A Historian’s Perspective

Dr. George H. Nash

In October 2020 the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal celebrated its first twenty-five years of existence. It provided an occasion to reflect on the significance of Kirk’s work and its bearing on the purposes and programs of the center that carries his name. As most readers of the University Bookman know, Dr. Kirk passed away in 1994 at the age of seventy-five. But he has not been forgotten. Indeed, in the past few years there has been an upsurge of interest in his career and writings. One thinks of the publication of James Person’s sparkling edition of Kirk’s letters, of Professor Bradley Birzer’s prize-winning biography, and the recent republication of Kirk’s bestselling novel Old House of Fear and his 1957 book now titled Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism. One thinks also of the flood of retrospective essays about him that appeared in 2018 on the occasion of the centenary of his birth.

And consider this: in 2021 Kirk’s masterful book The Conservative Mind remains in print nearly seventy years after its publication: a remarkable feat. Moreover, it continues to be translated into foreign languages, including, recently, Turkish, Korean, and Japanese.

What accounts for this burgeoning interest? Some of it, no doubt, reflects America’s deepening political turmoil and the widespread perception that the contemporary conservative community is in intellectual disarray. In these unsettling circumstances the impulse is strong to revisit the writings of conservatism’s founding fathers. But there is a second reason, which is linked to the kind of conservatism that Russell Kirk espoused and personified.

As everyone familiar with Kirk’s writings is aware, his second book, The Conservative Mind, published in 1953, was his magnum opus. There he demonstrated that intelligent conservatism was not a mere smokescreen for selfishness or privilege. It was an attitude toward life with substance and moral force of its own. After the appearance of The Conservative Mind, the American intellectual landscape assumed a different shape. Kirk’s tour de force breached the wall of liberal condescension. He made it respectable for sophisticated people to identify themselves as men and women of the Right.

Above all, The Conservative Mind stimulated the development of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement in America in the early years of the Cold War. In the words of the book’s publisher, Henry Regnery, Kirk gave an “amorphous, scattered” opposition to liberalism an “identity.”

For most scholars the publication of a book of this distinction would be the culmination of a career. For Kirk, who was only thirty-four at the time, it was just an opening salvo. In the years to come, he founded two influential journals (Modern Age and The University Bookman) (both of which still exist); he published a regular column for more than two decades in National Review; wrote a major biography of T. S. Eliot and a classic history entitled The Roots of American Order; did more than anyone living to revive Edmund Burke as a fountainhead of conservative thought; completed a superb memoir called The Sword of Imagination; and churned out a prodigious torrent of other writings. In all, he published more than two dozen nonfiction books, several volumes of novels and collected short stories, 255 book reviews, 814 essays and short pieces published in periodicals, and nearly 3,000 newspaper columns.

If Kirk’s career was notable for its astounding productivity, it was also remarkable for its variety and breadth. Over the years he wore many hats. He was a historian, biographer, memoirist, novelist, lecturer, professor, essayist, editor, and (at every turn) a defender of what he called the “permanent things.” His commitment to his vocation was unflagging.

This leads to another point worth underscoring. Russell Kirk was no academic pedant; he was a scholar with a mission. This was evident both early and late in his career. In 1952, shortly before he published The Conservative Mind, he confided to a friend that the forthcoming book was intended to be “my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon.” “The struggle,” he said, “will be decided in the minds of the rising generation—and within that generation, substantially by the minority who have the gift of reason.”

In a conversation late in his life Kirk returned this theme. To an interviewer he told a story about a “forgotten mill pond” in the village of Mecosta, Michigan, where he now lived. 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 vocation as one of America’s most distinguished conservative intellectuals. 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.”

For Kirk this task of redemption entailed far more than engaging in politics. In The Conservative Mind and subsequent writings, he repeatedly instructed readers that political problems are fundamentally “religious and moral problems” and that cultural renewal requires remedies at deeper levels than economics. Tirelessly he focused our minds on the crucial realm of the value-creating and value-sustaining institutions of society. He beckoned us to ponder questions of ends and not just of means. More than any other conservative writer of his era, he elevated the tone and substance of conservative discourse and, in the process, elevated our vision.

By calling Kirk a scholar with a mission, I would not want anyone to infer that he was a zealot. To the contrary, he detested ideologues and fanatics. Time and again he insisted that conservatism was not a doctrinaire ideology, reducible to bumper sticker slogans and sound-byte certitudes. As a guardian of ancient wisdom, common sense, and prudence, it was an antidote to the follies of the hollow men and the terrible simplifiers.

Nor should we think that because Kirk was a learned and bookish man he was indifferent to the worldly concerns of politics and economics. Not so. In the early 1960s, for instance, he helped to launch the Goldwater-for-President movement and even ghostwrote two speeches for Senator Goldwater. In the 1980s he met Ronald Reagan, who bestowed upon him the Presidential Citizens Medal. In 1992, appalled by President George H. W. Bush’s conduct of the first Gulf War, Kirk publicly supported Patrick Buchanan’s insurgent candidacy for the presidency. And of course he wrote about political subjects from time to time. But fundamentally Kirk realized that political activism was not his calling. He was, rather, a moralist and man of letters whose vocation, as he saw it, was to remind us, in Robert Frost’s words, of “the truths we keep coming back and back to.”

Like all of us, Kirk lived in the present. But his mental universe was never bounded by the parochialism of the present. In his voluminous writings he strove to enlarge his American readers’ comprehension of the past. This effort was particularly on display in his panoramic book The Roots of American Order, in which he organized the story of western civilization around the great contributions of five iconic cities: ancient Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, London, and the Philadelphia of 1776 and 1787. For Kirk, American civilization was part of what he called “the grander tradition and continuity—the legacy of our civilization.” Without hesitation he placed himself within this tradition and wielded his “sword of imagination” against its foes.

