It is not by the love of money or the love of earthly power that men and women are moved to publish a serious journal of ideas. Rather, they are animated by their love of right reason…
Back in 1955, when I was endeavoring to found the conservative quarterly that indeed did take on flesh two years later, I discovered how difficult it is to raise money for any conservative cause. Modem Age, like T. S. Eliot’s Criterion in England a generation earlier, has staggered along almost without sustenance since the day of its birth.
We found writers for our journal with the greatest of ease, some distinguished men and women among them. And approval of our undertaking was widespread and cordial, extending to liberal quarters. “Even inveterate liberals ought to look with favor on the revival of sound conservative journalism,” I wrote then, in the liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal. “For a conservatism of ignorance, like a liberalism of ignorance, is a curse to society; while a conservatism of reflection is a proper counterbalance to a liberalism of reflection.” I pointed out that although the majority of Americans were conservative in their preferences and prejudices, they lacked intellectual leadership in the serious journals.
This plea of mine in 1955 was commended promptly by the editors of the liberal New York Times. “We wish him well,” they wrote in response to my Commonweal declaration, “not because we are so wildly conservative but because we think Mr. Kirk is a thoughtful man with scruples.” With some restrained liberal blessing, then, we made ready our first issue of Modern Age, to appear in the summer of 1957.
But we had no money, or next to nothing. In a bank account at my village of Mecosta, I had deposited a few hundred dollars, smallish donations from well-wishers. All of this money I used up paying contributors to our first two numbers, and presently I was paying them out of my own pocket-though I had no regular income from any source, and was paid no salary as editor. (In this, I learned later, I was very like my friend Eliot in the early years of the Criterion.) One poet-contributor complained that I hadn’t paid him what he expected and deserved; I replied humbly that I was sorry, but couldn’t very well pay out more money than I could earn by my own literary endeavors. He then relented. I suspect that he had fancied Modern Age obtained generous subventions from Franklin Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth.” As a matter of fact, during the formative period of Modern Age the only sizeable donations from eminent men of business came out of the pockets of two friends of mine, a hundred dollars apiece: one check from W.C. Mullendore, the retired chairman of Southern California Edison; and the other check from B.E. Hutchinson, the retired treasurer of Chrysler. These were the only captains of industry—well, retired captains—I had then encountered.
The most earnest well-wishers to our embryo conservative quarterly were such impecunious people of letters as Miss Flannery O’Connor. Had we been able to bring out a number in 1955 or 1956, I would have published an essay about Flannery and a story by her; but having no money to pay a printer’s bill, I was compelled to let those opportunities glide past. Those who have encountered, in The Habit of Being (Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters), certain references to Modern Age and The Conservative Review may be enlightened by these observations of mine. Flannery complained to a correspondent of hers, “When anybody wants to get hold of Russell he is always in Scotland.” But she did approve of my literary ends—and means: “Old Russell lay about him”—this with reference to my book Beyond the Dreams of Avarice.
“Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice” (Samuel Johnson’s phrase) was neither possessed nor coveted by literary folk like Miss O’Connor and Dr. Kirk. We were conservative enough, Flannery at her farm near Milledgeville and I at my decayed ancestral house on the edge of Mecosta; but our conservatism had nothing to do with money, nothing at all. Such a declaration puzzles economic determinists, who curiously fancy that everybody is overtly or covertly in the service of Mammon. Yet the crippled girl in Georgia and the bohemian Tory in the stump-country of Michigan were not concerned to take away other people’s money or, for that matter, to accumulate any of their own. Their concern was for the order of the soul and the order of the republic.
Only persons indifferent to money would think of spending their time at the creation and publication of a serious quarterly journal of thought and opinion. So far as pay goes, the editor of such a magazine would have been better off frying chicken for Colonel Sanders. So why bother?, the economic determinist inquires.
Why, because although such serious reviews attain only a relatively small circulation, their influence extends far beyond their immediate readership. When, a century ago, Henry James edited The North American Review, that journal found only a few hundred subscribers; but Adams knew that his magazine’s views were plagiarized without acknowledgment, to his satisfaction, in hundreds of newspaper editorials. In similar fashion today, the serious journals are read by many of the more popular molders of public opinion—television and radio commentators, newspaper editors and columnists, writers for popular magazines, priests and ministers, practical politicians—all of whom proceed to popularize and disseminate to their large audiences the information and convictions of the serious journals. Indeed, the minds of America’s political leaders, at the highest levels, tend to be influenced by serious journalism. In short, the creators of a serious journal hope to move and shake public opinion and even the opinions of those in the seats of the mighty—in the long run, that is. The object sought by the editors and backers of serious journals is this: the advancement of right reason. And there’s no money in that, naturally.
