By Hiro Aida

These remarks were delivered on April 19, 2024, at an event hosted by the Japanese Consulate in Miami and the Russell Kirk Center at the 60th Anniversary of The Philadelphia Society in Tampa, Florida.

“How kind of you to send me a copy of Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain)’s uncanny tales! I mean to read them during a trip to Detroit a few days from now.” 

This is the writing of one of the few letters I exchanged with Russell Kirk (1918-94) in his last years. Kirk, whose magnum opus The Conservative Mind (1953) was introduced to Japan in my translation (2018), was one of the leading conservative thinkers in the United States. 

In the summer of 1991, my family and I visited Annette and Russell Kirk for several days in Kirk’s ancestral village of Mecosta, Michigan. We were on our way back from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo after our three-year stay. I received the first letter dated December 28, 1991, in Japan after New Year’s Day of the next year. 

Even after his passing, I visited the late Kirk’s residence in Mecosta (Piety Hill) three or four times, including in October 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and stayed in touch with the bereaved family. However, I have only spent several days in the summer of 1991 talking with Kirk himself. Looking back, those were the most fruitful days in my life. As my family drove away from our stay that summer, we noticed that Kirk (then 72 years old) was still waving to us, his steps somewhat uncertain, and my wife murmured, “Feels like we may never see each other again.” It turned out to be true. Kirk passed away in April 1994 at the age of 75.

The quoted letter is included in Kirk’s collection of letters, Imaginative Conservatism. The book was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2018. The letter was included alongside letters to T. S. Eliot, a poet and close friend of Kirk’s, and other great names, probably because the editor judged it to be typical of Kirk. Certainly, there are several important points in the letter which I would like to trace here.

At the time of writing this letter, Kirk had not finished reading the English translation of Tales of Moonlight and Rain, but he was curious to read through the pages. Though he had never visited Japan, Kirk had a unique insight into the country.

His letter continues:

I have been fighting my way so far through the introduction by the American editor, which is somewhat verbose and overly studded with footnotes, after the pedantic fashion of American graduate schools. But I can see that the tales themselves will compensate and more than compensate for the editor’s pedantry.

Already on the page, I could see signs of his attraction to Akinari Ueda’s masterpiece (1776). I regret that I missed the opportunity to ask him what he thought of the book after he finished reading it. This was due to my need to understand Kirk’s relationship with the uncanny stories. Kirk’s conservatism and the world of the mysterious stories are deeply connected. When I visited Kirk in the summer of 1991, I saw it only in a superficial way, and it was not until much later that I began to understand its meaning. It is the mystery that supports conservatism. Mystery can sometimes take the form of the uncanny. In what follows, I would like to consider the form of the spirit of Kirk, who was born in the Midwest and spent his whole life there, and its meaning in the unknown context of his insightful understanding of Japan, which he had never visited.

Fireside Chat with Kirk

My family wasn’t the only one during our stay at the Kirk residence that summer. A university professor and his spouse from New York occupied the small house next door. Additionally, two Southern students who had come to study stayed at the Kirk’s library, just a few-minute stroll away. Including our elementary and junior high school daughters and occasionally accompanied by the nearby Kirk family’s daughter and her husband, about ten of us gathered every evening in the expansive dining room, which could accommodate more than twenty people.

After dinner, we would adjourn to the living room for conversations. I often found myself captivated by Kirk’s narratives by the fireside. During these discussions, perhaps due to my Japanese background, I was surprised to hear Kirk mention Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo). I had assumed that Hearn would be a forgotten figure in the U.S., but he held significance for this thinker in the secluded Midwestern community.

Hearn, a novelist and essayist, was born in 1850 to an Irish father and a Greek mother. After working as a journalist in the U.S., he arrived in Japan in 1890. Hearn married a Japanese woman there and deeply admired the country’s scenic beauty. While teaching English at Japanese schools, he authored over a dozen books on Japan before his passing in 1904. Hearn loved and depicted the pre-modern life of the Japanese countryside and its people. His best-known work is “Kaidan (ghost stories),” a collection of ghostly tales heard and collected.

While I don’t recall the specifics of the fireside chats over several nights more than thirty years ago, Hearn’s name resurfaced in various contexts. I remember discussions about Japanese conservatism, the ghostly lore surrounding the Kirk residence, and Kirk’s enduring friendship with Edwin McClellan (1925-2009), a prominent scholar of modern Japanese literature. My understanding of McClellan’s importance evolved over time.

