Russell Kirk and The University Bookman

By George H. Nash

In an interview late in his career, Russell Kirk told a story about a “forgotten mill pond” in the village of Mecosta, Michigan. Since boyhood, he recalled, he had enjoyed tossing pebbles into this pond and watching the ripples that “spread outward, circle upon circle, until they reached the shore.”

To Kirk these ripples came to symbolize his mission as one of America’s most distinguished conservatives and men of letters. From his bailiwick on Piety Hill in Mecosta, he told the interviewer, he was endeavoring “to impart an understanding of great lives, great institutions, and great works of imagination.” He hoped, he said, that these “ideas” might, like those ripples in the mill pond, “spread to distant shores” and (in words he quoted from T. S. Eliot) help to “redeem the time, redeem the … dream.”

From the 1940s until his passing in 1994, Dr. Kirk cast a multitude of literary projectiles into the pond of American intellectual life. As a historian, biographer, memoirist, novelist, professor, lecturer, essayist, editor, book reviewer, and (at every turn) a defender of the “permanent things,” his commitment to his vocation was unflagging. And the ripple effects were immense.

It is one of the less conspicuous of Kirk’s undertakings that I wish to examine in this essay. In 1960 Kirk turned forty-two years old—the cusp, more or less, of middle age. The conservative intellectual movement in which he was a luminary was also on the brink of a new phase. Since the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944, a number of scholars and polemicists of a traditional conservative or classical liberal persuasion had boldly thrown their pebbles into the pond. Kirk’s monumental book The Conservative Mind (1953) had made the biggest splash, doing more than any other single volume to give the nascent conservative intellectual movement its identity and its name. Two years later William F. Buckley Jr. had stirred the waters further by founding the most influential journalistic transmission belt in the history of modern American conservatism: National Review. From the outset Dr. Kirk was one of its regular columnists—and remained one, without missing a single issue, for twenty-five years.

For all its dynamism, the emerging conservative community was still on the margins of American political and intellectual life in 1960. Indeed, as the Sixties began, the number of publicly active, nationally recognized, professing conservative intellectuals in the United States was minuscule. This state of affairs was about to change convulsively.

The year 1960 is not usually thought of as an especially consequential one for conservatives. But we can see, on close inspection, that it was. In March of that year an obscure publishing house in Kentucky brought out Senator Barry Goldwater’s manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative. It sold a phenomenal 3,500,000 copies in the next few years, making it one of the most influential political tracts in American history. In the summer of 1960, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (as it is now called) conducted its very first summer school, a sign of the growing intellectual sophistication and impact of what M. Stanton Evans called the “revolt on the campus.” Some weeks later, in September, nearly one hundred conservative college students and young professionals from across the United States met at William F. Buckley Jr.’s home in Connecticut and established Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). It quickly became the leading youth organization on the Right. In November Buckley’s upstart National Review celebrated its fifth anniversary with a lively banquet in liberal New York City: further evidence that the “new American right” was here to stay.

For Russell Kirk—a bachelor and self-styled Bohemian Tory—the year 1960 also proved memorable, in two respects. In February, at a conference he attended in New York City, a vivacious college junior from Molloy College named Annette Courtemanche gave a talk about his book The American Cause. At lunch she was invited to sit next to him and quickly discovered that they were “kindred spirits.” Their paths crossed again a few months later at ISI’s first summer school, held at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Correspondence and courtship ensued. Four years later Russell and Annette were married.

Kirk’s other notable experience in 1960 was professional. That autumn the erudite man of letters launched a new periodical whose sixtieth anniversary we celebrate this year. And therein hangs an interesting tale.

During the 1950s one the staples of conservative discourse was the exposure and critique of what conservatives saw as a rising tide of mediocrity in American schooling at every level. It was a condition fostered, they believed, by John Dewey’s voguish and deleterious theories of “progressive education.” From the beginning of his own career, Russell Kirk shared and contributed tirelessly to this critique. In 1953, in a decision that changed the course of his life, he even resigned from his teaching position at Michigan State College rather than accept what he denounced as the administration’s deliberate dumbing down of educational standards. Kirk’s devotion to academic excellence and to a humanistic, truly liberal education—at all levels of learning—fueled his popular “From the Academy” column at National Review, as well as a torrent of books and essays assailing “decadence” in Academe. Thus it is not surprising that in early 1960 he was receptive when an opportunity arose to wage his battle for conservative educational reform on a new front.

