The Youthful Writings of Russell Kirk
The scribblings of Russell Kirk, as teenager and pre-teen, reveal a widely read, precocious and imaginative young man. Among the remnants of youth which are preserved one may find vastly detailed drawings of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and all sorts of adventure stones. There is also a copy of what I take to be the first journal which Russell Kirk ever edited, The Scientific Journal. This hand-written mimeograph is, as the masthead informs us, the organ of the “Plymouth Scientific Society.” Volume II, Number 1, features a contest challenging readers to name as many different sciences as they can. The winner gets “his choice of copper sulfate, potassium chlorate, or sulfuric acid.” An intriguing notice in the corner mandates that “all members pay one cent tax to Russell Kirk, treasurer.”
An early and untitled play features a revolutionary mob yelling “Down with the king!” and “Surrender to the honor and glory of the republic!” But, true to his latent conservative leanings, Kirk has the king eventually triumph, and the rabble “flees in all directions.” Apparently Kirk was short on actors for the debut: a casting note on the first draft of the play explains that the “mob” is to be played by “Clarence.” In a second draft it has swelled to “Clarence and Edward.”
At twelve a Kirk essay about Edison and the light bulb, “Let There be Light!,” appeared in the local newspaper. That same year Kirk’s “Washington the Statesman” won first prize at the D.A.R. speech contest. Although the bibliography for this speech contains some sources which Kirk would later disown (e.g. H.G. Wells’ Outline of History), the rhetoric is quite impressive. Kirk opines: “To keep a new-born nation impoverished by a long war from bankruptcy, to ward off the clutching hands of ambitious monarchs, and to resist the temptations his high offices offered is fully as great a task as leading the same nation through a revolution.” Kirk concludes his speech: “His human shell has vanished, but the memory of George Washington, both as a statesman and as a soldier, will live in the hearts of his countrymen forever.”
At thirteen, Kirk wrote “The Desert,” a lengthy short story which begins with the first person narrator rather capriciously declaring: “I was in Bengazi when I decided to go to Timbuktu, the caravan center of Africa.” In the company of Ali and Adeb, his guides, the narrator battles his way across the desert, puts up in “fever-soaked” towns, outraces sandstorms, hides from rabid Arabs in Roman ruins, burns villages, and takes a steamer down the Nile. There are some very good passages, e.g.: “At once all was confusion. Adeb’s silver-embroidered dagger flashed in the sun and more than once saved my life.” Roman history clearly was one of Kirk’s favorite subjects. In a thirty page report on “Belissarius—Champion of Rome,” he writes in an astoundingly Gibbon-like style for such a young man: “In the most degenerate of ages there still exists the spirit of more glorious days; and the character of a hero shines even brighter by the contrast. So it is with the fame of the general Belissarius, whose whole life was a tale of glory and loyalty rewarded by envy and treachery.”
Russell Kirk was first published nationally at age seventeen, when his prize-winning essay “Mementos” was printed in Saplings, an anthology of writings by high school students. In “Mementos,” Kirk pores over various relics handed down through the generations by his ancestors: a miner’s poke from the gold rush of 1849, Civil War insignia, letters from the Spanish-American War, and various other dusty items. Each relic conjures up a period or an episode in American history:
Such legacies of the past are monuments to what was once America. Dumbly they tell of the desperate struggle with a new land, of the clashing of great armies, of the lives of vigorous individuals who are now dust, of the westward surge of a nation. They reveal iron wills and reckless courage and unsurpassed devotion and grim stubbornness and patient labor. They are a part of America itself. These mementos are all that many of them left to narrate the efforts and the passions of those unrecorded in history. There is humor in those letters, tragedy in those obituaries, bravery in those uniforms, and perseverance in that furniture. Despite all the wealth and pride we have gained by the efforts of these men and women, with all the luxury and culture which they toiled to give us, can we hope to be the people they were?
Aside from its skillful rhetoric, “Mementos” is particularly interesting because it so clearly foreshadows the concerns of the adult Russell Kirk. In 1982, forty-six years after “Mementos” was published, Kirk included in his Portable Conservative Reader what is perhaps his greatest short essay, “Cultural Debris.” This essay finds Kirk and a friend visiting used book stores in Scotland, sifting through the “cultural debris” of ages past, and strolling along Hadrian’s Wall pondering barbarians, both ancient and modern. It is a characteristic lament for the decadence of the modern world, suggesting by parallel that our civilization is marching in Roman footsteps. In its reverent look to the past, its nostalgic and elegant tone, its deep understanding of history, and its ability to reanimate “cultural debris,” “Mementos” is a young cousin to “Cultural Debris.” It is a testimony to the rock solid continuity of Russell Kirk’s thought that an essay written at sixteen is so close in spirit to the work of the mature man of letters.
After “Mementos,” there are few traces of youthful immaturity left in Kirk’s writings. By the time he was in college, Kirk was writing skillful stories like “Bird of Ill Omen,” which relates in quite satisfactory fashion, and rather Chestertonian manner, the visit of a fugitive anarchist to the home of the policeman who is pursuing him. There the anarchist ominously chats with the police officer’s unsuspecting wife before bolting.
While Kirk was still an undergraduate at Michigan State he began to submit scholarly articles to various journals. Kirk’s old friend William McCann relates that, when these articles were accepted, as they often were, the journals would write asking for a brief biography. In response, the author would jot down, “Russell Kirk is a junior at Michigan State University.” On one occasion, the editor wrote back, “Quit joshing. How could a college senior compose such a brainy, pungent piece on ‘Tragedy and the Moderns.’ You must at least be an instructor.”
Thus, as the mementos tell us, Russell Kirk was already an accomplished and talented writer before his twentieth birthday. Over the last fifty-five years he has written thirty books, hundreds of articles, reviews, and introductions, and thousands of newspaper columns. We may be certain that, as Kirk wrote of Washington, so it will be with him: when his human shell has vanished, his literary legacy will preserve his memory.
Matthew Davis, a former Kirk assistant and Wilbur Fellow, was at the time of writing a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia.
Posted: November 6, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.