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russell kirkDuring the summer of 1963, Russell Kirk and Thomas Molnar hiked across North Africa. Despite the blistering heat, Kirk wore his traditional three-piece tweed outfit, complete with a hat, a rucksack, a typewriter, and a sword-stick. Not surprisingly, the local children found him a wonder, and they followed him and Molnar for miles and miles, intrigued, no doubt, at this traveling wizard who seemed to transcend nature itself. As expressed in his memoirs, Thomas Molnar found Russell Kirk’s attire a little bizarre as well.

Yet, Dr. Kirk cared not. He dressed the same whether lecturing at a university or enjoying a walking tour of Scotland. He was, after all, Russell Kirk, the most eccentric American anti-individualist of the past century. Though he did not believe in individualism, he believed quite firmly in personalism. And Dr. Kirk was nothing if not his own person.

Recently, I had a chance to unwrap and read the latest issue of Modern Age, dated Fall 2014, edited by Richard Bishirjian, president of Yorktown University. Just for the record, I am not at all familiar with the editor or the university, and I am rather willfully staying ignorant of these until completing this essay—so as not to make it too personal. As soon as I submit this essay, I will check him and it out. At that point, I might scratch my head in embarrassment. But not at the moment.

Yet  I cannot help being personal. But it is a bias for Mr. Kirk rather than one against Mr. Bishirjian.

Let me cut to the chase. Richard Bishirjian begins with a bewildering and bizarre view of Russell Kirk, founder of the venerable journal in 1957. “Though a world traveler, Kirk did not view himself as a citizen of the world,” he claims in the second paragraph of his editorial introduction.

The first part of this statement is as true as the second part is false. Russell Kirk traveled throughout the United States, the U.K. and Europe, Africa, and Asia during his lifetime, though he had not traveled outside of the Great Lakes until attending graduate school at Duke. Arriving in Utah in 1942, drafted by the army, travel became an essential part of Kirk’s life. When still single in the 1950s and early 1960s, he usually spent half of the year traveling. As a young man, he thought he might have a career as a travel journalist–the Frommer from Michigan. As his published writings indicate, he felt as comfortable in a pub in Scotland as he did in the ruins of Carthage. After marriage, travel decreased for Kirk, but it did not end. Even on his honeymoon, Russell and his wife Annette traveled to South Africa, after having campaigned for Barry Goldwater on the American West coast. He and Annette spent a part of every year—at least in the 1960s—in their Scottish home of Pittenweem. As he liked to describe himself, he was a “connoisseur of slums.”

The second part of Mr. Bishirjian’s statement is just such a strange reading of Russell Kirk that my jaw actually dropped reading it. It goes against every single thing in which Kirk believed—a continuity of past, present, and future, and a connection of all persons from the first to the last. Indeed, perhaps the central point of all Russell Kirk’s writing is the interconnectivity of humanity at every level. Dr. Kirk was a citizen of Piety Hill (his ancestral home), of Michigan, of the United States, of the Catholic Church, of Western Civilization, and of the world.

I suppose I should not react so strongly to what Mr. Bishirjian might very well have considered a throw-away line. But when an editor of the very journal Dr. Kirk founded gets something so wrong about the founder himself, it grates.

Let me offer several reasons why Mr. Bishirjian is dead wrong about this.

First, there is the world traveling of Russell Kirk. Mr. Bishirjian admits this, of course, but uses it as a cute way to dismiss his citizenship of the world. Frankly, aside from sounding a bit rhetorically interesting, it does not fit. One of the main reasons Kirk traveled so much had to do with the very fact that he did consider himself more than an American. He was a cultivator of a Republic of Letters, and that Republic transcended ethnic, political, racial, national, cultural, religious, and temporal prejudices. Of course, he was deeply rooted to the Michigan soil, but the Michigan soil was a single manifestation of the billions and billions of possibilities in this world. Piety Hill was not his world; it was the beginning of his world.

kirk-outside-librarySecond, Russell Kirk brought the world to Mecosta. Anyone who spent anytime in the Kirk household knows that every refugee from progress was welcomed there. The homeless, the abused, the political exiles all found sanctuary in Mecosta. Even the ghosts were welcomed. Cambodians, Ethiopians, deceased relatives, and even New Yorkers lived peaceably (generally) together at Piety Hill. If Russell Kirk was right, even the spirit of Leo Strauss had migrated to Piety Hill sometime in the early 1970s.