The economic determinist may retort, “Then if you’re not after money, you must be after power.” In some degree, true, the successful editor of an influential magazine (with a circulation of six thousand copies, say) exercises power—some shadowy power over people’s minds; but it is indirect and long-run power, power not of this world, providing few immediate gratifications of the libido dominandi. Should such a one try to convert to practical immediate advantage this crepuscular power of his, the puissant pages of this obscure quarterly would turn to autumn leaves in his trembling hand. The “mild-mannered man entrenched behind his typewriter” (to borrow an image from Eliot) never will be able to strut after the fashion of Ozymandias.
No, it is not by the love of money or the love of earthly power that men and women are moved to publish a serious journal of ideas. Rather, they are animated by their love of right reason. The fanatic who directs some ideological magazine is another sort of fish; but here I am concerned with the founders and editors of temperate publications who seek to inform and persuade, rather than to indoctrinate in secular dogmas. Such a temperate magazine we intended Modern Age to become.
But who subsidizes right reason? In America there is much generous giving to hospitals, boys’ clubs, political campaigns, bricks and mortar for college campuses, even the auditory and visual arts-but not for so faceless an abstraction as right reason. Such enduring quarterlies as modestly thrived in 1955-57 were sheltered within the grove of academe, and even there had annually to plead for some small crumbs from the university’s table. Those reviews which enjoyed no direct academic sponsorship were journals of the Left, that American Left having more reverence for “intellectuals” than did American conservatives. (It was, and is, much less difficult to raise money for Marxist or other radical publications than for even edited conservative periodicals.) We founding fathers of Modern Age backed and filled for two years, in an estuary of the sea of opinion, hoping vainly for conservative passengers with well-filled purses to come aboard our frail vessel. But none of them picked his way down the desolate quay.
Still, the voyage must be undertaken. I believe that I resolutely made up my mind to publish a conservative journal upon reading, in a number of Partisan Review, a lengthy criticism of a book by Leo Strauss. This magisterial review was so sneering, so intemperate, so bigoted (with the righteous bigotry of the latter-day Holy Liberal Inquisition) that, mirabile dictu, it inflamed even so stoical a polemicist as Russell Kirk. Professor Strauss—with whom from time to time I had my own differings of judgment—was a profound and ingenious scholar, a kindly learned man, pursuing right reason according to the light that was given him. His acerbic reviewer was an ignoramus, sitting in judgment on one of the more important historical and political thinkers of our time. Tossing down that number of Partisan Review, I told myself that there must be brought into being a Review less partisan and more intelligent.
Resentment at the ideological prejudices of many serious magazines was one reason why we designed a new journal; another motive was regional. We thought that the American mind ought not to be resigned to the tender mercies of New York and Boston; that the interior of the United States, especially the Lake States and the South, deserved some hearing. This opinion, it turned out, was not widespread: Our attempts to obtain for our intended magazine the sponsorship first of a men’s college and then of a famous Midwestern university both soon ended in failure. But at least, we thought, the money for our undertaking conceivably might be secured, in part, from some members of the bourgeoisie of Chicago. This modest hope, too, was fond; but it did lead us into certain amusing adventures, the most lively of which I recount below. This incident may serve to suggest the difficulties under which the conservative intellectual movement labored in the 1950’s; and why a quarter of a century had to elapse before that movement produced much discernible effect upon public policies. Let us call this incident The Adventure of the False Presence of the Kingdom.
My coadjutor David Collier was acquainted, in Chicago, with an amiable lady of advanced years and ample means; let her be called here Mrs. Hendryx. David thought that possibly she and her friends might be induced to help finance our embryo journal. We called upon Mrs. Hendryx at her residence, more than once; we attended gatherings at which she was present. We learned from her that her chief interest, that year, was the organization or movement called Moral Rearmament, then still headed by its founder, Dr. Frank Buchman. Presently Mrs. Hendryx informed us that Dr. Buchman and his colleagues had been urging her to devote all her talents, and all her money, to the Moral Rearmament cause. She was not yet quite certain that she ought to do that; she solicited our judgment. To form that judgment, she suggested, we ought to attend the great annual gathering of Moral Rearmament at Mackinac Island; she would be happy to arrange an invitation for us.
