Published December 3, 2015
Review: Russell Kirk: American Conservative, by Bradley J. Birzer (Kentucky, 608 pp., $34.95)
Given the confused and dispirited state of American conservatism at the present moment, it is high time for a Russell Kirk revival. The very thought of such a revival is appealing, even exhilarating, and the appearance of Bradley J. Birzer’s splendid and exhaustively researched biography of Kirk just might provide the catalyst needed to set it in motion. Not that Kirk has become a forgotten figure in the 21 years since his death. A number of valuable studies of his life and work are already available, including those by James Person, Gerald Russello, and the late W. Wesley McDonald; and the most important of the Wizard of Mecosta’s multitudinous writings, such as The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order, have remained continuously in print, thanks to the good graces of ISI Books. For anyone genuinely interested in conservative thought, it would be hard to miss Kirk, and few writers of such stature are more of a pleasure to read in the original.
But that does not mean that the distinctive features of his message have been getting an adequate hearing, particularly among those whom he liked to call “the rising generation.” Even the most worthy heritage has to be freshly appropriated by those who inherit it. And the Kirkian way of doing things is a taste that must be acquired. To those who are accustomed to thinking of conservatism as chiefly a matter of public policy, of school vouchers and capital-gains taxes and health savings accounts, all presented in crisp quantitative tables and soggy bureaucratic prose, Kirk’s message, with its historical sweep and poetic splendor, its delight in the pursuit of beauty and fancy, its disdain for academicism in all forms, and its talent for making us feel the vital connection between ourselves and the stories of vanished peoples and things of the past, will come as a great and pleasant surprise. For Kirk, conservatism was not a set of policy desiderata. It was a disposition of grateful wonder that calls us to acknowledge our deepest places, the sources of our being, and to strive to live in respectful and loving harmony with them.
Birzer’s biography is the first to be able to draw on the immensity of Kirk’s personal papers, including his diaries and letters, and as such it provides readers with a wealth of hitherto unknown detail about his working life, his impossibly wide circle of acquaintances, and his dealings with contemporaries such as Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Robert Nisbet, T. S. Eliot, Barry Goldwater, and tutti quanti. The book offers no startling departures from the general outlines of Kirk’s life as they have been rendered for many years now; but many of the details it provides not only fill in the picture but complicate it in interesting ways, and provide support for Birzer’s contentions about how we ought to read Kirk now and henceforth.
Born in 1918 in Plymouth, Mich., to a struggling middle-class family living in a prefabricated house that lacked an indoor bathroom, Kirk was nevertheless able to parlay a voracious love of reading into a superior education, with a bit of help from a solidly traditional public-school setting that provided him with scope for his literary and debating skills. Graduating from Michigan State in 1940 and unable to find work in the lingering Depression, he ended up serving in the U.S. Army for most of World War II — an experience that he loathed, and that cemented in him a libertarian distrust of overweening government control. In addition, he quietly questioned many of the measures associated with the Allied cause. In particular, Kirk was appalled by the internment of Japanese-American citizens, which he witnessed firsthand in Idaho, and even more by the dropping of the two atomic bombs on civilian targets at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both seemed to him demonstrations of the follies of concentrated power. Of the latter, he darkly declared to a friend that “the knell of civilization has been sounded. . . . Science and popular judgment have brought us to nihilism in thought and fission in substance.” The American confidence in “the God Progress” was foolish and misplaced; for progress, it seemed, meant only “progress toward annihilation.” Even the V-J Day celebrations he observed in the streets of Salt Lake City left him cold. He was no knee-jerk patriot, not by a long shot.
It was not until his post-war graduate studies at St. Andrews University that Kirk found himself fully formed as a conservative thinker. It had everything to do with being in Scotland. The atmosphere, lore, landscape, architecture, and people of Scotland all utterly enchanted him, and seemed to quicken his literary energies: He wrote three books, seven short stories, and 25 scholarly articles, among other things, during his four years there. The most important of his writings during that time, though, was his doctoral dissertation, which would eventually be published in 1953 as The Conservative Mind, one of the truly indispensable books in American conservative intellectual history and arguably the most important of all Kirk’s books.
