The University Bookman


Volume 46, Number 4 (Winter 2008)

Editor’s Note

Remembering Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk was born 90 years ago last October, and in 2009 we remember the 15th anniversary of his death. Conservatism has changed, and changed again, in the intervening years. The mid-1990s were the years of the Gingrich revolution in the Congress, and of Patrick J. Buchanan’s fiery 1996 Republican convention speech, and impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. Since September 11, the Right has been divided as much as at any time since the 1950s. Some prefer the expansion of “the American way of life” to foreign lands, while others look to an older tradition of local loyalties and more modest foreign ambitions. At home, our government is in a crisis. The Congress has seemingly decided—the Constitution notwithstanding—that it should leave decisions regarding war and the economy to the President, and any controversial social issues to the courts. Despite eight years of Republican dominance of the national government, conservative voices were not heard, or not heard often enough, in these debates.

Thus the time is right for extended reflections on Kirk and his legacy. Some serious analyses have appeared, such as recent books by Wesley McDonald and James Person, and an important essay by Michael P. Federici in Modern Age, and some not so serious. An example of the latter is Alan Wolfe’s largely content-free attack on Kirk in the New Republic, which shows, if nothing else, that the last great liberal journal still thinks trying to take Kirk down is worth the effort, despite protestations of his obsolescence.

As well it might: for Kirk is almost the last of conservatism’s first generation whose works retain the possibility of wide appeal beyond CPAC and mainstream conservatism. Kirk’s conservatism was larger than politics and extended across the oceans and backward in time, yet small enough not to lose sight of Mecosta, his ancestral village. It was a conservatism suffused with humor and heart. Not concerned only, or even primarily, to oppose liberalism—abstractions fighting abstractions—Kirk instead wanted to lead us back to the importance of the individual in creating tradition, the complexity of history, and suspicion of anything smacking of ideological absolutism. In our postmodern age, Kirk’s work assumes a greater importance as we work to recover tradition and the roots of order. Kirk had the same appeal as that other great conservative founder William F. Buckley, Jr. Both were adept at creating a persona, yet it was not an “act”: rather, they demonstrated that habits and ideas have consequences and can shape who we are. Not surprisingly, they are both the most accessible conservative writers.

Russell KirkCollected in this issue are a half-dozen essays on various aspects of Kirk’s thought, including two pieces dealing with his fiction, a body of work still largely to be mined. Paul Gottfried, perhaps Kirk’s most sympathetic critic, offers an insightful assessment of Kirk’s influence, and Lee Edwards give us an elegant introduction to the urban scaffolding surrounding Kirk’s Roots of American Order. We close the issue with one of Kirk’s best pieces, “Is Life Worth Living?”

Judging from a proliferation of new websites and journals, the rising generation has responded to Kirk. Young conservatives are rejecting the “national greatness” conservatism of the “movement” in favor of localism, non-intervention, and reconsidering the ideas and institutions that form a common culture. If change is the means of our preservation, as Kirk often insisted, such young writers are demonstrating how reform should be reconciled with permanence.

Gerald J. Russello

Posted: March 2, 2009 in Editor’s Notes.

Did you see this one?

The Bach Moment
James V. Schall, S.J.
Volume 44, Number 1 (Fall 2005)

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk


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The University Bookman is joining Fordham University in hosting the award-winning poet and critic A. M. Juster on Monday, February 6, 2017 at 6:00pm on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus (McMahon Hall, Rm. 109; use the entrance on West 60th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan). Juster will speak on “Riddles, Elegies, and Satires: Adventures in Translation.” The event is free and open to the public and registration is not required. We are also planning a second event in May on the humanities. Watch this space for more details. (27 Dec 2016)

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