W. Wesley McDonald is Professor of Political Science at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
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About the Author
W. Wesley McDonald is Professor of Political Science at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
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Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology
By W. Wesley Mcdonald
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2004 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKirk and the Rebirth of American Conservatism
Michigan Roots and the Early Years
Passing tourists do not ordinarily take much notice of the tiny village of Mecosta, Michigan (approximate population: 450). Located about two hundred miles northwest of Detroit and sixty-five miles northeast of Grand Rapids, Kirk's ancestral home can be found on the map, Kirk suggested, by drawing "a line westward across the southern peninsula of Michigan, roughly from Saginaw Bay to Muskegon." A flat, glaciated land deforested a century ago by the logging industry, devoid of much natural beauty and noted for its long, dreary winters and dry, mosquito-infested summers, the central portion of Michigan's lower peninsula until recently possessed little apparent special charm. Although economically depressed throughout much of the twentieth century, the region began an economic recovery during the 1980s that is presently sustained by a growing recreational interest in the area's freshwater lakes.
Similar to scores of other similar villages dotting this sparsely populated region, Mecosta (which means "Little Cub Bear" after the Potawatomi chief who ceded Indian lands to the whites) is distinguished only by its ordinariness. On its broad main street stand the township office, library, bookshop, borough office, a restaurant, a real estate office, a hardware store, a service station, two bars, and several empty buildings.
Before the turn of the century, Mecosta was a rough lumbering town supporting about two thousand inhabitants, but when the timber gave out in 1900, its year-round population dwindled to only about two hundred. Farming could offer only a subsistence living. With intensive labor and the liberal use of fertilizer and lime, some root crops and garden vegetables can be grown. The soil, acidic and nutrient-deficient, is considered to be poorly suited for agriculture. Mecosta's main industry today is tourism. During the summer months, campers and cottagers are drawn to the area's lakes. But seasonal tourism is hardly sufficient to support the rising generation. The more enterprising young natives seek their fortunes elsewhere. In this unlikely setting, which he called the "stump country," Kirk, abjuring the lure of New York literary circles, lived to write, marry, and raise four daughters.
Born in 1918 near the railway station in Plymouth, a small suburb of Detroit, where he was reared and schooled, Kirk spent his boyhood summers in Mecosta among the clannish Pierces, to whom he was related on his maternal side. Living amidst the deprivations of severe rural poverty in upstate Michigan during the Great Depression could have been an intellectual and spiritual misfortune. Yet, here, despite the region's backwardness, Kirk found his spiritual home and the central focus of his work, his roots—a community where he felt spiritually linked with his ancestors who had originally settled the area. Life in this grim, inhospitable land further instructed him in the "vanity of human wishes" and the dark realities of human nature. This bleak environment, remote and harsh, permitted him to witness human nature in sharp relief. The human oddities and local legends he found there would become grist for Kirk's literary mill.
Amos Johnson, his great-grandfather who settled in Mecosta in 1879, built a square bracket house on the north end of the village, later to be known as "Piety Hill." The house sheltered one family under various names (Gilbert, Johnson, Pierce, Jewell, and Kirk) until it was destroyed by fire on Ash Wednesday in 1975. Kirk's father, Russell Andrew Kirk, who died in 1981, was a locomotive engineer with only a primary school education. Descended from Scottish farmers, he was "a man of considerable physical strength." Father and son shared an uneasiness toward the effects of rapid technological change upon the social fabric as well as the physical landscape of rural Michigan. His father had, he wrote, an "enduring dissatisfaction with the age of the machine," which swept away "the old rural tranquility of brick farmhouses and horses and apple orchards and maple groves" that the elder Kirk knew in his youth.
The two greatest influences on the development of young Kirk were his mother, Marjorie Rachael (Pierce) Kirk, and her father, Frank Pierce. His mother was "a tiny, tender, romantic woman endowed with fortitude." A childhood illness drew mother and son together into a warm and mutually affectionate relationship. At the age of three, Kirk, stricken with acute nephritis, was thought to be dying. Until the age of seven, he was nearly an invalid. During those years, while bedridden, bloated, denied water, and unable to participate in the usual boys' physical sports, he marveled as his mother read him "Lewis Carroll and Stevenson and Scott and Grimm and the adventures of the noble company of the Table Round." These classic tales of adventure and fantasy stirred his imagination and nurtured an enduring love of literature. The strong bond of affection between mother and son lasted until her death, after an extended illness, in early 1943.
The love of literature, instilled in him by his mother, was encouraged further by his grandfather. Born in a log cabin in southwestern Michigan, Frank Pierce was a small-town banker. A few months of music study at Valparaiso University constituted his formal education beyond high school. Even so, he was, according to his grandson, "a wise man, much read in books and life" who "did more to form" his "mind and character than did anyone else except Russell's mother." Frank Pierce read voraciously even though learning was then not highly regarded in Mecosta society. Volumes of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Macaulay, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain lined the grandfather's bookshelves. The works of history introduced the young boy to historical consciousness, while the works of great literature fired his imagination. Long walks, during which they discussed "the idea of progress, the character of Richard III, the nature of immortality, the significance of dreams, the style of Poe," solidified the bond between Kirk and his grandfather. Frank Pierce died in 1930 just as the Depression was beginning to ruin many banks.
