Russell Kirk played a prominent role in founding and promoting modern conservatism in America—not neoconservatism, but the more traditional variety which emphasizes culture and tradition more than political programs and economics. He is known as the author of The Conservative Mind, The Roots of American Order, The Age of Eliot, and other “conservative” studies and as the founding editor of Modern Age and the University Bookman. I knew him in this capacity, too. But I also knew him personally for over 15 years, having been one among the ranks of students and assistants who worked and studied under him at Piety Hill, his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan. It was my good fortune to study with him for two years back in the early 1980’s and to continue a personal association with him until his death in 1994. With countless others, I remember Dr. Kirk for his literary achievement, but I also remember and honor him for the remarkable place he and his wife Annette created for hundreds of students, assistants, and visitors.
I first met Dr. Kirk in the late 1970’s at Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) summer schools held at Rosemont College, Pennsylvania, and Georgetown University. At one of these events, Dr. Kirk lectured on “Education in an Egalitarian Society,” mentioning that there were still a few good universities for graduate study in the humanities. I remember his brief account of International College, a “university without walls” which offered an alternative to the typical American graduate-school program by reviving the old tutorial method, putting the student in direct contact with the scholar. When I wrote to Dr. Kirk for more information about this unique school, he replied that he was a tutor of International College and that he occasionally took students in literature. Thus the ground was prepared for my first visit to Piety Hill, a place to which I’ve returned many times over the years.
After I visited with the Kirks in August 1979 (to see if they could put up with me and I with them), we decided that I would study with Dr. Kirk for the master’s degree. My studies commenced in May 1980. Dr. Kirk’s gifts and abilities astonished me then and now, for I have not yet met anyone like him. His broad and deep learning, his powerful memory, and his prodigious literary productivity were amazing. He knew a little bit about everything and a great deal about many things. I believe he remembered most of what he read and heard. He could compose and type a single-spaced letter nearly as fast as I could read it, and he would regularly work four to six hours without leaving his desk and then, after a short break, work for another four to six hours. His work ethic would shame the proverbial ant, and it both shamed and astounded me. I was likewise amazed at the energetic, vivacious, and indefatigable Annette, who somehow managed to keep Dr. Kirk’s busy schedule in order while she supervised four daughters, directed anywhere from two to five resident assistants, and entertained frequent—and sometimes numerous — guests. I have not met anyone with her combination of energy, management ability, and generosity. Dr. Kirk and Annette—the two of them together made the magic and charm of Piety Hill. They deserve the admiration and gratitude of the many fortunate students who lived and studied with them in Mecosta.
It is amusing for me to reflect upon the boundless and naive expectations that I had when Dr. Kirk began supervising my scholarly career. When we first discussed my program of studies, I told Dr. Kirk that I wanted to write a master’s thesis on the idea of original sin in Western literature, beginning with the book of Genesis, ending with William Faulkner, and touching on all important writers and thinkers in between. Dr. Kirk gently suggested a more modest approach, one befitting a budding scholar. Why not treat the idea of original sin in connection with one author, not all of the Western pantheon? he asked. He mentioned Samuel Johnson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Richard Weaver as possible subjects whose writings were informed in various ways and degrees by the concept of original sin. Since I was most at home in the house of fiction, I chose to work with Hawthorne.
With G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Kirk believed that original sin was the one Christian doctrine empirically verifiable. After he got to know me, he claimed that I was pretty good evidence of its truth. He occasionally said that my intimate acquaintance with sin, both original and actual, suited me for a study of sin in the writings of the New England Romancer. No doubt some of my students at Hillsdale College (not to mention other people who know me) have also seen evidence of original sin in me. I assure you, it is mutual. With Dr. Kirk and Chesterton, not to mention St. Paul, I believe that Old Man Adam is evident in all of us.
Dr. Kirk, together with his neighbor and friend Dr. Warren Fleischauer, supervised the early stages of my Hawthorne study. While Dr. Kirk recommended books and discussed ideas with me. Dr. Fleischauer supervised my writing. I recall many painful but profitable conferences with Dr. Fleisehauer, a Samuel Johnson scholar with something of Johnson’s temperament and intolerance for foolishness and stupidity. In short, Warren Fleischauer did not suffer fools or bad writing gladly. Though I smarted under his tutelage, I learned much. He improved mv writing at the relatively small expense of my ego. Dr. Kirk did not look at my writing until after Dr. Fleischauer’s criticism had been incorporated in it. The day Dr. Kirk commended me for the work I had done was one of the most gratifying of my life.
