Dr. Russell Kirk is to American conservatism what Edmund Burke was to British conservatism. My equation is a product of the catalyst of history. Before Burke stood up to the savagery and barbarism of the French Revolution, not one man in all Europe raised so powerfully the voice of protest against the suicidal destruction visited upon the Old World, sometimes freely and sometimes marked by a violence hitherto unknown to Western man. Before Russell Kirk published his The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana in 1953, the conservative cause in this nation was without not only a spokesman but an intelligence and imagination capable of forging into unity a new cause which was both a banner around which men could gather despite their differences and an intellectual strategy capable of guiding its tactics for more than forty years.
The spokes of the wheel were dispersed throughout the nation: the Southern Agrarian protest against Northern industrialization; a few university professors and writers, themselves mostly Northerners; a broad distrust of the growing centralization of the federal government; a deep suspicion that the welfare state was leading us into socialism. But Kirk and Kirk alone was the hub into which the spokes were fixed, and the wheel lifted from the ground and fitted into place. In my judgment, the most influential book published in the United States on social and political philosophy within this century has been Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. It is difficult for men of my generation—and Kirk’s—to make live for the young the impact his great book made upon this nation. Among much else, that massive tome made the very word conservatism respectable in an intellectual and political climate that hitherto had smiled in contempt on everything associated with the term.
When Ronald Reagan introduced Senator Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination at the Republican convention in 1964, he ended his address by presenting the candidate as “Mr. Conservative.” In a deeper sense, one transcending the limitations of party politics, the honor belongs to Dr. Russell Kirk.
Possibly the only man of letters in America in the classical sense of an imaginative scholar who lives by the pen, Kirk’s contribution to the conservative cause has not only been impressive: it has been massive, decisive. Without Kirk, the movement would never have existed.
Were I to sum up his many accomplishments, I would emphasize the following: making known to a broad American public that still reads the principal documents and figures who have woven their lives and works into the Anglo-American conservative tradition; his blistering and highly effective attack on what he often calls “Behemoth U.,” the contemporary American university; his recovery of the landscape of his own Scottish inheritance in his early history of his alma mater Saint Andrew’s, where the blood and the axe, the sword and the motley, the stones and the hooves of horses over cobble and men in chain mail, the glory and the murder, burst before the reader in the writing of a young poet who disguised a hidden vocation in matchless prose; and, finally, his careful analysis (I think of “York and Social Boredom” [also collected here]), prolonged through essays and books, of the disease of apathy and despair haunting our world.
Mixed into all of these ingredients has been his conversion, more late than early, to the Roman Catholic faith. Although the acceptance of Faith can never be traced to any human cause—faith being a bolt of grace from another order of things—Russell Kirk’s road to Rome, once brought into being by the Hand of God, can be read backwards as a promise and a presage already pregnant in his very first writings.
This man has been the champion of all good things; a social order infused with the grace of Christian Faith; a charity which superabounded to his friends; a keen sense of the concrete and of the local—the small farm in Michigan and the crofter’s cottage in the Highlands of Scotland; the earth with all its smells; the magic of the castle over the hill; the mysterious beyond all rationalization; the preternatural powers which breathe through the world; the colors of existence. In loving the world, he has loved its Creator. I salute you, good friend. You have fought the good fight.
Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (1923–1996) was professor of philosophy and politics at the University of Dallas. This essay first appeared in the October 1993 Crisis magazine and is reprinted with their permission.
Posted: October 30, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.