Kirk graduated from high school in 1936 at the height of the Depression when jobs were scarce. His high school principal suggested that he apply for a scholarship to Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Michigan State University). Kirk's admittance as a scholarship student in 1936 commenced a connection with that academic institution that would last, except for the years when he was in the military or on a leave of absence for study at St. Andrews University, until his resignation from the faculty in 1953. In spite of this long association with the college, he was never fond of it. He eventually came to believe that "the cow college" qualified as a thoroughly decadent institution of higher learning. As a freshman, he recalled later, he was hostile to what he perceived to be the principal aim of a state educational system: the imposition of "a uniform character upon the rising generation, rendering young people obedient to the state from habit and prejudice, even when the state has dissolved the ancient loyalties that bound man to man." In addition to this aim, there "were mingled the utilitarian object of imparting technical skills and an impulse toward worldly advancement." The higher ends of education were barely tolerated as the college devoted itself to inculcating "conformity to present state policy" and developing technical skills. Kirk came to detest Dr. John Hannah, the president of Michigan State from 1941 to 1969. President Hannah epitomized for Kirk all the worst characteristics to be found in a college administrator—"materialistic, self-seeking, woefully deficient in imagination, confounding quantity with quality"—and, moreover, everything that was wrong with American higher education.
Yet, despite the many deficiencies of Michigan State as an institution of higher learning, Kirk admitted that his time at East Lansing was "passed pleasantly enough." At least, his stay at the college permitted him the time to read prodigiously—"old books of travel, forgotten corners of belles-lettres, African history, Samuel Johnson's essays" and much more. He acquired knowledge in many areas not touched upon in his formal studies. He wrote as well a few essays for serious journals. Further, amidst this general academic desert, there were a few men of ability on the college faculty. The young scholar would learn much from one of them—John Abbott Clark, a professor of English, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and disciple of Irving Babbitt, who taught courses in the history of criticism and in critical writing. One book, published during his undergraduate years, was Donald Davidson's neglected The Attack on Leviathan. Kirk recalled that the Southern Agrarian's "eloquent denunciation of political and cultural centralism ... strongly impressed" him. The book "made coherent the misgivings" he "felt concerning the political notions popular in the 1930s."
Only a few miles away from his birthplace, Kirk would spend his summer vacations from college working as a tour guide at Greenfield Village, located adjacent to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Greenfield Village was Ford's creation. In the 1920s the automobile manufacturer had begun purchasing historically significant buildings along with their contents, such as the Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop, Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory, the birthplace of Noah Webster, and Ford's own backyard machine shop. He then had them shipped to Greenfield Village to be painstakingly reassembled and renovated to assure complete authenticity. These transported and reproduced buildings were placed around a town square to give the entire vast collection the appearance of an actual nineteenth-century American town.
One June morning in 1938, a chance meeting, seemingly pregnant with symbolism, took place between the young tour guide, the future champion of community and continuity, and Henry Ford, the inventor of a machine that arguably contributed more than any other single mechanical contrivance of the twentieth century toward obliterating much of what Kirk valued. The tide of automobiles spewing out of the factories of Detroit was rapidly and relentlessly revolutionizing all aspects of American society. The automobile, denounced later by Kirk as "the mechanical Jacobin," changed forever the traditional ties binding persons to family and community. The car not only altered traditional patterns of social existence but also transformed the physical landscape itself. Ford appeared to the young Kirk to be uneasily aware of the destructive consequences that his invention had wrought upon the individual and society. His machine had "swept away nearly every vestige of the rural society of Wayne County in which he had his own roots, and now," Kirk said, describing the old inventor's mood twenty years later, Ford "wandered restlessly amid the evidences of his own irrevocable revolution, trying to save within the high brick walls of his museum in Dearborn some scraps of the old simplicities." Troubled by the thought that his work had done much to undo the old values and community that he cherished, Ford, Kirk believed, came to suffer "doubt in his heart." The elderly inventor had come to realize that there were values higher in life than production-consumption and economic efficiency. Kirk supposed that he understood the nature of Ford's despair and doubt. "When men or nations sweep away their past in the process of aggrandizement," concluded Kirk, "presently the dream of avarice gives way to a forlorn longing after things beyond recall."
After graduation, Kirk received a graduate fellowship from Duke University. At Duke, Kirk made his first contact with the American South that had already captured his imagination in books. "Here was a conservative society struck a fearful blow eighty years before," he remembered, "and still dazed: decrepit though it was, I liked it better than the life of certain northern cities I knew." He sought to immerse himself in "Southern history and Southern literature." "Providence seemed to lend Kirk a hand" in this endeavor, for at Duke in 1940–1941 were two leading professors in those fields, both of them much published and nationally known: Charles Sydnor in history, Jay Hubbell (the founder of the quarterly American Literature) in the latter discipline. Without consulting them, though, he chose to write his master's thesis on the politics of John Randolph of Roanoke, declaring the fiery Virginia planter-statesman to be "the most interesting man in American history, and most neglected." A decade later Kirk's thesis would be published, and it would endure as one of his most important contributions to contemporary conservative literature. While researching Randolph's politics, Kirk discovered a far more powerful conservative mind. "The eccentric genius of the planter-orator helped to form my mind and style," he remembered, "and about the same time, I began to apprehend a greater thinker and statesman, who remained thereafter my guide in much: Edmund Burke." Although his mentors at Duke University fully expected him to return to do his doctoral work, he never saw them again.