As Birzer points out, 1953 was an annus mirabilis for the American conservative mind, and specifically a year of extraordinary productivity in the publication of conservative books: In addition to Kirk’s magnum opus, there was Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community, Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, and Daniel Boorstin’s The Genius of American Politics. The years immediately before and after saw a virtual who’s who of authors — including Eliot, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Dawson, Voegelin, C. S. Lewis, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley Jr., and Francis Graham Wilson — publish works of great, and even monumental, importance to conservatives. But Kirk did something that none of these other authors did in their works: He sought to prove that Anglo-American conservatism was no mere recent invention, but that it had a usable past, a venerable history of thinkers extending back at least to Edmund Burke, if not a great deal farther, and forward to such contemporary figures as George Santayana and Eliot. And, as Birzer insists, “in [Kirk’s] definition of the conservative, the poetic, literary, and theological superseded the political.”
It is one of Birzer’s chief goals in this biography to emphasize this very point again and again about Kirk: that he was at his best, and was most comfortable, when writing about matters that were not political, and doing so in a manner that was not political. As Kirk explained in 1952 to Henry Regnery, his publisher, it was important to “recognize the great importance, in literature as in life, of religion, ethics, and beauty.” Politics, he snapped, “is the diversion of the quarter-educated, and I do try to transcend pure politics in my book.” And by implication, Birzer seems to be arguing, those readers over the years who have tried to recruit Kirk to the cause of hard-core “movement” conservative politics have been committing a grave error, failing to read him as he wished to be read, and failing to open themselves to the larger currents at work in his writing.
But what about Kirk’s own ventures into politics, notably in Barry Goldwater’s doomed campaign for president in 1964? Or his enthusiastic support for Ronald Reagan’s political career, his public endorsement of Pat Buchanan’s dissident candidacy for president in 1992, and his subsequent work in exploring the creation of a Buchananite third-party movement? Or, perhaps more important, what about his longstanding relationship with National Review, and with William F. Buckley Jr.? Birzer acknowledges all these things, and is modest and tentative in answering these questions, but it seems clear that he views these more conventional forms of political activity as misguided, and perhaps even wholly mistaken: Kirk perhaps diverted too much of his energy into writing as “part of a sect” rather than “part of his desired republic of letters.” It is possible, he continues, that Kirk thereby “lessened his reach and allowed his opposition to question his integrity and consequently the integrity of nonpolitical conservatism.” His efforts on behalf of Goldwater were “a vital anomaly in his life.”
Perhaps. But the problem with this position is that there is little evidence that Kirk himself regarded those efforts in that way, or expressed profound personal regret about them after the fact. Indeed, there is evidence that Kirk enjoyed a good political scrap now and again. What seems clearer, though, is that Birzer’s somewhat disapproving account of Kirk’s political gambits may reflect the disenchantment so many younger conservatives today seem to feel with the false promise of political action, and their belief that an excessive emphasis on achieving political victories has led to an impoverishment of conservatism through an utter neglect of the realm of the imagination and of the realm of culture more generally. In this view, the transformation and revitalization of a moribund, life-denying, and inhumane culture into something more fitting to our human endowment is the principal task facing conservatives and conservatism, and Russell Kirk’s oeuvre needs to be read in that light, and not as a guidebook for smiting the enemy hip and thigh. Birzer’s biography could be extraordinarily important if it succeeds in revitalizing the witness of Russell Kirk for such readers.
On top of all its other virtues, this biography possesses the supreme one of being a joy to read, as it conveys something of the adventure of the life of the mind over the course of the tumultuous 20th century. It seems almost sprightly, even weighing in at 600 pages, which is no small feat. It does a remarkable job of providing readers with an introduction to every major influence on Kirk, from Irving Babbitt to Ray Bradbury, even as it chronicles the twists and turns of Kirk himself.
And the book is written in a remarkably Kirkian way, rather than following the pseudo-objective canons of mainstream scholarship. Like Kirk, Birzer does not affect a neutrality toward his subject of which he is not capable. He has tremendous love and enthusiasm for Kirk and is not reluctant to show it. The volume is Kirkian, too, in its way of approaching the knowledge of the past. “A biographer’s work,” Birzer says, “is always and everywhere poetic,” by which he means that the biographer, while being scrupulously attentive to facts, seeks first and foremost to conjure and express the deep shape of a life as it emerges independently of the welter of data. He has succeeded at both tasks — and in doing so, he may have smoothed the path toward the recovery of Kirk’s work by a rising generation that badly needs him.
– Mr. McClay holds the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.