Kirk’s scholarly focus primarily centered on the history of Anglo-American conservative thought, with only a few references to Japan in his writings (possibly why his letter to me found its way into a collection of letters). One notable instance is his extensive introduction in The Portable Conservative Reader, an anthology of Anglo-American conservative thought compiled in 1980. Kirk delves into global perspectives after surveying the history of conservative thought in America and Britain. He argued:

In Asia, Western ideology and Western technology, both blending with a new ferocious nationalism in some countries, have so thoroughly broken up the old order of things that it scarcely is possible to speak of conservative politics anywhere except in Japan and some of the Moslem states. Japanese conservatism, now recovering from the injuries inflicted by war and military occupation, is an interesting development, arising out of old Japanese concepts of piety, duty, and honor.

Then he quoted Hearn:

This subtle conservatism gradually may reassert itself: as Lafcadio Hearn wrote, Japan wears successively, and perhaps sincerely, a series of Western masks; but these are discarded in turn, for beneath the masks of the old Japanese character lives. The present mask of Western materialism and technology will not endure forever.

This quote, possibly from Hearn’s Kokoro or its summary, left me with unanswered questions following Kirk’s passing. McClellan’s name was mentioned in our fireside discussions, spurred by Kirk’s admiration for Hearn. I needed to grasp McClellan’s contributions fully. Later, during my interactions with McClellan, I gained insight into his superb expertise as a modern Japanese literature scholar.

One evening, probably inspired by Hearn, Kirk shared a tale about the lingering spirits at his mansion, claiming that his ancestors’ ghosts occasionally manifested there. It was a classic fireside story, reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Initially dismissing it as mere entertainment for guests, my understanding deepened as I delved into Kirk’s writings.

Kirk’s groundbreaking work, The Conservative Mind, thrust him into the spotlight of postwar American intellectual discourse, leading to his debut as a public intellectual at the age of thirty-five. This book, stemming from his dissertation at St. Andrews University in Scotland, marked a significant departure from his career so far, including a brief stint writing gothic tales for London Mystery Magazine in the 1950s before the publication of his seminal work. He continued to publish short and long stories during his lifetime. Kirk’s multifaceted persona, blending serious conservative thought with a penchant for the mysterious, underscores the complexity of his intellectual legacy, which I continue to try to unravel even today. In Hearn’s discourse, he oscillates between the personas of a conservative thinker and a purveyor of the mysterious. Yet uncovering the essence of this thinker requires delving beyond these facades into Kirk’s steadfast temperament.

For Kirk, the gothic tale was not a mere pastime but a crucial part of his journey to establish himself as a writer and thinker. The unexpected success of The Conservative Mind validated his efforts, emboldening him to leave his university post. Disillusioned by the commercialization of academia and the decline in educational standards, a concern that would persist throughout his life, he returned to his roots and immersed himself in the postwar conservative movement, using various media outlets to express his views. Nevertheless, Kirk’s true essence transcended mere political discourse. As he revisited the landscapes of his upbringing in Michigan, Kirk pursued a diverse range of discourse as a conservative thinker while maintaining his penchant for gothic narratives. Reflecting on his life in the serenity of Mecosta, where some of his tales unfolded, one might argue that Kirk’s true essence extended beyond the prevailing political debates of his era.

Ghosts of the Land

Why did Kirk return to Mecosta? Examining his remaining writings, the answer may seem improbable, but “ghosts” play a significant role. Before his passing in April 1994, Kirk penned his autobiography with the intent of posthumous publication. The following year, 1995, saw Eerdmans, a longstanding publishing house in Michigan, releasing it under the title The Sword of Imagination. The inaugural chapter, “The Dead Alone Can Give Us Energy,” delves into the family’s history, shedding light on Kirk’s deep connection to his maternal lineage.

Of particular note is Kirk’s profound attachment to his mother’s heritage. The loss of his mother during his service in the U.S. military during World War II, without the chance to bid her farewell, left a profound void. She had been Kirk’s gateway to the world of literature during his infirm childhood, and her family were the pioneers who carved out the forests of Mecosta. The Kirk homestead, known as “Piety Hill,” was constructed by his maternal great-grandfather and later passed down through his uncles and aunts to Kirk (though it tragically succumbed to fire). While Kirk was born and raised in Detroit’s suburbs, his mother frequently brought him to Mecosta from a young age via the railroad.

Today, Mecosta stands as a quiet town with a population of roughly 400, but in the late nineteenth century, it was a bustling hub of forestry, boasting a population that swelled to 2,000. During Kirk’s formative years in the 1920s, when memories of the Civil War were still vivid, his mother’s family regaled him with tales of relatives lost in the conflict. Legend had it that his great-grandmother possessed a unique ability, functioning as a sort of “medium” who communed with the departed in her nighttime séances.

Kirk was around eight or nine when he encountered the ghost on Piety Hill, approximately in 1927. It happened on a snowy Christmas evening when many relatives stayed at the mansion and retired to bed. Kirk was given a sofa in the front parlor to sleep on. In the middle of the night, he awoke to find two figures outside the bay window, one tall and the other short, peering at him. Frightened, the boy Kirk covered his face with a blanket. The following day, he searched for footprints in the snow but found none. He kept this experience to himself for a long time.