David and I suspected that Mrs. Hendryx, rather than actually desiring our considered opinions of Moral Rearmament, hoped that we might be converted to the cause by some days spent in the company of the Buchmanites. However that might be, we were not sorry to please the generous lady; and we reflected that a sojourn at the Straits of Mackinac might not be disagreeable that summer. Moral Rearmament was a conservative movement, Mrs. Hendryx ventured; although she would be unable herself to attend this conference, she trusted that we would bring back to her our analysis of the proceedings. We went.
What in the ‘fifties was called Moral Rearmament had gone by other names at earlier times. Originally it had proclaimed itself the Oxford Group, or the Group Movement, since it was formed at Oxford, in England—though it was a far cry from Newman’s Oxford Movement. In the early years of his Movement, Dr. Buchman had admired the Nazis, particularly Heinrich Himmler; but that hope went glimmering; and after the Second World War, under its new style of Moral Rearmament (with one headquarters in Switzerland and another at charming Mackinac), the organization professed a kind of neutralism, a Third Way between the communism of Russia and the capitalism of the West.
Dr. Buchman and his associates proclaimed a mission more religious than political. The essence of their discipline was direct communion of the believer with the deity—“Quiet Periods with God”—who would deign to offer prudential counsel. Members of the movement were to recognize and practice Four Absolutes: Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute Love. Once enough people should join themselves to Moral Rearmament, their argument ran, all the ills to which flesh is heir would be cured.
The keenest analysis of the Buchmanite theology and morals is to be found in a little book always scarce, published in 1933 by Dr. Herbert Hensley Henson, Lord Bishop of Durham, The Group Movement, being the first part of the charge delivered at the Third Quadrennial Visitation of his diocese…(Oxford University Press). At the time of our Mackinac expedition, I had not read Bishop Hensley Henson’s criticism; nor did I then happen to recollect T.S. Eliot’s note on Moral Rearmament in his Idea of a Christian Society: “I feel that everything that remains of clear thinking in this country should be summoned to protest against this abuse of Christianity and of English.” Moral Rearmament might remold English society upon a German pattern, Eliot continued: “Moral rearmament will provide the enthusiasm, and be the most useful kind of political drug that is to say, having the potency at once of a stimulant and a narcotic: but it will supply this function to the detriment of our religion.”
Unmindful of these admonitions, David Collier and I flew to the little airport at Pellston, Michigan; there Moral Rearmament automobiles met the gathering participants and transported them to the Straits. Soon we found ourselves aboard the ferry to the Island. As I stood by the rail, looking toward the old fort on the island, an unsmiling man came up to inquire confidentially, “How long have you been with the Movement?” Upon my replying that I was not with the Movement, he went about whispering this sinister information to those who were very much with it. In consequence, Dave and I found ourselves abandoned when we landed on the pier. Only horse-drawn vehicles are permitted on Mackinac Island (the last sanctuary from the motorcar in North America): Wagons carried off to the sprawling buildings of MR the luggage of the other passengers, but Dave and I, pariahs, were left to drag our suitcases after us.
Thus, painfully, we made our way to what appeared to be the principal edifice of the MR complex; there seemed to be no main entrance. But a small solicitous man—a retired professor, actually—said to me, “You look like a man who’s looking for something.” “Not really,” I told him. “We’re supposed to be guests of Mrs. Hendryx at this conference.” Turning himself into our cicerone, the small man conducted us through labyrinths to a luxurious suite, quite windowless, almost at the heart of this anthill—“Only three doors from Dr. Buchman’s quarters,” we were assured. Despite the bowls of fruit on the tables, we were not wholly put at ease; guests of honor, it appeared, could not get out of the building without passing through crowded public rooms; our suite had no telephone, and indeed we could find only one public telephone in the complex-doubtless to prevent interruption of Quiet Periods with God.
Our first Quiet Period did not long endure: Dave and I were summoned to dinner in a vast banqueting hall. That year’s Moral Rearmament gathering was dedicated to the African successes of the Movement; and there were many Africans, in what was alleged to be their native attire, among the participants—Africans all the way from Alexandria to Cape Town, of many hues and costumes. We were waited upon by a host of young people, the large majority of them very handsome and very white, some fetched for the occasion from Europe. As for the elders among the participant-guests, they were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants chiefly, but with a large admixture of black and brown folk. There were Buddhists, disciples of Confucius, even Muslims, certainly Hindus; I encountered no Papists.
