A few years ago I had the honor and pleasure of visiting Piety Hill, the familial home of Russell Amos Kirk and his wife Annette in Mecosta, Michigan. The feelings that sprang up in me as I stepped onto the walkway and approached the house were similar to those one might experience when approaching a great cathedral or a magnificent palace—a combination of awe, attraction, reverence, and maybe a tinge of apprehension. Kirk had been an intellectual hero of mine for more than twenty years, and now I—a mere mortal—was about to enter his sacred home.
The outward face of Piety Hill presents an image that is at once grand, wise, whimsical, intriguing, and agreeable. The physical site is almost an allegory for the universe of Kirk’s own vast collection of published works, which run the gamut from the cultural to the political to the literary. Even to the casual visitor, the spiritual connection between the man and the place is undeniable.
Most of all, though, the impression I took away from my all-too-brief visit to Piety Hill was a pervasive sense of optimism. For nearly every traditional conservative I know, it remains an open question whether the American Republic as we know it will even survive. Or will it simply collapse, along with American culture itself, into a corrupt heap of decadence and democratic authoritarianism? However, that sense of dread apparently cannot withstand the fundamental optimism embodied in Piety Hill, and, I would suggest, contained in the life and thought of Russell Kirk.
Given the prevailing pessimism among contemporary conservatives then, it is with exquisite, perhaps even divinely appointed timing, that Bradley J. Birzer offers up the first truly comprehensive biography of the celebrated Sage of Mecosta, Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Dr. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and has written written extensively on American History and Western Civilization, including two other excellent biographies—American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll and Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson. Dr. Birzer brings a historian’s touch to the daunting task of recording Kirk’s personal and intellectual story, and he bears the weight of academic responsibility well. Be sure not to overlook the author’s excellent “Introduction” and especially Dr. Birzer’s discussion of the obligations and responsibilities of the biographer: “The biographer holds the high duty of being humane while also holding faithfully to the facts of his subject’s life.”
The Humane Kirk
Dr. Birzer’s biography of Kirk is in fact humane, as well as intimate, balanced, and complete. Friends will come to know Kirk better having read this book, and honest foes will have to admit Kirk was about as consistent in his principles as a man can be.
The book is filled with vignettes that afford the reader insight into the life and thought of Kirk. Early on, for example, we read of Kirk’s major professor at St. Andrews University, J. W. Williams, a gifted academic feared and even dreaded by an entire generation of St. Andrews students. But not so the young Russell Kirk. “Kirk and Williams liked each other immediately,” observes the author. “He generally referred to Williams affectionately as ‘Professor J. W. Williams, the Last of the Whigs.’” There is no evidence that Williams read so much as a word of Kirk’s dissertation before the labor was complete—a disconcerting prospect to anyone who has ever gone through the dissertation process. But in the end, it did not seem to matter. That dissertation would eventually be published as The Conservative Mind, perhaps the greatest work ever on the history of conservative thought.
St. Andrews was likewise the birth place of Kirk’s interest in ghost stories and the supernatural. According to Kirk’s own report, “The ghost in my room is allegedly a ‘dear, sweet old lady,’ but though I am willing to concede she is incredibly old, I suspect she is neither dear nor sweet…. I refused to grant her the satisfaction of chilling my blood with her icy glare, and kept my head well under the covers until I drifted back to sleep.” This and many similarly delightful episodes populate Dr. Birzer’s book and pleasantly command the reader’s attention.
Kirk’s family life is naturally featured as well, in touching detail. His life-long romance with his wife Annette is foundational. Though more than twenty years his junior, Annette was intellectually, spiritually, and dispositionally his equal and an ideal partner. Together they raised four daughters and maintained the liveliest of households. The Kirks’ openness toward visitors and “strays” was legendary, and hardly a day passed that their home was not occupied by an ever-changing assemblage of refugees, students, hangers-on, and vagabonds. Indeed, the collected stories of visitors to the Kirk home could certainly fill a volume unto itself.
Not surprisingly, the book also highlights the central role that Kirk’s faith played in his thought and in his life. Kirk’s Catholicism was genuine and went all the way down to his core. As the author puts it, “Kirk saw three things that would lead him to an orthodox Christianity: the resurrection of the body and, intimately connected, the intense personalism of the Christian Logos. Finally, Kirk appreciated and embraced the authority and continuity provided by Catholicism.” For Kirk, the traditions of the Catholic Church could and should not be de-entwined from the traditions of the West itself.
Timely and Necessary
As faith, family, and traditional conservatism come more and more under attack in contemporary America, Dr. Birzer’s biography seems all the more timely and necessary. Conservatism as a political movement is changing today. If Donald Trump can plausibly claim to be a conservative, then conservatism has changed since Kirk’s day, at least politically. But that is of course the point. The conservative revival of the twentieth century that Kirk helped usher in was not a mere political ideology.