After two years of literary labor, I completed my master’s thesis on “Original Sin in the Short Stories and Essays of Nathaniel Hawthorne, With Ralph Waldo Emerson Serving as Hawthorne’s Foil.” In December 1982, I received my diploma from International College, which is now, I am sad to say, defunct.
In those two years of reading, writing, and serving as Dr. Kirk’s literary assistant, I learned much about traditional conservatism from the Sage of Mecosta. I also learned about Michigan. Before I moved from western North Carolina up to Mecosta, the Great Lakes State did not rank high in my list of attractive places. The very name of the state conjured up dismal industrial scenes from the great Motor City. I thought of what I had seen in and around Detroit, in person and in the media: gargantuan factories, sprawling ghettos, race riots, polluted lakes, and an urban area containing over four million people that stretched through parts of five counties. With a land area about the size of McDowell County (where I was born and raised), Detroit was glutted with 100 times the people. Michigan, I thought, was a place where cars, Kellogg’s cereal, and Amway products were made. And so it is. But there is much more to the state, as anyone who has traveled off the fourlane roads and busy streets knows. As Dr. Kirk’s “chauffeur”—one of my numerous duties as his student and assistant—I came to know the less-traveled areas of central Michigan in many drives from rural Mecosta to regional airports in Grand Rapids and the Tri-Cities area (Saginaw, Midland, and Bay City). At Dr. Kirk’s insistence, we never used the expressways; instead, we always took the two-lane roads which went through the back country—through farmland, forests, and small towns and villages. I was surprised to find that Michigan has a diversified agricultural economy, a fact which pleased Dr. Kirk. He called himself a “Northern Agrarian” (after the Southern Agrarians who wrote I’ll Take My Stand), and he enjoyed the rural and economically humane features of central Michigan. On these drives through the country. Dr. Kirk patronized locally owned businesses—yet another indication of his agrarianism.
But how could one help being agrarian if one lived in and loved Piety Hill? The Kirk home overlooks Mecosta, a tiny village in the very heart or palm of Michigan. When I was there, it boasted a population of only 300 souls—something Dr. Kirk frequently noted with obvious pleasure. It has not grown since 1980. In the way of businesses and public buildings, Mecosta didn’t have much to offer. But the countryside round about (and one did not have to go much more than 100 yards in any direction to be in the country) made up for anything that was lacking in the town: picturesque swamps, meandering creeks and rivers, hundreds of little lakes; stands of new pine with meadows wandering in and out of them; sugar maple, oak, tamarack, and white birch trees; deer, beaver, porcupine, herons, Canadian geese. It was a sportsman’s paradise, a nature-lover’s heaven.
Yet to me, Mecosta was a bit flat. The roads, too, were strange—all straight lines intersected at regular intervals by other straight lines, much like a checkerboard. Once, when I told Dr. Kirk that I was homesick for hills and winding roads, he said, “That can be remedied. Let’s go for a drive.” With me at the wheel (for he did not drive), we headed for a district called Canadian Lakes, only about 15 minutes from Mecosta. There, we traveled plenty of winding roads, curving over and around the small hills. What the good doctor ordered was just what I needed. I thought at the time how wonderful it would be if I could show Dr. Kirk some of my old stomping grounds in western North Carolina: Dobson’s Knob, Mt. Mitchell, Brown Mountain, Linville Gorge, Lake James, Harper’s Creek, and some of the other beautiful spots in the region. Later, I did just this when Dr. Kirk lectured at a small college in the western part of my home state.
I was pleasantly surprised by the picturesque beauty of central Michigan, and I was also surprised by what I found at Piet)’ Llill. Who would expect to encounter such a place in the middle of a village in the middle of rural Michigan? Like the lord and lady of a small feudal kingdom, Russell and Annette Kirk presided over a large three-story Italianate house, three writers’ cottages for guests and scholars (the Jewell log cabin, the Calafia House, and the Wilbur House), and a private library in a former toy factory containing over 10,000 books and a considerable periodical collection. In this isolated village, I did not expect to meet such an array of people: poets, fiction writers, publishers, editors, journalists, artists, professors, clergymen, philanthropists, students, politicians, scholars (some of these were, as Dr. Kirk would say, Refugees from Progress), and Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Polish, and Yugoslavian families (Refugees from Giant Ideology, as Dr. Kirk put it). In short, people from all over the world involved in all sorts of interesting educational, artistic. religious, and political affairs flocked to Piety Hill and were graciously received by the Kirks. It was not unusual for them to entertain as many as 20 to 30 people at one time under their several roofs and at the long table in their dining room.
I soon learned that, while one might be geographically out of the way in this small Michigan village, he could still have his finger on the pulse of the nation. Through books, newspapers, periodicals, and visitors (many from foreign lands), it was possible to measure the health and sickness of American culture and politics. I might add that Piety Hill residents kept in touch with local, state, regional, national, and international affairs without resorting to radio or TV.
