Politics & Policy

Wolfe’s Kirk

A response to a New Republic piece.

Editor’s note: In a long review essay (titled “Contempt” ) in the current issue of The New Republic (the same issue that has a piece ridiculing people who go on National Review cruises), Alan Wolfe attacks the late Russell Kirk, an early National Review editor and columnist. NRO asked a few Kirk experts to respond to Wolfe.

Bradley J. Birzer

While Alan Wolfe makes a number of bizarre claims, his most outrageous is that Kirk was a “contemptuous conservative. . . contemptuous of people, or at least those whose very existence prevents gentlemen aristocrats from sitting in front of the fire reading Aristotle while their slaves, or their wives, prepared their dinner.” Horrified by the mass executions perpetrated by the ideological left and right in the Holocaust camps, the gulags, and the killing fields of the brutal 20th-century, Russell Amos Kirk always defended the time-honored traditions of western civilization: the seven classical and Christian virtues, the liberal arts, and the role of imagination. In his fiction, his historical, cultural, and political writings, and in his life, Kirk promoted the humane.

Even more importantly, Kirk and his wife, Annette, lived what they preached. Calling his home in rural north-central Michigan the “last homely house” after Tolkien’s Rivendell, Kirk provided a “refuge from progress” for many wayward souls, the homeless and the battered from home and abroad.

In 1953, critics of Kirk’s Conservative Mind claimed, like Wolfe, that Kirk had nothing to say about the things that really matter. How could a book defining conservatism claim poets and statesmen as exemplars while ignoring such critical issues as tax policy, foreign policy, military strength, etc.? Kirk answered his critics in his most profound work, A Program for Conservatives, in 1954:


At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, what is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. . . .He has learnt that Love is the source of all being. . . .He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love.

Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in history at Hillsdale College, Michigan. He is author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (forthcoming, September 2007).

Lee Edwards

One does not need 6,614 words to rebut Alan Wolfe’s tedious deconstruction of Russell Kirk’s monumental contributions to modern American conservatism. The following two points will suffice:

‐ Russell Kirk gave the conservative movement its name with the publication of his classic work, “The Conservative Mind.”

‐ Russell Kirk provided a concise definition of conservatism that has never been bested. Its essence, he said, lay in six canons: (a) a divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society; (b) traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity; (c) civilized society requires orders and classes; (d) property and freedom are inseparably connected; (e) man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason; and (f) society must alter slowly.


Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation.

Mark Herring

It’s hard to know where to begin with Alan Wolfe’s diatribe on Russell Kirk. I didn’t know Wolfe was so envious of Kirk’s place in the philosopher’s pantheon to excoriate over 6,000 venomous words about his own neglect, but there it is. Yet the lady protests too much. I think it was W. E. H. Lecky who warned not to criticize to harshly a bygone age with the morals of a current one. Wolfe might want remember this, especially as his peccadilloes — or does he have any? — are recalled years from now by an age even less forgiving than our own snarling one of dwarfs who wish to destroy the giants upon whose shoulders they sit.

Wolfe criticizes Kirk for rehashing and repeating, for making a “name” for himself by saying the same things over again. But his point betrays him. I do not know of any Kirk aficionados who would argue that Kirk did not make mistakes. And while I do not count myself as an aficionado — merely an admirer of Kirk’s willingness to attest to the “permanent things” — I must make at least one comment on Wolfe shameless attack on Kirk and pornography.

Of course, as it turns out, Kirk was wrong and we’re not awash in porn, what with the web and all. A few years ago, my wife and I were given free cable service for a month. We didn’t want it but the free service did have a few movies we had not seen so we agreed to the 30-day trial. The first 15 days were unexceptionable until I happened to turn on the set about 11 one night to check the headlines. Within one minute, I knew something was wrong and we called the next day and had the service removed. For Wolfe, this makes us perverts I suppose because we dared to complain about “Skin-e-max.” I rather think this episode — not to mention the subsequent history — confirms Kirk’s point, Q.E.D.

– Mark Y. Herring is dean of library services of Winthrop University.

W. Wesley McDonald

While I am flattered to be invited to contribute to this symposium, I have to confess that I find this task distasteful. To put it kindly, Alan Wolfe’s review essay is a prolonged cheap shot written by someone who appears to be annoyed that Kirk’s works are more celebrated than his own. His criticisms of Kirk are replete with egregious errors and ad hominem attacks, which deserve our silent contempt rather than the dignity of a response.

I was one of Russell Kirk’s assistants who lived at his residence in Mecosta, Michigan off-and-on through the 1970’s and 1980’s while assisting him on such books as The Portable Viking Reader and Eliot and His Age. He was my mentor and a friend. I believe that I got to know him fairly well. I came to admire his kindness and generosity. He and his wife, Annette, generously offered their home as a refuge to countless refugees.

Although not a wealthy man, he readily helped those in need. Few people in my experience have lived so honorably in pursuit of the high ideals which they professed. Yet, Wolfe, who presumably never met Kirk, accuses him of being “dishonest” and vain. Kirk, he asserts astonishingly, was incapable of determining “the most basic attributes of human decency.” Among his most ugly gratuitous allegations is that Kirk secretly enjoyed pornography. Kirk, he avers, was “contemptuous of people” and “ideas.” His conservatism is that of “provincial, resentful, bigoted” small-town persons who grumble “that somehow the world had passed them by.”

