Politics & Policy

Captain Kirk

A conservative legacy.

Professor W. Wesley McDonald of Elizabethtown College is amazed at his sudden success. “Here I am at an obscure college writing for an academic publishing company,” he says. “I’m not Sean Hannity.”

And yet his book recently zipped up to about #82,000 on the Amazom.com rankings!

Okay, so he really isn’t Sean Hannity, whose latest book, Deliver Us From Evil, is positioned, ahem, just a little bit higher on Amazon.com. And the McDonald book has since dropped back down to #1,000,000 or so, where lots of academic titles tend to congregate.

But McDonald is doing pretty darn well, all things considered. Two weeks ago, his new book, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, was the subject of a major article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as an online symposium. Kirk, who is one of the Founding fathers of the conservative movement, hasn’t been so discussed outside the right-wing ghetto since his death a decade ago.

Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology has been in the making for a lifetime. Forty years ago, McDonald was an undergraduate at Towson State College in Baltimore. He was also a big-time supporter of Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. “Conservatism in those days meant to me opposition to atheistic communism, socialism, anything ‘un-American,’ and most things connected with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt,” writes McDonald. Then Mike Ratliff, one of his buddies and now a vice president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, slipped him a tattered copy of The Conservative Mind.

“That single little gesture was a life-transforming event,” says McDonald.

He went on to read as much Russell Kirk as he could. In 1966, he and Ratliff persuaded their school to invite Kirk to campus as a speaker. “Imagine my shock when the man who appeared was short and rotund and dressed in an unfashionable dark three-piece suit,” writes McDonald. “Instead of the brilliant conversationalist whom I had awaited, the speaker was painfully shy and often stammered.”

After recovering from that shock, McDonald devoted his senior thesis to Kirk’s political thought. Next he went to Bowling Green State University and wrote his master’s thesis on Kirk. Then came his Ph.D. dissertation. The subject, once again, was Kirk.

During these years, McDonald spent plenty of time at the Kirk compound in Mecosta, Mich., as a research assistant. One of his duties was to help compile The Portable Conservative Reader, a compendium of some of the best that’s been thought and said by figures on the Right.

McDonald also learned that Kirk liked to sleep all morning and work all night:

At about midnight, he would begin his nocturnal tasks, sitting in his straight-back chair behind a sturdy wooden table. The chair looked so uncomfortable that I was convinced it had been deliberately designed to mortify the flesh. Gazing distractedly off into space, he would puff on his thick cigar while he collected his thoughts. Then he would pound furiously away on his antediluvian Remington electric typewriter, from which words would pour out steadily until about five or six in the morning…. I was soon a sleep-deprived wreck.

Despite that colorful extract, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology is not a traditional biography. Instead, it’s a meditation on Kirk’s thought–a form of cultural conservatism that is harshly critical of both libertarians and neoconservatives. “For Kirk,” writes McDonald, “culture precedes politics, and unless a healthy, vibrant civilized culture exists, no amount of ‘conservative’ political victories will have long-term significance.” If Kirk were alive today, writes McDonald, he would be troubled by “the failure of conservatives to pay sufficient attention to the moral ills afflicting contemporary culture.”

Although broadly sympathetic to its subject, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology is not a paean to a great master. “One of my goals in writing this book is to rescue Russell Kirk from his hagiographers,” proclaims McDonald in his opening sentence. He certainly does not shy away from knocking Kirk when he thinks it’s deserved: “His critical, and often hostile, attitude toward even some of the most beneficial achievements of modernity raise troubling questions concerning whether Kirk can be always taken seriously as a social critic and lends credence to the accusation that he frequently sought to escape from the uncertainties of the present into an idealized past,” writes McDonald. “History became for him almost a sacred garden in which no room could be made for new categories of thought. His instinctive aversion to technological change, for example, led him into deploring the spread of computers, automobiles, and modern communications technologies in society rather than considering ways in which these advances could be incorporated imaginatively into a living tradition.”

It will be interesting to see how other members of the Kirk crowd respond to this charge. In the meantime, it’s nice to have a new book on one of the 20th century’s great men of the Right, because not enough has been written about him. In addition to McDonald’s volume, there’s Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, by James E. Person Jr., and a couple of anthologies such as The Conservative Mind Today, forthcoming from ISI Books (probably next spring). Yet there’s no standard biography of the man that focuses on his life in addition to his work. And so far no writer has taken much more than a peek at Kirk’s voluminous papers, now stashed away in Mecosta.

That’s good in at least one sense: There are more outstanding books on Russell Kirk waiting to be written, including perhaps a definitive treatment of his life and legacy. Call me a victim of a fast-paced life made possible by modern technology, but I’m impatient for them to arrive.

WANT MORE KIRK?

Check out the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, run by his remarkable widow Annette in Mecosta.

Also, one of the finest essays ever written about Kirk was penned by NRO’s own David Frum. It appeared in the New Criterion a few months after Kirk’s death in 1994. Read it here.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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