book cover imageRussell Kirk: American Conservative
by Bradley J. Birzer.
University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
Hardcover, 608 pp., $35.

On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered to Allied forces, officially ending World War II. While celebrations swept the United States, one strange young man observed the gaiety with disgust. That man, Russell Amos Kirk, who started the war as a Ford desk jockey, weathered out most of the conflict building chemical weapons at Dugway Proving Ground outside of Salt Lake City. He described the desert in which it was located as “so utterly desolate a plain, closed in by mountains like a yard within a spiked fence, with everywhere the suggestion of death and futility and eternal emptiness.” An admirer of Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Kirk didn’t fear an honorable death. But he could see nothing honorable in the machinery of death his nation had employed to end the war: two nuclear bombs that extirpated the lives of perhaps 146,000 civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We crush an insect with the club of Hercules,” he wrote after the devastation.

Kirk, the subject of Bradley J. Birzer’s meticulously researched new biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, would continue to write in this passionate and classically literate voice for nearly five decades. His productivity astonished even William F. Buckley, Jr., the prolific founder of National Review. Kirk was inter alia, a traveler, an activist (of sorts), an editor, a professor, a commentator, a journalist, a husband, a father of daughters (four to be exact), a Catholic convert, and a friend of such literati asT. S. Eliot and Ray Bradbury. Kirk is credited not only with helping to revive American conservatism and scholarly interest in Edmund Burke, but also popular interest in the gothic horror genre, especially though his first novel, Old House of Fear (1961). One would be tempted to describe Kirk as a renaissance man, were it not for his identification with premodern, and specifically medieval, values and attitudes.

Russell Amos Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan on October 18, 1918. A precocious writer, he published two articles while still an undergraduate at Michigan State University before continuing his studies at Duke University. There he became influenced by the Southern Agrarians, whom he saw as stalwarts against the mechanization and homogenization of the modern world (he would later refer to himself as a “Northern Agrarian”). Not long after Kirk defended his self-directed master’s thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the “mailed fist”—as Kirk referred to the U.S. Army—rudely snatched up the Michiganite and deposited him at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Here, constructing weapons he abhorred, Kirk’s spiritual yearning intensified, as did his contempt for large organizations like the U.S. Army. America’s ill-treatment of Japanese citizens during the war, which Kirk witnessed, and—above all—the horrendous creation and deployment of nuclear weapons, confirmed his fears that the modern world was on a dreadful course. Kirk would continue to evolve after the war ended. Most significantly, Kirk would gradually drift toward Catholicism until 1964 when his fiancée, Annette Courtemanche, finally succeeding in “making a Catholic out of him.” As Birzer presents it, however, the Christian humanism of Kirk’s maturity was already latent when he was a “desert Stoic.” In both his Stoic and Christian humanist phases, Kirk was contemptuous of nationalism and skeptical of war. He was consistently critical of capitalism and big business, too, seeing both as forces that leveled down culture and “uglified” society. If he did not despise slogans and sloganeers, “Books, not bombs” and “wisdom, not wealth” could have been his slogans.

With the 1953 publication of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (in later editions subtitled From Burke to Eliot), Kirk established himself as an intellectual celebrity, as well as one of the brightest stars in the constellation of postwar American conservative thinkers. Other important conservative books emerged earlier, among them Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1952). But The Conservative Mind was the first to explicitly connect contemporary conservatives to a rich intellectual tradition along with such men as John Adams and Benjamin Disraeli. Although it recommended no political agenda (Kirk would mock the misguided demand that he provide such an agenda with the title of his next book, A Program for Conservatives, which was hardly, but so much more than, that), it inspired such political men as Barry Goldwater and Heritage Foundation founder Edwin Feulner.

Kirk contributed to National Review, but was never entirely comfortable with Buckley’s attempt to unify libertarians and traditionalists. He maintained a cordial relationship with Buckley until the end of his days despite thinking he exhibited “too belligerent a nineteenth-century liberalism”; however, Kirk loathed libertarian National Review writer Frank S. Meyer, especially after the latter published a scathing critique of his work, “Collectivism Rebaptized.” Kirk also clashed with Friedrich Hayek, at one point publicly debating him. In Kirk’s eyes, extreme libertarianism erroneously identifies the individual as the sole source of authority. “Several grand realities exist in addition to the individual,” he wrote in A Program for Conservatives, “The greatest of them is God. Another is our country, and yet another is our family; still another is our ancestry.”

