Books in Review

Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 53-56.

An Uncertain Legacy

Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind. By James E. Person, Jr. Madison. 208 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by Jeremy M. Beer

Russell Kirk’s place in twentieth–century intellectual life is difficult to ascertain. Though long–since canonized as one of the fathers of modern conservatism, in large part because of his influential 1953 book The Conservative Mind, Kirk (who died in 1994) fits awkwardly with the other men identified as the founders of that movement. In Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, James E. Person, Jr. refers to several different lists of "most important conservatives" that place Kirk with the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, and others. But if it were not for the historical accident of communism, the grouping of Kirk with the libertarian Friedman—and to a lesser extent, Buckley and Hayek—would make very little sense.

It is perhaps for this reason that during the 1990s Kirk has more often than not been paid empty homage by the influential think tanks and magazines within the conservative movement. That is, while conservative leaders are only too happy to appropriate Kirk’s name for the purpose of gaining intellectual credibility, they just as quickly ignore the specifics of his cultural criticism.

Person acknowledges but does not thoroughly explore this tension. While his book is an accurate, fair, and sympathetic exposition of the entire corpus of Kirk’s work, comparatively little attention is given to the differences between Kirk and his fellow conservatives. Person’s aim, much more modest than the title would seem to indicate, was to write "an introduction to Kirk’s thought that will serve the intelligent, interested reader, in a manner accessible to the nonspecialist." At this he has succeeded.

Person devotes chapters to every significant aspect of Kirk’s intellectual legacy, including his historical analyses, biographies, critiques of contemporary education, short stories, novels, literary criticism, social philosophy, and political economy. Person makes use throughout of the (surprisingly scarce) scholarly literature surrounding Kirk’s work. Portions of Kirk’s unpublished correspondence and quotations from major reviews of his books are also used to good effect.

Person begins by acknowledging that for some readers Kirk’s frequent recourse to phrases such as "the permanent things" and "moral imagination" can be more puzzling than enlightening. Person provides brief and helpful explanations of what Kirk meant by these locutions, but he himself employs them, and others like them, perhaps too freely throughout the book. This is understandable; Kirk’s style, like Chesterton’s, is infectious, and those deeply read in his work can come to feel perfectly justified in picking it up.

This tendency is one reason Person’s discussion of Kirk’s fiction is the strongest section of the book. Here Kirk’s language is still fresh and new, and Person is able to provide a useful analysis of how Kirk’s literary work illuminates the character of his thought. That thought was essentially moral, grounded in a thick understanding of the relationship between human nature, tradition, and transcendent being. Because Kirk believ ed that such an understanding was best apprehended and transmitted through imaginative literature, it is only right that his short stories and fiction best enable one to appreciate the character of his insight into the human predicament.

Thematically influenced by his reading in T. S. Eliot, Martin D’Arcy, Ray Bradbury, and especially Dante, Kirk nonetheless approached his themes very differently than they: through the ghost story. As Person explains, Kirk’s stories tend to focus upon either "the reality of evil . . . and the nature of justice through violent retribution" or "the essential mystery of time and eternity."

Kirk’s novels explicate similar themes through different means. He uses the formula of the Gothic tale to explore the character of evil in Old House of Fear. A Creature of the Twilight introduces the remarkable character of Manfred Arcane (sort of a suave and extroverted Russell Kirk, really), and mercilessly satirizes Marxist ideologues and the globalist pretensions of Western liberalism. Readers not familiar with Kirk’s fiction will find this introduction appetizing, as Person leaves no doubt that Kirk possessed extraordinary literary skill. That skill was evident also in his literary criticism, which was admired by such luminaries as Allen Tate and Flannery O’Connor.

Although Kirk’s work in the areas of history and economics is today almost as little known as his fiction, it engaged—and sometimes infuriated—some of the century’s most influential writers and political thinkers. Person recounts, for instance, the feud between Kirk and political theorist Harry Jaffa over the character of the American founding and the political import of the Declaration of Independence. Kirk saw the so–called "Straussian" interpretation of the Declaration, with its emphasis upon the inherent equality of all men, as not only unhistorical but as necessarily tending toward egalitarian ideology, and he consequently worked to downplay the Declaration’s significance. For the same reasons, he discouraged all talk of "the American experiment" as implicitly deceptive, and in several books—notably America’s British Culture and Rights and Duties—attempted to show that the American Founders did not mean to inaugurate a new political order, but wanted only to preserve their English political heritage, with its Christian and classical roots, by the most prudent means possible.

In his economics, Kirk could be quite critical of capitalism (which was, as he always pointed out in his characteristic solicitude for proper usage, a Marxist word) as a political ideology, and for libertarians he had no use at all. Yet Person demonstrates that Kirk’s feuds with libertarians and some neoconservatives belied his underlying faith in the essential justice of free markets—when they were not taken as self–justifying. Kirk especially admired the German economist Wilhelm Röpke’s attempt to show how a market economy could be constrained to work on a humane scale and thus not subvert social stability and the moral order.

A particularly important and complicated facet of Kirk’s thought is his analysis of the relationship between tradition and natural law. Kirk was often castigated by liberals and conservatives alike for upholding the claims of tradition, custom, and habit, while at the same time believing in universal, transcendent norms. This criticism fails, Person points out, because on any issue where the requirements of the natural law were clear, Kirk always conceded their precedence over tradition. More fundamentally, Kirk saw tradition and custom as means of apprehending transcendent ethical and moral truths. The thinker who sets aside all that has gone before him is absolutely sure to get things wrong. For Kirk, an important element of "right reason" was a thorough grounding in and respect for—though not blind adherence to—tradition.

Person is faithful to Kirk’s thought in showing him to be no friend to the modern governmental, industrial, technological, or commercial order—the leviathan state and leviathan business. But his antimodernism followed no automatic ideological pattern: Kirk criticized his fellow conservatives’ obsession with economic matters; he did not believe that "government was the problem"; he questioned the wisdom of indiscriminate attempts to export democratic capitalism around the globe; he was a conservationist and a proponent of sound environmental policy; he believed that the small farmer and businessman should be protected; and he emphasized the importance of place and rootedness against the cult of mobility and cultural homogenization.

So where does Kirk fit? Person ends with a brief discussion of Kirk’s enduring significance and influence, but a more complete assessment of this issue is necessary. As the champion of a kind of conservatism currently in eclipse, and as a man of letters who made his living outside academia, Kirk is in danger of falling through the cracks. Will he continue to be regarded as an important figure only in the recent history of political ideas, or will he be resuscitated as a living, breathing intellectual force to be grappled with, criticized, and built upon?

Person leaves this question unaddressed, but it seems certain that Kirk deserves better than either indifference or unconditional adulation. A critical appropriation of Russell Kirk’s thought would be useful for those who wish to disavow the modern "domination of boredom and materialism" Person laments in exchange for a moral and aesthetic vision grounded in natural law and tradition. For those involved in this project, Person’s excellent introduction to the range and tenor of Kirk’s mind is a very good place to start.