This mixed congregation adhered to dietary laws, but to no common dietary laws. The followers of the Prophet could not eat pork, nor the Hindus beef; Lord knows what the Jains could eat; and vegetarians on principle were not to be put upon. Accordingly, the dietary common denominator was rice. We had rice soup, rice boiled and steamed, rice pudding. Dr. Buchman was seated only a half-dozen places distant from Dave and me, but we were not permitted to speak to him then or later: it turned out that he had turned senile.
Upon my right hand at table was seated my appointed guide and mentor, a Zulu wearing a fez. He confided to me that “Once I was a wicked man, doctor: I had five wives. Then I learn about Moral Rearmament and the Four Absolutes: Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute Love. I have Quiet Hours with God. Then I get rid of four wives and keep one. Now I good.”
“What happened to Absolute Love?” I inquired. The Zulu turned from me abruptly, and said little more as we passed from one rice course to another rice course.
Opposite me sat another African diner—a Nigerian chief, I was told—in his native robes. He was a young lean man of a peculiar beauty, his skin a kind of polished gray, his forehead sharply slanting, his features aquiline, his teeth long, white, protruding, and sharp. I speculated that he was the culmination of a type carefully bred for centuries: for on his face was an expression of the most refined enmity. He toyed with his rice, eying the diners somewhat hungrily and sardonically. This being, too, was a pillar of Moral Rearmament: if not a rice-Christian, perhaps a rice-Muslim.
Although no strong drink was served, we were entertained with plenty of song. There appeared frequently a huge chorus of Africans in their several garbs, Algerians cheek by jowl with Masai and Congo girls, looking somewhat askance at one another. For the benefit of the WASP sponsors, they sang Western melodies, most of them especially composed for Moral Rearmament. Their principal song was “We Are of Africa,” which sounded distinctly non-African. A chief function of this chorus was to burst tremendously into song, at a gesture from some alert MR leader, whenever one of the elderly benefactors of the Movement might happen to ask an innocent but awkward question.
The banquet was followed by a lecture in a handsomely-appointed lecture hall. The white speaker was an Australian, to judge by his speech; his subject was Kenya, then suffering hideously from Mau-Mau terrorism. “Now as you all know,” the lecturer reminded his audience- the elderly affluent among them sitting in costly overstuffed chairs, reserved for their class-“there used to be trouble in Kenya. But as you all know, Kenya is peaceful and happy now. And why? Because of the work of Moral Rearmamentl”
At the conclusion of this address, there arose an elderly gentleman who may have been perplexed at the contrast between the news he read in the daily papers and the cheerful assurances of the lecturer. “Excuse me,” said the elderly patron, “but I should like to ask a question…”
It never was asked; for one of the triumvirate of MR leaders who ran the show for the senescent Dr. Buchman sprang up crying, “And now the chorus will sing, ‘We Are of Africa’ ” The chorus immediately obliged; the questioner sank back into his easy chair; and then the participants in this conference were dismissed for the evening. Dave and I stole out of the complex and down to the village, where for an hour we refreshed ourselves at the Pink Pony bar.
The following day was taken up by similar lectures, all of them recounting the amazing achievements of the Movement, which was said to have arranged peace between Egyptians and Israelis, worked a splendid spiritual renewal in the United States among the rising generation, and in general reformed the behavior of the leaders of mankind. It was necessary merely to introduce statesmen to the Four Absolutes, persuade them to arrange Quiet Periods with God-and the tribulations of the nations would cease. It was about this time, incidentally, that the editor of the Los Angeles Times instructed that paper’s foreign correspondents to look into such claims by Moral Rearmament: to a man, the journalists found the claims unsubstantiated.
No questioning or discussion among those attending the grand conference was provided; there occurred more repasts of rice dishes; and on the evening of our second day at Mackinac my Zulu escorted me to a play, “Our Secret Weapon,” at the complex’s admirably-equipped playhouse. There I was privileged to converse for some minutes with Peter Howard, a youngish Englishman of good family who had become the chief triumvir directing Moral Rearmament. He was the author of a book entitled America Needs an Ideology– Moral Rearmament being that ideology. Also he was the author of the play presented to us in the theater. Our talk was somewhat vague: it appeared that the triumvirs were ill at ease with Dave and me, taking it that we knew more of the world than votaries of MR were supposed to know.
