An extensive biographical interview with mystery novelist Sally Wright, conducted in February 1989.
This interview with Russell Kirk took place largely in February 1989 when Dr. Kirk was seventy-two. It was a great privilege for me to hear him express his perceptions and perspective on his life and work. He had kindly asked me to review his gothic novel Lord of the Hollow Dark for the University Bookman before we did this interview, and he had done much to encourage me as I was beginning to publish my first series of mystery novels. Yet it was being able to talk with him in Mecosta, just the two of us, for hours on end that’s the memory that means most to me from the years when we were acquainted.
During that time too, Annette Kirk and I became friends. Talking with her is still a great pleasure, as well as an education.
Mecosta County, Michigan is stump country; cut-over land left barren by lumbermen in the nineteenth century. There’s something haunting about it still, with its glacial hills and empty spaces, its lonely looking horses and abandoned machinery, its Victorian brick farmhouses and rusty trailers.
Mecosta itself looks like something out of Gunsmoke; one long wide street climbing up a half-hearted hill, two rows of dilapidated buildings from the 1890s caught in the commercial fashion of the fifties, limping into the mainstream of mercantile America with a new VCR counter in the corner carry-out …
Yet visitors come to Mecosta from all over the world to discuss politics, and the nature of mankind, and the prospects of civilization with Russell Kirk.
He lives on a ridge that was called Piety Hill by the lumberjacks in the village saloons who’d heard stories of séances and spiritualism in the tall clapboard house built there in the 1880s by Russell’s maternal great-grandfather.
That house is gone now, burned to the ground on Ash Wednesday night 1975. Yet Russell and his family stay on in a three-story brick Italianate house that used to be attached to the old one. They built it to accommodate four children and constant company, and they designed it to jump-start the imagination. Russell says he has a gothic mind, and he and his wife have a great love of the ancient and the exotic and the handmade, so there’s a cupola on the roof where their daughters have watched the real world and fantasized their own; there are carved stone faces, lions heads, and mythic beasts salvaged from a Romanesque movie theater, set in the outside walls; and when they added a dining room to accommodate the interns who study under Dr. Kirk, they used woodwork from a dismantled church.
There have actually been dozens of students and interns whom Kirk has taken into his home in the last twenty-five years; overseeing their research, teaching them the art of editing, ultimately helping them find jobs in government, publishing, and academia. Kirk also presents four seminars a year on a wide variety of subjects for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, importing other scholars as well to lecture and debate.
All of them come because of Russell Kirk’s writing, for without Kirk’s books, The Conservative Mind in particular (published in 1953 at a time when Richard Brookhiser says “the very title seemed a paradox”), the conservative movement of the 1980s might have been considerably different.
Without Kirk, Ronald Reagan might have remained a New Deal liberal, instead of commending Kirk in 1981 for “helping to renew a generation’s interest and knowledge of these ‘true ideas,’ these ‘permanent things,’ which are the underpinnings and the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative revival in our nation.”
Kirk has advised Reagan and four other presidents; he’s been given a Fulbright Lectureship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Constitutional Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1981, a dinner was held in Washington to honor Kirk, and several hundred conservative guests attended, listening to commendations from governmental, academic, and public dignitaries, among them William F. Buckley, Jr. (who asked Russell years ago when he first visited Mecosta, who he found to talk to in such an out of the way place; only to see Kirk turn toward his ten thousand books and smile).
The incomplete bibliography of Russell Kirk’s work numbers 172 pages, and it’s been said that he’s written more than most Americans have read: twenty-eight books of history, biography, economics, political philosophy, novels, and short stories (receiving the World Fantasy Award in 1977), plus hundreds of articles and essays, a long-lived syndicated newspaper column and an education column in National Review. He’s contributed to more thana dozen encyclopedias and reference works, and he’s the only living recipient of a doctor of letters from St. Andrews University in Scotland (which is considerably more prestigious than an American Ph.D.).
Yet in Mecosta, he’s just the mild-mannered old man with the white hair who lives on Piety Hill; the one who put the books in the toy factory, and let the hobo and the unwed mothers and the immigrants move into his house; the one the kids call “The Great Pumpkin” because he wears his saffron St. Andrews robe when he hands out fortune cookies on Halloween.
In 1984, he was awarded the Ingersoll Foundation Prize for Scholarly Writing (joining Eugene Ionesco, V. S. Naipaul, Walker Percy, George Garrett, and E. O. Wilson, among others, in the ranks of Ingersoll recipients). In endorsing that award, The Wall Street Journal, in its article, “Russell Kirk: Conservatism’s Seasoned Sage,” said, “… Today, Mr. Kirk is almost universally regarded as a principal figure in the rebirth of conservative thought. However, partly because he has chosen not to live and work in the intellectual circles of New York or the power centers of Washington, his work has received little attention from the intellectual establishment.” How this scholar who “likes farmers better than professors” came to turn his back on the financial security of academia and shut himself away in the fastness of central Michigan to become “an independent man of letters” (rejecting too the government posts he’s been offered) is the story of his life.
And the reason I drove two hundred miles to Mecosta.
Russell Amos Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan in late 1918. His father was a railroad engineman who loved horses and apple orchards and “felt a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the age of the machine.”
His Kirk ancestors were bloodletters or leeches in Edinburgh, Scotland (from whom Russell has inherited a tiny lancet in an ancient leather case). The Michigan Kirks were small farmers “attached to old farmhouses, old trees, and old country roads” when Henry Ford changed the fabric of rural Michigan. Russell’s father went to work for the railroad, but he was skeptical of ‘progress’ and popular fads, “with what Edmund Burke called ‘the wisdom of unlettered men.’”
Russell Kirk says he got his patience from his father and his imagination from his mother. And when he speaks of his father, as he sits in a Victorian chair in the parlor of his home in Mecosta, you can see that he loved him and respected him, but was also aware of an almost unbridgeable separation. “He promised me once that he would take me up to see the engine. I lacked any mechanical aptitude, but I liked the idea of going up to look at it. He never did fulfill that promise, and I was always too shy to ask. I thought it would be rude to ask, so I didn’t, and he probably thought I wasn’t interested.”
His father was a strong, kind, sober, soft-spoken man with a sixth-grade education, who never read anything his son wrote.
Kirk’s mother (a tiny gentle woman who loved poetry) was a Pierce, the first of whom landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1623 (only to be “censured two years later for indolence on the Sabbath”).
Russell’s grandfather, Frank Pierce, was a restauranteur turned bank manager in the working-class part of Plymouth, Michigan, who lent his own money to young couples without charging interest, when he couldn’t in all conscience loan the bank’s money. He was a fearless old man who was several times attacked by bank robbers. Only Machine Gun Kelly (the perpetrator of “the Valentine’s Day Massacre”) and his partner succeeded, forcing Pierce to open the safe at gun point, before dumping him in a barn several miles from town.
Pierce never forgave himself. He said he should have refused to open the safe and let himself be shot.
Such was the violence of the 1920s, and Russell suffered the shock of passing the bank on his way to school, only to hear that the safe was empty and his grandfather had been taken.
It must have caused him considerable panic, for Frank Pierce had a greater impact on Russell’s mind and character than anyone beside his mother. Pierce read widely, especially history, and would take Russell for long walks in the country. “We talked mostly about history, particularly English history. Also the idea of progress, the character of Richard III, the nature of immortality, the significance of dreams, and the style of Poe … It was by example that my grandfather taught fortitude and charity … and his life seemed a model of integrity.”