In 1957, Kirk founded the journal Modern Age: A Conservative Review, which he hoped would foster a “Republic of letters,” but as Birzer recounts, disputes with colleagues (one of whom he accused of anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic bigotry) led him to relinquish his position as editor after only three years. In 1960, he founded a second journal, The University Bookman, which focused on book reviews. Both journals endure today—Modern Age in print form, and the Bookman online. In 1962, Kirk began his syndicated column “To the Point,” and wrote nearly three thousand columns over the course of twelve years. He would also write many more important books on history and culture, including Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1967), Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971), and The Roots of American Order (1974), in addition to many editions of The Conservative Mind.

This industriousness notwithstanding, Kirk’s influence gradually diminished in the second decade after publication of The Conservative Mind—especially after his involvement with the ill-fated 1964 Goldwater campaign. There are still outlets for conservatism in line with Kirk’s “Christian humanism,” the online journal The Imaginative Conservative, co-founded by Birzer, being one example. For the most part, though, Kirkian conservatism seems to have been eclipsed by other movements on the right: libertarianism, the evangelical religious right, and neoconservatism. Although Kirk died as recently as 1994, his writing and philosophy seem to be of a bygone era (to which Kirk might well retort: “They always did, and that is the point”).

The multifaceted Kirk poses a challenge for any biographer. Birzer, the Russell Amos Kirk chair in history at Hillsdale College, comes amply credentialed. Annette Kirk granted Birzer access to Kirk’s unpublished writings and correspondence, and Birzer, who is nothing if not meticulous, does not squander these resources (the notes comprise nearly one-fifth of the book as a whole). If this demonstrates the author’s affection for the subject matter, it can also be tedious. The chapter dealing with Kirk’s fiction deluges the reader with summaries of a vast number of Kirk’s short stories, together with Birzer’s commentary on each of them. He perhaps would better have showcased one or perhaps two and included a “suggested reading” section at the end of the chapter.

The meticulous detailing, moreover, sometimes seems to come at the expense of analysis. Birzer recounts Kirk’s disputes with Meyer and Hayek in the 1950s and with the neoconservatives and Straussians, especially Harry Jaffa, later in Kirk’s career. This is unfortunate because one of the revelatory highlights of the book is the amicable connection between Kirk and Strauss himself. Birzer does not probe as deeply as he might have the issues at stake in these debates. He describes the Kirk-Hayek debate as “one of the most important exchanges in twentieth-century non-leftist thought” but then zips over it in three pages. Perhaps Birzer thought his audience would be too familiar with (or tired of) these details, but the wider audience this book deserves may not be. They may find it difficult to assess Kirk as a thinker independently of the outcomes of these debates.

A related concern is that Birzer, apparently intent on adding Kirk to his own pantheon of conservative greats, is too uncritical of Kirk. However admirable Kirk may have been in some respects, he wasn’t perfect. He had a blind spot for the evils of the antebellum American South that he apparently acquired from his days at Duke. His persistent glorification of John C. Calhoun is distressing, andBirzer’s gloss does little to reassure:

What could the slave-autocrat Calhoun have in common with the plain Abraham Lincoln, defender and promoter of the abolitionist Thirteenth Amendment? With a transcendent eye, Kirk found much to like in each man, for each, from his perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate. (100)

Critics of conservatism, who are only too happy to associate any kind of traditionalism with literally antebellum attitudes, should note that Kirk was no racial bigot. He opened his home at Piety Hill to refugees of all nationalities and races. But Calhoun was not simply someone who, like Thomas Jefferson, acquiesced to slavery against his principles and out of moral weakness. Calhoun vigorously defended, promoted as God’s plan, and sought to extend “the peculiar institution,” a euphemism he coined. It is therefore unfortunate for Kirk to have placed Calhoun in the conservative pantheon. Birzer does not explain how Lincoln and Calhoun could share “timeless truths” about self-government or political science, and so the reader is left with an unanswered question.

There is, nonetheless, much to recommend about Birzer’s biography. It is engagingly written, charmed by the light of Kirk’s (usually) endearing personality. Moreover, it doubles as a history of twentieth-century American conservatism, discussing a vast array of writers like Irving Babbitt and T. S. Eliot whose connections to conservatism are unknown to many. The conservative who picks it up is bound to have an expanded reading list before putting it down.  

Spencer Case, a philosophy Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, contributes to National Review and other outlets. He is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a 2015 Publius fellow, and a 2012-2013 Egypt Fulbright student grantee.