The case of Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994) forces upon America’s foreign well-wishers an all too urgent question: why does the United States export so diligently, and take such pride in, its very worst modern literature? There is a whole alternative canon of worthwhile recent American authors–including Kirk himself–whose names mean virtually nothing abroad; whereas every deadbeat psychopath, deadbeat drunk, deadbeat drug-fiend, deadbeat thug, deadbeat adulterer, deadbeat homosexual, deadbeat communist, and deadbeat plagiarist who ever drew breath on American soil appears assured not only of reverential Hollywood treatment but (if he does not commit suicide first) of the Nobel Literature Prize.
Is it that the concept of a recognizably adult American writer perplexes foreigners? Is it–more regrettable still–that this concept perplexes Americans (surely not)? At any rate, the nature of Kirk’s reputation is instructive. Here is an American writer who gives the impression of having been born fully mature, and who has always attracted a devoted following within his homeland, while being largely unknown elsewhere. Today the number of Australians familiar with his output could comfortably be fitted into a broom cupboard, and still leave space for several brooms.
Given a modicum of justice, this will now change. The Essential Russell Kirk is a godsend for anyone who cares about post-war American intellectual history, a far more intrinsically interesting and varied subject than the post-war intellectual history of anywhere else in the English-speaking world. One can accord this volume no higher compliment than to say that Kirk himself would have approved of it. From the editorial comments and the strong binding, to the main text’s handsome typeface (Perpetua) and superlatively designed index, everything possible has been done to ensure that the book can win for Kirk a fresh, loyal and repeated readership.
Those who, to some extent, already know Kirk’s writing will find their knowledge dramatically enriched. With enrichment, moreover, will come increased admiration towards Kirk himself, an admiration that will shade into genuine devotion, because Kirk may well be the most deeply lovable of recent American thinkers. (Someone at ISI Books has managed to unearth, for the frontispiece, a rare photograph of Kirk smiling. All other portraits of Kirk which this reviewer has seen are decidedly on the stern side, as if Kirk were an old-fashioned, bespectacled Midwestern banker unenthusiastically contemplating a customer’s overdraft.)
To indicate something of where Kirk stood, it will help to mention the two most important influences on his thought: Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot. From these influences, in Kirk’s case, a kind of double-edged Anglophilia resulted. Neither Burke nor Eliot, of course, had been English-born. Nevertheless both men explained England to itself in ways that a native could never have done. Besides, both men, however well-informed they were about Continental European philosophies, stayed recognisably un-Continental themselves in most respects. To be markedly separate from Continental trends without becoming parochial: this is a rare achievement, which Eliot managed even better than did Burke, and which Kirk managed in turn.
Like Burke and Eliot, Kirk used English in a way rather different from any native Englishman’s. Unfailingly clear, he takes subtle pleasure in original linguistic touches, with an expressive and Latinate penchant for the subjunctive mood. If his theme requires a genuinely obscure noun–”neoterist” (p.175), “philodoxer” (p.189), or “caducity” (p.542)–then use that noun he does; but he scorns obscurity as a goal.
In this context he quotes with approval one of his heroes, the nineteenth-century judge and political philosopher Sir James Fitzjames Stephen: “Eccentricity is far more often a mark of weakness than a mark of strength” (p.377). Editor George A. Panichas puts the matter well (p.xiv): “He [Kirk] is never laborious to read. His prose is distinctly one of temperateness: vigorous, sophisticated, eloquent, lucid … It is a style that emerges from his high regard for paradigms of intellect and character and culture, for the need for roots and order, for the idea of limit, of measure, of proportion, and above all humility.”
In addition, it must be stressed, self-reliance. Frugalitas is a favoured term of his; and one would shudder to think how your average mollycoddled Manhattan scribbler could possibly have coped with the unpretentious but firm tests of fortitude which Kirk set himself. Like so many possessors of well-furnished intellects allied to well-controlled literary idioms, he proved to be a born travel-writer. He spent part of World War II at an army camp in the Great Salt Lake Desert, which he unforgettably evoked long afterward (p.298):
“If I sank into sleep–an easy thing to do in the sun, for the nearest tree, a scrubby juniper, was miles distant–the little lizards slid across my face. One looked across the salt and alkali, where nothing at all lived, into Nevada on the horizon. This was a region almost devoid of human history … barren beyond belief, but not, I think, God-forsaken.
“Here it was that I commenced, very languidly, to move from my Stoicism toward something more. It was not towards pantheism that I moved, for the rattlesnake, the lizard, the grey sagebrush, and the bitter juniper-berry do not inspire Wordsworth’s love of divine handiwork. Yet the consciousness of a brooding Presence stirred in me something of the desert prophet whose name I bore … The desert knew no benevolence; it was terrible; but awe and veneration being close allied, truly the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
As with wildernesses in America, so with wildernesses abroad. His account of visiting the Hebrides (pp.305-319), published in 1956, is as moving as his beloved Dr Johnson’s reportage of Hebridean life almost two hundred years earlier. The crofters whom Kirk describes seem astonishingly similar to their eighteenth-century kin, though doubtless their descendants nowadays have acquired all the blessings of modernism familiar elsewhere, such as cyberporn and Third World immigrant inundations. Like Johnson, Kirk had a naturally threnodic soul, as free from capitalist as from Rousseauist arrogance.