Choose any significant leader of the twentieth century conservative revival. Chances are, that person likely looked to Russell Kirk as the intellectual father of the movement. William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, even Henry Regnery, all credited Kirk with inspiring the movement and in some cases goading their respective transitions to conservative thought. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in particular gave shape and substance to movement that had previously lacked a galvanizing force.
In an age of grand ideologies—fascism, communism, socialism, progressivism—Kirk’s articulation of traditional conservatism rejected the very notion of ideology. Conservatism is thus not a reactionary response to the ideological Flavor of the Day. Rather, it is an expression of that which has shown itself to be good, true, and beautiful within the American or Western cultural context.
Kirk’s thought is thus timeless, because conservatism itself is timeless. As he was fond of pointing out, conservatism even includes the notion of sensible and judicious change. The Permanent Things, what some people call First Principles, are naturally unchanging, but their application to our circumstances can and should change over time. Such considered adaptation is contained within the body of conservatism. It need not look outside itself for the means to adapt.
Perhaps Kirk’s most vivid discussion of America’s potential to fail or to change imprudently is in his critique of boredom. As Dr. Birzer notes, boredom was a subject to which Kirk returned on a number of occasions. He feared what would happen if it took root too deeply in American culture. According to Kirk, “Boredom, I think, is the greatest affliction of affluent and secure societies. It is a principle cause of suicide, violence, unnatural vices, drunkenness, addiction to narcotics, and even revolution… And the more rational a creature becomes, the more susceptible he is to boredom.”
The antidote to boredom is of course imagination. Imaginative stories of the sort Kirk himself sometimes wrote draw us out of the stupor of boredom and raise our minds to a higher state of contemplation. But in a hyper-rational, post-Enlightenment era like ours, powerful forces oppose the imagination. The social sciences, for example, which dominate contemporary thinking, utterly lack imagination. “In actuality, the social sciences reveal the most anti-intellectual element of scholarship. ‘Deficient in imagination,’ Kirk quipped, social scientists ‘mistake fact accumulation for wisdom.’” The author humorously retells the account of Kirk’s personal war on television at Piety Hill, suggesting that the future hopes of imagination may be threatened indeed if events described in “The Battle of the Boob-Tube” actually went down as depicted.
Dr. Birzer cannot literally resurrect Kirk, but he certainly helps bring his thought back to life for a generation that knew not Russell. The author’s unprecedented access to Kirk’s papers and his estate, as well as the exhaustive scholarly research conducted on all things Kirkian, yield a biography richly developed and amply supported. The 140 pages worth of notes and bibliography testify to the author’s thoroughness as a biographer. The result is a comprehensive yet eminently readable work that will help preserve the man who helped preserve the West.
For all his cultural and political criticism, for all his railing against social science, ideology, and yes, television, Kirk is not a curmudgeon. Perhaps because of that preserving spirit, there is something fundamentally optimistic about his thought. It is difficult to believe the Republic could ever truly fail having spent much time in the mind of Russell Kirk.
My own first encounter with Kirk’s thought came not through The Conservative Mind, as it was for many readers, but rather through his magnum opus, The Roots of American Order. Roots is a stunning work that spans centuries of history and political thought to trace out the origins of the unique concepts of order and liberty that shaped the American founding. I was assigned this book to read as a college sophomore in a Political Theory class. Immediately upon reading it, Roots changed and solidified my views on history, order, liberty, and especially America. What had been fragments and ill-fitting themes in my mind became a coherent and consistent worldview almost overnight. I still have that worn copy of Roots on my shelf today, where it occupies a place of honor. Over the years I have met many other readers who can tell the story of exactly where and when they first came to know the inimitable Russell Kirk. For many of us, it was a transformative experience. (Obviously no self-respecting Ivy League university could tolerate a professor who allowed his students to read Russell Kirk, so when word got out, the instructor was run out of town and a more suitably liberal academic was installed in his place.)
If I learned anything from Kirk, I certainly learned that those First Principles might ebb and flow but they never die. They may fall into disuse, but they always make a comeback, just as they did in the 1960s and 70s under Kirk’s pen, or perhaps under his typewriter.
Yet that cloud of pessimism continues to hang of contemporary American conservatism. Do we stand on the threshold of a cultural decline from which optimism cannot save us this time? Will America sink into an irreversible cultural waste? Will the conservative movement that Kirk helped to inspire and encourage finally collapse and yield to the irresistible forces of ideology? Will Kirk’s thought pass out of all memory and be lost to those future generations who will so desperately need it?
I do not know.
But Bradley J. Birzer’s definitive biography is clearly a victory for old-school conservatism and the imagination. Old friends of Kirk and new ones alike will benefit from this work, and hopefully, even optimistically, will do so for generations to come.
Books by Bradley Birzer, and Russell Kirk, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.