My stay at Piety Hill, which Dr. Kirk occasionally called the Russell Kirk College of Mystical Knowledge, was enriched by contact with noted scholars, poets, and teachers: Louis Filler, Anthony Kerrigan, Marion Montgomery, Paul Roche, Thomas Howard, John Lukacs, Cleanth Brooks, David Bovenizer, Fr. Ian Boyd, John and Russell Hittinger, Gregory Wolfe, and Andrew Lytic were some of the people I met or renewed acquaintances with at Piety Hill. These and many others, some of them influenced and directed by Dr. Kirk, have contributed substantially to scholarship, pedagogy, and the liberal arts.
While working on my Hawthorne studies, I managed to carry on a fair amount of “extracurricular” reading: all of Dr. Kirk’s fiction, many of his non-fiction works, some of the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Joseph Conrad, and various items from the works of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Basil Willey, and Paul Elmer More. I also kept my eye on about six serious periodicals. The pace of life at Piety Hill was such that one could engage in serious reading, keep up with his studies and duties, converse at leisure with the various denizens of Piety Hill, and go on occasional canoe trips, country drives, or rambles (on foot or skis, depending on the season). The Kirks knew, as the University of Georgia and an English professor at Hillsdale College (times when leisure was an unobtainable luxury), I have looked back with longing at those two years of study, reflection, leisure, and recreation at Piety Hill.
The summer of 1982, just before I left Mecosta to teach English at the Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, I met two “Fugitives from Progress” who changed the course of my life forever. Marion Montgomery (author of the three-volume work The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age and other studies) was the guest lecturer at a Piety Hill/ISI seminar. I was so taken with the depth and range of his critique of modernism that I later determined to study with him at the University of Georgia. Following graduation from Kirk’s “College of Mystical Knowledge” and a year of teaching at the Webb School, I moved to Athens, Georgia. There, after six and a half years of literary labor (teaching, researching, and writing), I completed the Ph.D., producing a dissertation under Mr. Montgomery’s guidance on “Donald Davidson’s Agrarian ‘Creed of Memory.'” Given the character and provincialism of studies in our universities today (provincialism in time, as Allen Tate has characterized the modern mind) and the vogue of faddish but morally, spiritually, and socially dangerous ideologies in academia, one could do worse than study literature with Russell Kirk and Marion Montgomery.
The other noteworthy person I met at this Piety Hill/ISI seminar was Lindy Ellingwood, then a research assistant for The Rockford Institute. Now she has been my wife for 12 years. We are not the only couple who first met at Piety Hill. As a friend of mine who knew the Kirks wrote when he heard of our engagement: “If marriages cannot be made in heaven, then Piety Hill is about as close as we can come in this sublunary world.”
In innumerable ways Dr. Kirk, Annette, and the people who were drawn by them to Piety Hill have influenced my life, and not mine alone. Hundreds of people have been served and directed by Russell and Annette, and thousands have been instructed and inspired by Dr. Kirk’s many literary endeavors. Piety Hill is aptly named. Reverence for order, beauty, craftsmanship, nature, worthwhile traditions, God — reverence for these things characterizes the place.
High on the wall in the Kirks’ kitchen hangs a wooden plaque on which is carved a hand planting acorns and seedlings. A few of Dr. Kirk’s assistants and two of the regulars in the Kirk household, Kelly Kielce and Gracia Virgo, presented this plaque to him at Christmas 1981. An inscription encircles the carving: SERITARBORES QUAE ALTER! SECULO PROSINT (“He plants trees to benefit future generations”). Dr. Kirk was a tireless planter of trees, vines, and shrubs. The testimony of his work surrounds the Piety Hill properties, forming boundaries and lining walks, providing wind breaks and privacy, beauty and fragrance. And Russell and Annette cultivated other sorts of trees. They provided the good soil for the growth of spiritual and intellectual culture, and all of those who came to Piety Hill, students and visitors, were nurtured in the things of the mind and spirit. One trusts that the Kirks’ labor of love and duty will continue to inspire those who came to them over the decades, prompting them to prune the decayed branches of our culture and to renew the vigor and health of values, ceremonies, and truths which ought to endure.
Despite Dr. Kirk’s death in 1994, the work of cultural renewal continues at Piety Hill. Annette Kirk has established the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal; the Resident Fellows program continues; ISI seminars are still held there; and the University Bookman is still published quarterly. Although Dr. Kirk is no longer with us in the flesh, he is very much with us in spirit, and his spirit—he would say ghost—still guides and presides at Piety Hill.
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