Having access to personal correspondence and other private papers is every biographer’s dream, a potential difference between a decent biography and a great biography. In the case of Russell Kirk, the advantage was huge. Kirk maintained a “massive—in some ways, beyond comprehension—correspondence” over the course of a prolific life in letters. For example, Bradley Birzer, professor of history at Hillsdale College (where he holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies), notes that in late August 1975 Kirk “devoted three full writing days to answering 180 letters.” That was hardly unusual, as Kirk’s work ethic was legendary. Kirk’s private papers also contain several unpublished manuscripts, outlines for books, and essays that were, for various (and sometimes unknown) reasons, never published. In the 13 years he spent writing his To the Point column for National Review—in addition to numerous books and essays—Kirk wrote more than 1.5 million words. He was, as Birzer suggests more than once, a sort of American Chesterton.
The similarities are more than statistical in nature. Like Chesterton, Kirk wrote about nearly everything: domestic politics, global events, American and European history, culture, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, and the ordinary joys of everyday life. He
offered personal advice on right behavior, manners, and patriotism . . . He also, perhaps surprisingly to many modern conservatives, defended conservation, tree planting, organic farming, midwifery, and “natural” living; he wanted as many Americans as possible to leave the “scientific culture” of modernity and “return to the earth.”
Kirk was not a “conservative” in any mainstream, talk-radio, FOX News sort of way; he was, in his own unique and occasionally eccentric and difficult way, a Christian humanist, a point that Birzer emphasizes throughout. As strange as it initially sounds, the author of The Conservative Mind believed that although
conservatism offered an excellent critique of society, he knew it did not necessarily provide answers or solutions to current problems or to whatever future problems might arise in the world. . . . Christian humanism, he concluded, offered a permanent solution to conservatism’s shortcomings.
With that in mind, Kirk worked tirelessly to “create a coherent Christian humanist movement and republic of letters to counter the century’s radical ideologies.”
Three qualities make this a splendid book. First, Birzer demonstrates, with tremendous skill and wide-ranging research, how Kirk focused on “the whole, the universal principles that hold one person and one culture together at any one moment of time and across time.” Put another way, Kirk saw the deeply organic nature of culture—that is, of the soil of cult, or Christian belief, and the life that springs from it—and how it relates to everything else. This is not surprising when one considers that the three greatest intellectual influences that shaped Kirk were Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, and Christopher Dawson. Second, Birzer shows how Kirk interacted and grappled with the work and thought of a tremendous range of intellectuals, authors, philosophers, and theologians: Augustine, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, Babbitt, Eliot, Leo Strauss, Dawson, Robert Nisbet, Eric Voegelin, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and many more. Thus, the biography sometimes ignores chronology in order better to examine “the intellectual development of Kirk’s mind and ideas, giving special attention to his intellectual heritage . . . ” In a superb section titled Vital Relations: The Friendships, Birzer relates fascinating details about Kirk’s relations with several contemporaries. We learn, for instance, that Kirk and Flannery O’Connor first met in October 1955, after O’Connor traveled 340 miles from Georgia to Nashville to hear Kirk lecture—only to discover that she had missed the lecture by two days. Fortunately, they ended up being guests at the home of mutual friends, Brainard and Fanny Cheney. Although the two greatly admired each other, they were both very shy; O’Connor told a friend that their attempts to converse resembled “the efforts of two midgets to cut down a California redwood.” O’Connor gave a reading of her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which Kirk described as “comic and terrifying and real.” Her performance, he later noted, “echoes in my ears still.” He found O’Connor to be “brilliant” and believed, Birzer writes, “that O’Connor understood the complexities and mysteries of the human person, each unique, dignified, and unrepeatable.”
A subsequent chapter, “Sojourning the Waste Land,” delves into Kirk’s deep friendship with T.S. Eliot, who was 30 years his senior. While Eliot only once used the phrase “permanent things” in his writings, Kirk adopted the term, “always employing it as a shorthand for the preservation of the best of the past.” Eliot’s influence on the younger author was so strong that “Kirk spent much of the last thirty years of his life trying to explicate and find wholeness in Eliot’s work, introducing it to several generations of Americans.” Eliot and His Age, published in 1971, ranks among Kirk’s finest works.
Third, this biography provides an excellent history, and often pointed critique, of American conservatism and politics in the 20th century. It is here, perhaps, that many readers will most actively debate and even disagree with some of Birzer’s bolder assessments. For example, of Kirk’s tumultuous parting from Modern Age, a journal he had founded in 1957 and left some three years later, Birzer writes, “His divorce from the journal profoundly altered the future of conservatism, especially traditionalist conservatism.” It was in 1960, he suggests, that the conservative movement “‘lost its mind,’ its center of thought,” allowing conservatism “to become more populist, less intellectual, more political, and more commercialized and commodified.” While deeply sympathetic to that reading, I wonder if the massive upheavals in the cultural soil from the late 1950’s into the 70’s aren’t given their proper due here.
Ultimately, the book raises large questions. What does it mean to be “American” and “conservative”? And where do we as a people, as citizens, as communities, and as a culture go from here? The real and lasting answers are not discoverable in government programs, the soft social sciences, or technocratic systems, but in the permanent things, the moral imagination, and a real sense of cult and faith—all of which, it goes without saying, flow from the transcendent realm.
Kirk’s writings, perhaps especially his Gothic novels and haunted short stories, were very much about the transcendent. Kirk, who converted to Catholicism after marrying Annette, “certainly possessed what one might label a mystical side.” It is notable that Kirk, upon entering the Catholic Church in 1964, took Augustine as his patron saint and that he and Annette named their first daughter Monica after Augustine’s long-suffering and sainted mother. In 1970, amid the widespread confusion and banality in the wake of Vatican II, Kirk told a close friend who was in the midst of conversion, “Like myself, you enter the church in its decadence,” adding, “But perhaps we can do some restoring.” And isn’t that an essential part of what it means to be a Christian humanist—to restore order, sanity, goodness, hope, and joy?
[Russell Kirk: American Conservative, by Bradley J. Birzer (University of Kentucky Press) 608 pages, $34.95]