If conservatives really want to make America great again, they should start by thinking about what it was that made America great in the past.
It is hard to imagine what the world of a conservative intellectual looked like in 1953. In our present age of talk radio (led by Rush Limbaugh), Fox News, national conservative magazines and blogs, and the New York-D.C. axis of Right-leaning think tanks, we regard the conservative movement as ubiquitous—and inextricably linked to politics and public policy.
This was not the case in 1953, when conservatism had apparently lost the battle of ideas. Liberalism was so dominant in mid-20th century America that leading Progressive intellectuals had pronounced conservatism dead—or at least obsolete—based on the presumed triumph of the New Deal and Keynesian economics. There was no movement per se—no banner publication, no clearly defined leader. Then, in 1953, an obscure academic living in—of all places—East Lansing, Michigan published a book called The Conservative Mind.
Russell Kirk, a 35-year-old assistant professor at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University), dramatically transformed the intellectual landscape. His book single-handedly resuscitated conservative thought. Kirk was not a policy wonk but an intellectual historian focused on the moral and ethical roots of conservatism, which he found in the later work of Edmund Burke. Remarkably, by tracing the path of conservative thought from Burke to T.S. Eliot, Kirk connected the dots between such disparate figures as Abraham Lincoln and John C. Calhoun, distilling from them, not a unifying theory or political philosophy, but the thread of “timeless truths” that animated a theme described by Bradley J. Birzer in Russell Kirk: American Conservative as “a mood, and an attitude to conserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition.” To Kirk, the transcendent principle of conservatism could be found in poetry, literature, ethics, and religion, not just (or even mainly) in politics or economics.
The impact of The Conservative Mind was explosive. Prior to 1953, Birzer writes, “conservatism seemed black, blue, beaten, adrift, and broken, devoid of any real respectability.” Walter Lippmann had characterized the prevailing political culture as “holding that government with its instruments of coercion must, by commanding the people how they shall live, direct the course of civilization and fix the shape of things to come.” Lippmann believed that liberal hegemony was so entrenched that anyone challenging it would be ostracized. Kirk proved him wrong. The Conservative Mind was reviewed—mostly favorably—in 65 journals and newspapers, including the New York Times. It made an enormous impression, both for its felicitous style and erudite content. Time magazine called the book a “wonder of conservative intuition and prophecy.” Its author quickly became an intellectual celebrity. In 1956, Time named Russell Kirk one of the 15 most important intellectuals in America.
The publisher Henry Regnery, who brought out the book (and convinced Kirk to abandon his original title, The Conservatives’ Rout), summarized its legacy:
What was lacking was a general concept that would bring the movement together and give it coherence and identity. . . . Kirk offered convincing evidence not only that conservatism was an honorable and intellectually respectable position, but also that it was an integral part of the American tradition.
Since 1953, The Conservative Mind has gone through seven editions and has never been out of print, selling well over a million copies. But Kirk did not rest of the laurels won by his magnum opus. He was not only a polymath but a work horse. Although he is often overshadowed by his contemporary, William F. Buckley, Jr., in terms of conservative influence in the latter half of the 20th century (due in large part to WFB’s charismatic personality and media presence, and the lasting legacy of National Review), Kirk’s scholarly output was extraordinary. From 1948 to 1964, Birzer reports, Kirk wrote nine works of history and cultural criticism, a novel, 10 short stories, over 400 articles, two dozen of them reference articles and 60 of them book reviews, along with 17 introductions.
If that weren’t enough, he founded—and edited—Modern Age and the University Bookman, two scholarly journals, in that period. Imagine accomplishing this—unassisted—in 16 years, without the Internet to facilitate research (Kirk had a photographic memory), and without computerized word processing. (Kirk loved his typewriter and could type 120 words a minute.)
And if that weren’t enough, he was an adviser and speechwriter for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, the author (between 1962 and 1975) of close to 3,000 syndicated newspaper columns (as many as five per week), and, for a quarter century (1955-1980), he wrote a regular column for National Review called “From the Academy.” He was, in a pre-email era, a prodigious correspondent, compulsively answering every letter he received. From 1965 to 1994, the year of his death, amidst lecturing, travel, marriage, and raising four daughters, Kirk’s scholarly output was mind-boggling.
