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Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk (October 19, 1918 – April 29, 1994) was an American political theorist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke. Kirk was also considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.



Russell Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan. He was the son of Russell Andrew Kirk, a railroad engineer, and Marjorie Pierce Kirk. Kirk obtained his B.A. at Michigan State University and a M.A. at Duke University. During World War II, he served in the American armed forces and corresponded with libertarian writer, Isabel Paterson, who helped to shape his early political thought. After the war, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the only American to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by that university.[1]

Upon completing his studies, Kirk took up an academic position at his alma mater, Michigan State. He resigned in 1959, after having become disenchanted with that university's academic standards, rapid growth in student numbers, and emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and technical training at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Thereafter he referred to Michigan State as "Cow College" or "Behemoth University." He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were "as a breed—dull dogs."[2] Late in life, he taught one semester a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.

Kirk frequently published in two American conservative journals he helped found, National Review in 1955 and Modern Age in 1957. He was the founding editor of the latter, 1957-59. Later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave a number of lectures.[3]

After leaving Michigan State, Kirk returned to his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, where he wrote the many books, academic articles, lectures, and the syndicated newspaper column (which ran for 13 years) by which he exerted his influence on American politics and intellectual life. In 1963, Kirk married Annette Courtemanche; they had four daughters. She and Kirk became known for their hospitality, welcoming many political, philosophical, and literary figures in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill"), and giving shelter to political refugees, hoboes, and others. Their home became the site of a sort of seminar on conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill now houses the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

Kirk declined to drive, calling cars "mechanical Jacobins," and would have nothing to do with television and what he called "electronic computers."

Russell Kirk converted to Catholicism in 1963.

Kirk contributed to Chronicles.

In 1989, Kirk was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan.



The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana[4], the published version of Kirk's doctoral dissertation, contributed materially to the 20th century Burke revival. It also drew attention to:

The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), which Kirk edited, contains sample writings by most of the above.

Not everyone agreed with Kirk's reading of the conservative heritage and tradition. For example, Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) wrote: "Kirk was a poor Burke scholar. Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning related only to modern philosophy's attempt to eliminate skeptical doubt from its premises and hence from its conclusions."[5]

Russello (2004) argues that Kirk adapted what 19th century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to articulate a version of federalism that was based on premises that differ in part from those of the Founders and other conservatives. Kirk further believed that territorial democracy could reconcile the tension between treating the states as mere provinces of the central government, and as autonomous political units independent of Washington. Finally, territorial democracy allowed Kirk to set out a theory of individual rights grounded in the particular historical circumstances of the United States, while rejecting a universal conception of such rights.


Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Russello (2004) described as follows:

  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  6. A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another." [5] and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief." [6]

Kirk and Libertarianism

Kirk grounded his Burkean conservatism in tradition, political philosophy, belles lettres, and the strong religious faith of his later years; rather than libertarianism and free market economic reasoning. The Conservative Mind hardly mentions economics at all.

In a polemic essay, Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians "chirping sectaries," adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common (despite his early correspondence with the libertarian Paterson). He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." He said a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category.[6][7] Kirk, therefore, questioned the "fusionism" between libertarians and traditional conservatives that marked much of post World War II conservatism in the United States.[8]

Kirk's view of "classical liberals" is positive though; he agrees with them on "ordered liberty" as they make "common cause with regular conservatives against the menace of democratic despotism and economic collectivism."[9]

Tibor R. Machan defended libertarianism in response to Kirk's original Heritage Lecture. Machan argued that the right of individual sovereignty is perhaps most worthy of conserving from the American political heritage, and that when conservatives themselves talk about preserving some tradition, they cannot at the same time claim a disrespectful distrust of the individual human mind, of rationalism itself.[10]

Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation also responded to Kirk.[11]

Kirk and Neoconservatism

Late in life, Kirk grew disenchanted with American neoconservatives as well. On December 15, 1988, he gave a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, titled "The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species." As Chronicles editor Scott Richert describes it,

[One line] helped define the emerging struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. "Not seldom has it seemed," Kirk declared, "as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." A few years later, in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk repeated that line verbatim. In the wake of the Gulf War, which he had opposed, he clearly understood that those words carried even greater meaning.[7]

Midge Decter, director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's line "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives." [12] She told The New Republic, "It's this notion of a Christian civilization. You have to be part of it or you're not really fit to conserve anything. That's an old line and it's very ignorant."[8]

Samuel T. Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives.[13]

Man of letters

Kirk's other important books include Eliot and his Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1972), The Roots of American Order (1974), and the autobiographical Sword of the Imagination: Memoirs of a Half Century of Literary Conflict (1995). As was the case with his hero Edmund Burke, Kirk became renowned for the prose style of his intellectual and polemical writings.[14]


Beyond his scholarly achievements, Kirk was talented both as an oral storyteller and as an author of genre fiction, most notably in his telling of consummate ghost stories in the classic tradition of Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Oliver Onions, and H. Russell Wakefield. He also wrote other admired and much-anthologized works that are variously classified as horror, fantasy, science fiction, and political satire. These earned him plaudits from fellow creative writers as varied and distinguished as T. S. Eliot, Robert Aickman, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ray Bradbury.

Though modest in quantity — it encompasses three novels and 22 short stories — Kirk's body of fiction was written amid a busy career as prolific nonfiction writer, editor, and speaker. As with such other speculative fiction authors as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien (all of whom likewise wrote only nonfiction for their "day jobs"), there are conservative undercurrents — social, cultural, religious, and political — to Kirk's fiction.

His first novel, Old House of Fear (1961, 1965), as with so many of his short stories, was written in a self-consciously Gothic vein. Here the plot is concerned with an American assigned by his employer to a bleak locale in rural Scotland—the same country where Kirk had attended graduate school. This was Kirk's most commercially successful and critically acclaimed fictional work, doing much to sustain him financially in subsequent years.