The drama was set in “the suburban villa” of the Prime Minister of Great Britain. (Peter Howard knew that prime ministers don’t dwell in suburban villas, but in Downing Street; presumably, nevertheless, he assumed that his American audience hadn’t heard of Downing Street.) The principal characters were the prime minister, his daughter, the prime minister’s private secretary (treated in the play as if he were a lowly stenographer, unfitted by status to marry the prime minister’s daughter), and the ambassador to the Court of St. James from the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. Also there were the butler and the cook, a married couple, virtuously enrolled in Moral Rearmament.
The prime minister was endeavoring to persuade the ambassadors to settle their national differences—which had come close to the point of war—through spiritual understanding. All three ambassadors were belligerent types, but the Russian was the least unpleasant of the trio, because at least he was candid, while America and France were represented by hypocrites.
In the second act, when it had seemed that all was lost and the world would be disintegrated by total war, the deus ex machina appeared in the habiliments of Moral Rearmament. For the prime minister’s daughter, in despair at her father’s cold refusal to accept his private secretary as her suitor, sought out cook and butler for consolation; and in nothing flat, they converted her to the principles of Moral Rearmament. Dashing back upstairs, she, in turn, converted her father. “Why, Moral Rearmament is the answer to everything!” father, daughter, and secretary concluded.
Meanwhile, the three ambassadors had gone home in a huff. But the Soviet ambassador was detected at the kitchen door, endeavoring to subvert the loyalty of the butler. “Let him come in!” the prime minister exclaimed, beaming triumphantly. “We now have our Secret Weapon!” Curtain.
The audience was dismissed to a Quiet Hour before slumber. Dave earlier had muttered to me, “Why, this is sheer heresy!” He and I conspired as to means for escaping from MR’s embrace. I contrived that night to telephone for a vehicle to transport us with our luggage to the pier, in the morning; and to telephone a redheaded Papist girl on the mainland who would transport us to the airport.
Early the second morning, then, hoping to avoid interception, Dave and I stole out of the complex through a French window, made our way awkwardly along the building’s footings to the entrance-and found ourselves confronted by the triumvirs, vigilant even at dawn. “You’re leaving?” they demanded. (We had been supposed to stay the week.) I thanked them, not effusively, for their hospitality. Opportunely our wagon arrived; tumbling in our bags, we fled to the ferry.
After Dr. Buchman was gathered to his fathers, Moral Rearmament gradually expired. The Mackinac conference center was converted into a Moral Rearmament college; that failed. Then the Cathedral of the Future, directed by a Cleveland radio preacher, took over the college; that operation, too collapsed. The complex now is a hotel. Many odder and less pleasant cults have risen in these United States since that time. But Moral Rearmament was sufficient to give David and me like Hensley Henson and Eliot, the willies.
We reported back to Mrs. Hendryx, in Chicago, saying temperately that we did not think she ought to devote her life and her wealth to Moral Rearmament. This was not the answer for which she had hoped. The Movement had done a great deal for her, she told us; why, during a very recent Quiet Period, God had instructed her take a trip around the world; and she was about to do just that. An elderly friend of Mrs. Hendryx, present in her parlor during this conversation, whispered to me, “But Suzie was going to take that trip before God told her to.”
“Intelligence will tell in the long run, even in a university,” a friend said once to Irving Babbitt. Similarly, in the long run, right reason will outlast the works of Moral Rearmament and more ominous cults. It is even conceivable that some Americans with large material possessions to conserve may come perceive that flattering charlatans and ideologues are not suitable guardians for order and justice and freedom. The Republic will not be preserved by sham spirituality, or by fanatic monetary theories, or by anarchistic notions, or by presidential elections.
The world will not be saved by journals like Modern Age, either. But at least such a periodical speaks to a Remnant Intelligently, and after a quarter of a century has come to exercise a certain beneficent influence. Our Mackinac expedition obtained us no funds for Modern Age. Yet it did help us to understand more clearly the delusory sentimentality and intellectual shallowness, even among people of good intentions, against which Modern Age has contended. In the realm of publishing nowadays, pornography pays best; right reason pays scarcely at all. Blessed are the poor, even impecunious journals, in spirit. We continue to set our faces against moral rearmament and moral disarmament.
Republished with the gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer/Fall 1982). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.