As some TIC readers know, I’ve the great privilege of working on a book on the endlessly fascinating Russell Kirk. At this point, I’ve written an introduction, three full chapters, and two partial chapters. I’ve written about 50,000 words, and I’m projecting a total word count for the completed project at roughly 120,000 words. The tentative title is The Humane Republic: Russell Kirk and the Discovery of Conservatism, 1936-1964.
Henry Regnery published The Conservative Mind on May 10, 1953. The reaction–both positive and negative–began immediately, and the 35-year old Kirk became an international celebrity, an intellectual superstar. Well over 65 serious periodicals (journals, magazines, and newspapers) reviewed Kirk’s book. Some journals even offered multiple reviews of the work. While many embraced the book and many despised it, no one worth any thing in the world of scholarship or the media ignored it.
Without exaggeration, one can state that The Conservative Mind harnessed and gave a name–the “new conservativism” as it quickly became known–to several decades of intelligent anger toward the seemingly endless Progressive and New Deal Leviathan (at home and abroad).
Here is part one of the reaction. Some of the quotes from reviews might seem out of context; if so, I apologize. I tried to give as much context as possible without typing in the full review. Also, there might still be typos in some of these quotes. I input them using a variety of methods, traditional typing as well as some OCR and dictation (using Dragon Dictate for Mac 2.5). Again, my apologies for any errors.
From August Hecksher, “Toward a True, Creative Conservatism,” Herald Tribune Book Review (August 2, 1953): 4-5.
“To be a conservative in the United States has for so long been considered identical with being backward, and even faintly alien, that Mr. Kirk’s proud justification of the term is to be welcomed. His book is carefully wrought and honestly made. It embodies a point of view which deserves a hearing—which deserves, indeed, a good deal of prayerful meditation and sympathy. Much of the ill that has come upon the world can certainly be traced to the fact that the doctrine of conservatism has yielded to the heresies of centralization, uniformity and other false forms of consent which are cultivated by mass propaganda.” (Page 4)
“True conservatism—Burke remains the classic type—denies the liberal assumptions of inevitable progress, of the perfectibility of man, of the uses of sweeping change; it raises instead a belief in the values that exist—often deformed and only half perceived—within established things.” (Page 4)
From Peter Viereck, “Conservatism vs. Smugness,” Saturday Review (October 3, 1953), 38-39.
“. . . an intelligent and important book of scholarly research” (Page 38)
“Burke, through his famous debate with the dead Rousseau and the living Paine, remains the starting–point for both conservatism and radicalism. Your reaction toward his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” still remains the best test of whether you are a philosophical conservative. ‘Radicals unite into testing Burke’s description of the state as… a spiritual union of the dead, the living, and those yet unborn.’ Therefore, Kirk is probably justified in making Burke the central figure of the entire book.” (Page 38)
“This disparity suggests that not politics but education, religion, philosophy, literature, and the humanities are the proper sphere for the new conservative rebirth in America today.” (Page 39)
“Conservatism is a non-partisan treasure house of traditional wisdom, equally open to more responsible leaders in either of our parties.” (Page 39)
From Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, “To Recover a Concept and a Tradition,” Commonweal (June 19, 1953), 278-279.
“When a civilization fails there is no more conspicuous mark of its decline than the vulgarization of language, the debasement of the written word. Conversely, the restoration of the word is assigned that men are rethinking their own heritage.” (Page 278)
“Up to this point, Mr. Kirk’s handling of American conservatism is not only admirable; it is masterful. But his failure to treat the whole tradition of American Agrarian Democracy, from Jefferson to the Populists, leaves his thesis incomplete and possibly in jeopardy.” (Page 279)
“Mr. Kirk has marshaled an impressive list of American and British conservative thinkers: men who are reacting against the collectivist universe on battlegrounds ranging from party politics to religion. The question I would ask him and all conservatives is this: what is the key to the spirit conservatism is fighting? Unless that spirit be understood in its very essence, the fight is in vain.” (Page 279)
“Such a severe judgment of Hamilton is at least disputable.” (Page 53)
“One further writer particularly deserving of mention (and he receives far more than that in the assay) is W. H. Mallock, the most talented of 20th century English conservatives.” (Page 53)
“What many readers of his essay will wish, however, is that he had been more precise in distinguishing the various meanings of democracy. So often does he lend his own support to the critics of democracy that one wonders whether he really believes there is so great a gulf between the democracy he professes to admire and the democracy which with all good conservatives he abhors.… Yet, of this extremely provocative and truly brilliant study, now in (and reviewed as of) its third printing, such criticisms are picayune.” (Page 54)
From John H. Hallowell, The Journal of Politics 16 (February 1954): 150-152.
“Prof. Kirk has succeeded remarkably well in distilling the essence from the voluminous writings of these men and in conveying the spirit of their thinking to his reader and a style that is never dull and often exciting.” (Page 151)
“The author’s personal predilection for the arguments of Southern states rightists leads him to neglect the arguments of their opponents and to avoid a full and frank discussion of the slavery issue.” (Page 151)
“Not all of the writers whom he considers agree completely and often their ideas are in opposition to one another, but the author does not often explain how these opposing ideas are reconciled within a common framework of thought called ‘conservatism.’ More consistent reference might’ve been made throughout the book to the six canons of conservative thought which were listed in the introductory chapter and the thought of each man evaluated in terms of those cannons or some other standard of conservative thought might have been employed for this purpose. Some readers will be disturbed by the author’s partisanship, but this is frankly stated and may be more intellectually honest and he pretended ‘objectivity.’ This reviewer, at any rate, finds the uncritical nature of his partisanship more disturbing than the partisan attitude itself. One wishes that he had indulged in fewer eulogies of conservative thought and sought rather to separate the good from the bad in conservative thought. We are more likely to appropriate the wisdom in conservative thought if we are not made to feel that we must accept the errors as well.” (Pages 151–152)
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.