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Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk.jpg
Born (1918-10-19)October 19, 1918
Plymouth, Michigan,
United States
Died April 29, 1994(1994-04-29) (aged 75)
Mecosta, Michigan
Occupation Author
Literary critic
Nationality American
Subject American conservatism, politics, literature
Spouse Annette Kirk
Children 4 daughters: Monica Rachel, Cecilia Abgail, Felicia Annette, Andrea Seton

Russell Kirk (October 19, 1918 – April 29, 1994) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke. Kirk was also considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.


Russell Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan. He was the son of Russell Andrew Kirk, a railroad engineer, and Marjorie Pierce Kirk. Kirk obtained his BA at Michigan State University and a M.A. at Duke University. During World War II, he served in the American armed forces and corresponded with libertarian writer, Isabel Paterson, who helped to shape his early political thought. After the war, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the only American to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by that university.[1]

Kirk "laid out a post-World War II program for conservatives by warning them, 'A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.'"[2]

Upon completing his studies, Kirk took up an academic position at his alma mater, Michigan State. He resigned in 1959, after having become disenchanted with that university's academic standards, rapid growth in student numbers, and emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and technical training at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Thereafter he referred to Michigan State as "Cow College" or "Behemoth University." He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were "as a breed—dull dogs."[3] Late in life, he taught one semester a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.

Kirk frequently published in two American conservative journals he helped found, National Review in 1955 and Modern Age in 1957. He was the founding editor of the latter, 1957–59. Later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave a number of lectures.[4]

After leaving Michigan State, Kirk returned to his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, where he wrote the many books, academic articles, lectures, and the syndicated newspaper column (which ran for 13 years) by which he exerted his influence on American politics and intellectual life. In 1963, Kirk converted to Catholicism and married Annette Courtemanche; they had four daughters. She and Kirk became known for their hospitality, welcoming many political, philosophical, and literary figures in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill"), and giving shelter to political refugees, hoboes, and others.[5] Their home became the site of a sort of seminar on conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill now houses the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. After his conversion to Catholicism Kirk was a founding board member of Una Voce America.[6]

Kirk declined to drive, calling cars "mechanical Jacobins," and would have nothing to do with television and what he called "electronic computers."

Kirk did not always maintain a stereotypically "conservative" voting record. "Faced with the non-choice between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey in 1944, Kirk said no to empire and voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate."[7] In the 1976 presidential election, he voted for Eugene McCarthy.[8]

Kirk was a contributor to Chronicles. In 1989, he was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan.


The Conservative Mind[edit]

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana,[9] the published version of Kirk's doctoral dissertation, contributed materially to the 20th century Burke revival. It also drew attention to:

The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), which Kirk edited, contains sample writings by most of the above.

Not everyone agreed with Kirk's reading of the conservative heritage and tradition. For example, Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) wrote: "Kirk was a poor Burke scholar. Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning related only to modern philosophy's attempt to eliminate skeptical doubt from its premises and hence from its conclusions."[10]

Russello (2004) argues that Kirk adapted what 19th-century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to articulate a version of federalism that was based on premises that differ in part from those of the Founders and other conservatives. Kirk further believed that territorial democracy could reconcile the tension between treating the states as mere provinces of the central government, and as autonomous political units independent of Washington. Finally, territorial democracy allowed Kirk to set out a theory of individual rights grounded in the particular historical circumstances of the United States, while rejecting a universal conception of such rights.


Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Russello (2004) described as follows:

  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the "variety and mystery" of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize "natural" distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  6. A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another."[11] and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief."[12][not in citation given]

Kirk and libertarianism[edit]

Kirk grounded his Burkean conservatism in tradition, political philosophy, belles lettres, and the strong religious faith of his later years; rather than libertarianism and free market economic reasoning. The Conservative Mind hardly mentions economics at all.