On settling at Mecosta, Michigan, he lived amid the utmost simplicity–”The Sage of Mecosta”, admirers called him with wry affection–in a house his ancestors had built, “Piety Hill”. He married rather late, at the age of forty-five; eventually he and his wife had four children, all girls. When Mrs Kirk obtained a television set, her husband literally threw it off the roof.
He refused even to take driving lessons, condemning the automobile (p.551) as “that mechanical Jacobin”. (A readable thesis could be written on non-driving writers of our time: including Kirk, Kingsley Amis, Clive James, and the late Catholic historian Michael Davies.) As early as 1963 he denounced “the obsession with economics–a Benthamite and Marxist obsession–[which] has oppressed nearly all discussions of Americans’ wants for a good many years, and only now is beginning to give way to some serious talk of … how we may keep life tolerable” (p.43). From which it will be inferred that Manchester-School barbarism had no place in Kirk’s outlook.
“Tolerable” is a thoroughly Kirkian adjective. To the limited extent that he ever advocated a directly political plan, he wished it to espouse bearability rather than dramatic meliorism, let alone bringing about the millennium–a proletarian or plutocratic millennium, according to taste–by next Wednesday. Notwithstanding his guarded support for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign (a campaign so ineffective in the short term, so portentous in the longer), he quoted with approval (p.xxxviii) George Gissing’s verdict on politics: “the preoccupation of the quarter-educated”.
He loathed the mainstream American collegiate schooling of the 1950s, which differed from its present-day counterpart only in that its vices did not yet include mass-murder, such as at the University of Texas in 1966 and at Virginia Tech in 2007. Based on the rejection of hard thought, such schooling inevitably succumbed to what Kirk astringently called “the drug of ideology”. Ideologues, Kirk lamented (p.352), “are Burkhardt’s ‘terrible simplifiers’. They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to men possessed by devils.”
With relish he quoted (p.367) Raymond Aron’s tart observation: “The main difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski or Bertrand Russell and the Communism of the disciple of Lenin concerns not so much the content as the style of the ideologies and the allegiance they demand.” Nor did such ideologies become more satisfactory to Kirk when they assumed democratizing forms. Fantasists who still suppose that Mesopotamia can somehow be turned into Massachusetts, with a sufficient expenditure of American blood, will gain no comfort from Kirk. For, as he warned (p.379):
“The great line of division in modern politics–as Eric Voegelin reminds us–is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming.”
Contrast such sober realism with the recent geopolitical raving of one Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
Not only did Kirk eschew the doctrine of salvation via armed cant or via counting noses; he seems never to have found it remotely attractive. Religious through and through, he boasted of having “a Gothic mind”, albeit one subdued by a certain classical formality. The macabre exercised a permanent influence on him–he wrote numerous ghost stories, influenced by M.R. James more than by any American models–and it is easy to see why. Abjuring programmes of human perfectibility, he felt at ease with the marching, swaying and flickering of superhuman forces.
True to his Gothic strain, Kirk abandoned Episcopalianism for Catholicism in, significantly, the year 1964: just after C.S. Lewis’s death, and just before Eliot’s. About the last year, in other words, when recognizable Anglican thinkers existed, and could be taken seriously. Yet Kirk had been so fundamentally Catholic for the whole of his adult life that his formal conversion, like Chesterton’s, merely ratified a world-view already established in every essential. (He retained, admittedly, a certain fondness for Protestant clergymen who could write and cogitate, Richard Hooker being the chief of them.)
Those conversant with the anti-urban and anti-capitalist B.A. Santamaria will find in Kirk something of a kindred spirit, but with one crucial difference. Santamaria, like Charles Maurras — whose motto had been La politique d’abord! – remained first, last and all the time an activist. Kirk chose Candide’s path: Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Many of us would argue that Kirk’s was actually the better route, particularly since it allows for individual rectitude, such as Kirk had aplenty.
Joy at the thought of Kirk’s oeuvre being made available to a new generation of university students is slightly marred by the realization that perhaps he is wasted on the young. There comes a time in almost every literate youth’s life (it normally ends more or less concurrently with his last undergraduate hangover) when P.J. O’Rourke’s paeans to narcotics-fuelled anarchism seem not just intermittently amusing but a veritable Summa Theologica.
At a somewhat later and less priapic stage, such a youth is liable to the number-crunching temptation: in other words, to assuming that if only enough trade unions are won over, enough manifestoes issued, enough well-wishers embedded in enough academic committees, Jerusalem will have been rebuilt, without a particle of genuine religious conviction having been necessary.
Kirk is, by contrast, for readers old enough to possess what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”: readers who can appreciate the dreadful gap between what Christendom was as recently as the 1940s, and what it has become since.