He owed his opportunity to his friend William F. Buckley Jr. and (indirectly) to a veteran conservative activist named Lucille Cardin Crain. In the late 1940s and 1950s Crain was a vocal presence in militantly conservative circles. Her principal interest, she declared in 1951, was “rooting out radical influences in American education.” Her principal vehicle for doing so was a quarterly journal known as the Educational Reviewer, which she founded in 1949. In each issue conservative academics and writers presented the results of their scrutiny of high school and college textbooks for evidence of collectivist content and a leftward tilt. The Reviewers official sponsor was the Committee on Education of the Conference of American Small Business Organizations. The publication’s editor was Mrs. Crain. And for the first three years of its existence, the venture’s chief financial supporter was the man who probably did the most to help her found it: William F. Buckley (1881–1958), father of the future founder of National Review.

During its brief heyday the Educational Reviewer and its crusading editor helped to make the issue of leftwing textbook bias a cause celebre among grassroots conservatives, particularly women—with a substantial assist from the right-wing radio commentator and polemicist John T. Flynn. Crain also befriended Buckley’s family and gave an office job at her publication to his daughter Patricia.

In 1951 Buckley ended his contractual subvention of the Educational Reviewer, perhaps because he was now pouring money into another project: publicity for his son William’s sensational, bestselling book God and Man at Yale. As it happened, the younger Buckley ardently shared his father’s and Mrs. Crain’s concerns about textbook bias in America’s classrooms. One of the explosive claims of God and Man at Yale was that Yale University’s economics curriculum was riddled with textbooks that favored collectivism and Keynesianism and ignored the scholarship of free-market advocates like Friedrich Hayek.

Early in 1954, with funds for the small-circulation Educational Reviewer running low, Crain was obliged to discontinue its publication. The journal’s parent foundation, however, remained intact, and some time later Crain offered to transfer control of it to William F. Buckley Jr. and his National Review. Eventually this was done, “as an acknowledgment,” she later wrote, of his father’s “important contribution to the Reviewer.” In 1959–60 the younger Buckley revived and reorganized the Educational Reviewer, Inc.

For the enterprising editor of National Review, the new arrangement was a welcome one. As a grant-making foundation, the Educational Reviewer, Inc. was able, in the coming years, to provide modest financial support for educational research projects in which Buckley was interested, such as a scientific survey of the political and religious attitudes of American college and university students. But Buckley also apparently wished to create a successor to the moribund Educational Reviewer. And who, in his judgment, could do this better than the learned author of the “From the Academy” column at National Review? Thus it transpired that when Buckley revived the dormant Educational Reviewer, Inc. in 1960, its new president—and editor of its new journal—was Russell Kirk.

For Kirk, who had not sought this honor, it was a fortuitous development, in both senses of the word. Just three years earlier he had fulfilled a dream of long standing by launching an intellectually serious and respected conservative quarterly called Modern Age. It was an instant success and one of his greatest contributions to the conservative cause. But as Bradley Birzer recounts in his recent biography of Kirk, his editorship of Modern Age was plagued from the start by disputes—over the journal’s management and contents—between himself and his two principal associates: the quarterly’s publisher, Henry Regnery, and its managing editor, David Collier. By mid-1959 their differences were so deep and intractable that Kirk threatened to resign. Hearing from Kirk of this dissension, William F. Buckley Jr. implored him in a letter not to quit, and renewed an offer, previously made, to underwrite Modern Age and leave Kirk “strictly alone editorially.” Just what the terms of this offer were, Buckley did not specify, but they evidently were not persuasive. In November 1959 Kirk resigned as editor of the distinguished quarterly that he had brought into being less than three years before.

Kirk was therefore “in the right place at the right time” when, soon afterward, the opportunity arose to head the Educational Reviewer, Inc. and edit a quarterly journal under its auspices. Although Kirk did not initially receive a salary (nor would he, for many years), the arrangement was nearly all that an independent man of letters could desire. Kirk, the editor, could continue to live in rural Michigan and would exercise sole control over the new periodical’s contents. As president of the journal’s sponsoring organization, he would need to travel to New York City (for a trustees’ meeting) only once a year. National Review would handle all details of design, production, and distribution, using a subsidy from the Educational Reviewer, Inc. Better still, National Review agreed to distribute every issue of the quarterly free of charge to its subscribers.