In a polemic essay, Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians "chirping sectaries," adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common (despite his early correspondence with the libertarian Paterson). He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." He said a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category.[13] Kirk, therefore, questioned the "fusionism" between libertarians and traditional conservatives that marked much of post-World War II conservatism in the United States.[14]

Kirk's view of "classical liberals" is positive though; he agrees with them on "ordered liberty" as they make "common cause with regular conservatives against the menace of democratic despotism and economic collectivism."[15]

Tibor R. Machan defended libertarianism in response to Kirk's original Heritage Lecture. Machan argued that the right of individual sovereignty is perhaps most worthy of conserving from the American political heritage, and that when conservatives themselves talk about preserving some tradition, they cannot at the same time claim a disrespectful distrust of the individual human mind, of rationalism itself.[16]

Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation also responded to Kirk.[17]

Kirk and neoconservatism[edit]

Late in life, Kirk grew disenchanted with American neoconservatives as well.[18] As Chronicles editor Scott Richert describes it:

[One line] helped define the emerging struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. "Not seldom has it seemed," Kirk declared, "as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." A few years later, in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk repeated that line verbatim. In the wake of the Gulf War, which he had opposed, he clearly understood that those words carried even greater meaning.[19]

He also commented the neoconservatives were "often clever, never wise."

Midge Decter, director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's remark "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives."[20] She told The New Republic, "It's this notion of a Christian civilization. You have to be part of it or you're not really fit to conserve anything. That's an old line and it's very ignorant."[21]

Samuel T. Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives."[21] He described Decter's response as untrue, "reckless" and "vitriolic." Furthermore, he argued that such a denunciation "always plays into the hands of the left, which is then able to repeat the charges and claim conservative endorsement of them.[21]

Kirk and the Gulf War[edit]

Toward the end of his life, Russell Kirk was highly critical of Republican militarism. President Bush, Kirk said, had embarked upon "a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf.[22][23]

Excerpts from Russell Kirk's lectures at the Heritage Foundation (1992):[24]

Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world. Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a "One World" candidate, Wendell Willkie, they were sadly trounced. In general, Republicans throughout the twentieth century have been advocates of prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign affairs.[25]

Unless the Bush Administration abruptly reverses its fiscal and military course, I suggest, the Republican Party must lose its former good repute for frugality, and become the party of profligate expenditure, "butter and guns." And public opinion would not long abide that. Nor would America's world influence and America's remaining prosperity.[25]

Yet presidents of the United States must not be encouraged to make Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, nor to fancy that they can establish a New World Order through eliminating dissenters. In the second century before Christ, the Romans generously liberated the Greek city-states from the yoke of Macedonia. But it was not long before the Romans felt it necessary to impose upon those quarrelsome Greeks a domination more stifling to Hellenic freedom and culture than ever Macedon had been. It is a duty of the Congress of the United States to see that great American Caesars do not act likewise.[25]

Man of letters[edit]

Kirk's other important books include Eliot and his Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1972), The Roots of American Order (1974), and the autobiographical Sword of the Imagination: Memoirs of a Half Century of Literary Conflict (1995). As was the case with his hero Edmund Burke, Kirk became renowned for the prose style of his intellectual and polemical writings.[26]


Beyond his scholarly achievements, Kirk was talented both as an oral storyteller and as an author of genre fiction, most notably in his telling of consummate ghost stories in the classic tradition of Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Oliver Onions, and H. Russell Wakefield. He also wrote other admired and much-anthologized works that are variously classified as horror, fantasy, science fiction, and political satire. These earned him plaudits from fellow creative writers as varied and distinguished as T. S. Eliot, Robert Aickman, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ray Bradbury.

Though modest in quantity—it encompasses three novels and 22 short stories—Kirk's body of fiction was written amid a busy career as prolific nonfiction writer, editor, and speaker. As with such other speculative fiction authors as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien (all of whom likewise wrote only nonfiction for their "day jobs"), there are conservative undercurrents—social, cultural, religious, and political—to Kirk's fiction.

His first novel, Old House of Fear (1961, 1965), as with so many of his short stories, was written in a self-consciously Gothic vein. Here the plot is concerned with an American assigned by his employer to a bleak locale in rural Scotland—the same country where Kirk had attended graduate school. This was Kirk's most commercially successful and critically acclaimed fictional work, doing much to sustain him financially in subsequent years.

Later novels were A Creature of the Twilight (1966), a dark comedy satirizing postcolonial African politics; and Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979, 1989), set in Scotland, which explores the great evil inhabiting a haunted house. During his lifetime, Kirk also oversaw the publication of three collections which together encompassed all his short stories. (Three more such collections have been published posthumously, but those only reprint stories found in the earlier volumes.)