Yet before those walks took place, Russell had already faced death. At the age of three, he developed acute nephritis (a kidney malfunction that was often fatal) and was hospitalized for several months. He swelled up like a balloon and wasn’t allowed visitors for fear that he would terrify whoever saw him.
His very first memory is of crying for water in the hospital, while seeing a vision of his blind great-uncle (who was dying of a brain tumor in another hospital) standing at the end of his bed.
Russell was bedridden for a yearand treated as an invalid for another four. Yet it was that illness that helped turn him to writing and scholarly pursuits, for books became the center of his life. Like Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, Russell’s early years were spent in his imagination, playing with small soldiers on a bedspread battlefield, creating his own stories, and listening to his mother read Lewis Carroll and the tales of Arthur, as well as Scott and Stevenson.
Russell had absolutely no interest in learning to read, however. He spent his first year and a half of school studiously avoiding it, for why should he learn, when his mother would read to him forever?
When he was seven, she began preparing him for the worst. There would soon be another baby (a sister, Carolyn) and he must learn to read for himself since she’d have less time to spend with him.
She taught him to read in two weeks by a method he can’t remember. “She’d already given me a huge vocabulary by reading to me, and shortly thereafter she gave me sets of Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and Walter Scott, and I proceeded to read those at the age of seven.”
His immersion in books also made him “more and more into a lone wolf. As I was to begin with anyway. Reflective … Shy with other people. Thinking long thoughts, mostly of an adult character.”
During this period, his parents rented the miller’s house above the mill pond (which he loved), although much of their life revolved around his mother’s large, generous, close-knit family, which viewed all holidays as opportunities for serious celebration. “Halloween was always my favorite … We’d get into elaborate costume, despite a lack of money … And for the Fourth of July, I went around with a little cigar box and told all my relatives ‘I’m hoping to buy a lot of fireworks,’ and they’d put money in my box. I bought enormous quantities of Roman candles and sky rockets and set them off!”
Russell laughs, at his parlor table, in a black three-piece woolen suit with a silver watch chain strung across his vest. (He has his suits made in Scotland and wears them for thirty years or more, with stout black walking shoes from Edinburgh. Even when he’s canoeing the rivers of Mecosta County, he wears his old suits, occasionally removing the jacket to accommodate the process of paddling.)
“I was a very unpleasant little boy, I think. I remember walking behind my mother on a muddy day, splashing mud on her stockings. She told me to stop and I wouldn’t, and when we got home she told my father, and he seized me and spanked me, which I felt was immensely unjust!” Russell has a wise cherubic face with a forehead Holmes and Moriarity would have envied, as well as the eyebrows of a horned owl, which shoot up puckishly as he laughs, and then adds, “That’s the only occasion I can remember being reprimanded. In part it was that they hesitated to discipline me while I was so sick.”
Russell would often stand between two tall mirrors and watch the multiple images of himself dwindle off into distant infinity. And one day, when he was gazing at the mirror, before he was nine or ten, he suddenly knew he had a soul; or more precisely, that he was a soul. He’d been self-aware as a little boy dying in the hospital; he’d known for some time that he had “an organic thinking contrivance called a brain.” But this was different. “I was aware that there is something here which is not physical. I have an identity, a soul, which is not identical with the body. If I didn’t have any body, it would still be around somewhere; or at least, it’s not dependent upon bodily reactions and bodily circumstances. There is an ‘I’ inside this envelope which is the real being.”
As a result, he never suffered from an “identity crisis.” He knew what he was; and he says it gave him strength in years to come.
Although most of his childhood was spent in Plymouth, his mother took him on train journeys to Mecosta to spend the summers. Even as a child, Russell loved Mecosta County’s “bleak ridges and scrubby second-growth woods, its remote lakes and sand trails, its poverty-wracked farmsteads, and the silent village of Mecosta itself, shrunk to a tenth of its early population, where no one seemed to stir except on Saturday night, and then only feebly.”
The Johnsons, Marjorie Kirk’s mother’s family, lived on a rise of land above Mecosta in a white clapboard Italianate house that was said to have held séances in the 1880s and ’90s. Both sides of Russell’s family were people of strong ethics and principle who’d become irreligious, “although the Johnsons couldn’t be called unspiritual. Spiritual yearning had been diverted into the Dead Sea of Spiritualism … and in the tall white house above the town had taken place glimpses into the abyss little short of necromancy.”
When Russell visited the house, there were no spiritualist activities, and little was said of such matters in front of him (although he experienced one inexplicable visitation and had a recurrent sepulchral dream, only in Mecosta, until he was in his fifties). His Great-Grandfather Amos had been nearly ruined in the panic of 1893, losing “much land, a lake, and a partnership in the bank.” His widow and her two spinster daughters lived there in severely reduced circumstances (dependent on their chickens, their cow, and their vegetable garden, selling furniture occasionally to make ends meet) until their deaths many years later. “I remember my great-grandmother in her black gown and high button leather shoes; a very handsome old lady sitting in the rocking chair, reading serious books, Willa Cather and so on. The pleasant odors of the dried herbs, the sage and the peppermint, and the french toast, always seemed very good to children …
“Over everything brooded an air, by no means oppressive, of faded splendors, vanished lands, and baffled expectations. The vanity of human wishes being writ large at Mecosta, I learnt that lesson early.”
Piety Hill, with its family mementoes and its sense of age, and its half-hinted references to spirits and ghostly business fired Kirk’s imagination. And when he abandoned academia, it was to this house that he turned.
He went to school in Plymouth, but he never liked it; it took him away from his books and his walks and his family. He got along with the other children; he even introduced a game he’d discovered in an old book that’s still played in the alleys and railroad yards of Plymouth. But except for one boy who would borrow books from him, then jump a freight and be gone for months, Kirk didn’t feel any real rapport with the other boys; they didn’t know what he was about, and he “had little idea of their inner life.” He remembers once trying to play baseball, which would have pleased his father. But this was shortly after the nephritis, when he’d been kept from strenuous activity, and when “they threw a ball to me, I missed it and fell and hurt my knee. So I didn’t try that again.”
Fortunately the nephritis had no long-term consequences, and in the fall of 1929 Russell was a healthy eleven-year-old boy who wanted to read about soldiers and diplomats and found it irritating that “the papers were filled with the flurry in Wall Street.”
Early in 1930, the Great Depression descended on his family. Their landlord, Mr. Dohmstreight (pronounced Doomstrike, ironically) offered to let them stay rent-free when his parents could no longer afford the house by the millpond, but they didn’t feel it would be fair to him, and the Kirks moved in with the Pierces, his mother’s parents.
A few months later, Frank Pierce died of heart failure in an elevator; and it was Russell’s “first great sorrow.”
There also came a day when his mother said that the only thing between them and ruin was a twenty dollar bill she’d stuck between the pages of Kipling’s The Light That Failed. Russell wasn’t worried, because twenty dollars seemed to him to be a fortune. His only amusements were reading and walking, and they cost nothing. There was plenty to eat, and even if the plaster fell from the ceilings, the family still celebrated every holiday with great enthusiasm and remained happily united.
