The life and times of Russell Kirk

  • The book: The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, by Russell Kirk, William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Co., 497 pages, $34.99.

  • The reviewer: John Attarian is a free-lance writer in Ann Arbor.

  • By John Attarian

    The late Russell Kirk was a great, if underappreciated Michigan scholar and man of letters who articulated modern American conservatism's intellectual foundations. Born in Plymouth and living mostly in his ancestral home of Piety Hill at Mecosta, he wrote authoritative works on T.S. Eliot, Edmund Burke and John Randolph, and searchingly criticized higher education. Kirk's memoirs prove a fascinating survey of the "adventures and ruminations" of a full and exemplary life.

    The memoirs, like the man, are reserved, quiet, dignified to stateliness and written in the detached third person. Completed shortly before his death last year, The Sword of Imagination's episodic narrative skillfully weaves in aspects of Kirk's world view, dozens of keenly observant portraits of friends and foes from Eliot and Richard Weaver to Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and assessments of life and modern times. The result is not only superb autobiography, but a substantive, richly varied and highly readable work of ideas.

    The book's title is apt. Kirk shared Napoleon's knowledge that imagination governs the world. He vividly recounts his realization when seven years old that a non-material reality exists, "that he had a soul; no, that he was a soul." It was decisive for Kirk's life. "With recognition of one's soul, identity is established. This insight gave the boy whatever strength he was to possess in later years. He knew who he was, with his failings and powers." Kirk was free to pursue serenely his life's work.

    A colossal work it was. Despite far-flung travels, frequent lecturing, teaching and political work, Kirk founded and edited Modern Age and The University Bookman quarterly; produced 30 books; wrote hundreds of essays, articles and book reviews, as well as a nationally syndicated newspaper column and, for a quarter-century, a feature page in National Review. Kirk's reserve allows, alas, no glimpse of his work habits, but his powers of concentration and work must have been tremendous.

    Russell Kirk emerges in these pages as paradoxical man: Happy to live quietly at Mecosta, writing, walking, planting trees, yet embroiled in the action and passion of his time - Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, a successful battle against Michigan's Proposal B (abortion on demand) in 1972. Reserved and formal in speech, manner and dress, yet popular among youth, even heartily applauded by Students for a Democratic Society chapters when he spoke on campuses against radicalism. Quitting academe disgustedly over collapsing educational standards, seemingly consigning himself to impoverished oblivion, yet achieving an influence and stature most professors never reach.

    He was without ambition, unmaterialistic, by his own admission making few positive decisions in life, but led providentially on a path to joy. "Once a man has chosen, even though unconsciously," he writes, "a power begins to work upon him. Things are put in one's way; doors are opened..."

    One door opened in 1960, when he met Annette Courtemanche, a generation his junior. Their friendship led to a gentle courtship, a joyous wedding in 1964 (when Kirk was 46) and a loving, fulfilling marriage. Besides blessing him with four daughters, Mrs. Kirk opened Piety Hill to a stream of visitors, from scholars attending seminars to political refugees and unwed mothers needing help and sympathy, which the Kirks gave abundantly.

    Russell Kirk revered his cultural patrimony: Christianity and its ethos of personal responsibility and self-restraint; the high culture and "unbought grace of life" embodied in Britain's aristocracy, which he admired; the society of strong families and other wholesome Burkean "little platoons," unmolested by a limited government; high standards of conduct and intellect. Modernity assaulted this patrimony ferociously on all fronts in his lifetime. His memoirs recount his valiant protective swordsmanship.

    It was long a losing struggle, and Kirk records - stoically, without rancor - the decline of religion; the spread of social boredom and its evil consequences, including crime and the Sixties' student rebellion; higher education's decay. His column's circulation shrank because he stoutly supported Goldwater and Nixon. His house accidentally burned down in 1975.

    "But "cheerfulness keeps breaking in," he often wrote, and as Kirk persevered the yeast of his writings was working; events were vindicating him. Americans became more conservative, electing Reagan president twice. By the '90s, Kirk counted many disciples and many friends - including Gov. John Engler - among the rising generation.

    Russell Kirk died too soon, but died content - and with reason. In his closing pages, he affirms that life is worth living and writes that he had sought three ends. First, "to defend the Permanent Things ... to conserve a patrimony of order, justice and freedom; a tolerable moral order; and an inheritance of culture." Second, "to lead a life of decent independence." Finally, "to marry for love and to rear children who would come to know that the service of God is perfect freedom."

    In all this, Kirk adds, he succeeded and he was grateful. So are those whose lives he touched. In The Sword of Imagination, we see why.