Years later, Kirk’s aunt shared a similar tale from her childhood. She recalled playing with two unseen men outside the bay window, naming them Cady and Patti, the taller and shorter figures Kirk had seen.

After Kirk took over Piety Hill and started a family, his eldest daughter, at two years old, would wave and call out to “Patti” on the lawn outside, though no one was there. This recurring phenomenon added to the lore of the Piety Hill ghost, which Kirk wrote about in his autobiography, noting that the spectral presence had persisted for three generations.

During our family’s visit more than thirty years ago, Kirk recounted these Piety Hill tales and the surrounding ghostly legends during our fireside chats. It highlighted the enduring Gothic cultural traditions of the Midwest, akin to those of the South. William Butler Yeats might have been fascinated, said Kirk. Celtic tradition could have worked. His father was of Scottish descent. Kirk’s reflections on these experiences in his autobiography suggest an acceptance and even reverence for the presence of the dead, believing “the communications of the dead exceeds the language of the living.”

In the opening chapter of his autobiography, “The Dead Alone Can Give Us Energy,” Kirk delves into the profound interconnectedness of past, present, and future generations. He paints a vivid picture of this bond, symbolized by the portraits and mementos of his ancestors, each carrying their own triumphs and failures. This connection, he suggests, is a wellspring of inspiration, echoing the sentiments of Edmund Burke. He quotes the insights of Lafcadio Hearn as if they were as integral to his life as Burke’s.

We all are full of ghosts, says Lafcadio Hearn: “All our emotions and thoughts and wishes, however changing and growing through the varying seasons of life, are only compositions and recompositions of the sensations and ideas and desires of other folk, mostly of dead people…” There are no dead, Saint Augustine tells us. Russell’s ancestors had taken that literally. 

Though not explicitly mentioned, the quote is from Hearn’s essay “Dust” (1896). This passage, reminding us of a fascinating blend of reincarnation, pantheism, and medieval Christian ideals, reflects Kirk’s journey from a Protestant upbringing to Catholicism at age forty-five, following a period of leaning towards Anglicanism. Yet beneath these religious shifts lies a quest to reconnect with a pre-Christian realm of lore, a realm explored by Hearn in Japan with his Celtic lineage. I regret not fully exploring Kirk’s thoughts on Akinari Ueda’s stories before his passing, as it would have provided deeper insight into his fascination with the mysterious.

Love for What Is Being Lost

Piety Hill, originally a white-pine house, underwent expansions before succumbing to a devastating fire in 1975, losing many cherished family possessions. Subsequently, the house was rebuilt in fireproof red brick, complete with a distinctive dome atop its roof. Since 1991, the author has visited this reconstructed brick residence, now known as the “Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal,” diligently maintained by bereaved family members and supported by various foundations following Kirk’s passing. Recognizing its historical significance, a monument was erected in 2019, designating it as a Michigan State Historic Site.

Even prior to Kirk’s passing, Kirk’s nearby library, once a doll factory, served as a temporary residence for students and researchers engaged in academic pursuits. Kirk’s profound attachment to historical buildings is evident in his life and writings, a sentiment that grew stronger after the loss of his ancestral home to fire. This attachment is a notable aspect of his philosophical outlook. But it was his proactive efforts, his tireless work to preserve stone statues from old buildings slated for demolition in cities like Detroit and Chicago, that showcased his deep appreciation for architectural heritage, inspiring others to do the same.

Moreover, Kirk’s affection for old buildings extends beyond mere structures; it encompasses the communities intertwined with them. In the opening chapter of The Conservative Mind, Kirk paints a vivid yet melancholic picture of a dreary street corner along the River Liffey in Dublin.

Number 12, Arran Quay, formerly a brick building of three stories, which began as a gentleman’s residence, sank to the condition of a shop, presently was used as a governmental office of the meaner sort, and was demolished in 1950—a history suggestive of changes on a mightier scale in Irish society since 1729. For that year, Edmund Burke was born here……the annihilation of Burke’s birthplace seems to have stirred no protest. Still more recently many of the other old houses along the Quays have been demolished……And you may reflect, with Burke, “What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!”

This transformation of urban as well as rural areas due to modernization and the loss of affection for what is being lost are recurring themes in the ghost stories that Kirk wrote alongside works of conservative thought. One of his earliest works, “Behind the Stumps” (1950), is a tale of conflict between a community surveyor and the villagers of the fictional village of Barrens, Pottawatomie County. This village bears similarities to Mecosta, once prosperous in the forestry industry but now quiet and rarely visited by government officials. When the investigator finally arrives at an abandoned house in the deserted village, he finds an old woman sleeping in her bedroom.

