Kirk in 1962
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|
University of St Andrews
(m. 1963; died 1994)
|Politics, history, fiction|
|This article is part of a series on|
the United States
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.
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 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 the rapid growth in student number 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". 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.
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. In 1992 he supported Pat Buchanan's primary challenge to incumbent George H. W. Bush, serving as state chair of the Buchanan campaign in Michigan.
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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.
In addition to bringing public attention to Anglo-American conservative principles, Kirk described his perception of liberal ideals in the first chapter. Kirk identified these ideals as the perfectibility of man, hostility towards tradition, rapid change in economic and political systems, and the secularization of government. 
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."[failed verification]
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.
However, Kirk's view of classical liberals is positive. 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.
In a column in The National Review on 9 March 1965 entitled "Why They Riot", Kirk wrote that the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on voting "will work mischief—much injuring, rather than fulfilling, the responsible democracy for which Tocqueville hoped," but in the case of South Africa "this degradation of the democratic dogma, if applied, would bring anarchy and the collapse of civilization." Kirk stated apartheid was just because "the European 'element' had rescued South Africa," and "Bantu political domination would be domination by witch doctors (still numerous and powerful) and reckless demagogues."
[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. Kirk stated in 1984 that the purpose of his stories as:
"The political ferocity of our age is sufficiently dismaying: men of letters need not conjure up horrors worse than those suffered during the past decade by the Cambodians and Ugandans, Afghans and Ethiopians. What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable...some clear premise is about the character of human existence...a healthy concept of the character of evil..."
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. Old House of Fear was inspired by the novels of John Buchan and Kirk's own Scottish heritage. The story of Old House of Fear concerns an young American, Hugh Logan, a World War II veteran who is both brave and sensitive, sent to buy Carnglass, a remote island in the Hebrides. Upon reaching the island, he discovers that the island's owner, Lady MacAskival and her beautiful adopted daughter Mary are being held hostage by foreign spies, who are presumably working for the Soviet Union, out to sabotage a nearby NATO base. The leader of the spies is Dr. Jackman, an evil genius and nihilist intent upon wrecking destruction upon a world that failed to acknowledged his greatness and whom reviewers noted was a much more vividly drawn character than the hero Logan. Dr. Jackman appears to be a prototype of Kirk's best known character, Mandred Arcane, with the only difference being the former has no values while the latter does.
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. A Creature of the Twilight concerns the adventures in Africa of a reactionary, romantic mercenary Mandred Arcane, a self-proclaimed mixture of Machiavelli and Sir Lancelot, who is an anachronistic survival of the Victorian Age who does not belong in the modern world and yet defiantly still exists, making him the "creature of the twilight". Kirk has Arcane write his pseudo-memoir in a consciously Victorian style to underline that he does not belong in the 1960s. Arcane is both a dapper intellectual and a hardened man of action, an elderly man full of an unnatural vigor, who is hired by the son of the assassinated Sultan to put down a Communist rebellion in the fictional African nation of Hamnegri, which he does despite overwhelming odds. In 1967, Kirk published a short story "Belgrummo's Hell" about a clever art thief who unwisely tries to rob the estate of the ancient Scottish warlock, Lord Belgrummo, who is later revealed to be Arcane's father. In another short story published in the same collection, "The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion" concerned a wizard, Archvicar Gerontion, who tries to kill Arcane by casting deadly spells.
The Lord of the Hollow Dark is set at the same Belgrummo estate first encountered in "Belgrummo's Hell" where an evil cult led by the Aleister Crowley-like character Apollinax have assembled to secure for themselves the "Timeless Moment" of eternal sexual pleasure by sacrificing two innocents, an young woman named Marina and her infant daughter in an ancient warren called the Weem under the Belgrummo Estate. Assisting Apollinax is Archvicar Gerontion, who is really Arcane in disguise. Inspired by the novels of H.P. Lovecraft, Kirk in the Lord of the Hollow Dark has Arcane survive a "horrid chthonian pilgrimage" as he faces dark supernatural forces, confront his own family's history of evil, and refuse the appeal of a "seductive, hubristic immorality". The novel concludes with Arcane's own definition of a true "Timeless Moment" which he states: "it comes from faith, from hope, from charity; from having your work in the world; from the happiness of the people you love; or simply as a gift of grace". 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.) Many of Kirk's short stories, especially the ghost stories, were set in either Scotland or in the rural parts of his home state of Michigan.
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
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