Review: Bradley Birzer’s Russell Kirk biography invites us to reconsider conservatism
Religion & Liberty Online

Review: Bradley Birzer’s Russell Kirk biography invites us to reconsider conservatism

This is the fifth in a series celebrating the work of Russell Kirk in honor of his 100th birthday this October. Read more from the series here.

During the twentieth century, one man in particular took it upon himself to make a project of defining and perhaps re-invigorating an American conservatism which the prominent cultural critic Lionel Trilling dismissed as “a series of irritable mental gestures.”

I remember picking up a copy of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind many years ago. As a young conservative, I looked forward to reading the seminal work. It was nothing like what I expected. While I anticipated something like a point-by-point explication of why my conservative policy views (free markets, the sanctity of life, strong defense, etc.) were superior to those held by my opponents, I instead ran into Kirk’s six canons of truth. Imagine my befuddlement and curiosity when I encountered them:

  1. Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inexorably connected.
  5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.”
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical.

This is probably not a list that meshes Lego-like with the word “conservative” in the mind of the modern American political observer. It looks more like something Tocqueville would write in reflection about America than it does like something an American would set down. Of course, even to say as much is to tap a deeper well than we typically access when we are developing our views of culture and politics.

That is why a biography of Kirk like the one Bradley Birzer has written is so valuable. The book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, invites us to reconsider what it means to be a conservative.

The point is not so much to encourage us to adopt new ideological viewpoints as to urge us to develop a better intellectual posture, so that we might ask and answer questions about our politics, culture, and ways of life more thoughtfully (and hopefully less pugilistically). In this task, Birzer succeeds completely. Here we learn much about the diminutive professor from Michigan who generated such an outsized impact—about what he thought, about the influences that shaped him, and about his interactions with significant persons of his age. In the process, we have an opportunity to become more sophisticated by understanding the deeper questions that exist about conservatism and then to determine what we accept or reject, and why.

Buckley & His Kin

Part of what I enjoyed so much about this book is that it filled in gaps of which I have become aware in my own reading. For example, I had previously noted stray comments in other books or articles about the New Humanists, men such as Irving Babbit and Paul Elmer More. It turns out that the work of both men was important to Russell Kirk. In order to flesh out that influence, Birzer offers mini-biographies of them. He does the same with T. S. Eliot, Albert Jay Nock, Leo Strauss, and several others. It would be difficult for me to identify another book of this type that I have found so nourishing and helpful, while simultaneously keeping me eager to turn to the next page. Would you like to imagine Russell Kirk occupying the same intellectual landscape as figures such as Frederick Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke? That’s here.

In the course of sharing Kirk’s life, Birzer does a wonderful job of exploring the conservative movement in the middle and late twentieth century. It is interesting to note, for example, that Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, who was known first for his book, God and Man at Yale, and then for National Review, came to the attention of the American public at about the same time, in the early 1950s. Buckley served conservatism first through the phenomenon of his charisma, which he used to powerful effect as a television personality, mayoral candidate, and speaker. Second, his NR managed to gain something like quality control over conservatism. He read the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand’s Objectivists out of the movement. Buckley’s conservatism was largely a combination of anti-communism (translated into a form of libertarianism) and traditional values.

Where Buckley hailed from a wealthy, devoutly Catholic family in the northeast, Russell Kirk had humble beginnings in a heterodox clan in rural Michigan. Where Buckley was tall, suave, and made for television, Kirk was small, quite eccentric, and probably made for a century other than the one in which he was born. Buckley became a political celebrity, so much so that Robin Williams performed an impression of him that was used in the Disney film, Aladdin. While Kirk became extremely well known, he was destined to be something more like the academic intellectual some wanted Buckley to become. But their lives intertwined, and both had a powerful influence on the meaning of conservatism in their time.

Biographers make judgments. Birzer makes a fascinating one about the collaboration between Buckley and Kirk. Kirk had a career as a public intellectual for almost a half-century, beginning in the early 1950s. Birzer divides that history into two periods, which could be called Before National Reviewand After National Review. He looks at the brief period of years that encompass the publication of The Conservative Mind, A Program for Conservatives (which is not a program at all), Academic Freedom, and Beyond the Dreams of Avarice and concludes that it was the best part of Kirk’s intellectual career, with the most edifying effect. He also produces a chart showing how pieces for NR came to represent between 60 and 88 percent of Kirk’s articles over the decade from 1955 to 1964. The result was that Buckley managed, in Birzer’s account, to co-opt Kirk to lend legitimacy to the magazine and to fully establish himself as the most prominent conservative leader. In addition, Kirk found himself writing more and more on politics, both for NR and in his syndicated column, a subject he sometimes scorned as “the pre-occupation of the quarter-educated.”