Anyone who knew Kirk or read him will be sickened by these remarks. Wolfe should be ashamed to write such nonsense and he owes the Kirk family (and his readers) an apology. Nothing in this ill-informed, angry essay bears any resemblance to the Kirk that I knew and admired, and have since written about.

– W. Wesley McDonald, Professor of Political Science, Elizabethtown College (PA), is the author ofRussell Kirk and the Age of Ideology (University of Missouri Press, 2004).

John J. Miller

Neither admirers nor critics of Russell Kirk have paid enough attention to the man’s fiction, so I’m happy to see that Alan Wolfe has bothered to read at least a single Kirk novel, Old House of Fear. He describes the book as “dreary,” which is unfortunate because it’s not. To be sure, Kirk isn’t for everyone. I can see how some readers might find his fiction dull. That’s fine: There’s plenty of classic literature that puts me to sleep. But to call Old House of Fear “dreary” — which implies that it’s both boring and depressing — suggests that Wolfe isn’t careful when it comes either to studying novels or to picking insults.

Old House of Fear is a quick read of less than 200 pages, and much of it may be enjoyed as a potboiler. In this respect, as in many others, it falls well within the tradition of the Gothic novel. Kirk of course has a higher purpose than mere entertainment, and the book also includes a condemnation of atheistic materialism as embodied by Communism: Old House of Fear is a Gothic novel for the Cold War, and one whose hopeful message of Christian humanism is meant to unsettle the Left. Its climactic scene alludes to the Gospels. Does that make it dull? Maybe for some. But “dreary”? I don’t think so, except perhaps to people who regard the fall of Milton’s Satan as an emotional letdown. Or to sloppy polemicists who despise conservatism.

– John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

R. Andrew Newman

In the current issue of The New Republic, Alan Wolfe clears his throat with a lengthy novel synopsis, perhaps centering himself for what comes next; then he straps on buckler, sword, and caustic disdain. Storming into the conservative pantheon, the tenured iconoclast has his eyes on no back bencher, no lesser light. His mission: rip Russell Kirk’s portrait from the wall.

Wolfe is nothing if not ferocious: “Kirk is contemptuous of people, or at least those whose very existence prevents gentlemen aristocrats from sitting in front of the fire reading Aristotle while their slaves, or their wives, prepared dinner.” (A question for anyone who has been to Piety Hill: Would subservient or mousey be apt descriptions of Annette Kirk? I thought not.)

I’m not sure Wolfe knows much of Kirk’s life and work besides what he may have found leafing through ISI’s essay collection. Wolfe’s favorite refrain is to say Kirk failed to critique conservatism the way the liberals at the immortal Partisan Review wrestled with liberalism. Does this mean Wolfe knows nothing of the long-running Meyer-Kirk feud? Does he not know Kirk could be critical of the emphasis placed on capitalism in American conservative thought?

In his caricature of the scholar from Mecosta, Mich., Wolfe never points out that he detested military conscription and vehemently opposed the first Gulf War. And far from being out of touch with the realities of politics, Kirk defended President Reagan against those on the Right who thought he hadn’t done enough to roll back government.

More could be said on Kirk the thinker, whose essays cannot be likened to soldiers marching off to war; they’re more suggestive, more discursive. Wolfe will have to do better if he’s going to pry Russell Kirk’s portrait from the wall.

R. Andrew Newman writes and teaches English in western Nebraska. He has written on, among other topics, Russell Kirk’s ghost stories.

James E. Person Jr.

Mr. Wolfe’s review essay on The Essential Russell Kirk poses as an assessment of George A. Panichas’s recent anthology of Kirk’s writings but is in truth an attempted takedown of a man long recognized by figures on the left and right as a formidable mind. Mr. Wolfe describes a man I do not remember: a village crank — “provincial, resentful, bigoted” — given to snack-bar wisdom gussied-up with “a few literary and historical references.” If this is all there is to Russell Kirk, then it’s a wonder he wasn’t seen through and exposed for his ignorance by any of his numerous friends and friendly antagonists over the course of his long career: John Crowe Ransom, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Forrest McDonald, T. S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor, to name a few. They found Kirk a man whose work was well worth attending, and the man himself as a generous, kindly man, rich in wisdom and (indeed) virtue.

I suspect that if Mr. Wolfe were to read Kirk’s works with an eye less disposed to tearing down their author, he would find much to commend, such as Kirk’s views on the environment, on nuclear weaponry, on the dangers of right-wing (as well as left-wing) hysteria, on the military draft, on American trade policies, and on much else besides. But for now, Mr. Wolfe is content to do unto Kirk as Kirk never did unto the formidable debating opponents he faced during his life, displaying himself (in almost his own words) as contemptuous of ideas, or of those ideas with which he disagrees, and preferring to caricature them rather than argue with them.

— James E. Person Jr., author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest