While Russell Kirk (1918-1994) has been widely recognized as a formative figure in the postwar conservative revival, his reputation has undergone dramatic changes since the publication of his magisterial The Conservative Mind in 1953. In the 1950’s, Newsweek and Time hailed the young scholar as “one of the foremost intellectual spokesmen for the conservative position” and a “gifted” writer. His books were favorably reviewed in respected and widely circulated publications. Yet his treatment during the following decades by the establishment press and publishers was far less sympathetic; his articles and books received scant or dismissive attention outside conservative circles. Kirk “was well on his way, in the 1950’s, to becoming one of America’s great literary celebrities,” but by 1985, as Thomas Fleming noted, it “would be unusual to find him mentioned in the New Republic, much less the Nation.” Although Ronald Reagan saluted him in 1981 as one of the “intellectual leaders” who had helped to make the 1980 conservative electoral victories possible. Kirk played only a slight role in the Reagan presidency, which brought neoconservatism to power. Largely ignored by the Washington-based Republican establishment, his opinions on public-policy issues were seldom solicited. His anti-modernist traditionalism, combined with his characteristically unfashionable attire, seemed out of place among the button-down Republicans of the Reagan era.

James E. Person, Jr., senior editor at the Gale Group, is eminently qualified to write Russell Kirk’s intellectual biography. A close confidant of the family who lived for a time at Piety Hill (Kirk’s ancestral residence). Person enjoyed extensive access to his subject during the last years of Kirk’s life. He assisted Kirk in researching his memoirs, The Sword of Imagination, and edited The Unbought Grace of Life, a collection of essays written in honor of Kirk and presented to him shortly before his death. Person helped sort and catalog Kirk’s voluminous correspondence and made use of his 10,000-volume personal library while it was still intact. A published literary critic. Person evaluates Kirk’s fiction and short stories more thoroughly than any previous commentator had done. For this alone, his book represents a signal contribution to Kirk scholarship.

Born in Plymouth, Michigan, on October 19, 1918, the son of a railroad engineer. Kirk spent most of his early summers in central Michigan, among the “clannish Pierces” (as he referred to his mother’s family), in the tiny village of Mecosta. After a stint in the service during World War II, Kirk accepted the post of assistant professor of history at Michigan State University. While there, he took a leave of absence to pursue doctoral work at the University of St. Andrews. That ancient Scottish institution conferred upon him in 1952 the degree of Doctor of Letters, making him the only American to have received its highest arts degree. His doctoral dissertation, The Conservative Rout, was re-titled The Conservative Mind and published by Henry Regnery to widespread critical acclaim. Shordy afterward, Kirk resigned from the faculty of Michigan State to embark on a career as an independent “man of letters.” For the remainder of his life, he would earn his keep almost entirely by his pen. His total literary output includes 32 books; 800 essays, book reviews, and articles; and more than 3,000 newspaper and magazine pieces. In addition, Kirk founded Modern Age (which he edited for several years) and the University Bookman (which he edited until his death), and wrote both a syndicated newspaper column and a biweekly one for National Review.

Kirk’s work spanned a broad range of topics and interests, including political theory, intellectual history, and social, cultural, and literary criticism. He authored numerous supernatural and horror short stories and three novels. He lectured and wrote on education and economic matters, and at the end of his life was planning a long study of law and justice. Person states in his preface that his intention is to demonstrate “the extent to which there was an undergirding unity of worldview that informs all [Kirk’s] work.” By examining the moral imagination, die contract of eternal society, and man’s flawed nature—central concepts of Kirk’s thought—Person shows how these various, apparently disparate enterprises fit into a coherent intellectual whole.

Person considers Kirk to be “one of the greatest minds this nation has produced during the twentieth century.” Although he admits to making “no secret of his admiration of him,” “that admiration,” he adds, “is not uncritical.” Nevertheless, this biography is the portrait of Kirk as he would have liked to be remembered. Person does note that, in a quarrel with the Straussians over the Declaration of Independence, Kirk got his historical facts wrong. (Despite Kirk’s assertions to the contrary, Thomas Jefferson was proud of his authorship of the Declaration.) He regards Kirk’s claim that Lincoln was a conservative as “shaky,” but fails to explain sufficiently. Having presented Kirk’s views on natural law, he fails to note that Kirk made only tentative stabs in the direction of classical natural law theory. (Rather, he held that moral universals spring from the imagination—not from reason, as the natural law theorist would hold.) Moreover, Person does not examine the problems presented by Kirk’s appeal to tradition. Often, Kirk displayed in his thought an ahistorical attachment to the past: History became for him almost a sacred garden into which new categories of experience were only reluctantly admitted.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, Kirk and other conservative thinkers made impressive contributions to social and political thought. By the 1980’s, such matters were set on the back burner while movement conservatives pursued personal power and prestige in Washington. Newt Gingrich, the Reaganites, and other establishment conservatives were not particularly interested in Kirk because his ideas were not perceived as relevant to their policy goals. Kirk did not praise the free market uncritically; he supported tariffs to protect the small farmer; he deplored the ruinous destruction of the environment wrought by corporate greed and commercial excess. Person cites approvingly Lee Edwards’ claim that the Heritage Foundation “rests securely on the ideas of Kirk, Hayek and Weaver.” I am not sure which of Kirk’s ideas Edwards has in mind: I can’t think of many to which the policy analysts at Heritage consistently appeal.

In any event, Russell Kirk’s achievement cannot be measured by his influence on transient policy issues. Kirk will—or should—be remembered for championing those enduring norms of social interaction without which civilized existence is rendered impossible. Without the guidance of these “permanent things” (a favorite phrase of Kirk’s), order in the soul and in the commonwealth quickly evaporates. He reminds us that, if conservatism is to survive at all, conservatives need to think about what it is they are trying to conserve. Person’s book provides a readable introduction to a man of extraordinary imagination, insight, grace, and character.


[Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, by James E. Person, Jr. (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books) 249 pp., $26.95]