He did have difficulty deciding what he wanted to do, however, as high school ground-on inexorably (like the mills of God) and the future stretched before him. When he was seventeen, he won Scholastic Magazine’s national essay competition. But this didn’t seem to impress him unduly and he remembers thinking that if he could somehow just “creep through life with a bowl of bread and milk a day, and time enough to read,” he’d be happy.
He’d come to detest Franklin Roosevelt as enthusiastically as he’d welcomed his election, because it looked to him as though F.D.R. “would cheerfully sweep away the whole of the Constitution if he found it would make him popular.”
Russell also explored northern Michigan, picked fruit for spending money, and became an atheist. The Johnsons, the Pierces, and the Kirks all shunned institutionalized Christianity (embracing instead the dictates of private conscience) without doubting that an Omniscient Being governed the universe. As a teenager, Russell says, “I was convinced that I understood life and death and the infinite, and that they were trifles.” (His family told him he’d grow out of it, and he hotly denied the possibility.)
In 1936, when he was facing the prospect of graduation, jobs were nearly as difficult to find as they’d been in 1930, yet it never occurred to him to go to college, feeling about school as he did. “I didn’t like learning the topics I had to study. I wasn’t interested at all. I didn’t belong to the athletic teams, and didn’t fit in with the general student life, and getting out of high school was an emancipation in a mild sort of way. And when the principal asked me, ‘Russell, what are you going to do when you get out?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, sir.’ ‘There’s a scholarship offered by Michigan State for our county, why don’t you try for that?’ Well, it was too rude to say, ‘No, I won’t try for it.’ I was too shy to say anything like that. Yet I felt perfectly safe with one scholarship per county; I was in a county of three million people! But I won it. It wasn’t just a matter of not wanting to be rude, I just didn’t want to go.”
On the other hand, he had nothing else to do, and the scholarship would cover his tuition, which was $30.00 a term, and give him two hundred dollars a year for expenses.
College and beyond
Kirk went off to Michigan State College in East Lansing (“a dull and tidy town”), where (aside from working at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village each summer) Kirk “violated the American tradition of working his way through school.” He wanted time to read on his own, and he therefore chose to live on next to nothing. Rooms were cheap; he took his laundry home, since he had a free pass on the railroad; he only ate one meal a day, rarely allowing himself more than twenty-five cents; he wore cut-down second-hand clothes, and didn’t consider himself poor.
“Samuel Johnson said that not every man who speaks of ‘the pleasures of poverty’ has experienced poverty, but I think he was wrong. I certainly have been poor, but there are pleasures, as a student especially.” When he used his train pass to go home to Plymouth, for example, he couldn’t afford the ten-cent bus fare to the station, so he walked from East Lansing to Lansing, and enjoyed it.
“But I did allow myself one weekly luxury. At the train station, there was a candy machine and it had a curious thick, dark chocolate bar. It was very good chocolate and it cost a nickel. I bought that, and I munched it very slowly as I went home on the train, since I couldn’t afford one going back. Think of the pleasure of that chocolate bar! It was much more pleasurable than when chocolate is abundant. And so the buying of books: the joy you felt finding bargains in books, building up a library at minimal cost. Those are the pleasures of poverty.
“I’ve always been thrifty, and I was more practical than my parents. When I made money picking cherries, I’d pay off the family grocery bill, or have the living room ceiling plastered …
“I never did especially well in grade averages in school or colleges. I think I was ninth or tenth in my high school graduating class of one hundred people, although I was made the class poet. I was the same way in college. I had sort of a perverse inclination to do something other than what I was supposed to do. Thus, when I was at Michigan State taking a course in Southern literature, I’d be reading Charles Dickens. And when I had a course in Victorian literature, I’d be reading Southern history.” He was never particularly interested in science, and didn’t spend more time on it than necessary. “I spent time thus saved on history, humane letters, philosophy, and other subjects. I got A’s, B’s and C’s in both high school and college. I had a good enough record so I could go with a scholarship, but I was not the outstanding person.
“The person with the highest intelligence quotient in our college class was a madwoman named Ruth Fagan. She went mad, was confined by her parents in East Lansing; then she escaped, went to New York, and married Maxwell Bodenheim, the old radical scatological novelist. They were murdered, both stabbed to death by a dishwasher in a restaurant. Strange life. She was a fanatic Communist. She had this burning ambition to succeed; not personally, but in order to overthrow the world. Succeed and destroy everything! Go to the head of the class!”
Encouraged by an interested professor, Kirk entered and won scholastic competitions and also published essays in scholarly and general quarterlies to help augment his income.
When his bachelor of arts degree was almost upon him, he began to wonder what he should do next. He knew the “degree snobbery of academia” would require more than a bachelor degree if he decided to stay in “the petrified forest of academe,” and he began looking for scholarships. Duke University provided one, and he spent his time in North Carolina exploring the country and writing his master’s thesis on the politics of John Randolph of Roanoke. Ten years later, it was published as Kirk’s first book, Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought.
Randolph’s eloquence influenced Kirk’s “mind and style,” and led him to what would be a lifelong study of Edmund Burke. Yet while he read Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the European civilization Burke had both chronicled and shaped was on the verge of destruction.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor when Kirk was twenty two and had just received his master’s degree. He spent the next spring marking time at Ford Motor’s huge River Rouge plant, and it was the dreariest period of his life. He fell into a state of apathy, only to be saved by the United States Army in the summer of 1942.
While he was in boot camp, Kirk’s mother, Marjorie, died of cancer. During her last days, Russell was prompted to heal a wound he’d opened some years earlier. Before his sister was born, his mother had asked him to remember what they’d read and done together before the baby came. When Russell was a teenager, she asked if he remembered those times, and with the perversity of a typical adolescent, he’d said, “No, I don’t remember a thing about it!” In boot camp, he wrote and apologized, recounting many of the experiences they’d shared when he was little. The letter reached her the day before she died. And looking back, Kirk says he was like his father; he “kept his emotions to himself, tight locked except in some desperate hour.”
He spent three of his four years in the army as a sergeant in the Chemical Warfare Service in the Great Salt Lake Desert. Although he suffered an occasional blistering with mustard gas or a choking attack from phosgene, he had a great deal of free time, and he spent it out in the desert reading among the lizards.
It was there that he discovered he was “too skeptical for atheism’s dogmas” and “began to move from Stoicism to something more. Something made me inquire within myself by what authority I presumed to doubt.… The authority which lies behind Christian doctrine is massive. By what alternative authority did I question it? Why, chiefly upon the promptings of people like H. G. Wells and Leonard Woolf, with whose other opinions I did not agree in the least. Why should I prefer their negations to the affirmations of men whose precepts I took for gospel: the principles of Johnson and Burke, of Coleridge and More? If their minds gave credence to revealed religion, must I not, in mere toleration, open my mind to the possibility of its truth? … I began to perceive that pure reason has its frontiers …”
Another alteration that occurred in the desert was that he became more outgoing than he’d been before. Soldiers would arrive “dismayed and distraught” at what appeared to be a concentration camp, with sand scouring everything in its path, and Russell would “greet them and cheer them up. There I was very free and easy at conversation and took the lead.”
After three years in the Great Salt Lake, Kirk was discharged and back in Michigan. His throat was raspy from the mustard gas and the phosgene; he had more knowledge of human nature (his own in particular); but he had no clear idea of what he should do next.
In need of an occupation, discovering a mission
Russell Kirk never has at any time made long-range plans or come to any positive decision in arranging his life. He accepts opportunities that present themselves, but he initiates nothing on his own, preferring instead to “leave the future to providence.”
