaping their own conservative visions, rejecting purely utilitarian views of rationality and promoting the ideal of the postmodern conservative who transcends traditional political labels of left and right.
In addition, scholars like Barry Alan Shain, in their writings on early America, have confirmed Kirks contention that that the colonies were not Lockean utopias expressing the values of modern political theory, but closely knit, highly religious Protestant villages for whom Christian liberty had real meaning. The world of the Founders was not, in other words, an earlier version of our own secular society.
Fourteen years after his death, Kirk would be not be surprised at our cultural problems. But neither would he be surprised at the progress made by those who confront these problems in political and intellectual battle. Believing Christian that he was, Russell Kirk never despaired of the future; cheerfulness, he liked to say, will always break in.
Gerald J. Russello, a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall, is author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk and editor of the University Bookman.
The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk
The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk by Gerald J. Russello