Viewed from the perspective of 2016, Kirk was an unlikely and atypical conservative. He was raised poor (without indoor plumbing) in Plymouth, Michigan. He attended Michigan State, not an Ivy League institution. Drafted during World War II, he hated the Army, was appalled by the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States, and opposed the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He despaired at modern materialism and consumerism. He avoided watching television, despised talking on the phone, loved to plant trees, supported organic farming, and believed in (and wrote about) ghosts. He even avoided driving.
He voted against “empire” (and for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas for President) in 1944. Uninterested in economics and suspicious of power, Kirk was never a “nationalist.” He was not concerned with foreign policy and abhorred a robust American military. He voted for Eugene McCarthy in 1976 (but enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984). He chaired Michigan’s campaign effort to elect Pat Buchanan to the presidency in 1992.
Kirk disputed John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and even Ludwig von Mises, but befriended science-fiction author Ray Bradbury. In 1957, he debated the classical liberal Friedrich Hayek before the Mont Pelerin Society. Hayek later memorialized his position in the essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” and the differences between the two men presaged the libertarian-conservative tension that persists to this day.
Late in his life, Kirk opposed the Gulf War and railed against neoconservative foreign policy, viewing it as overly tilted toward the interests of Israel. Controversially, he remarked that it seemed as if eminent neoconservatives “mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” He quarreled with libertarians and Harry Jaffa alike. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Jaffa quarreled with Kirk—as Jaffa did with nearly everyone.) For the bulk of his adult life, Kirk lived in rural Mecosta, Michigan, population 457. (He despised cities, especially New York City.) He was, in short, a complicated figure with a rich body of work.
The new biography mines Kirk’s vast archive respectfully, thoroughly, and elegantly. Birzer, a professor of history at Hillsdale College (where he holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of American Studies), sifts through Kirk’s copious life work. Few published essays (from high school on) go unexamined, and Birzer also explores the trove of Kirk’s unpublished writings (especially diaries and letters) to chart his quirky intellectual development. Cataloguing Kirk’s primary influences is a daunting task because of his voracious and eclectic reading. Irving Babbitt made an early and lasting impression, while others, such as Isabel Paterson, came and went (he cited her prominently in the first edition of The Conservative Mind but deleted any reference to her in the second edition, published in 1954).
Birzer describes a Kirk who was eccentric, stubborn, and profoundly opinionated. He hated Duke University (where he got a master’s degree and wrote a thesis on John Randolph of Roanoke) but loved St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he earned a D.Litt. a decade later (becoming the first American ever to do so) with the dissertation that would become The Conservative Mind.
Teaching was not for him. Academic politics he found loathsome (likewise Michigan State’s president, John Hannah, whose expansionist vision for his alma mater Kirk considered ruinous), and he resigned from the Michigan State faculty the very year his landmark book came out. Kirk did not marry until he was 45, to a woman more than 20 years younger, but they remained devotedly married until his death 30 years later. Over his life, Kirk’s religious views evolved from pagan Stoicism to orthodox Roman Catholicism. He was especially attracted to, and fascinated by, St. Augustine. Birzer’s reflections on all of this are deep and penetrating, and admirably fair—acknowledging his subject’s inevitable (and in some cases, substantial) lapses and inconsistencies.
The minutiae of the analysis will appeal primarily to students of the various strands of 20th century conservative thought (particularly Christian humanism) that shaped Kirk (and vice versa), and anyone interested in the feuding among “players” of that era. For example, Kirk’s conflicts with Regnery over the editing of Modern Age; critical exchanges between Kirk and Frank Meyer; and the internecine warfare pitting “paleos” against “neos” over leadership of the National Endowment of the Humanities during the Reagan administration, provide an illuminating peek into the intellectual and political debates of the age. Indeed, with over 100 pages of endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative can be considered a reference work. But it is also an engaging biography of one of the most influential and yet enigmatic figures on the American Right.
All those who today consider themselves conservatives (an imprecise label that might fit everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Ron Paul) and who wonder “How did we get here?” will find Birzer’s book—and its subject—interesting and provocative.