Later novels were A Creature of the Twilight (1966), a dark comedy satirizing postcolonial African politics; and Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979, 1989), set in England, which explores the great evil inhabiting a haunted house. During his lifetime, Kirk also oversaw the publication of three collections which together encompassed all his short stories. (Three more such collections have been published posthumously, but those only reprint stories found in the earlier volumes.)

Among his novels and stories, certain characters tend to recur, enriching the already considerable unity and resonance of his fictional canon. Though — through their themes and prose-style — Kirk’s fiction and nonfiction works are complementary, many readers of the one have not known of his work in the other.

Having begun to write fiction fairly early in his career, Kirk appears to have stopped after the early 1980s, while continuing his nonfiction writing and research through his last year of life. For a comprehensive bibliography of his fiction, see the fiction section of the list of his writings.



  • John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics (1951)
  • The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953)
  • Prospects for Conservatives (1954)
  • Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (1955)
  • Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: Essays of a Social Critic (1956)
  • The American Cause (1957)
  • The Library of Conservative Thought 30 Vols. Editor (1963-1993)
  • Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (1963)
  • The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (1967) With James McClellan
  • Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1967)
  • Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics (1969)
  • Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971)
  • The Roots of American Order (1974)
  • Russell Kirk: A Bibliography (1981)
  • The Portable Conservative Reader (1982)
  • The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written on the Sky (1987)
  • Economics: Work and Prosperity (1988)
  • America’s British Culture (1993)
  • The Politics of Prudence (1993)
  • The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (1995)
  • Redeeming the Time (1996)
  • Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution (1997)
  • The Essential Russell Kirk (2007)


  • Old House of Fear (1961)
  • The Surly Sullen Bell: Ten Stories and Sketches, Uncanny or Uncomfortable (1962)
  • A Creature of the Twilight: His Memorials (1966)
  • The Princess of All Lands (1979)
  • Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979)
  • Watchers at the Straight Gate (1984)
  • Off the Sand Road: Ghost Stories, Volume One (2002)
  • What Shadows We Pursue: Ghost Stories, Volume Two (2003)
  • Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (2004)


  1. ^
  2. ^ Kirk, Russell, ed., 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. Viking: xxxviii.
  3. ^ Many published in his The Politics of Prudence (1993) and Redeeming the Time (1998).
  4. ^ Which went into 7 editions, the later ones with the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Regnery Publishing. 7th edition (2001). ISBN 0-89526-171-5
  5. ^ Harry V. Jaffa (2006-04-13). "Harry V. Jaffa Responds to Claes Ryn". The Claremont Institute. Retrieved 2007-05-10.  
  6. ^ A copy of Kirk's Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries can be found here
  7. ^ Nevertheless, many paleolibertarians respect Kirk's cultural conservatism.
  8. ^ The Volokh Conspiracy - Russell Kirk, Libertarianism, and Fusionism:
  9. ^ "A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians" in The Politics of Prudence (1993)
  10. ^ A Passionate Defense of Libertarianism
  11. ^ An Open Letter to Russell Kirk
  12. ^ She claimed that Kirk "said people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty."[1] Decter is the spouse of Norman Podhoretz.
  13. ^ "[2] He described Decter's response as untrue, [3] "reckless" and "vitriolic." Furthermore, he argued that such a denunciation "always plays into the hands of the left, which is then able to repeat the charges and claim conservative endorsement of them." [4]
  14. ^ Nash (1998).

Further reading

Modern Age articles available online via Ebsco.

  • Attarian, John, 1998, "Russell Kirk's Political Economy," Modern Age 40: 87-97. Issn: 0026-7457.
  • Brown, Charles (1981). Russell Kirk: A Bibliography. Central Michigan University: Clarke Historical Library.  
  • John P. East, 1984, "Russell Kirk as a Political Theorist: Perceiving the Need for Order in the Soul and in Society," Modern Age 28: 33-44. Issn: 0026-7457 .
  • Kirk, Russell, 1995. The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict. Kirk's memoirs.
  • McDonald, W. Wesley, 1982. The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk: `The Permanent Things' in an Age of Ideology. Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America. Citation: DAI 1982 43(1): 255-A. DA8213740. Online at ProQuest Dissertations & Theses.
  • --------, 1983, "Reason, Natural Law, and Moral Imagination in the Thought of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 27: 15-24. Issn: 0026-7457.
  • --------, 2004. "Russell Kirk and The Age of Ideology." University of Missouri Press.
  • --------, 1999. "Russell Kirk and the Prospects for Conservatism," Humanitas XII: 56-76.
  • --------, 2006. "Kirk, Russell (1918-94)," in "American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia". ISI Books: 471-474. Biographical entry.
  • Nash, George H., 1998. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.
  • Person, Jr., James E., 1999. "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind". Madison Books.
  • Russello, Gerald J., 1996, "The Jurisprudence of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 38: 354-63. Issn: 0026-7457. Reviews Kirk's writings on law, 1976-93, exploring his notion of natural law, his emphasis on the importance of the English common law tradition, and his theories of change and continuity in legal history.
  • --------, 2007. "The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk". University of Missouri Press.
  • --------, 1999, "Time and Timeless: the Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 41: 209-19. Issn: 0026-7457.
  • --------, 2004, "Russell Kirk and Territorial Democracy," Publius 34: 109-24. Issn: 0048-5950.
  • Whitney, Gleaves, 2001, "The Swords of Imagination: Russell Kirk's Battle with Modernity," Modern Age 43: 311-20. Issn: 0026-7457. Argues that Kirk used five "swords of imagination": historical, political, moral, poetic, and prophetic.

External links


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