Russell Kirk (1918-94); Kellie Gardens and Castle near St. Andrews.
Earlier today, I took one last walk through the
cold, damp, medieval streets of this remote university town, taking
in the splendors of this magical place. And upon my return to the old
overlooking the bay, I bade farewell to Annette Kirk, widow
of Russell Kirk, the famed author of the 1953 classic, The
Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
here, all the way over from Michigan, along with members of her
family and a coterie of American and European friends, to celebrate
anniversary of the publication of her late husband’s seminal work.
The book was essentially Kirk’s doctoral dissertation written while
at the University of St.
Andrews, the only American (as far as I know) ever to have
completed a Doctor of Letters degree here; so it seemed entirely
appropriate to commemorate its publication here.
was arguably the most important “architects” or “theorists”
of the nascent, self-conscious conservative movement of the 1950s.
It’s likely he would have eschewed such descriptors, since what he
argued about so eloquently was the negation of ideology and the
affirmation of a broader, fuller, and more humane vision of the
world. That’s in part why the publication of The
Conservative Mind by
Henry Regnery in 1953 was such a momentousand, as many would
realize a few years latera historic event. With it, Dr. Kirk gave
body to an intellectual tradition that previously had none; he gave
coherent expression to a collection of inclinations, dispositions,
and impulses that had never formally sought it. And, in practical
terms, he managed to give the growing coalition of classical
liberals, anti-Communists, and traditionalists the intellectual roots
around which they might coalesce, making them aware of a broad
inheritance which had remained inchoate for decades, if not
centuries. Kirk’s was essentially an act of articulation,
Left to right: George Nash, Michael Bentley, and David Willets.
I had not
seen Mrs. Kirk in about a decade. Thus, I was thrilled to find her
unchanged, her warmth and energy as infectious as ever. Since Dr.
Kirk’s death in 1994 (he would have turned 95 years old on Saturday
the 19th), Mrs. Kirk has managed to preserve her husband’s literary
legacy with her charm and dynamism, and the support of friends near
and far. This past weekend was a celebration of this legacy. And this
morning, amid the cold dampness of the Scottish dawn, the three-day
commemoration of the publication of Dr. Kirk’s most important work
came to a close.
weekend’s events began Friday evening, with friends and family, and
scholars associated with the Russell
Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, gathering for a private lecture
Gushurst-Moore, currently Director of Pastoral Care at Downside
School and author of the new The
Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas
More to Russell Kirk
(Angelico Press, 2013). He spoke beautifully about Dr. Kirk, putting
him in the context of a long tradition of humane letters.
Saturday morning, in the grand old Parliament Hall along South
Street, in the main room lined with old paintings of men of renown,
Dr. George H.
Nash, historian of the American conservative intellectual
movement, and the Right
Honourable David Willetts, UK Minister of State for Universities
and Sciences, gave eloquent presentations on the importance of The
Conservative Mind. They were
joined by Michael Bentley, professor of political and intellectual
history at the University of St. Andrews. They each spoke
affectionately, with obvious admiration, of the many lessons learned
from the “wandering seer of Mecosta”.
Saturday evening, to complement the morning presentations, Professor
Dudley Edwards, reader in Commonwealth and American history at
the University of Edinburgh, gave a dramatic presentation, full of
verve and brio, on Augustan Age figures, T.S. Eliot, and the place of
Russell Kirk in this Christian Humanist tradition.
magnificent speakers, and each offered sensitive interpretations of
Dr. Kirk’s work, displaying impressive mastery of Kirk’s works.
More importantly, however, the fellowship that took place in between
these talks made this celebration of Dr. Kirk’s work (and life)
precisely the kind of event of which he would have approved: Warmth,
gaiety, and joy were manifest throughout the weekend, brought
together under the wonderful, energetic, and “encompassing love”
that has long typified Annette Kirk and her family.
David Willets and Annette Kirk
So, as I
packed my bags this morning, I thought back to those early years
when, as an undergraduate, I traveled to Mecosta to attend student
seminars with Dr. Kirk at his home. Those were heady, magical times,
when I listened in rapt attention to his lectures, read care-free
late into the night, and spent hours dreaming about how I, too, might
be able to contribute to acts of preservation and restoration. But
Providence brings many unexpected surprises and many of those
youthful dreams have not come to pass; but I have never for once
forgotten the lessons learned during those short sojourns at Piety
weekend’s celebrations then, which brought together so many people
whose lives were touched by the Kirks, and who knew, admired, and
loved Dr. Kirk, were for me tangible reminders of exactly why Dr.
Kirk and his family are so important in my own life. For if there is
one thing that has always imbued and animated Dr. Kirk’s thought it
is a belief in a transcendent moral order; and if there is one thing
he strove constantly to remind us of it was to not despair, no matter
how bad things might look, and to remain hopeful. In an early column
written for a mid-western newspaper, Dr. Kirk reminded us that
although we are all unworthy, “sometimes we are suffused by a high
happiness” and that “the battleground of life is glorious despite
the hewing and hacking we have sustained.”
do well to remember this.