Among his novels and stories, certain characters tend to recur, enriching the already considerable unity and resonance of his fictional canon. Though—through their themes and prose-style—Kirk's fiction and nonfiction works are complementary, many readers of the one have not known of his work in the other.

Having begun to write fiction fairly early in his career, Kirk appears to have stopped after the early 1980s, while continuing his nonfiction writing and research through his last year of life. For a comprehensive bibliography of his fiction, see the fiction section of his bibliography.



  1. ^ "About Russell Kirk". kirkcenter.org. The Russell Kirk Center. 2014. 
  2. ^ Polner, Murray (March 1, 2010) Left Behind, The American Conservative
  3. ^ Kirk, Russell, ed., 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. Viking: xxxviii.
  4. ^ Many published in his The Politics of Prudence (1993) and Redeeming the Time (1998).
  5. ^ Timothy Stanley (February 8, 2012). "Buchanan’s Revolution: How Pitchfork Pat raised a rebellion—and why it failed.". The American Conservative (The American Ideas Institute). 
  6. ^ http://reginamag.com/update-latin-mass-america-today/
  7. ^ McCarthy, Daniel (October 12, 2012) How Does a Traditionalist Vote?, The American Conservative
  8. ^ Kauffman, Bill (May 19, 2008) When the Left Was Right, The American Conservative
  9. ^ Which went into 7 editions, the later ones with the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Regnery Publishing. 7th edition (2001). ISBN 0-89526-171-5
  10. ^ Harry V. Jaffa (April 13, 2006). "Harry V. Jaffa Responds to Claes Ryn". The Claremont Institute. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  11. ^ [1][dead link]
  12. ^ [2]
  13. ^ Kirk, Russell (Fall 1981). "Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries". Modern Age. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute. pp. 345–351. 
  14. ^ The Volokh Conspiracy – Russell Kirk, Libertarianism, and Fusionism:
  15. ^ Kirk, Russell (May 28, 1988). "A Dispassionate Assessment of LIbertarians". Lecture #158 on Political Thought. Heritage Foundation. "Russell Kirk is a Distinguished Scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on April 19, 1988, delivering the second of four lectures on the 'Varieties of the Conservative Impulse.' ISSN 0272-1155 [webpage notes]" . OCLC 20729276
  16. ^ Machan, Tibor R. (August 1, 1988). "A Passionate Defense of Libertarianism". Lecture #165 on Political Thought. Heritage Foundation.  OCLC 19009917
  17. ^ An Open Letter to Russell Kirk
  18. ^ Russell, Kirk (December 15, 1988). "The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species". Lecture #178 on Political Thought. Heritage Foundation. 
  19. ^ Scott P. Richert (2004). Russell Kirk and the Negation of Ideology. Chronicles Magazine. Archived from the original on 2006-07-17. 
  20. ^ She claimed that Kirk "said people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty." Decter is the spouse of Norman Podhoretz.
  21. ^ a b c [3]
  22. ^ [4] Political Errors at the End of the Twentieth Century – Part I: Republican Errors By Russell Kirk . Accessed: November 26, 2012.
  23. ^ [5] Do Conservatives Hate Their Own Founder? – Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Accessed: November 26, 2012.
  24. ^ [6] Political Errors at the End of the 20th Century, Part III: International Errors. Policy Archive, April 1992. Accessed: November 26, 2012.
  25. ^ a b c [7] Political Errors at the End of the Twentieth Century – Part I: Republican Errors By Russell Kirk . Accessed: 26 November 2012.
  26. ^ Nash (1998).

Further reading[edit]

Modern Age articles available online via Ebsco.

