The Corner

In Defense of Kirk

Russell Kirk gets a bum rap today from Derb and Jonah: Derb calls him “dreary” and Jonah says Kirk’s “style” leaves him “cold.” I disagree–and worry that some readers of The Corner may get the impression that Kirk was one of those brilliant-but-dense intellectuals. That’s just not true. Kirk always thought of himself foremost not as a political theorist or a historian–but as a man of letters. He was a very fine writer, and often he turned his attention to political theory and history. He also wrote ghost stories, plus a best-selling novel called The Old House of Fear. I could go on and on and on, but instead I’ll let NR’s David Frum do the talking for me, because he wrote a wonderful assessment of Kirk for the New Criterion in 1994, several months after the man passed away. An excerpt: “‘Professor J. W. Williams kindly read the manuscript of this book; and in his library at the Roundel, looking upon the wreck of St. Andrews cathedral, we talked of the inundation which only here and there has spared an island of humane learning like St. Andrews town.’ Those words, the opening sentence of the acknowledgments to The Conservative Mind, and the first of Russell Kirk’s that most of his readers will encounter, demonstrate what a fine literary artist he could be. You might close the book right there, and Kirk would already have stabbed you with a pang of loss and regret. An old cliché has it that a great actor can wring tears out of audience by reading a laundry list. Kirk could summon up nostalgia with a list of place-names. ‘These chapters have been written in a variety of places: in a but-and-ben snuggled under the cliffs of Eigg; in one of the ancient towers of Kellie Castle, looking out to the Forth; in my great-grandfather’s house in the stump-country of Michigan; among the bogs of Sligo in the west of Ireland; upon the steps of Ara Coeli, in Rome; at Balcarres House, where what Burke calls ‘the unbought grace of life’ still abides.’”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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