Third, Dr. Kirk was, first and foremost, a Stoic and a Catholic. How does one believe in either of these faiths without being a citizen of the world.? Indeed, the very foundation of each is citizenship of the world as a passage and sojourn from this world to the next.

Modern Age is on the shelves of libraries across the United States and probably in libraries abroad as well. Let us hope that everyone who reads this issue questions this bizarre statement. I would hate for anyone—present or future—to believe this about Russell Kirk. It is not only false, but it undermines the very essence of his Christian Humanism in thought, word, and deed.

I am all in favor of employing Russell Kirk’s memory. But, when we do, we should do it correctly and not for some ideological purpose.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Splendid! Thank you, Brad! The quote is so bizarre that I wonder whatever did the writer mean. That Dr Kirk was not a worldly man? Or that he was not some self-deluded, Progressive, “world citizen”? That he was a hick? Or that he did not see himself as part of all the world, while Kipling’s character Kim, with whom our sage shared such curiosity and wonder, was “friend of all the world”? Or may the author have been under a tight deadline elsewhere, thus merely typing rather than writing?

    One time together, after talking of his friends who were Scots earls, and others who were direct descendents of Ancient Roman Senators, Dr Kirk gave me a quite interesting view of how coastal Italian peasants cook worm-like baby eels. He quite enjoyed eating them, too. He was equally rooted and cosmopolitan, Michigander and man of the world.

  2. Dr. Birzer,

    I empathize with you on this point insofar as I too have at times encountered the rather bizarre contemporary usage of dearly departed persons signifying willful ignorance or intellectual laziness.

    This is why the intellectual work we, the living, do to preserve memory is actually immensely important. Ideas really do die with the writer unless we sustain them.

    Sometimes, we may feel as though we are “merely” archivists and not original thinkers – until we encounter things like what you write about here. Then we realize that our duty to the dead, who have entrusted their intellectual heritage to us, demands more than just the skills of an archivist. We must make their thought live in their absence, and at each step employ our creative faculties to make it pertinent and thus, in a way, original.

  3. A perfectly odd controversy — perfection being a hard thing to achieve in this world!
    I did know Russell Kirk, visiting him many times at Mecosta, seeing him and arranging lectures at ISI summer schools and various campuses around the country — and, most memorably, spending a summer with him and his family in Scotland. Others may know him and his thought better, but almost all would agree his was an imaginative, historical, personalist cast of mind. Perhaps more poetic and philosophical. His efforts at political theory were limited; usually to the Anglo-American arena. And his attachment to Western Civilization obvious.
    One can say that his thought and art transcended Mecosta, Michigan, the Midwest, even North America. No disagreement here. Let people around the world read his works.
    But his citizenship? One is a citizen of a state, not a culture, a religion, a civilization. Was then Russell Kirk a citizen of every state, some 192+ or of some imaginary global government? There are a few people with dual citizenships and a very few with more than that. But Russell Kirk had one passport and served only in the U.S. military.
    Russell Kirk’s thought is an effort to guide us toward humility, the more concrete and away from careless abstractions. I cannot imagine that he would ever have answered the question: “Who are you?” or “What is your citizenship?” with “I am a citizen of the world.” He was an American.
    There is a certain cast of mind — most often in a kind of traditional Catholicism, but not only, that seems to bridle at this. There is, after all, a “Savior of the World” and, even while rendering unto Caesar, there is no real parity. Thus, not only Kant but also Dante had notions of a world government. But there is, to my thinking, nothing of this in Russell Kirk’s thinking.

    Robert Schadler

  4. Kirk was a sophisticate, if I may, of worldly proportions, educated and urbane almost beyond measure. I think we might allow for what appears to be a point of emphasis rather then a definitional statement.

  5. This is a great piece, and the comments here are outstanding. Robert Schadler’s counterpoints are well taken, and Peter Rieth’s points about our ongoing, imaginative duties to those that have gone before as well as those who will follow after is spot on. Keep up the great work, all of you.

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