Michigan State surprised him with the offer of a teaching post in the History of Civilization. Although he doubted his ability to do it well, he accepted it (since he was twenty-eight years old and needed an occupation), hoping he’d be able to at least teach himself something.
Seventeen years later, he described the experience:
“Higher learning in America is fallen upon evil days. In part this is the fault of the students: most ofthem come for entertainment, or for some fancied enhancement of their social status, or for Mammon; and they come in such great numbers that it is almost impossible for the remnant who are interested in the higher learning to accomplish anything; besides, the majority resent the presence of the minority who read books.
“In part, this is the fault of the administration of the colleges and universities. For many of these men, mere aggrandizement in enrollments and buildings and course catalogs and football victories is the chief end of universities. They have not read Newman, nor anyone else worth reading, and do not intend to … They would establish colleges of necromancy if they thought anyone would enroll. Next to aggrandizement, they love incessant change, laboring to destroy that continuity of purpose and accumulation of knowledge and method which have been the mark of the great universities of the past.
“Most of all, perhaps, the professors are at fault They move from one college to another as if they were gypsies; they live only in the present, and talk chiefly of petty promotions and increases of pay … They are indolent, many of them, and envious. Some, declining to profess anything, believe only in negations, and lack the intellectual power ofthe old-fashioned dominie.
“Professors and priests are meant to be the conservators of mankind, to which end they are set among men, reminding us that we are not the flies of a summer. Their labor is to tell men that certain truths endure, that upon human nature a peculiar character has been stamped by the Creator with which we tamper at our peril, and that complex of ideas and methods which we call civilization cannot subsist without moral sanctions. Priest and professor are meant to show men the mysterious coherence and continuity which binds all things in their places.… I resolved to do what I could, in my feeble way, to restore this sense of their conservative function among professors. I wrote; and nearly a hundred of my articles were printed; and the object of all my writings was the conservation of the moral and social heritage of the ages.”
There lies the mission that has occupied Russell Kirk and motivated his work since 1946.
Michigan State, on the other hand, was endeavoring to expand its student body as fast as possible, and while Kirk lectured to classes of a hundred students, construction equipment roared outside his window, building new classrooms. There was pressure too for all instructors to become doctors, “however unnecessary the degree might be,” which at least provided Kirk with an escape from Michigan State.
He decided to write a book “in memory of the principal conservative thinkers of America and Britain,” hoping that their ideas might help contemporary professors. He also thought the book might interest journalists “whose talents are much atrophied in our time, yet whose potentialities for good or evil are vast.”
More than half the writers who would be included in the book are Scottish and English, and he wanted to work in Britain. Having read a tantalizing description of St. Andrews, one of the oldest Scottish universities, Kirk took up his life there in the walled medieval town which grows out of the rocks of the east coast of Scotland, with the North Sea lapping at its heels.
The most prestigious professor of history at St. Andrews, John Williams Williams, was not required to tutor more than a single student, and he took Kirk as his own. Russell met with him each week at Williams’s comfortable cluttered home and brought whatever work had been completed. Williams never discussed the dissertation directly. The pile of chapters grew upon the piano bench as The Conservative Mind took shape, and the two men discussed everything else: literature, history, politics, experiences they’d had. Until finally, when the book was completed, Williamsgave the chapters, untouched where they’d been put, back to Kirk. “I know from our talks that you’re the master of your subject, but I hate to read typescript. Just send me your book when you’ve published it and I’ll read it with pleasure.”
Although Russell taught one term each year at Michigan State, St. Andrews was his home from 1948 through 1952. He loved the ancient town with its ruined cathedral and its castle. He took pleasure in finding the cheapest possible digs, lived on brandy and chocolate biscuits, worked all night and slept much of the day. Research students weren’t required to attend lectures, the assumption being that they already “possessed knowledge sufficient for their work.” And this enabled Kirk to “explore on foot most of the counties of Scotland, and many of England and Ireland,” absorbing the architecture and the antiquities and the feel of the land.
He was “learning history by seeing the things and the men.” He became close friends with George Scott-Moncrieff, whose books had drawn Kirk to Scotland. Scott-Moncrieff introduced him to people of all sorts, from the slums of Edinburgh to the great aristocratic houses of Fife. Kirk was treated with exceptional kindness and hospitality by three such families (the Lorimers of Kellie Castle, the Christies of Durie, and the Lindsays of Balcarres), with whom Kirk spent weeks “pruning rhododendrons, exchanging ghostly tales over coffee, browsing in their great libraries, accumulated over generations.” He made the acquaintance of writers and poets—Wyndham Lewis, Roy Campbell, and later T. S. Eliot—and he lived alone for a month on the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides “coaxing legends out of crofters.”
He had very little money (just the GI Bill, and what he made writing stories for London Mystery Magazine), until he was given a Senior Fellowship of the American Council of Learned Societies, which helped with his last two years of work.
In 1951, Randolph of Roanoke was published by the University of Chicago Press. And in 1952, Kirk became the only American who’s ever been awarded St. Andrew’s highest degree, the Doctor of Letters.
Kirk polished his dissertation and sent it to Alfred Knopf, who offered to publish it if he’d cut it in half. Henry Regnery took it as it was, although he persuaded Kirk to call the book The Conservative Mind, rather than The Conservative Rout, as Kirk had originally entitled it. Regnery showed the manuscript to T. S. Eliot, who promptly published it in England through his firm, Faber and Faber.
The Conservative Mind in the U.S.
When Kirk returned to Michigan in 1952, he found Americans were becoming more conservative. The Soviet Union’s conquest of Eastern Europe, Mao’s victory in China, and the weakening of Britain had made the Americans uneasy. The New Deal wasn’t new anymore, nor much of a deal, and the political pendulum was swinging toward conservatism, although few seemed to know what the term conservative meant. Kirk’s book appeared, “an exercise in definition, right when it was needed.”
He began The Conservative Mind by setting down six canons of conservative thought:
“(1.) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems … (2.) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3.) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless’ society … Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives: but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom. (4.) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress. (5.) Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.” (Kirk defines prescription as “the customary right which grows out of the conventions and compacts of many successive generations.”) “… (6.) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but … a statesman’s chief virtue … is prudence.”
After offering these canons, Kirk goes on to trace the development of conservative thought through the writings and experiences of Englishmen and Americans in the line of Burke, hoping to foster an understanding of a long-lived “central concept of politics: that the claims of order and the claims of freedom must be kept in a healthy tension, avoiding extremes.” Gordon Chalmers wrote an extremely favorable review, and, surprisingly, The New York Times Book Review published it under the assumption that Kirk supported Eisenhower for the presidency. In fact, Kirk supported Taft. But as a result of that review, The Conservative Mind was then favorably written-up by many other popular and scholarly journals, including Time magazine. (The New York Times Book Review had then, and has today, such power to make or break a writer, that a library journal which had first condemned Kirk’s book, wrote a second review after The Times Book Review appeared, refuting their first evaluation and parroting The Times.) Kirk’s book subsequently attracted the attention of several political leaders, among them Nixon, Goldwater, Reagan, Bush, Stevenson, and Eugene McCarthy.