At the same time, Kirk managed to get his own journal, Modern Age, off the ground, but he was so frustrated in his dealings with Henry Regnery that he ultimately abandoned the effort after a brilliant early phase. Kirk would ultimately go on to publish The University Bookman for many years (which is still online today), but it was not the same ambitious undertaking Modern Age was, since it focused mainly on book reviews. By virtue of his rejection of Modern Age and his increased attention to NR, the syndicated columns, and, later, his involvement with the Goldwater campaign, Kirk (in Birzer’s view) lost a golden opportunity to use his rare prestige and influential readership to lead a movement based on Christian humanism.

The Storyteller

One of the great treasures of this book is that it educates readers in Kirk’s work as a writer of fiction. Birzer notes that even some of Kirk’s colleagues who knew him quite well, such as the Foundation for Economic Education’s Lawrence Reed, had no idea that Kirk was a writer of fiction. His gothic, supernatural romance The Old House of Fear outsold all his non-fiction works combined. By the same token, those who knew of him as a writer of ghost stories had little knowledge of his status as one of the most significant conservatives of the twentieth century.

Kirk’s short-story characters are memorable. Eddie Mahaffy wakes from a brutal prison beating to find himself uniquely in the service of the Lord outside the penitentiary walls. The cowardly giant Frank Sarsfield wanders his whole life, pilfering church poor-boxes and surrendering or backing out of fights, only to walk into the opportunity to become a brave man and maybe “take heaven by storm.” Sarsfield appears in more than one story. In his second appearance, he visits an old priest who had showed him mercy and kindness despite his unworthiness and who offers an unusual and precious method of repaying his debt.

The retired soldier Ralph Bain, with his small pension and his head still soft from a war wound, offers his strong arms and lovesick heart to a traumatized young widow in need of his redemptive service. We meet him again in a strangely pleasant old English bar and hotel, where he counsels another half-lost soul somewhere between suicide and starting over. Manfred Arcane is a powerful “minister without portfolio” in a small, oil-rich Muslim nation. He holds his lofty post despite being both a Christian and a capitalist (rumored to receive a two-percent royalty on each barrel of oil) because of his great talents and charisma. Arcane is a storyteller and a supernaturalist constantly aware of his own potential for evil. In one tale, he seeks out a Midwestern tourist couple just so he can experience their ordinariness and uncomplicated decency. They are delightfully “centric,” he notes (rather than eccentric). Though the wife is completely won over by his exotic charms, he treats her like a daughter and is respectful of her husband, a young American judge.

Arcane and Bain make another appearance in the 1979 novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark, which Birzer rightly praises and Kirk mistakenly believed would be a big seller. It tells the story of a clergyman gone terribly wrong, the evil persons he has gathered around himself at a bizarre old Scottish estate, and their quest for a “timeless moment,” which has a grim price attached. Why didn’t the book sell? It may simply be, as Birzer indicates, that the audience moved away from Kirk and toward Stephen King.

Citizen & Saint

We also discover something largely unknown about Kirk’s magisterial work of non-fiction, which he also wrote in the 1970s: The Roots of American Order. This book traces the development of the Western tradition and its treasury of rights and freedoms through the cities of Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, and London. Other than The Conservative Mind, it may be the book that is most commonly circulated in the current day. The surprise is that Kirk had hoped to have a documentary made which focused on the work. There was some discussion about either Charlton Heston or Ronald Reagan (pre-presidency) narrating.

As an evangelical who was inspired by Francis Schaeffer’s film series, How Should We Then Live?, I can’t help but regret that we don’t have a similar effort featuring Russell Kirk stomping about in old buildings or ruins and telling us the story of our tradition. Kirk sought a grant for the project from the National Endowment for the Humanities after Reagan became president, but did not receive it. We are left to speculate whether the result had anything to do with the fact that he was on the losing side of the debate over whether M. E. Bradford or William Bennett should head the agency.

Writers of biographies are sometimes accused of hagiography. While Birzer is well-equipped to reflect critically on the life and work of Russell Kirk, he also has the challenge of describing a man who may have been a real saint. The Hillsdale professor discusses Kirk’s amazing charity and hospitality with something like a sense of wonder. Kirk’s character Frank Sarsfield was based on an autistic itinerant named Clinton Wallace who wandered in and out of the life of Kirk’s family and was often helped by them. Wallace is buried near Kirk and is only the most striking example, perhaps, of the many people Kirk helped. He held his earnings so loosely that it was a task to secure his family’s welfare after he died, despite his success as an author.

I have only scratched the surface of Brad Birzer’s portrayal of Kirk. If you are interested in conservatism, you should read the book. If you are interested in Christian humanism, you should read it. If you are simply interested in the story of a life well and fully lived by a spiritual seeker who ended with the Church, you should read it. There is so much here to be learned, enjoyed, and maybe even emulated. Perhaps by revisiting Kirk we can tease out green shoots of renewal.

This article originally appeared at Touchstone Magazine and has been adapted and republished here with permission.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a professor of political science and the dean of arts and sciences at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in religion & politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.