Reading Bradley J. Birzer’s Russell Kirk, one might quibble with the subtitle: An American Conservative, but only because the term “conservative” has been worried like a rag doll in the maw of a Doberman puppy since Kirk first committed ink to paper on the conservative matter nearly 75 years ago. In the context of his times and eventual legacy, “conservative” makes complete sense since Kirk’s genius for connecting the dots of political philosophy and history exploded fully formed in 1953 with his career-defining book, The Conservative Mind. But the splintering of the conservative movement and the devaluation of the term to describe a grab-bag of ideological tribes renders the word nearly meaningless to contemporary ears, hearts and minds. As Kirk perceptively reminded readers time and again, conservatism – always with a lower-case “c” – wasn’t an ideology, but in fact a repudiation of ideology.
Kirk, to those who knew him and who have studied his books and essays, was certainly a conservative by his own definition, but conservatism was but one component of a greater whole in a sense far removed from simple mechanics, Venn diagrams and disassembled human bodies and psyches. Kirk, who championed Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot, the intellectual and eventual Roman Catholic, the tireless nonfiction writer and storyteller, and by all accounts a terrific friend, husband, and father, summoned forth from the past and ferreted out from his present that literature and philosophy reflecting the best humanity had to offer to us and future generations. In this, he remarkably accomplished what Ezra Pound failed to make cohere in his Cantos – a history of the race. Unlike Pound, however, Kirk eschewed economic and ideological lunacies for a remarkably consistent (re: coherent) body of work incorporating history, philosophy, religion and literature. This, all in the interest of preserving what he came to call, pace Burke and Eliot, the permanent things, which necessitated a redeeming of the time assisted by strengthening the moral imagination.
Had he published nothing beyond The Conservative Mind, Kirk would forever have garnered accolades as a cartographer of a particular frame of mind and approach to governance. That his restless intellect grew in proportion to his early well-deserved reputation serves as a boon to all those upon whose shoulders he stood and, subsequently, those attempting to balance themselves on Kirk’s own framework. Yet, Kirk never stopped expanding his grasp of the permanent things up until his death in 1994. His novels and short stories revealed a remarkable consistency with the topics covered in his nonfiction, and he remains in this writer’s view the best, most sympathetic and insightful critic of the writings of T. S. Eliot. In fact, I’d argue Kirk’s The Age of Eliot the best literary biography/criticism of the genre, which may have served more of a curse than blessing among academic scholars allergic to all things Christian and … ahem … conservative. Had Eliot remained poetry’s enfant terrible after the success of The Wasteland rather than written overtly Christian-themed verse such as “Ash Wednesday,” The Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral, which were at the apex of 20th Century literature, perhaps Eliot would be taught with more fervor in contemporary secular academies.
All this is prologue to a rousing recommendation of Birzer’s own version of a biographical critique, which, as noted above, I continue to take exception to the author’s use of the now-meaningless term conservative in the subtitle. Rest assured, it’s only a quibble, but Birzer goes to magnificent lengths in the pages of his opus to cast Kirk as a humanist, which is a term not yet entirely devoid of resonance even in these most cynical and troubled times. Never mind that describing Kirk as a Christian humanist would have been even more precise, as it was the legacy to which Kirk aspired and attained.
As a teenager and aspiring writer in the early 1970s, I met Kirk while working as a busboy in a northern Michigan restaurant not far from his home. I was familiar somewhat with Kirk from his weekly syndicated newspaper column “To the Point.” When told by a fellow restaurant employee that the man also was friends with one of my early literary heroes, Ray Bradbury, I boldly introduced myself and was received graciously by the man and his wife, Annette. I eventually came to cherish Kirk’s books and essays as an adult and, through a continued friendship with Annette, I have befriended a cast of likeminded Kirk scholars. I worked with and befriended James E. Person Jr., who eventually authored Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books,1999), a deceptively short, extremely fine piece of research and analysis of Kirk’s oeuvre – albeit another book with conservative in the title, which deemphasizes Kirk’s religiosity and humanism.
As I reflect on Birzer’s book, I do so at the library down the street from the reconstructed Kirk ancestral home, Piety Hill. I am seated at Kirk’s desk, surrounded by his books and typewriter. The original home burned down in 1975, an event that reputedly chased out the ghosts haunting the property, which is cause for consideration in the few days left leading up to Halloween, a day enjoyed immensely by Kirk and his family. One notable clarification bears mention, and that is regarding Birzer’s claim the Kirk family conducted “innumerable occult services” in their house, which, I assure readers from firsthand knowledge, never happened. However, Birzer correctly notes that, although adept at reading tarot cards, Kirk ceased the practice in the early 1970s, but does not explain why. One reason could have been that Kirk fully entered the Catholic Church in the early 1960s, and the Catechism explicitly categorizes all acts of divination as sinful. Another, related, reason could also involve at least two negative experiences involving Kirk and the subjects of his tarot readings, which affirm the rightness of the Catholic Church’s teaching against divination.
I don’t bring up Halloween and the supernatural casually, because both Birzer and Person recognize that Kirk’s mastery of writing gothic horror fiction is crucial to understanding the author’s views on virtue and humanity and, further, exists as one element of Kirk’s unified Christian Humanist worldview. Birzer perceptively picks up cues from Flannery O’Conner and Willa Cather in Kirk’s fiction, and credits Kirk – while with much class acknowledging Person’s prior perceptions in the same area –with creating a mythology that best sums up the predominant Burkean themes of honor, character and morality found throughout his body of work. Birzer maybe goes too far in drawing comparisons between the fictions of Kirk and Stephen King (notably making exceptions for the gore, sex, profanity and logorrhea featured in King’s prose), in my estimation. While stating for the record I fail to discern much moral imagination in the few novels and short stories I’ve read by King, I also submit such an attempt to make Kirk’s fiction relevant to contemporary audiences by comparing it to a pop-culture phenomenon serves to elevate the dubious respectability of the phenomenon more than raise the deserved literary profile of such works as Lord of the Hollow Darkness, Old House of Fear and numerous short stories. I’ll leave it to readers of both writers to discern whether Birzer is actually on to something. For readers unfamiliar with Kirk’s fiction, I highly encourage them to find copies for Halloween recitation, or at least read Birzer’s (and Person’s) synopses and analyses.
Birzer’s book contains much to recommend it, especially in the insightful opening chapters wherein Kirk’s military career is detailed from letters and diary entries, as well as the profound impact on Kirk wrought by the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Somewhere after the chapter dedicated to Kirk’s relationship to Eliot, however, the pace of the prose seems rushed, succumbing seemingly to a recitation of facts and inside-baseball, including internecine battles within the conservative movement – mostly deservedly either long forgotten, ignored or covered previously by political historian George Nash. That written, Birzer is an engaging writer in breathtaking command of many avenues of intellectual and literary thought as evidenced in the book under consideration and the author’s past works on Christopher Dawson and J.R.R. Tolkien among others. While no means the definitive work on Russell Kirk and his work (which does not seem Birzer’s intent inasmuch Russell Kirk: American Conservative is a detailed overview), it’s an impressive, educational and inspirational work. Let’s hope the next effort emphasizes Kirk’s Christian Humanism in the title where it belongs.
[The Acton Lecture Series will host Bradley J. Birzer for a discussion and book signing of Russell Kirk: American Conservative (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) on Nov. 5from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The Acton Institute is located at 98 E. Fulton Street. Please enter building off of Sheldon Blvd. Regular admission: $15; Students $10. Box lunch will be provided.]
Bradley J. Birzer talks about Russell Kirk in the interview “Inside the Conservative Mind,” in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Religion & Liberty.