Kirk named his new publication the University Bookman, partly in honor of a once notable literary magazine called the Bookman, to which his maternal grandfather had subscribed in the 1920s and early 1930s. Before the Bookman folded in 1933, it occasionally published (and lauded) work by the eminent academic Irving Babbitt, whose New Humanism and conservative educational philosophy eventually—and profoundly—influenced Kirk. By his very choice of title, Kirk signaled that his new venture would have a distinctive worldview and mission.

Volume I, number 1 of the University Bookman appeared in the autumn of 1960. The journal’s subtitle—“A Quarterly Review of Educational Materials”—defined its sphere of interest. Its opening editorial, written by Kirk, defined its purpose: “To restore and improve the standards of higher education in America” (italics in the original). In keeping with his sponsor’s roots and raison d’être, Kirk announced that his “bulletin” would concentrate on reviewing college and university textbooks and engage in “sensible criticism” of contemporary educational theory and practice. “The return to first principles of liberal and scientific study,” he added, “and the imaginative betterment of state and private institutions in this country,” would be “our objectives.” Twice he promised that the bulletin’s approach would be “temperate”: a subtle distancing, perhaps, from the controversies in which Mrs. Crain had become embroiled while editor of the Educational Reviewer. As if to underscore the loftiness of his ambition, the bulletins’ cover contained a Latin motto: “Ex Aequo et Bono” (“According to the Right and the Good”).

On one subject Kirk was unyielding: “As president of The Educational Reviewer,” he said of himself, he was “wholly his own master, and can criticize without dread of publishers, college administrators, professors, or business managers.” He did not intend to endure again the unpleasantness he had experienced at Michigan State College and Modern Age.

In some ways the launching of the University Bookman was unusual, particularly in 1960. What other new magazine in that era would have announced itself to the world with a Latin motto and a sketch of a Greek Doric column on its cover? The bulletin was not flashy in appearance. It contained no advertising. Its size was small: only twenty-four pages at first (and eventually just forty). The pages themselves were barely 5 1/4 by 8 1/4 inches. Rarely, in its early years, did a quarterly issue contain more than a handful of articles. In content, tone, and self-presentation the publication seemed almost defiantly countercultural, evoking an earlier era.

Yet Kirk had one unique advantage: because the University Bookman was distributed free to National Review’s subscribers, the little bulletin debuted in 1960 with a circulation of more than 30,000—more than nearly every academic and literary periodical in the United States. As National Review’s circulation increased, so, too, did the University Bookman’s, until, sometime in the Age of Reagan, it exceeded 100,000.

In Kirk’s first decade at the helm (and beyond), conservative contributors to his bulletin assessed a variety of textbooks in political science, history, economics, and other subjects. But from the beginning the editor construed his mission more broadly. In the inaugural issue the sociologist Ernest van den Haag (a trustee of the Educational Reviewer, Inc.) published an essay entitled “Education as Part of America’s Secular Religion”: the first in a continuing stream of education-related commentary that transcended the narrow confines of textbook analysis. In the bulletin’s second issue, the publication’s subtitle (“A Quarterly Review of Educational Materials”) was replaced by a simpler and more capacious one: “A Quarterly Review.” For the remainder of Kirk’s tenure (and beyond), essays and book reviews on political philosophy, history, conservatism, Edmund Burke studies, and other subjects complemented the magazine’s textbook evaluations. In a word, the University Bookman under Kirk soon evolved into a wide-ranging journal of cultural commentary from a traditionalist conservative perspective.

Kirk himself wrote very little for the magazine. But he had no difficulty in recruiting others to do so and in attracting unsolicited submissions in the mail. Some early contributors—like Robert Nisbet, Francis Wilson, and Jeffrey Hart—were, or soon became, renowned in the emerging conservative community of discourse. But many were less prominent, and, as time went on, a number were junior scholars starting out in their careers. With the help of youthful editorial assistants, Kirk processed the burgeoning correspondence and edited the manuscripts.