But Kirk’s time horizon did not only extend far into the past. It also extended into the future. Has anyone ever noticed how often, in his writings, he saluted what he called “the rising generation”? He was not an irascible reactionary like General Bullmoose in the Broadway musical Li’l Abner who declared in stentorian tones: “Progress is the root of all evil/Bring back the good old days.” Russell Kirk was no worshiper of Progress, but he could be surprisingly cheerful even in the gloomiest of times, and he made it a point, in his lectures and writings, to reach out to young people—the “rising generation”—and engage their imaginations.

Furthermore—and this is crucial—he indefatigably practiced what he preached. Beginning in the 1960s, he hired young literary assistants (some of them graduate students) who lived with him for a year or more in Mecosta. In many cases, he mentored them, and not a few of them eventually made their own mark in the academic world. During the last twenty years of his life, with the devoted assistance of his wife Annette, he held periodic conferences—called Piety Hill seminars—in his home and library. A total of something like 2,000 students and professors from a number of nations participated in these events. For some, it was a life-changing experience. With the help of the Wilbur Foundation he created, in effect, his own informal campus in his rural and small-town corner of Michigan.

Kirk once referred to St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he obtained his doctorate, as “the apotheosis of coziness.” The same might be said of his home and campus on Piety Hill in Mecosta. It says a lot about Kirk and his traditionalist brand of conservatism that, although he traveled extensively throughout much of the world, he rooted himself in a village and home built by his own ancestors. To put it simply: Kirk, in his lifestyle, modeled and embodied what he believed.

It therefore seems singularly fitting that the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, established to perpetuate his legacy, has chosen to maintain its offices and conduct much of its programming at that very site. Since 1995 the Center has hosted thousands of students and hundreds of academics, lawyers, and young professionals at its seminars and lectures held in Kirk’s own library, where he wrote most of his books. Many of these visitors have come from colleges and universities far from Michigan. Discussions have explored a remarkable range of topics in law, literature, history, and political science—reflecting the extraordinary range of Kirk’s own scholarly pursuits. The Center, which owns several houses near Kirk’s library, has provided stipends and housing to dozens of graduate students known as Wilbur Fellows who have come to live in Mecosta for a spell to complete their dissertations and other projects in a contemplative atmosphere. With a splendid library of 15,000 volumes and an archive of Kirk’s papers as an additional resource, the Center, in the words of Annette Kirk, “serves as a haven of higher learning.”

The Center’s sphere of activity is by no means confined to Mecosta. For example, the Center publishes online the University Bookman, which Kirk founded and edited for many years, and which marked its sixtieth anniversary in 2020. The Center also publishes the annual journal of the Edmund Burke Society of America and facilitates the translation of Kirk’s work into other languages. Recently it launched a “Kirk on Campus” project to bring speakers and Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism to midwestern colleges and universities as well as study groups throughout the United States. In all these forms of outreach, it has been faithful to Kirk’s educational mission.

And yes, in this age of technology, the Center maintains a presence on Twitter and Facebook, as well as a robust website that now receives well over 20,000 visits per month. Just as Kirk counseled in his lifetime, the Center is seeking with success to communicate to the “rising generation.”

Here we should pause to reflect upon what the Kirk Center is not. As someone remarked recently, it is not a club. Nor is it a some kind of a clique where only a few initiates are welcome. Although it draws sustenance and inspiration from Kirk’s writings and example, its programming is not exclusively Kirk-centered. Nor, I think, would Kirk himself want it to be. In the great chain of being that we call western civilization, he was a sturdy link. But he never stopped reminding us of the links that came before him, and of our need to recognize and preserve the chain. So, too, it is with the Center, as it seeks to draw us outward and upward, beyond the confines of our passions and present-mindedness.

Nor is the Kirk Center, in any conventional sense, a think tank. It issues no policy papers directed at politicians and the chattering classes. Ensconced in the relative remoteness of rural Michigan, it is far from the nation’s centers of political and economic power.

Now some may see these features as drawbacks. I see them as enhancements for the distinctive perspective that the Center brings to the conservative cause. The Russell Kirk Center is unusual among American conservative organizations in the capacious character of its programs, focusing not on current events but on what Ronald Reagan once called “the ancient truths of our civilization.” And the Center is unique among American conservative institutions in being intimately associated with the home and library of one of the movement’s founders. And that is significant. In some, ineffable way the environment at Piety Hill and the seminars that occur there convey and cultivate a sense of community, which most visitors find very appealing. Here one can read without distraction and converse without ideological polemics. It is a place conducive to the pursuit of cultural renewal.

Nearly forty years ago President Ronald Reagan publicly praised Russell Kirk for renewing interest in what Reagan called the “‘permanent things,’ which are the underpinnings” of “the conservative revival in our nation.” I like the word “underpinnings.” As mentioned earlier, Kirk was not indifferent to politics or to one’s duties as a citizen. But fundamentally his conservatism was pre-political and trans-political. This was one of his greatest contributions to the conservative cause and one reason why many young people respond to his writings today.

Now whenever an institution is established to “lengthen the shadow” (as it were) of a great person, there is a risk. For institutions can atrophy over time or get captured by those who may not share the founders’ intentions. This has not happened with the Russell Kirk Center, in part because it has carefully planted its roots where he lived and wielded his sword of imagination.

It seems fitting to close this essay with a thought from the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, a man I think Russell Kirk admired. Years ago Ortega wrote: “The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers.” How true, how true, that is. For twenty-five years the Russell Kirk Center has engaged in this endeavor, to which Kirk himself devoted his career. May those who celebrated this milestone now move onward, refreshed and inspired, into the next quarter century.  

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.