In its short, sharp life, “The Burke Newsletter” offered a model for all of us hoping to change the world through ideas, not ideology, through persuasion, not violence…
In “The Conservative Conspiracy of the 1950s” I had the privilege of writing about the alliance formed among Russell Kirk, Peter Stanlis, and other conservatives in the early 1950s to promote the person, the figure, the symbol, and the ideals of the grand Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher, Edmund Burke. As World War II ended and the challenge of the Soviet menace loomed large, conservatives and libertarians recognized the extreme need for Americans and the West not merely to stand against something, but also to stand for something. In many ways, the need to find a symbol for which to fight was critical for the very survival of Western civilization. That American soldiers could not name what America stood for, but only against, deeply bothered patriots such as Kirk.
For Russell Kirk, then, the two necessary figures for American history were John Adams and Edmund Burke. For someone such as Frederich Hayek, the two figures were Burke and Lord Acton… and maybe James Madison. For Robert Nisbet, they were Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. For Stanlis, they were Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson.
Regardless, the common denominator was Burke. And, thus, Stanlis and Kirk formed an alliance that was at once obvious and, at a more profound level, quite conspiratorial. Through correspondence, phone calls (Kirk hated the phone, so that he talked to Stanlis via the blasted contraption speaks volumes about the need to promote Burke), and personal meetings, the two formulated a plan to get Burke’s name and ideas out into conferences, journals, newspapers, books, radio programs, and T.V. shows. Their goal was nothing less than making Burke a household name, one to rival Karl Marx.
To promote their ideas, the two men founded The Burke Newsletter, a subset and companion to Kirk’s academic and scholarly journal, Modern Age. Several men—including Stanlis, Father Francis Canavan, Will Herbert, Thomas W. Copeland, C.P. Ives, and Russell Kirk—met on December 27, 1958 at the annual Modern Languages Association meeting to discuss the importance of Edmund Burke. During those discussions, the men decided that some kind of publication was necessary to coordinate and inform the academic (and non-academic communities) of the widespread importance of Burke as a person and thinker. They chose Stanlis as the first editor and Kirk as the first publisher of The Burke Newsletter.
The newsletter had three stated objectives. First, it would serve to promote the publication of all Burke scholarship in the academy, beginning roughly in 1949. The newsletter would serve as a clearing house for all secondary writings on Burke. Second, The Burke Newsletter would unabashedly promote academic writings for a non-academic audience. As such, its official policy noted, “We shall write in a clear and simple style suitable to our readers, with a minimum of scholarly apparatus.” They wanted to be read by “the intelligent reading public,” not merely by those in the academy. Third, the newsletter hoped to prompt interest in the systematic publication of all Burke’s private papers in well-edited and indexed volumes. As a subset of point three, the newsletter hoped to inspire the publication of all Burke’s public writings and speeches, pamphlets, and pieces in the Annual Register (which dealt with issues in America).
From 1959 until April 1967, The Burke Newsletter published twenty-eight issues. It was a short but deeply successful run. Nearly impossible to find any longer and not available in many libraries, the University of Notre Dame possesses the complete set, bound and shelved in its vast periodical section. I had the privilege of reading through all twenty-eight issues. And believe me, a privilege it was. The writing was crisp, insightful, and humorous. None of the academic pretension and foo-foo that weigh down the vast majority of academic publications hangs over its pages. Indeed, its closest analogue in the present day is Winston Elliott’s The Imaginative Conservative, and the newslette could easily serve as The Imaginative Conservative’s spiritual godfather.
The newsletter featured sharp and concise pieces by Peter Stanlis, Russell Kirk, Stephen Tonsor, Francis Canavan, Herbert Butterfield, Jeffrey Hart, Ross Hoffman, Raymond English, and Caroline Robbins. An impressive list, to be sure. These pieces focused on Burke, of course, but there’s also much to find on Burke’s relationship to de Tocqueville, his influence on John Randolph, and his place in American history. Truly, every page is well written and has something interesting to offer.
Beginning in the fall of 1967, The Burke Newsletter became an academic journal, Studies in Burke and His Time, and Stanlis retired as editor in 1971. Though Studies in Burke and His Time remained interesting for the few more years that Stanlis edited it between 1967 and 1971, it lost whatever magic it had possessed between 1959 and early 1967. Maybe the “summer of love” destroyed it. Most likely, though, it was its acceptance of the academic language and format that killed it. After 1967, the journal became… well… staid and rather boring. The barn torn down, the trees uprooted, and the pond drained, a new suburb has been plotted and implemented. The life the newsletter had once wielded with such verve became tapioca, congealed, and restraining. Sadly, I think academia has this effect on thought, on words, and on persons. It rarely leavens, but it almost always lessens.
For eight glorious years and throughout twenty-eight insightful issues, though, the newsletter accomplished its three original and founding goals. First, it served not only as a clearinghouse for all Burke scholarship, but it networked an entire generation of scholars dedicated to promoting the figure, the ideas, the person, and the symbol of Edmund Burke. Second, its style was lively and non-academic, a joy for all intelligent folks to read. And, third, it surely contributed to the continued promotion of the publication of Burke’s collected private and archival papers, especially The Correspondence of Edmund Burke (Volumes 1-10, published by the University of Chicago Press), originally edited by Thomas W. Copeland, a founding member of The Burke Newsletter.
With the newsletter becoming mainstream in 1967 and taking on academic respectability, it violated its own second objective, thus undermining itself and committing suicide. A loss, to be sure. In its short, sharp life, it offered a model for all of us hoping to change the world through ideas, not ideology, through persuasion, not violence.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.