Russell Kirk’s death on April 29 deprived both the world of letters and high-toned American conservatism of one of its premier representatives. Author of numerous studies on topics ranging from constitutional law to economics and creator of Gothic mysteries and ghost stories, Kirk left behind a corpus testifying to his rich learning and literary gifts. His best remembered work. The Conservative Mind, which has gone through seven revised editions since 1953, gave to the then-nascent postwar right a lustrous pedigree. Here Kirk traces the conservative mood and principles, which he saw threatened but still operative in postwar America, back to their provincial English and early American sources. He demonstrates a certain continuity running from John Adams, Edmund Burke, High Federalists, Southern regionalists, and other early 19th century Anglo-American critics of both equality and the modern state to later spokesmen for the same critical positions. It may be useful to look in this line of succession less for more of the same than for a continuity of spirit, which Kirk convincingly defines as the Anglo-American conservative tradition. It is the author of The Conservative Mind who first uncovered that tradition and allowed American conservatives to view themselves as part of a unified and venerable heritage.
Among Kirk’s other contributions, for which Thomas Fleming and I are particularly grateful, is the prominence he gave to conservative thinkers and statesmen whom scholars might otherwise overtook. Among these cases in point are Fitzjames Stephens, John Randolph of Roanoke, and William Lecky. Kirk not only theoretically resurrected neglected Anglo-American conservatives, but he brought out the conservative side of figures not often viewed as being on the right. His commentaries on Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville, all Jacksonian Democrats, have helped to explain these literary figures in a theological light. Because of his own interest in his Calvinist forebears. Kirk looked at the ways in which the idea of Original Sin affected early American culture.
Any biographer of Kirk will face the daunting task of integrating into a single study a body of writing that would take an entire library room to house. These writings include a magisterial biography of Kirk’s friend, T.S. Eliot, a learned history of the United States as seen within the Western experience, The Roots of American Order, and The Conservative Constitution.
Those eulogies that movement conservatives have showered on Kirk in the wake of his death and during a testimonial to him at Dearborn last October are entirely deserved. Without Kirk the postwar conservatism to which I have devoted considerable scholarship would have been far less respectable—and without any serious claim to a past. However, the surprise is not that New York-Washington conservatives have praised Kirk at the end of his life, but that so comparatively little was made of him in his later years. His Heritage Foundation lectures, while they did lend dignity to the shop-and-till conservatism of the Reagan years, seemed to attract attention only when he courageously spoke out about the decadence of his movement.
While older conservatives at Hillsdale College, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and Heritage continued to provide Russell Kirk with opportunities, newcomer institutions seemed far more interested in promoting Dinesh D’Souza’s collected academic horror stories, Illiberal Education. The Festschrift that appeared in Kirk’s honor several days before his death waited years for subsidies. It was finally published on a shoestring by a less-than-distinguished conservative press. When the neoconservatives assailed Kirk in 1987 for making surprisingly strong remarks about their involvement with the American-Israeli lobby, few conservatives rose to his defense. Some, like William Buckley, offered to mediate once Kirk had atoned for his indiscretion. Making baseless charges against Kirk as an “anti-Semite” was obviously not considered indiscreet, particularly when the namecallers controlled newspapers and fortunes.
Some paleoconservatives have been heard to grumble that Dr. Kirk might have done more for “the Cause,” but there was, in fact, little he or anyone could have done in the declining decade of his life that would have made any difference in the current conservative wars. Not even during his period of fame had he exercised political influence. His own abiding interest was culture, and as he grew older and the left-liberal ascendancy over America became frenetic, his role as a cultural critic grew correspondingly weaker. In 1971, his biography of Eliot, published by Random House, had been widely reviewed by the elite press. Twenty years later his books went unnoticed, except by a few conservative magazines with rather limited readership.
Russell Kirk stood for an older cultural conservatism, which did not “reach out” to those whom Washington conservatives were rushing around to pacify. He did not strike or change his colors; nor did he whine about the lack of “indecisiveness” among conservatives. Despite his “insensitivity” here, he and his wife beggared themselves by caring for Third World refugees, but neither made a political statement out of their acts of Christian kindness.
Kirk’s one overshadowing fault revealed the naive goodness of his character. He bestowed selfless love upon a largely unworthy political cause, and though this did not transform that cause, he dramatized the disproportion between his devotion and its object. For many of us there are lessons to be learned from this example, and the most palpable is the need to judge harshly those who refused to defend and even lent themselves to humiliating a noble teacher. For all these ingratitudes. Kirk led a fulfilling life as a husband, father, and as the revered mentor of those youthful devotees who sojourned at his house in Mecosta. Here this benign and erudite man of letters did enjoy a suitable reward even in this transitory existence—and a foretaste of the world to come.