Upon completing his studies at Duke in 1941, Kirk returned to his job as a tour guide at Greenfield Village. But when the village closed for the duration of World War II, he went to work as a file clerk at the sprawling Rouge plant of the Ford Motor Company. Life at the Ford plant was dreary. "In a lodging-house in Dearborn I sank rapidly into an apathy which the modern industrial system induces," Kirk recalled, "sleeping long, ignoring the future, reading nothing but Charles Lamb in the course of six months, and filled with a sense of the disjointedness of the time." From this clearly unhappy existence, the U.S. Army "rescued" him. Three of his four years in the military would be spent stationed in the Great Salt Lake Desert. In that lifeless, barren desert, with the leisure to reflect upon the first principles that governed his life, he "commenced, very languidly, to move from" his "Stoicism toward something more." He came "some way toward an apprehension of Divine nature" and "a proper understanding of my own nature." Rejecting his youthful infatuation with the doctrines of narrow reason and skepticism, he began, he recalled, "to perceive that pure reason has its frontiers, and that to deny realms beyond them is puerility." He learned as well that all mankind is a "part of some grand and mysterious scheme, which works upon us through Providence." In the remote desert, Kirk apprehended the fundamental principles that were to guide his thinking throughout his life. "Mine was not an Enlightened mind, I now was aware," but "a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful."
Following his discharge from the military, Kirk was offered a post as an instructor in the history of civilization at Michigan State. After a few uneventful and unhappy years on the college's teaching staff, he took a leave of absence to write a history of the principal conservative thinkers of England and America. To research the book, he traveled to the medieval university of St. Andrews, in Scotland just north of Edinburgh. "In Scotland and England I found, as Hawthorne had found a hundred years before, the metaphysical principle of continuity given visible reality," he wrote. He further averred that "British society and the face of Britain were for me the expression (as they had been the inspiration) of Burke's principles of social immortality and of social reform: the past ever blending with the present, so that the fabric continually renews itself, like some great oak, being never either wholly old or wholly young." The dissertation he wrote while at St. Andrews, entitled "The Conservatives' Rout" (because conservative ideas had lost ground to modern radical ideologies) earned him the Doctorate of Humane Letters degree. He remains today the only American recipient of this degree from that ancient Scottish institution of higher learning. His dissertation would be published as The Conservative Mind.
The Conservative Mind and the State of Conservatism at Mid-Century
Although only thirty-five in 1953 when his critically acclaimed history of conservative ideas from Edmund Burke to George Santayana was published, Kirk had compiled an impressive record of literary accomplishments. In addition to numerous scholarly essays, he had published several short stories and one other book, Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought. The Conservative Mind, however, was destined to launch Kirk's career in a totally different direction, transforming him from an unknown instructor of history at Michigan State College to one of the leading intellectual figures in the American political tradition. Later, the book would play a crucial role in the postwar revival of conservative ideas and reawaken interest in thinkers as varied as John Randolph of Roanoke, James Fenimore Cooper, William Malleck, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others. "The impact of The Conservative Mind when it first appeared in 1953 is hard to imagine now," the late Henry Regnery, Kirk's publisher, remembered in his memoirs twenty-six years later. "After the long domination of liberalism, with its adulation of the 'common man,' its faith in mechanistic political solutions to all human problems, and its rejection of the tragic and heroic aspects of life, such phrases as 'the unbought grace of life' and the 'eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead,' and a view of politics as 'the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature' came like rain after a long drought." The Conservative Mind challenged the most cherished beliefs of the intellectual elite for whom conservative ideas had been relegated long ago to the intellectual dustbin of history. The bulk of respectable scholarly opinion was thoroughly convinced that conservatism was either intellectually exhausted or a European aristocratic ideology fundamentally ill-suited for transplantation in the liberal soil of American politics. Some critics felt that the persistence of conservative notions in an enlightened liberal age could be explained only as evidence of psychological maladjustment. More than just a rarity in American politics, conservative minds were thought to have become an extinct species.
Excerpted from Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley Mcdonald Copyright © 2004 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Kirk and the Rebirth of American Conservatism....................14
2. The Moral Basis of Conservatism....................42
3. The Moral Imagination, Reason, and Natural Law....................55
4. Tradition and "The Permanent Things"....................86
5. Order in the Soul and Commonwealth....................115
6. Community and Freedom....................139
7. Leadership and Education....................170
8. The Enduring Legacy....................201
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There are numerous books that discuss Kirk's influence on the conservative movement, but no work has the depth and personal accounts of Kirk the man (not the saint of Piety Hill). This view of Kirk's political philosophy and the background about Kirk's deeply felt convictions for Burke, St. Augustine and his conversion to Catholicism brings new light to the man and his work.