Book Review: Russell Kirk
by Bradley J. Birzer
University Press of Kentucky, 2015
“It is possibly the height of presumption,” writes Bradley Birzer after all the pomp and circumstances of his full-dress biography Russell Kirk, “to believe that one person can understand another person, let alone write a biography of him or her.” It’s an odd though perhaps understandable qualification for a biographer to make as he launches the product of his immense labors into the world. But Birzer currently holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and the cofounder of The Imaginative Conservative – if he’s not in a position to write a noteworthy book about Russell Kirk, the author of 1953’s definitive The Conservative Mind and the forerunning architect of modern American conservatism, then it’s hard to think who would be in a position to write a book like this one.
And ‘noteworthy’ is drastically underselling the result of those labors; Russell Kirk: American Conservative is an absorbing and touchingly heartfelt book, exhaustively researched but also indulgent in just the kind of literary flourishes that Kirk himself had mastered from an early age and dearly loved. This is the most stylish and interesting biography of an American conservative since Timothy Stanley’s 2012 book on Pat Buchanan.
Kirk was born in 1918 in small-town Michigan, attended Michigan State University, and served in the US Army during World War Two. In 1942 he was sent to Dugway Proving Grounds near Toole, Utah, and it’s here that Birzer sees one of the first and most important inner transformations taking place:
Kirk had never been west of Chicago, and he found the West uncomfortable and overwhelming in its dramatic scapes as well as in its sparse population of people and trees. Something mysterious and indefinable awoke in Kirk, however, in the Utah desert. Perhaps it was being drafted and finding his life turned upside town, perhaps it was the landscape, and perhaps it was something or some things that will always remain elusive to the senses available to us, but Kirk changed. Though already a serious young man, he found something in the Utah desert that opened him up even more, at least to the higher things.
It’s a rare political biographer who’ll dare to use “scapes” instead of “landscapes” in full view of the reading public, but Birzer’s big book is full of such audacities, and most of them work. He follows Kirk out of the Army, to the University of St. Andrews for a graduate degree, and then into a lifetime spent in academia (including at Birzer’s own Hillsdale College), journalism (helping to found the National Review and Modern Age), and a prolific publishing career that included both his groundbreaking political dissertations and his richly textured quasi-Gothic novels like Old House of Fear and A Creature of the Twilight. Kirk also kept up a steady stream of literary essays and reviews, and a sizable correspondence with a wide array of people, including his friend Ray Bradbury, whose The Martian Chronicles had come out in 1950:
Anyone paying attention must have seen a certain alignment of stars taking place. Less than two years separated the birth of two very determined men, Ray Douglas Bradbury and Russell Amos Kirk. One came from Illinois, the other from Michigan. Each distrusted conformity and authority, the New York literati, modern technology such as the telephone, Joseph McCarthy, and especially the automobile, a modern Jacobin. Each possessed a superhuman work ethic, leading Bradbury to write in one letter to Kirk, “I trust this finds you and yours in super fettle and rushing along through incredible numbers of projects, as always …”
But the tiny handful of Americans who remember Russell Kirk at all (in the the National Review’s recent 60th anniversary issue, the presence of Kirk’s name was, shall we say, minimal) almost certainly remember him not for his other writings but for those political dissertations that poured forth from his pen, defining and sub-defining the core tenets of his vision of the conservative ethos. Kirk was an indefatigable and surprisingly omnivorous reader, and he drew his political philosophy from many sources (most of which were reflected in the magnificent volume he edited, The Portable Conservative Reader, which would be on the library shelf of every modern conservative Republican in the country if the space weren’t already taken up by Klan manuals and Brad Thor novels). He held a quiet contempt for the lowbrow masses, what he called “this faceless proletariat, incapable of love but eager to hate,” and he saw the conservative role as quite literally one of conservation, preserving all that was good and decent (and, needless to say, white, heterosexual, and Christian) from the steady erosion of mere unpopularity. This biographer of Edmund Burke believed what Burke believed about the destructive potential of change, and he espoused his own variation of William F. Buckley’s famous definition of a conservative as one who stands athwart history, yelling Stop. He wrote as much countless times, in his prolix way, including this passage from 1966:
“It is no paradox that today’s conservatives are dissenters. For the thinking conservative is not an advocate merely of what exists at the present moment. Rather, the conservative is a champion of what T S Eliot called ‘the permanent things’ – the standards and institutions which humanity has discovered or created by a long and painful process. The intelligent conservative does not commend conformity to the fads and foibles of today; instead, he seeks to reconcile the norms, the enduring aspects of human nature and society, with that prudent change which is necessary for survival.”
Russell Kirk: American Conservative appears at a politically-charged moment, of course, when the voting public in the United States is being presented with roughly fifty-five conservative Republican candidates for President of the United States, each seemingly more racist, misogynistic, homophobic, deceitful, and fascist than the last, a bumbling coterie of evil little graspers who can’t readily be pictured running a sidewalk lemonade stand much less the most powerful country on Earth. Toward the end of his life, Russell Kirk made no mystery of his negative opinions about the neocon revolutionaries who embarked on the Gulf War, so it’s not hard to guess what he’d make of the malformed political progeny of those neocons. Reading Bradley Birzer’s book makes you wish his smart, cantankerous subject were still around, if only to decry the stunted crop that’s sprung from his careful tilling.