Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

‘Little Money but Good Canoeing’

Russel Kirk at his typewriter
Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk, edited by James E. Person Jr. (Kentucky, 432 pp., $39.95)

Deep in this captivating and illuminating collection of letters, Russell Kirk (1918–1994) writes, during the annus horribilis of 1968, of the protests then sweeping through college campuses, that “the rootless are always violent, and the lonely and bored find riot a welcome diversion.” In the half century since, the atmosphere on campuses has only intensified. The old conservative complaint was that colleges made students liberals and resentful of where they came from. Now, after a generation or more of left-wing dominance of academia, students arrive at elite liberal-arts campuses having learned almost nothing of their civilization and expecting to be entertained and not have their opinions, which largely mimic the ambient liberal culture, challenged. (When such challenges occur, as with conservative speakers on campuses across the country, riot has again become a diversion for spoiled students ungrateful for the stupendous riches they have inherited.)

The quote also reveals something about its author. Kirk believed that stability was the first requirement of a tolerable society, and that the first obligation of political leaders was to preserve it. Fostering the connections among citizens, and between citizens and the common enterprise of the nation, was one way to preserve such stability. We must value our Burkean little platoons even as we recognize the larger, institutional supports such as the Constitution. We must endeavor individually to preserve what we can, even as we support larger movements to do so on a bigger scale. Being rootless does not make us free; rather it makes us bored because we have nothing to which we have committed ourselves and so we are blown about by every ideological wind or frisson of political action.

Kirk was famously rooted in Michigan “stump country,” and his devotion to his family’s ancestral town of Mecosta is evident throughout this collection. This was more than a mere emotional attachment, or even a matter of intellectual conviction (though it was that); Kirk was showing by example how to lead a conservative life. In a 1972 letter, included here, to Irving Kristol (whom Kirk described in another letter three years later as “a force for good”; the two were on pleasant terms despite disagreements), Kirk explains that “in general, my approach is historical; yet I am concerned not with civilization in general, but rather with the institutions and beliefs which underlie the American personal and social order.” He was describing the book that became The Roots of American Order (1974), intended as “an attempt to wake some of the rising generation to awareness of their own cultural and institutional roots.” Politics was an important, but distinctly secondary, cause for Kirk — though he wrote at least one lengthy letter to the Wall Street Journal, in 1968, detailing his assessment of the Goldwater campaign. Kirk contended that Goldwater, like much of the conservative movement in the 1960s, had moved away from an unrealistic “individualism” to a more balanced conservatism. (In 1954, Kirk had written to conservative activist Victor Milione: “I never call myself an individualist; and I wish that you people hadn’t clutched that dreary ideology to your bosom.”)

The enemy was not simply collectivism, as strong as that was, but the characteristics of modern life that dissolve natural connections such as family and local bonds. People, wherever they are, are tradition-making beings, and so conservatism must shore up those natural instincts beyond a simple individualism. Kirk wrote to science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle in 1963 that “there remains in this country a large body of support for an imaginative conservatism,” and that conservatives should be bold in their defense of principles: “One does not compromise with the silly people, but rather overawes them or leads them into ways of wisdom.”

This is the first collection of Kirk’s considerable correspondence, and it is a great service to American intellectual history generally and to that of conservatism in particular. The letters cover Kirk’s entire adult life, beginning in 1940, when he was a graduate student at Duke (where he would complete his first book, a study of John Randolph of Roanoke), through his journeys throughout Scotland as he completed the manuscript that became The Conservative Mind (1953), and visits afterward, up through a month before his death in 1994. Kirk’s correspondents include T. S. Eliot, publisher Henry Regnery, automotive executive B. E. Hutchinson, Felix Morley, Herbert Hoover, historian Ross Hoffman, Ray Bradbury, Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley Jr., and many others. Even a younger Arianna Huffington (née Stassinopoulos) makes an appearance; Kirk wrote to her in 1979 about a review of her book After Reason.

The voice in the early letters is that of a young man who was quite confident of himself. But several years sitting in the Utah desert while in the Army allowed him time to read and reflect on his future. That future was in the University of St Andrews, and we see in letters to friends back home the gestation of Kirk’s landmark study. We also see his growing relationships with some of Scotland’s landed families. The letters recount how such people as Hew Lorimer, a renowned Scottish sculptor, and Ralph and Margret Christie, of Durie House, took Kirk in and exposed him to what he would later call “the unbought grace of life,” which in turn became a cornerstone of his conservative imagination. James Person, in his helpful notes, states that Kirk’s intellectual and emotional evolution “was greatly aided . . . by the examples of wise, goodhearted men and women in Scotland and England who befriended him and sometimes took him in as a houseguest for extended periods.” Scotland added to his conservatism a physicality that even Kirk’s time in the American South had not. Scotland gave life to his sense of tradition as concrete, as much social as intellectual. Hospitality, good manners, and gratitude were as important to civilization as other milestones, and Kirk took these lessons back with him to Michigan, where Piety Hill, his home, became for decades a civilized refuge for people from around the world. Scotland also fortified Kirk’s love of ghost stories. These letters properly include many discussing Kirk’s novels and short stories, one of which ended up as an episode of Night Gallery, and which were as important to Kirk as his other works.

Person’s excellent selections explain Kirk’s work and his enduring themes, and provide context on important events of the moment; they explore as well Kirk’s independence of mind. He bucked a lot of the Right by opposing the first Iraq War and wrote to the editor of the Wall Street Journal to agree with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (and the late Robert Taft) that presidential power to make war is limited. Historians of conservatism will lament that many letters between Kirk and such figures on the right as Albert Jay Nock and Roy Campbell have not survived, as Kirk started regularly keeping copies of his letters only in the mid 1960s, but they will especially value the exchanges with Buckley. The two met in the 1950s, and Kirk began writing a regular column for National Review in 1955, continuing it for over two decades. The numerous letters here express admiration and friendliness, along with literary gossip and plans to meet, though Kirk was never one to decline to offer criticism of the magazine if he felt it was going off track. When Buckley resigned as editor in 1990, Kirk wrote to him that “no one else could have made a success of such an undertaking; before you commenced it, I had despaired of the creation of a conservative weekly or fortnightly. . . . National Review will be your most enduring monument.” Person includes a long response to a series of questions Buckley posed about Kirk’s religious faith.

In a 1990 letter to Wendell Berry, Kirk described Mecosta as having “little money but good canoeing” and promised “handsome lodging and abundant food.” Among other intellectual delights, these letters provide a picture of a life well lived.

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