While his writing was meeting with a success that surprised him, Kirk was facing an academic situation he considered tragic. In the spring of 1953, the administrator of Michigan State imposed upon the Basic College where Kirk taught a “policy of diminished academic standards” in order to attract more students. What previously would have received a “D” was now to receive a “C,” and so forth. The dean explained that actually they were raising standards because now more students would be earning “A’s” and “B’s”!
Kirk expressed his disgust and went to Scotland for the summer, where he met T. S. Eliot for the first time. Kirk was “moved by Eliot’s great kindness” as well as his simplicity and directness. They remained friends, corresponding and meeting, until Eliot’s death. “It was easy to talk to him because he was as reserved as I am myself … We had the same opinions on morals and politics, and the same sort of tastes, in a way.” Eliot was a very private man. He never discussed his first wife, “a neurotic woman who became unbearable and went mad” and spent the remainder of her life in an asylum. (Only after her death did Eliot marry again.) “Out of that sorrow and his search for consolation through faith arose Eliot’s major poems. He had passed through suffering by the time I knew him, to resignation and hope … Yet for the present condition of culture, and for the future of man, Eliot knew a concern that he had ceased to feel for himself.” Kirk considers Eliot “the major champion of the moral imagination in the twentieth century,” and he was greatly influenced by Eliot, as he was by Burke. (In writing Eliot and His Age and Edmund Burke: A Genius Rediscovered, Kirk pays them homage and contributes significantly to our understanding of their work.)
While in Edinburgh, Kirk wrote his department chairman resigning his position at Michigan State. Whenhe returned to collect his belongings in the fall, the administrators “rebuked” him for his undemocratic view of higher learning.
On his own
As soon as his departure from Michigan State became known, he was offered several posts at better universities, but he took the bus north to Mecosta. He preferred to face financial insecurity than be forced to accept the academic decisions of men who didn’t share his reverence for learning and wisdom. He would become a visiting professor for a term here and there at many universities as the years passed, but he would never accept a permanent position, preferring to live frugally on Piety Hill.
He moved into a log cabin behind the family home with his Aunt Fay and Uncle Glenn Jewell, and he lived with them for some years until he bought the big house from his grandmother and two great-aunts. He also acquired an abandoned brick toy factory a block away and turned it into a library and office, later adding a cot and a small kitchen, so he could work on his own nocturnal schedule without disturbing his elderly relations.
There he wrote his books, six of them between 1953 and 1957 (including A Program For Conservatives, St. Andrews, Academic Freedom, and Beyondthe Dreams of Avarice: Essays of a Social Critic). He also continued to write the ghostly and mystical tales he’d been producing since 1950, as well as a gothic novel. The success of his fiction led to a newspaper column, syndicated for thirteen years in a hundred papers, even though journalism isn’t writing Kirk enjoys.
Henry Regnery launched Modern Age in 1957 and Kirk edited it for two years. From National Review’s beginnings in 1954 through 1983, Kirk contributed “From The Academy,” a commentary on American education. In 1960 he brought out The University Bookman, a quarterly (which now has a circulation of more than 120,000) in which scholarly books are discussed without “reference to any best seller list.”
Continuing to write at an amazing pace, while lecturing and teaching as well, Kirk travelled extensively in southern Europe and North Africa throughout the sixties; publicly debating too such diverse opponents as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., William Kunstler, Hubert Humphrey, Ayn Rand, Eugene McCarthy, Saul Alinsky, Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, and Tom Hayden (to list only a handful).
I asked Kirk about Malcolm X (having found his autobiography compelling) as well as Tom Hayden (out of nothing but basest curiosity). “Well, Malcolm X had nothing against me because he didn’t worry about conservatives … He said, ‘What I hate are the liberals. Liberals tend to talk sentimentally about the blacks, but then they license every other door in certain streets as a bar. It’s condescending pity about the people they loot and oppress.’ He was very, very courageous. He was killed shortly thereafter.
“Tom Hayden didn’t understand me at all. He didn’t appear on time. He was always doing that, he was expected to come in late. All of a sudden, he would leap onto the stage. The debate was at the University of Michigan, and I’d already spoken on specific urban problems in, and around, Detroit. “Hayden came in … and gave a long harangue about the ‘selfish capitalist who exploits people.’ The audience just looked at him and began to laugh. First you thought they were approving, but then when you watched them, they weren’t laughing with him, they were laughing at him. He had to hesitate in his speech, and then he suddenly stopped abruptly, and a huge Negro got up out of the audience and said, ‘Hey, you got this cat all wrong!’”
That’s the only commendation or award or compliment Dr. Kirk mentioned in all the time we talked, and he laughed as though it pleased him tremendously. He speaks so precisely himself, without any slang, that it might seem surprising that he enjoyed the remark as much as he did. Yet Russell Kirk is surprising. He’s very complex; and in many ways he doesn’t fit the slot assigned “conservatives” as they’ve been characterized in the twentieth century.
Dr. Kirk is a conservator, but he’s not conventional, and in Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career, he explains the distinction:
“A Tory, according to Samuel Johnson, is a man attached to orthodoxy in church and state. A bohemian is a wandering and often impecunious man of letters or arts, indifferent to the demands of bourgeois fad and foible … Tory and bohemian go not ill together: it is quite possible to abide by the norms of civilized existence, what Mr. T. S. Eliot calls “the permanent things”: and yet to set at defiance the soft securities and sham conventionalities of twentieth-century sociability … While the bohemian may burn his candle at both ends, he leaves the ungirt loin to the debauchee who does not light his lamp at all. The genuine bohemian is too busy, and too much taken with life, to sink into decadence—which is the loss of an object. And if the bohemian is of a Tory cast, he may even abjure license, drunkenness, and dirt.… I have dwelt in more garrets and cellars, forest cabins andisland hovels, than I can recall … I have thriven upon a diet of crackers and peanut-butter during nine years of college. I have been content with ducks’ eggs and goats’ milk in the Hebrides. Conversely, I have spent dreamy weeks and months in Italian palaces and in the great country houses of Scotland. Few men, I fancy, have seen more of the extremes of society. Always celibate and generally cheerful, I have known the Skid Rows of Detroit and Los Angeles, the literary circles of London and Madrid, the backwoods from Beaver Island to Morocco.”
When that book was published in 1963, Kirk was forty-five years old and had been an independent writer for ten years, living wherever he pleased, “too shy and too poor to marry.” Yet the book was dedicated to “the beautiful Miss Annette Yvonne Cecille Courtemanche.…”
Did you like the letter?
Russell had met Annette in New York when she was a junior at a women’s Catholic college. She was presenting a paper on the writings of Russell Kirk, never suspecting that he would be listening to her every word. They met at lunch and there was an immediate mutual attraction, even though Russell had graduated from college about the time she was born. Annette was “intensely Catholic, passionate, gregarious, energetic, sometimes imperious, and eager to learn about everything in creation.” She was also very striking, with high cheekbones and long black hair braided on one side; the descendant of Irish, French-Canadian, and Indian ancestors.
They only saw each other on his infrequent trips to New York, but it wasn’t long before he was writing her daily letters from all over the world.
Russell says he was too shy to ask her to marry him directly. “I was never courageous enough to propose. I thought myself too unworthy. I just vaguely hoped. I wrote her a letter in which I talked about a book by Robert Ardry, The Territorial Imperative. How a male bird, when he’s singing, is announcing ‘I’ve established a territory,’ his nest, and inviting the female to come and share this territory. Then I started talking about Mecosta.” He laughs shyly and smooths his soft white hair back from his forehead.
“For a long time she thought, ‘Russell,’ and she would cry. ‘What a pity I can’t marry.’ And then when she got this letter, she said, ‘Why can’t I marry Russell?!’” He laughs quietly. “The age difference, you see. So she sent me this letter: ‘I’ve decided our marriage is inevitable.’ She laid down certain first conditions she always thought of in marrying a husband, a long list of things, and I satisfied most of those. So then she called up in a day or so and said, ‘Did you like the letter I sent you?’ ‘Yes, I did. Very much!’”
Annette was devoutly Catholic, and Russell was about to become one. He’d taken Catholic instruction some years earlier, mostly out of intellectual curiosity and an increasing impatience with the prevailing anti-religious prejudices he found in academia; particularly in a group that had gathered to discuss aesthetics at Michigan State.
“… They made all these condescending remarks about religion. And I thought, ‘Well, here’s a body of belief which has existed for thousands of years, and all these great and good men have believed and written about it. You mean these little pipsqueaks here can afford to sneer at them?!’ So I actually did begin to look into these matters and profess Christian belief.” Russell had observed the dangers of extreme reliance on private conscience within his own family, and perhaps that increased his interest in authority and orthodoxy; in any event, he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1964.
He and Annette were married that fall, and after campaigning for Goldwater, they flew to Scotland for their honeymoon. It was too cold that year to stay in St. Andrews, and they spent the winter in South Africa before returning to Mecosta.
Not quite two years later, Annette was in labor, in a jeep, in her doctor’s buffalo pasture. The doctor was a family friend and was hoping to speed-up her contractions. Russell sat beside her, smiling calmly (with what used to be a ubiquitous cigar clenched in his teeth), as she eyed the buffalo herd like a born New Yorker. Monica was delivered in due course, and the Kirks gave the doctor a yak for services rendered.
Three more daughters (Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea) arrived in rapid succession, and Russell’s students and assistants began coming. As a result, in 1970, a brick addition was added to the original house, which Annette soon filled with “unwed mothers, half-reformed burglars, whole Vietnamese extended families, waves of Ethiopians, Poles fled from martial law, freedom-seeking Croats, and students disgusted with their colleges.”
Clinton Wallace stayed the longest. He was a huge man (a smalltime burglar, a hobo, never guilty of violence or sexual crimes) who lived with them for six years. The relationship began when Annette invited him to lunch, and he recited poetry he’d learned in libraries and Christian Science reading rooms. His emotional and intellectual development had never progressed past early adolescence, although he was then in his early fifties. He stayed, then left, then wrote to them from prison. After he was released into their custody, he did odd jobs at Piety Hill in return for a salary, which he spent on the children and lottery tickets. He was exceptionally strong, but he hated physical labor, preferring to set the table and pour the wine. He was timid, Catholic, and conservative. He hated the cursing in jails and approved of capital punishment. “There are beasts who ought to be put out of their misery. Nobody was ever reformed by prison. You have to begin by saying, ‘I know I did wrong,’ and take responsibility.”
Russell wrote a story about Clinton, “A Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” in which the fictionalized character died in a snowdrift. A year after it was written, Clinton fell dead in a snowdrift on his way home from seeing The Great Divide. The Kirks buried him in Mecosta beside Annette’s parents.
Life in Mecosta
Russell says he wouldn’t have invited all those people to live with them himself, but he didn’t mind Annette doing it. “Annette has a generous nature and I don’t. I’m very shy and isolated; she’s very gregarious.” He also says his shyness “waxes and wanes and depends on circumstance. I wonder now at my brashness in good society in Scotland. They had perfect manners and were always very kind to me, and I thus talked very easily in large assemblages on all kinds of topics. And then there are the times of hesitating to go into a shop to buy a pair of shoelaces. ‘Will they understand me? I won’t know what to ask for.’ So it’s a curious mixture, different from time to time, and it’s difficult to say what causes it. Underneath there’s an awareness that I’m interested in a lot of things other people aren’t interested in, and I don’t know what they’re interested in, if anything, so what do we have in common? What can I talk about?”
When he lectures, he usually reads addresses he’s written for the occasion. In social situations, he enters into conversations other people start and he’s very considerate and amiable; but he doesn’t often begin a conversation. (When he met Flannery O’Connor, they were both too shy to say anything, although they admired one another’s work and corresponded after that, until her death.)
In spite of his shyness (and the fact that he’s perfectly content to be alone), Kirk has spent most of his adult life surrounded by other people, because he chose to take care of his relatives. As a bachelor, he bought a house in northern Michigan for his father and stepmother, later buying one next door to his own so he could watch over them himself. He bought a cabin on a lake for his uncle and aunt, and a house for one of his grandmothers. After his marriage, Annette helped him (as he supported her with her waifs and strays) and together they cared for his greataunts, his Uncle Glenn and Aunt Fay, as well as Annette’s parents.
While Annette was catering to the needs of family and friends, she was also serving on President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. She was active too in local school organizations and Michigan politics. But today, with only assistants and interns living with the family, and all but one of their children studying or working away from home, Annette is now free to help Russell. She oversees the Intercollegiate Studies Institute seminar arrangements, helps with the University Bookman, and organizes Russell’s literary arrangements and lecture schedule so he has more time to write.
At least half of their income comes from Russell’s lectures, and at the age of seventy-one, he still travels a third of the time. Freelance writing, unless you write a best selling book (on aerobics, self-help, or gourmet cooking) is hardly lucrative. The average income of American writers in 1988 was $7,900, and Dr. Kirk has paid a price for working outside of academia.
I asked him if it’s difficult for a conservative to find publishers who are willing to do the kind of publicity that sells books in large numbers, and he smiled philosophically as he put more logs on the parlor fire. “It’s hard to find publishers at all. It’s gotten steadily worse since 1953 … Although the conservatives have gained so much in the popular sense of electing people, they’ve lost ground in the world of the academy and serious publishing. There are few publishers left who would not have a strong prejudice against a book by a recognized conservative … The Roots of American Order,” which traces the development of ethics and political thought from ancient Israel through Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe, examining the ideas and writers who directly influenced the framers of the Constitution, “was sent to many New York publishers who ultimately rejected it … primarily because they could detect Christianity in it. That’s anathema to New York publishers … Still, I’m not desperate for publishers. I can always find somebody respectable to bring out a book.”
To augment his income from writing and lecturing, as the years passed and his elderly relatives died, Kirk sold the houses he’d bought for them, to support his own wife and children. “Now the only thing that’s left is the library, and that’s just been sold to Hillsdale College. I can keep the books as long as I’m alive and not senile, and they’ll keep them intact as a unit.
“Annette and I are actually very economical. She buys clothes on sale that no one else would buy and they look wonderful on her. We never take vacations. And the girls are not spendthrift.” (The telephone bill is the only bone of contention.)
On Reagan, Bush, and more
Kirk is careful with his time as well as his resources, picking and choosing work which best uses the years he has left. Yet he was generous with me, answering questions about people he’s known over the years (Malcolm Muggeridge, Ludwig van Mises, and Otto van Habsburg among them), in addition to questions on politics, foreign policy, and the need for leadership in the twentieth century.
I asked Dr. Kirk his perceptions of the Reagan Administration, having read a paper in which he’d said that President Reagan’s “blunders in Lebanon and Iran” were counter-balanced by his “successes in Grenada and Libya”; that his administration “lowered interest rates tremendously, reduced income taxes for many, … restrained the bureaucracy to some degree, and eased the way for reforms of public education.”
