Russell Kirk: Catholic, Christian humanist, and old-school, American conservative

Bradley Birzer’s new biography of Kirk is also a map to 20th-century American (and western European) political thought and a work of blunt but sophisticated cultural criticism

One my favorite books of 2015 was a new and exceptional biography of Russell Kirk, a man of letters whose many writings helped me understand, rethink, and contemplate a host of topics when I was in my twenties. As I explained:

My friend Bradley J. Birzer has been working on Russell Kirk: American Conservative (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) for several years, and the result is impressive. Not only is it is a biography (with recourse to hundreds of unpublished letters and papers), it is a map to 20th-century American (and western European) political thought and a work of blunt but sophisticated cultural criticism. Those who think Rush Limbaugh and FOX News embody “conservatism” need to read this book and be happily corrected. 

Now my review of the book has been published in Chronicles; here is a snippet:

Kirk was not a “conservative” in any mainstream, talk-radio, FOX News sort of way; he was, in his own unique and occasionally eccentric and difficult way, a Christian humanist, a point that Birzer emphasizes throughout.  As strange as it initially sounds, the author of The Conservative Mind believed that although

conservatism offered an excellent critique of society, he knew it did not necessarily provide answers or solutions to current problems or to whatever future problems might arise in the world. . . . Christian humanism, he concluded, offered a permanent solution to conservatism’s shortcomings.

With that in mind, Kirk worked tirelessly to “create a coherent Christian humanist movement and republic of letters to counter the century’s radical ideologies.”

Three qualities make this a splendid book.  First, Birzer demonstrates, with tremendous skill and wide-ranging research, how Kirk focused on “the whole, the universal principles that hold one person and one culture together at any one moment of time and across time.”  Put another way, Kirk saw the deeply organic nature of culture—that is, of the soil of cult, or Christian belief, and the life that springs from it—and how it relates to everything else.  This is not surprising when one considers that the three greatest intellectual influences that shaped Kirk were Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, and Christopher Dawson. 

Second, Birzer shows how Kirk interacted and grappled with the work and thought of a tremendous range of intellectuals, authors, philosophers, and theologians: Augustine, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, Babbitt, Eliot, Leo Strauss, Dawson, Robert Nisbet, Eric Voegelin, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and many more.  Thus, the biography sometimes ignores chronology in order better to examine “the intellectual development of Kirk’s mind and ideas, giving special attention to his intellectual heritage . . . ”  In a superb section titled Vital Relations: The Friendships, Birzer relates fascinating details about Kirk’s relations with several contemporaries.  We learn, for instance, that Kirk and Flannery O’Connor first met in October 1955, after O’Connor traveled 340 miles from Georgia to Nashville to hear Kirk lecture—only to discover that she had missed the lecture by two days.  Fortunately, they ended up being guests at the home of mutual friends, Brainard and Fanny Cheney.  Although the two greatly admired each other, they were both very shy; O’Connor told a friend that their attempts to converse resembled “the efforts of two midgets to cut down a California redwood.”  O’Connor gave a reading of her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which Kirk described as “comic and terrifying and real.”  Her performance, he later noted, “echoes in my ears still.”  He found O’Connor to be “brilliant” and believed, Birzer writes, “that O’Connor understood the complexities and mysteries of the human person, each unique, dignified, and unrepeatable.”

Read the entire review on the Chronicles‘ site. Then consider reading the biography; then read some Kirk. There is something for everyone: fiction, biography, political philosophy, cultural criticism, history, literary criticism, polemics, and so much more. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.