A friend of mine has expressed the devout hope that, upon his death, his wife and children will have the good sense to burn his papers. While his main desire is to prevent unfinished thoughts from seeing the light of day, there are other, equally important, concerns. Posthumously published works allow enemies to attack without fear of reprisal; even worse, they encourage excessive—and uncritical—adulation from friends. The Sword of Imagination has provoked both responses.

By the time of his death in 1994, Russell Kirk had generated an impressive body of work that included over 30 books and hundreds of articles and reviews. Departing from this vale of tears, he left behind his completed but unpublished memoirs, which appeared a year later as the current volume. In the preface. Kirk notes his peculiar (but for him characteristic) stylistic choice: “Emulating Julius Caesar, Henry Esmond, and Henry Adams, I express my memoirs, throughout the following chapters, in the third person—that mode being less embarrassing to authors who set at defiance the ravenous ego. Besides, when the man within . . . regards critically the life of the outer man, it may be possible to attain some degree of objectivity—using that word in its signification of detachment from strong emotion or personal prejudice.” Curiously, Kirk was too much of a Romantic not to know that “objectivity,” especially regarding oneself, is a fiction. Indeed, the pretense of objectivity often serves as cover for “the ravenous ego,” rather than setting it at defiance. Some readers, especially if they did not know Kirk, may suspect that to be true in this case.

The decision to write in the third person may be at once the book’s strongest point and its weakest. It allows Kirk to put into writing emotions that he could never express in the first person, especially about his family life. On the other hand, portions of The Sword of Imagination (for instance, where the author discusses the importance of his own work, or its influence) read like the work of a biographer, even a hagiographer, rather than an autobiography. While he may have seen himself in the third person (and some who were close to him often suspected he did). Kirk might better have left an appraisal of his own work to others.

Forty years after the publication of a book is probably too soon to be able to gauge its long-term significance. Yet Kirk attributes the rightward drift of American politics in recent decades in no small part to the influence of The Conservative Mind: “So it was that The Conservative Mind—working through a kind of intellectual osmosis and popularized through newspapers and mass-audience magazines, radio and even television commentators, and other media of opinion—gradually helped to alter the climate of political and moral opinion. A generation later. Kirk’s works would be cited and quoted by the president and the vice president of the United States.” Whether, a century from now, historians will draw such a connection is anybody’s guess; but even if they should do so, what would it mean? Ronald Reagan quoted more often from Tom Paine, the intellectual enemy of Kirk’s hero, Edmund Burke, than from any other political figure; and in his eight years in office, he enshrined as the centerpiece of conservatism those “dreams of avarice” that Kirk wanted to get beyond. Though Kirk writes of President Eisenhower that he “and his people did retard the advance of the welfare state in America but did little to give flesh to the conservative imagination,” Reagan and his people merely fed that imagination a steady diet of Hollywood-style celluloid, (Kirk admits as much: “Mr. Reagan was endowed with a certain power of imagination; successful actors almost necessarily have a talent for image-making.”) As for the Vice President who quoted from Kirk’s works, when he ascended to the presidency Kirk found him “worse than unimaginative—merely silly, often,” and “would come to detest Bush for his carpet-bombing of the Cradle of Civilization with its taking of a quarter of a million lives in Iraq.” And “so in 1992 Kirk became general chairman of Patrick Buchanan’s campaign in the Michigan primary.” If The Conservative Mind really led to Reagan and Bush, even Kirk might question the value of that accomplishment.

Unlike Eisenhower and Reagan, Kirk did help to “give flesh to the conservative imagination,” and the number of conservative luminaries who claim that his works played a role in their political and intellectual development is legion. But today, with the conservative movement in a shambles and the Republican Party headed for self-immolation in November, perhaps we can learn a final lesson from Russell Kirk. For unlike those who have succumbed to the siren song of Washington, D.C., Kirk realized that the lasting accomplishments of his life were not political, nor even intellectual. Rather, they surrounded him every day, and he presents them here in loving detail: a devoted wife, who still works tirelessly to keep his memory alive; four gracious daughters, who will raise their children well, as they were raised; a congeries of assistants, who planted trees and took long walks with Kirk, and came to see the woods and fields that surround Mecosta, and even the little village itself, through the lens of his Romantic imagination.

In an age of abstractions, in which “Efficiency and Progress and Equality” are seen as more real than “all those fascinating and lovable peculiarities of human nature and human society that are the products of prescription and tradition,” Kirk cultivated a sense of mystery and awe and wonder. To his eyes, Mecosta, shunned and despised by the commissars of big government, big business, and big culture, was a Brigadoon. As a business partner of Kirk’s once remarked, “Russell, you are the last of the Romantics, and probably the greatest: for nobody else could make tales out of that God-forsaken Mecosta County.”

That Romantic imagination is Kirk’s greatest legacy. If his influence should continue on into the next century, it will be because those who knew him had their imagination awakened to possibilities greater than those dreamed of in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles. Those possibilities are what make life worth living, and they—more so than Kirk’s discussions of politics, or his portraits of famous acquaintances— are what make The Sword of Imagination worth reading.


[The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, by Russell Kirk (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 497 pp., $35.00]