On the other hand, there are stories set in St. Louis, a city that once prospered as a trading center on the Mississippi River but has declined since. In many of the works, traces of urban and rural decline and devastation are depicted as a negative aspect of modernization and industrialization. Sometimes, they are destroyed by the forces of political power. One of the characteristics of Kirk’s ghost stories is that they reveal the resentment of people whose lives and livelihoods have been crushed by such destruction and decline.

In real life, Kirk continued to plant trees on the grounds of Piety Hill with his own hands. According to a student who once stayed and studied at Piety Hill under Kirk, it was like an obsession. The student recalled that it was a one-man reforestation effort as if to make up for the trees that had been cut down by the ancestors who had settled the area.

Shock of the Atomic Bomb

Back to the letter quoted at the beginning of this reflection. Kirk’s reference to the atomic bombings came after his acknowledgment of Tales for Moonlight and Rain. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk criticizes the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by saying:

Liberal humanitarianism in the United States found itself embarrassed, to put the matter mildly, when the Second World War was won—won at the expense of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all they meant to the American conscience (Chapter Ⅻ).

This criticism is deeply related to the shape of Kirk’s spirit that I have described so far.

The letter referred to Kirk’s recollection that he himself learned in 1948 that Kyoto was one of the targets of the atomic bombings. This fact is now widely known, but in 1948, just three years after the end of the war, information about the atomic bombings was still limited.

Kirk’s letter confides that “a very close friend who was an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force (whose mother was Japanese but had access to secret documents of Britain, the U.S., and occupied Japan) told me,” and Kirk “blamed the U.S. government for thinking such a thing.” 

Kirk said that if Secretary of War Stimson had indeed prevented the bombing of Kyoto, he would reconsider his opinion of the Secretary.

During the war, Kirk was assigned to the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah for chemical and biological weapons. There he witnessed experiments with incendiary devices that were to be used against Germany and Japan. He wrote he was exposed to the reality of “a war to vindicate the democratic and humanitarian way of life.” This experience sparked his skepticism toward Enlightenment values like progress and efficiency. 

While not mentioned in the letter, the former RAF intelligence officer who informed Kirk about Kyoto’s potential bombing was Edwin McClellan, later a top scholar of modern Japanese literature in the English-speaking world. In 1948, Kirk was a doctoral student at St. Andrews University and met McClellan, who had also joined the university after completing his military service. McClellan was assigned to Washington as an intelligence officer during the war because of his high Japanese language skills. The Sword of Imagination details Kirk’s friendship with McClellan in his young days in Scotland.

McClellan, Kirk once wrote to me, “is half Ulsterman and half Japanese in parentage [and] looks rather like a Gurkha nobleman…. You may meet him someday. He is still a British subject.”

After completing his studies, Kirk encouraged McClellan, whose study focused on the Scottish Reformation, to continue research in the U.S. Through Kirk’s introduction, McClellan studied under Friedrich A. Hayek at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

However, during his doctoral dissertation, McClellan shifted his focus to Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), a then-obscure figure in Western intellectual circles. Soseki was an iconic novelist in modern Japanese literature. (Soseki, like many famous Japanese literary figures, is often referred to by his given name alone.) McClellan hastily translated Soseki’s seminal novel Kokoro (The Heart) to explain the novelist to his thesis advisors, Hayek and David Greene (1913-2002), a Greek classicist. Their profound reaction to the English translation prompted its publication in 1956 by Henry Regnery Co. of Chicago, which also published The Conservative Mind. Kirk apparently helped the publication in the English-speaking world of the great work of Japan’s most important modern novelist.

McClellan’s translation of Kokoro would eventually become not only the definitive English translation of Soseki’s novel and the version most widely read in the English-speaking world, it is also considered a first-rate work of English-language literature in its own right. It is frequently among the first books assigned to students embarking on Japanese studies, including those on politics and economics. Kevin Doak of Georgetown University, America’s foremost authority on the Japan Romantic School, once told me that students who read it for his class often ask him if the original Japanese is as beautiful as the English.

Lafcadio Hearn, whom Kirk quoted here and there in his writings, was once a lecturer of English at Tokyo Imperial University from 1896 to 1903. His successor happened to be Soseki. Soseki, who studied in England, suddenly wrote fifteen novels and numerous short stories, essays, and literary criticism in the last ten years of his life. All the novels depicted the intellectual struggles of Japanese intellectuals in a country modernizing at a furious pace. Kirk was probably strongly attracted to this unknown exotic writer. Still, unfortunately, I have not found any references to Soseki in Kirk’s literature that directly mention him.

Hiro Aida is a journalist and visiting professor at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan, and a visiting fellow at Sophia University in Tokyo. His Japanese translation of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind was published in 2018. His recent works include Hatansuru America (America in Disarray, 2017) and Tsuiseki Amerika no Shisoka-tachi (In Pursuit of American Thinkers, 2016). He translated into Japanese Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay.

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