Kirk propped his elbows on the arms of his chair and laid his fingertips together below his chin. “If Mr. Reagan had been nominated by the Republicans earlier, they would have enjoyed victory earlier. Mr. Reagan has mastered the art of popular rhetoric … And then, having acted the Western hero for many years, Mr. Reagan became the Western hero … At the time of his attempted murder, his great courage and cheerfulness, making jokes throughout; that’s what the Western hero does, and the public recognized that. This is their ideal American, and in that sense they renewed their spirits, and trust in the presidency, and hope for the future. A great achievement. Again, he himself never was hardened or disappointed when defeated. He knows and accepts that you win some and lose some.
“The last time I saw him in Washington, it was a day or two after his return from Russia, and he told two jokes. they always seem to be original, to be his own … and they showed clearly that he was not deceived by the Russians; that he recognized the nature of his adversary, even though he succeeded in a major conciliation and compromise with them more than anybody else has ever achieved.
“The increase of the national debt and the unbalanced debt were not his policy, but were forced upon him by the Congress. You can’t really blame it on him; there’s nothing much he could do about it …
“I do think the line-item veto is now necessary. It shouldn’t be, but I see no alternative to it. The Congress is so cowardly before any special interest or minority that anything gets through. Everyone in Congress is ‘constantly worried’ about how terrible this great debt is, and then they vote for anything that’s put before them! So the only way is to put the veto in the president’s hands …
“The American President, ordinarily, is not a man of really remarkable intellect, although certainly of superior intellect. He’s really remarkable in the qualities of leadership, and it’s not the same thing … Instead of being a kind of clerk like Phillip II of Spain who constantly occupied himself in bureaucratic details, never leaving his desk, constantly handing out orders, most of which were wrong, one needs to leave things to subordinates and function on matters of very general administration, and the manipulation and management of public opinion. And this Reagan did very well …
“President Bush is a man of much experience in politics, and prudent ways. I’ve not been much pleased by his appointments thus far,” (February 1989) “but then I wasn’t much pleased with Mr. Reagan’s either … The question has to be asked, do the right people exist? Are there those left who will undertake all the bullying and the humiliation and the investigation of their affairs? … I was offered various appointments in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, but it would literally have taken me at least three days just to fill out the forms. They would ask things like ‘have you ever written anything controversial, and if so, explain in detail why?’ I was to answer that in a box half an inch high! Everything I’ve written has been controversial; or at least I hope it has been.”
Kirk believes the greatest mistakes the United States has made in the twentieth century in foreign policy have been the result of what he calls democratism, “making ideology of something called democracy, which Wilson began by trying to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ … Any place that calls itself democratic immediately gets our aid—financial, military, and anything else. We don’t know what we mean by democratic, but if it’s not called democratic, therefore it must be evil and must be overthrown. That’s what happened, of course, in South Vietnam. Some Buddhist radicals, dressed as monks, proceeded to burn themselves because the country wasn’t ‘democratic’ enough. That’s like saying Lincoln wasn’t running the United States democratically during the Civil War! It couldn’t be democratic. They’d had no experience.It never had been a democracy. And so then we ban them from government, and encourage the murder of the president and all that, all in the name of democracy, producing general ruin and the triumph of the Communists. And that’s occurred also in Rhodesia, and is occurring in Latin America now. ‘Making the world safe for democracy’ on the assumption that all the world should be like the United States—our industrial methods and our forms of government and our tastes—and then they’ll be perfectly happy. That’s been our main mistake. Together with our soft feebleness before opposition of the Soviet Union. It’s much more easy and pleasant to strike down our allies than confronting the Soviet Union …
“The biggest problem the Bush administration will face can be talked about only in vague terms; that is, the American proletariat, the proletariat in the cities.” (Kirk uses the Roman definition of proletariat as “one who gives nothing to the commonwealth but his progeny, who presently grow worse than himself.”) “Cities are abandoned to ruin; there’s decay of all kinds, and the swelling of population, quite often with public funds. We’re bored, given to narcotics, crime growing, growing, growing … The whole thing is not going to be dealt with easily.”
I asked Kirk what he thought of the career bureaucrats who aren’t elected, yet wield immense power in Washington, and he said, “Most decisions are made by people who are entrenched there, and can only be gotten out upon the testimony of their own colleagues, that they’ve committed malfeasance in office; and very rarely are their colleagues likely to testify against them. One of the most striking cases was that of Joseph Dodge, Director of the Budget under President Eisenhower. He ordered certain changes that approached method in the Bureau of the Budget, and the Chief of Civil Service, said, ‘Now Mr. Dodge, you’re not going to do that.’ ‘Well, what do you mean? I’m Director of the Budget, I can institute these corrections.’ ‘Mr. Dodge, you can give the instructions, but it takes a long time to get these things accomplished, and people here are not in sympathy with these changes. We’ll make certain gestures, but you’re only going to be here one term; I’m going to be here for life. So Mr. Dodge, we aren’t really going to do that!’”
I asked Dr. Kirk how he perceives the changes taking place in the Soviet Union, and he replied that Gorbachev and his supporters “undoubtedly want to relax tensions and reduce military costs and satisfy public opinion, so far as that can be expressed in Russia. And then of course it’s a terrible thing for the masters of the Soviet Union to be living under this regime with fear and repression and worry, themselves being unsafe among their own colleagues and neighbors. So there’s a genuine intention to reduce their expenditures and satisfy a popular demand for comforts and reduce operations of the secret police, and in that sense, these are genuine desires. How far they’ll go, or how far he can afford to carry things out, remains in doubt. But it’s a good opportunity for mutual advantage …
“It looks at present as though there’s no great risk in Europe. The Soviet Union is not going to try to strike now … And why should we want to keep troops forever in Korea at tremendous expense? … We should reduce military expenditure in troops that are being stationed around the globe and spend it on SDI, the missile shield, and so on.”
Moral imagination and its lack
Although Kirk continues to write about political matters, he’s profoundly concerned with the state of our “humane letters” and level of education, believing that they contribute directly to the lack of principled leadership which besets our entire society. He considers the ends of literature and education to be similar. And he believes “the moral imagination” of Burke, “the power of ethical perception which goes beyond private experience and momentary events, especially the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art,” to be generally lacking in the twentieth century (although he considers Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats to be notable exceptions).
We don’t have to look far, or closely, to see the moral and cultural disintegration which concerns Kirk. We lie when it’s convenient; we cheat when we can get away with it; we lust after the material world; we drink and drug ourselves into one kind of coma or another; we steal or murder if the mood strikes; we abuse our children, or abort them, or give them no direction whatever, turning them over to their peers and their sitcoms and their video games. We teach very little of what was written in the past, and as a result, the moral perceptions of Western civilization are not being passed down as they once were.
The original McGuffey Readers, for example, taught ethical behavior as well as history by presenting excerpts from great literature. In recent years, we’ve moved through the tedium of Dick-and-Jane to Juan-and-Aretha, without teaching ethical behavior, or history, or anything else worth mentioning. Our reading books show students “children like themselves who speak in everyday language,” thereby boring them to tears, narrowing their horizons, and limiting their vocabularies as well as their imaginations. These “readers” rarely expose our children to great writers (who illustrate the art of writing, as well as what human beings ought to be, in ways that are exciting). And then we wonder why our kids don’t read books on their own.