During Kirk’s years of stewardship, change came slowly at the University Bookman—fittingly so, for a publication dedicated to upholding “the right and the good.” In the late Sixties and Seventies its pages became a bit glossier. In 1980 the cover was redesigned. In 1981 the paid subscription rate, for these who did not get the bulletin free via National Review, rose from two dollars a year (the price since 1960) to all of five dollars. In 1991 Kirk replaced the publication’s Latin motto with a more theistic one: “Deo volente labor proficit” (“With God’s help, work prospers”). And in 1992, for the first time in the periodical’s history, he included a full-length essay of his own. But in size, shape, and, above all, in purpose, his periodical remained fundamentally the same. As he told his readers that year: “The principal purpose of this quarterly is the defense and the advancement of the culture that is our patrimony.” What was now more evident than ever was that for Kirk, Judaism and Christianity were the indispensable core of this patrimony.

As Kirk’s venture entered its fourth decade, change of a more drastic character overtook it. In 1991, after a mutually beneficial, thirty-year relationship with the Educational Reviewer, Inc., National Review ended its free distribution of the University Bookman to its subscribers. Kirk’s quarterly and its parent foundation were now on their own, dependent solely on financial contributions and paid subscriptions. The journal’s circulation plummeted. But a loyal, Kirkean remnant remained, and when Kirk passed away in 1994, his widow Annette immediately succeeded him as editor, followed a few years later by their son-in-law Jeffrey O. Nelson, and then, in 2005, by Gerald J. Russello. Continuity prevailed over possible extinction, and the little vessel sailed on.

In 2010—the year of the University Bookman’s fiftieth anniversary—another form of potential discontinuity loomed. Facing serious financial difficulties and a rapidly changing media landscape, the Educational Reviewer, Inc. decided to cease printing its periodical in hard copy form and henceforth publish it solely online. It was an ironic turn for a literary venture formed in the print era and committed, in Kirk’s words, to providing “serious reflection on serious books.” The decision must have seemed doubly ironic to some, given Kirk’s long expressed reservations about technology’s effects upon civilized life. But as Russello noted at the time, Kirk also liked to say (paraphrasing Burke) that “change is the means of our preservation.”

So, in this case, it has turned out to be. Since 2010 the University Bookman has blossomed afresh on the Internet. One reason for the successful transition has been the journal’s association with the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, which is celebrating its own significant anniversary—its twenty-fifth—in 2020. The Kirk Center has given the University Bookman an institutional identity as well as new avenues of outreach through the Center’s website and social media network. In turn, the University Bookman has given the Center, conservative thinkers, and traditionalist conservatives especially, a dynamic intellectual hub, producing fresh content weekly for thousands of readers who not only interact with its offerings but also disseminate them the world over.

I suspect that Russell Kirk would be pleased to learn that by establishing a presence in cyberspace, his periodical has won a widening audience among what he called “the rising generation.” In addition, under Gerald Russello’s dedicated editorial leadership, the online journal has won a reputation for introducing promising young writers, alongside more established figures, to its audience.

Kirk undoubtedly would have approved.

Looking back now on the circumstances of the University Bookman’s founding, and on the intellectual milieu in which it took root, what lessons might conservatives learn? Two, for this historian, stand out.

First, in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Russell Kirk intensely disliked Emerson’s political philosophy and radically “individualistic manifestoes,” as readers of The Conservative Mind well know, and I am not sure he would have agreed with claim quoted here. Yet in the case of the University Bookman, Emerson’s words apply. In founding this little magazine in 1960 and shepherding it to maturity during the next thirty-four years, Kirk successfully built an institution that only he, among his conservative contemporaries, could have done. The fact that it has outlived him by twenty-six more years—and with its worldview and mission intact—is further testimony to the value of his achievement and to his influence across the generations. Truly the University Bookman remains his “lengthened shadow.”

Second, the University Bookman’s story exemplifies what can happen when a person of conservative persuasion takes a stand and casts a proverbial pebble into a pond. No one can predict what the consequences may be. I suspect that Kirk often thought of this as he edited his low-key periodical and watched its ripples press outward with each issue.

In 2020, as the University Bookman turns sixty, there are many ways in which we might measure the legacy of Russell Kirk. One way, surely, is to note the power of his example. Year after year, decade after decade, he labored and persevered. Not everyone noticed. Not everyone saw or heard the ripples. Yet even now they continue to spread.  

George H. Nash is a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center and author, among other books, of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.