  • Attarian, John, 1998, "Russell Kirk's Political Economy," Modern Age 40: 87–97. ISSN 0026-7457.
  • Brown, Charles C. ed. Russell Kirk: A Bibliography (2nd ed. 2011: Wilmington, ISI Books, 2011) 220 pages; replaces Brown's 1981 bibliography
  • Campbell, William F. (Fall 1994). "An Economist's Tribute to Russell Kirk". The Intercollegiate Review (The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (reprinted with permission by The Philadelphia Society)). ISSN 0020-5249. OCLC 1716938. 
  • East, John P., 1984, "Russell Kirk as a Political Theorist: Perceiving the Need for Order in the Soul and in Society," Modern Age 28: 33–44. ISSN 0026-7457.
  • Feser, Edward C. (2008). "Conservative Critique of Libertarianism". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 95–7. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Herron, Don. "Russell Kirk: Ghost Master of Mecosta" in Darrell Schweitzer (ed) Discovering Modern Horror Fiction, Merce Is, WA: Starmont House, July 1985, pp. 21–47.
  • Kirk, Russell, 1995. The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict. Kirk's memoirs.
  • McDonald, W. Wesley, 1982. The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk: `The Permanent Things' in an Age of Ideology. Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America. Citation: DAI 1982 43(1): 255-A. DA8213740. Online at ProQuest Dissertations & Theses.
  • --------, 1983, "Reason, Natural Law, and Moral Imagination in the Thought of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 27: 15–24. ISSN 0026-7457.
  • --------, 2004. "Russell Kirk and The Age of Ideology." University of Missouri Press.
  • --------, 1999. "Russell Kirk and the Prospects for Conservatism," Humanitas XII: 56–76.
  • --------, 2006. "Kirk, Russell (1918–94)," in "American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia". ISI Books: 471–474. Biographical entry.
  • Nash, George H., 1998. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.
  • Person, Jr., James E., 1999. "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind". Madison Books.
  • Russello, Gerald J., 1996, "The Jurisprudence of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 38: 354–63. ISSN 0026-7457. Reviews Kirk's writings on law, 1976–93, exploring his notion of natural law, his emphasis on the importance of the English common law tradition, and his theories of change and continuity in legal history.
  • --------, 2007. "The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk". University of Missouri Press.
  • --------, 1999, "Time and Timeless: the Historical Imagination of Russell Kirk," Modern Age 41: 209–19. ISSN 0026-7457.
  • --------, 2004, "Russell Kirk and Territorial Democracy," Publius 34: 109–24. ISSN 0048-5950.
  • Whitney, Gleaves, 2001, "The Swords of Imagination: Russell Kirk's Battle with Modernity," Modern Age 43: 311–20. ISSN 0026-7457. Argues that Kirk used five "swords of imagination": historical, political, moral, poetic, and prophetic.

External links[edit]

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161 news items

Catholic World Report

Catholic World Report
Thu, 31 Jul 2014 13:37:30 -0700

Russell Kirk was a fantastic individualist—in his own way, of course.” Yet, of all major converts to Roman Catholicism in the 20th century, Kirk remains one of the least known. There were so many notable converts, as biographers such as Joseph Pearce ...
Chicago Tribune
Fri, 29 Aug 2014 15:33:43 -0700

In his 1953 book "The Conservative Mind," Russell Kirk expounded a view peculiar to the right. "Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements," he wrote, "but we may be sure ...
Charleston Gazette
Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:22:30 -0700

Russell, Kirk and Councilman Robert Sheets will serve on the subcommittee. City Council passed an ordinance in May that would allow for a single-stream recycling program in hopes of increasing participation in recycling. While single-stream — putting ...

Patheos (blog)

Patheos (blog)
Thu, 28 Aug 2014 09:52:30 -0700

In many respects, the countercultural tone of the work is reminiscent of Russell Kirk and his appropriation of his friend T.S. Eliot's “permanent things.” The editors argue that in our progressively globalized, digitized, and mobile world, “we risk ...

The American Conservative

The American Conservative
Thu, 28 Aug 2014 21:21:56 -0700

... Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O'Connor, and Russell Kirk, ...

Western Journalism

Western Journalism
Wed, 27 Aug 2014 15:00:53 -0700

Secularism and Christianity are distinct, unassociated religions. Secularism postulates the fundamental goodness of human nature, where historic Christianity sets forth the doctrine of original sin. Human reasoning is flawed by the inborn tendency to sin.
American Thinker
Tue, 26 Aug 2014 23:11:15 -0700

... pie charts, or the top-down imposition of doctrine that wrestles reason from emotion, but in the success and moral-spiritual elevation that comes from little men with squat frames and calloused hands who may never have heard of Adam Smith or ...
The Federalist
Mon, 25 Aug 2014 05:21:16 -0700

But it revealed undercurrents of a dynamic social conservatism that serves as an antidote to the cultural liberalism of contemporary televisions shows, whose faux-edgy plotlines expose an impoverished understanding of what T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk ...

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