“What then is the end, object, or purpose of humane letters? The expression of the moral imagination; or, to put this truth in a more familiar phrase, the end of great books is ethical—to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.
“Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature … Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. Such was the endeavor of Sophocles and Aristophanes … of Plato and Cicero, of Dryden and Pope, of Dante and Shakespeare.
“This normative purpose of letters is especially powerful in English literature … The names of Milton, Bunyan, and Johnson—or, in America, of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville—may be sufficient illustration of the point. The great popular novelists of the nineteenth century—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope—all assumed that the writer is under a moral obligation to normality—that is, explicitly or implicitly, to certain enduring standards of private and public conduct.
“I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies. Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence through allegory, analogy, and holding up a mirror to the world … Like William Faulkner … the writer may establish in his reader’s mind the awareness that there exist enduring standards from which we fall away, and that fallen human nature is an ugly sight … The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher …
“In our own time, and particularly in America, we have seen the rise to popularity of a school of writers more nihilistic than ever were the Russian nihilists: the literature of disgust and denunciation … To members of this school, the writer is no defender or expositor of standards, for there are no values to explain or defend; a writer merely registers, unreservedly, his disgust with humanity and himself.”
Therefore, partly because of a lack of grounding in the great books of Western civilization and a nihilistic worldview among writers and teachers in the twentieth century, students suffer from a lack of moral commitment, as well as education.
“One thing that liberal arts colleges over the ages were supposed to produce was leaders. That’s why we give them a ‘liberal education’; it qualifies one to lead and take long general views … Thus the importance of the classics. We often see things better in the microcosm than the macrocosm, the small scale rather than the large. Here we see great images and great thoughts unencumbered by the business of modern life, and modern ideology reflected with a certain impartiality. It’s the point T. S. Eliot makes in an essay he wrote, when he quotes someone as saying ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Eliot replies, ‘Precisely, and they are that which we know’ …
“Things have so decayed that we’re no longer producing people with values. It was formerly understood, if only implicitly, that the … liberally educated people would be the administrators of the things of the future. That’s decayed, and now they’ve all got MBA’s and they’re only interested in making money for themselves.
“Universities have become vocational institutions or custodial institutions during the transition from being a teenager to getting a job … So the question is, in all respects—moral, intellectual, and even commercial and industrial—will we have any kind of proper training? I go around as a visiting professor, and see the abysmal level of most of these students in typical institutions. They don’t know anything. They can’t write. They cheat all the time … So I don’t know whether we’re going to have any success if our present circumstances … When you cease to prepare honest people, when we cease the rewards of ordinary integrity, and depend upon the demagogue or the fanatic—well, leaders there will always be, but not necessarily very pleasant ones.”
Kirk thinks television has been “ruinous,” replacing a large literate readership with those who have to be entertained, who’ve become passive and isolated even within the family (which in Kirk’s view is beset with so many threats, another isn’t needed). “The novel is pretty well dead because of the coming of television. Fewer and fewer people read fiction with a serious purpose, of hoping to learn something as well as to be entertained. So the only fiction that can appeal against television and film with the average person is that which is shocking. Horrible things are done and nasty words are used throughout for the shock effect … something more than they can get on television.”
On conservatism and the conservative movement
As for the state of American conservatism, Kirk is unperturbed and unsurprised by splintering within conservative ranks, or with the criticism he receives from the ideological neoconservatives. “Any party or body of like political thinkers that obtains power begins to splinter into factions … There being no great threat from other quarters, naturally disputes within the conservatives arise; and there should be disputes, because we’re not ideologues. There isn’t any fixed fanatical dogmatic formula we follow in politics at all; just what policy to be followed, and what candidates are the ablest, and so on.” (Kirk is not a conservative in what is often the popular sense: Bagehot’s conception of the conservative French middle-class, “utterly satisfied with its own nature, and fearful of any change which might endanger material possessions.”) For Kirk, “A conservative is one who believes in ‘the permanent things,’ the permanent things of human nature and institutions. Abraham Lincoln said ‘Conservatism is a preference for the old and tried, rather than the new and untried’ … If you suddenly upset the old structure, you find yourself still dealing with evil people and evil things, but you have no idea how to deal with them … A conservative statesman is one who combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform.”
Although there is much in society that concerns Kirk, he gives no evidence of despairing, and I asked Dr. Kirk how he’s able to keep from losing heart in the face of so much that he finds distressing. “As George Washington said in the Constitutional Convention, ‘the event is in the hand of God’ … I think often on Burke, in the fact that nothing in history is determined, and that when nations seem at the nadir of their fortunes, suddenly things have vastly changed and they’ve gone on to successes. So actually we do as well as we can, fight as hard as we can, despite the fact that the odds are that we will not be victorious in the short run. As Eliot says, ‘we fight not so much in expectation of victory, as to keep something alive which in the distant future others will renew and reinvigorate.’”
In The Conservative Mind, Kirk discusses Coleridge’s belief that “however great the immediate popularity of a destructive philosophy may become, in the long run a philosophy of affirmation will conquer it, unless the fabric of civilization itself first disintegrates.” I asked Kirk how he applies that today; would a philosophy of affirmation still conquer a philosophy of destruction?
He smiles ruefully and clears his throat, raising his eyebrows cryptically above his glasses. “‘Unless the fabric of civilization itself first disintegrates.’ There’s a big ‘if’ there. Repent too late, perhaps.”
Dr. Kirk had talked to me for hours; we’d sat up late the night before and started early that morning with his toast and peanut butter. And I felt as though I’d taken too much of his time, for with four daughters to educate, he still works twelve hours a day. He never reads what other people write about him, and he doesn’t like to talk about himself. Yet he had, because he knows my parents, and he thinks of me as a friend.
I told him that was all I had to ask, and he looked relieved as politely as he could. He consulted the watch in his vest pocket and said he thought he’d go off to the library until Annette was ready to take us to lunch. (Dr. Kirk doesn’t drive, so he depends on Annette and his assistants.)
It was cold outside and there was considerable snow on the ground in Mecosta, and he went to the foyer closet to get his long Edwardian-style leather coat. He adjusted his wide brimmed leather hat (which also came from a counterculture leather store in the sixties), and he smiled absently as he hurried through his carved Victorian double doors, past the gargoyles that make an approach to the front entrance, and the sculpture by Hew Lorimer. He slipped and slithered on patches of ice and plowed through snow drifts in his good suit, but he didn’t seem to notice as he hurried toward the library, passing the hundreds of evergreen trees he still plants with his own hands, to help restore the land his ancestors stripped in the eighteen hundreds.
He was thinking about his book on the Constitution. He was almost done with it, just another few months; and there were one or two changes he wanted to make before lunch.
Edgar Alan Poe Award Finalist Sally Wright’s most recent novel, Behind the Bonehouse, the second in her Jo Grant mystery series, is driven by the conflicts and emotional connections in three family businesses in the horse industry in Kentucky in the early 1960s.
Wright’s Ben Reese series chronicles the investigations of a WWII Ranger turned academic archivist in six mysteries that unfold in Britain, the U.S. and Italy where he researches arcane artifacts while seeking some sort of justice for the victims of unsolved murders.
Sally and her husband live with their boxer dog in northwestern Ohio.
© 1989, 2017 Sally Wright. Used by permission.