“I venture to hope that some of them will agree, that there is a range of public problems in which we all have, irrespective of nationality, language or political bias, a common interest and about which we might hope to have a common mind; and I hope that some will agree that I have stated some of these problems. Such agreement would give more content to the phrase ‘the republic of letters.’ The ‘republic’ or (to use a stronger term) the ‘fraternity’ of letters does not, fortunately, demand that all men of letters should love one another—there always have been, and always will be, jealously and intrigue amongst authors: but it does imply that we have a mutual bond, and a mutual obligation to a common ideal.” [T.S. Eliot, “The Man of Letters,” 342]
At the beginning of his Histories, Herodotus notes that a normal person enjoys 26,250 days in his or her life, no day ever exactly like another. I’m not quite sure I want to count how many days I have left, assuming I could even know such a thing. It is certainly very wise of the Good Lord not to let us know such things.
Still, as I think about my own days, some wisely spent, others squandered, I have only a few serious regrets.
One of my two most important regrets—at least as it hovers over my being—is that I never actually met Dr. Russell Amos Augustine Kirk in person. I had the opportunity several times, but I never took advantage of these. There are many reasons why this happened (or, as the case really was, failed to happen), but they really all came down to the same thing—I took too much for granted while in my twenties. I seemed invulnerable as did those I loved and admired. As one of my other heroes, Neil Peart, once wrote, “We’re only immortal for a very short time.” My immortality seemed rather assured as did that of those whom I respected. Strange considering my own father died when I was only two months old. Yet, that happened before I was conscious of the world, and the whole story of his death had much more mythical significance than real influence.
Life has a funny way of teaching us each the lessons we so painfully need to learn, and I was rather shocked in the summer of 1994 when I heard that Russell Kirk had passed away. I was only twenty-six, but I knew I had missed my chance to meet the great man, a man I had studied intensely for about six years at that point.
My own upbringing in a Goldwater household was rather ecumenical, at least toward things of imagination and what might generally be called of or on “the right.” I never had a leftist/liberal phase, as liberals, right or wrong, always struck me as somewhat totalitarian in views as well as personality. As a child and young man encouraged by my mom, I read everything I could get my hands on, and Kirk was just as important in the big scheme of things as, say, Hayek was. I was not desirous of being only an Austrian or only a paleo or a libertarian or whatever the divisions were in those days. I just wanted to read everything that seemed interesting.
Kirkian Webs of Influence
Though I started reading Dr. Kirk in the late 1980s, as mentioned above, it was not until meeting Winston Elliott (our beloved founder of The Imaginative Conservative) and Gleaves Whitney (he of Hauenstein Center fame) in the mid to late 1990s that I really felt as though I understood the importance of Kirk within not only the twentieth century, but also within the Western Tradition. Here, after all, was a man who spent his adult life dedicated to pursuing—in a rather Platonic and Augustinian fashion—all that is good, true, and beautiful. I also came to know, rather closely, that whirlwind of nature, Annette Kirk.
At roughly the same time, I had the privilege of meeting many who had known Dr. Kirk well: Bruce Frohnen, John Willson, Jeff Nelson, Ben Lockerd, Michael Jordan, Roger Thomas, and Jim Person. Each struck me as intelligent, witty, personable, creative, and full of integrity. What a fascinating segment of humanity Kirk attracted. Some of these persons rank as the most individualistic non-individualists one could imagine. The same could be said of Russell Kirk—and has been. Over time, I met others—Alan Cornett, Gary Gregg, Steve Klugewicz, and Lee Cheek—all of whom carried the same kind of wisdom. Not surprisingly, the two daughters I have gotten to know, radiate the same things, and do so with a kind of honed grace.
I began to read as much of Kirk’s writing as possible after first meeting Winston and Gleaves. For those who know me, you will not be surprised by this, but I am not good at doing things halfway. If I am going to read Kirk, I am going to read Kirk. Not dip into him, not read through his works, but read everything. And, so it began. The kids were much younger and fewer when I started delving into all things Kirk. I was making a trip or two a month to the University of Notre Dame library, copying and scanning as many of Kirk’s articles as possible.
About five years ago, Annette Kirk sent me one of the best emails I have ever received. “Brad, you’re welcome to start working in the archives, if you’re interested.” I’m quoting this from memory, which, of course, means it is really a sort of paraphrase at best.
Regardless, I had been given the keys. Amazing. Astounding. Astonishing. The keys. The actual keys. Well, symbolic keys. As the great Kirk scholar Wes McDonald has argued, Kirk probably published more in his life time than the average intelligent reader has read. And, this would not be an exaggeration. The number of unpublished personal letters, business correspondence, diaries, and manuscripts is overwhelming. But also brilliant. Kirk, indeed, was nothing if not brilliant. His letters are filled with insights on everything imaginable—from his own personal likes and dislikes to what one should regard as good in life, politics, and literature. Not surprisingly, the papers reveal (or, rather, confirm) the deep humanity and charity of all that is Kirk. He radiates these things through the written word.
Intimate Knowledge of a Life
During college and graduate school, I became intensely interested in the role of biography and autobiography. Would it be possible, I wondered (and still do) to construct history based on a life or a number of lives? This was, to some extent, my own response to the Catholic ideal of personalism and the Hayekian ideal of individualism. My amazing M.A. advisor, Anne Butler, encouraged this by noting that biography allowed a “lens” by which to understand a time or even, perhaps, the human condition.
As I have aged—somewhat like cheese on my bad days, somewhat like wine on my best ones—I have become increasingly convinced of the power of biography and autobiography. The post-moderns have argued that we know things only subjectively through the creation of a narrative. While one could argue strongly against the first part of the statement, the second is much more foolproof. At least to this fool. How do we not create narratives? Just think for a moment about your own life. If you had to construct it in a half-hour conversation or a ten page paper, how would you do it? Most likely, you would create a narrative. Life began here, culminating in this. Not a single one of us would rationally argue this is the ONLY interpretation or a comprehensive one. Indeed, throughout our lives, we struggle intensely to understand moments as a part of something larger. What did this success or failure mean to our existence? Do we accept our failures, ignore them, or try to reform them? Do we understand our successes as something beyond mere luck or chance? If so, how and why and where and when and when again?
Well, my own personal narrative will now never be complete without Russell Kirk being a major part of it. So, I might never have gotten to know him in a tangible way in this world, but I hope and trust we will get to hang out, drink a beer, smoke a pipe, and talk quite a bit in the next one.
This is my narrative, and I am sticking to it.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.