Herein lies one of my greatest failings as a book reviewer: I am too slow. Too slow to get the books read. Too slow to get the reviews written. Sometimes, too slow to understand what the books are about. On the other hand, I am quick at starting books. A few pages in and I often find myself saying, “This is great.” I want digress into yet another problem which is that I am too easily pleased, informed, amused, and enamored by the books I read. I don’t have enough critical faculties to dislike the books I review, and I usually avoid picking and reviewing books I suspect I will dislike.
This brings us to Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk, edited by James E. Person, Jr. and published by the University of Kentucky Press. I have tried to make myself race through this book. I have attempted to be like the high school or college student who has procrastinated but now must get the book read before the upcoming test. But I cannot.
This book is divided into six decades from Kirk’s life. He lived from 1918 to 1994, but the letters cover the decades starting with the 1940’s. We get glimpses of Kirk’s experiences and thoughts during World War II. He was far from the fronts, for he was located in the American west, but he did comment on events from that time. From there, we see Kirk as a student in Scotland and a teacher in Michigan. Over the years, he was constantly corresponding with literary figures, publishers, and political thinkers regarding upcoming writing ventures and book reviews.
Just as we often don’t want our children to grow up too fast, I don’t want to get to the end of this book too fast. I am at a point where Kirk is not yet close to William F. Buckley, Jr., but that bond will be starting soon. Letter by letter, the man who wrote books on conservative thought and who became one of the key leaders in the conservative movement is in the process of “becoming” as the book develops.
Let’s pause here and look at the bigger picture for a moment. Now is an important time for reading, thinking, and teaching people to grasp something of the conservative movement. Don’t think that conservatism is what you hear on talk radio, what is represented by the Trump Administration, what is broadcast on Fox News, or what the Republican Party embraces. Granted, there are conservative aspects found in all of the above. But what passes for conservatism that is loved by many and hated and caricatured by others is not to be strictly identified with the conservative movement that Kirk adhered to.
For example, popular (or populist) conservatism tends to be solely consumed with politics, elections, and fear-mongering conspiracies. Who are the great literary figures we associate today with conservatism? Brad Thor? (I like Brad Thor’s Scot Harvath novels quite a lot.) Great conservative man he is, but not a great literary figure. Who are the great political philosophers we associate with conservatism today? Rush or Glenn Beck? (Please stop laughing.)
Russell Kirk rightly associated conservatism with literary figures like T. S. Eliot, with whom he was a friend and of whom he wrote a book about. Kirk’s pantheon of political philosophers included men like Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott (also a literary figure), John Randolph, Richard Weaver, and Cicero.
Conservatism was not a set of bullet points. Nor was it a series of panic-driven conspiratorial links, blogs, and radio hosts. Conservatism was deeply rooted in thought and tradition. And it wasn’t a uniform list of approved and accepted voices from the past. Conservatives from that era disagreed sharply over which figures of the past they should embrace and which they should eschew.
The breadth of thought, the exceedingly wide range of intellectual interests, and the mental explorations of meaning are what made men like Russell Kirk so valuable in their time. It is what makes them still challenging and rewarding to read. Add to that this feature, these were men and women of the full range of life. Kirk enjoyed food, drink, travel, conversation, art, beauty, and life. While it was later in life that he joined the Catholic Church, he recognized the centrality of a moral order rooted in the God of the Bible. While it was relatively late in life that he married, he delighted in family and home life.
His story is aptly and enjoyably told in the book Russell Kirk: American Conservative by Bradley Birzer. It was one of the best books I read in 2017. This collection of letters gives yet another biographical look at the man, in this case through his own words. Both books are published by the University of Kentucky Press. Both are real gems.
Russell Kirk wrote quite a few books over his lifetime. Some are in depth studies of topics (conservative thought, the Constitution, economics, etc.) or individuals (such as Eliot or John Randolph or Edmund Burke). He also wrote ghost stories and other fiction. Gone now for over two decades, his wit and wisdom are still much needed today. In an age of unimaginative conservatism, we need Kirk–the Imaginative Conservative.