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Russell Kirk died at his home in Michigan on April 29 at the age of 75. He will be missed by many, not the least by his friends at Touchstone. Dr. Kirk was a founder of the modern conservative movement, and it was for that role and his ongoing role as a historian, writer, and educator that he was honored by Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Citizens Award. Among Kirk’s thirty books was his foundational The Conservative Mind, published in 1953, followed by The Age of T. S. Eliot, The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, and The Politics of Prudence, just to name a few. Some of my favorite essays are found in his The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics—they are lucid, intelligent, witty, and for the enjoyment as well as education of the reader. Kirk also founded two journals, Modern Age and The University Bookman.
While Kirk was influential as a historian and social critic in some political circles, the heart of his mission was the recovery of the “moral imagination.” His Christian faith was naturally allied with his emphasis on the continuity of tradition and the maintenance of a virtuous social order, and it was this combination that drew Touchstone into collaboration with him on several occasions. We were privileged to publish an original article by Kirk, “T. S. Eliot on Literary Morals” (Vol. 4, No. 3), to reprint one of his essays, “The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man” (Vol. 4, No. 2), and one of his Heritage Foundation lectures, “Civilization Without Religion?” (Vol. 6, No. 1).
In addition to the contribution of those articles, Russell Kirk also was a friend of Touchstone. We received one of our earliest endorsements from Kirk. He was chairman of a small foundation in California that on two occasions gave us grants. These came at a critical time in the development of the infant journal, and I wish to pay tribute to him for his kindness and for what I trust will prove to have been his foresight in helping a journal that would rightfully flourish.
A Personal Encounter
I cannot pretend to have known Kirk well, but I became acquainted with him sufficiently to regret that I did not get to know him better. A consummate and cheerful gentleman, Kirk exemplified what is finest in the Judeo-Christian heritage in America. The genuine cordiality and hospitality of Kirk and his wife, Annette, as many others also have remarked, will certainly not be forgotten.
I encountered that hospitality during my first and only visit to Kirk’s central Michigan home, Piety Hill, in 1990. When I arrived on a cool day in May, Kirk welcomed me in to converse in the living room of his Italinate ancestral home. After a good beginning, we went out with his wife for lunch in the town’s only restaurant, a humble but congenial place. After lunch, they invited me to browse in the library, a separate building on the property and originally an old toy factory. I was welcome to spend the afternoon there and return to the house at four for tea. I felt privileged to have just spent two hours becoming acquainted with Kirk and looked forward to one more conversation.
I was curious about the library, particularly about the magazines there, because I wanted to find periodicals Touchstone readers might be interested in —and periodicals whose readers might be interested in Touchstone. So I browsed through the magazines on the second floor and took many notes. I then headed downstairs to investigate the books. In the stairwell I saw a framed and signed photograph of Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office awarding the Presidential Citizens Award to Russell Kirk. Somehow, I had not known about it—and I realized even more than I had previously the significance of Kirk, a man who left his university teaching post years ago to write from this humble Michigan town. Downstairs I found a few books, then retreated into a comfortable chair.
Then Kirk came in and asked me how I was faring. He started a fire in the fireplace, pulled up a chair before a desk that had a manual typewriter and began to type. I then realized that the room Kirk had invited me to spend some time in was not only the library, it was his writing study! He made me feel completely at ease, and seemed quite content to work with me sitting there, occasionally making a remark, sometimes with a twinkle in his eye. Once the phone rang, and after several minutes of conversation with someone on the East Coast, Kirk turned and looked across the room toward me. He asked if I could recommend a speaker for a particular event. Surprised, I think I blurted out something like, “How about Thomas Howard?”
Dr. Kirk, after giving me a copy of The Intemperate Professor to take back with me and permission to publish one of its essays, walked with me over to the house for tea while we talked about the kinds of trees and bushes he had planted on the property. At the house, Annette joined us. Dr. Kirk brought in and served the tea, and the three of us spoke for another hour about theologians—Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox—education, colleges, our families, journals, and the work they were doing at Piety Hill, particularly with college students who visited and stayed during the summers for seminars. I realized that this home was a hospitable hub of activity, welcome to students, inquirers, teachers, writers, and others. At five o’clock I finally left, with an invitation to return sometime and spend a night at Piety Hill.
I again saw Kirk in Seattle that summer of 1990, where he was the keynote speaker at the conference “In Celebration of the Permanent Things.” He attended the lectures and patiently listened to the speakers and to the participants’ questions. One of the speakers told another speaker that he was amazed at Kirk, who knew as much or more than most speakers there—yet Kirk would patiently sit through every lecture, not challenging things he knew Kirk must have disagreed with.
At the closing banquet of the Seattle conference, Kirk sat at a back table with me, then managing editor of this fledging journal, and one of our writers, Steven Faulkner, and his wife. Throughout dinner Kirk was the finest of table companions, displaying humor and genuine interest in us, the not-so-famous. At one point he pulled out a few photographs taken at his home. I was surprised by one showing Kirk in front of a snowy Michigan landscape cheerfully standing beside Malcolm Muggeridge, also smiling with delight—two happy kindred spirits in winter—both, alas, no longer with us.
That evening sadly was cut short since I had to leave early to catch a flight to Chicago. I reluctantly and rather awkwardly had to leave Kirk at the table in the middle of the main address. I did not see him again. After that we exchanged a few letters and phone calls, but despite a standing invitation, my trip back to the stump country of central Michigan was, regrettably, never made. Yet the impact of our first and second meeting has never faded and is a gift for which I am grateful.
The Long View
In the language of current ideology, while his adversaries may disagree, Russell Kirk belonged to neither right nor left—nor center—but in essence belonged to that deeper level at the very root of our social and religious traditions. During my visit to Piety Hill, Kirk described the simple essence of conservatism: it is not an ideology, but the commitment to and passing on of received tradition. The roots of our social order, particularly embodied in the Christian faith, transcend the passing ideologies of left or right and have nourished generations in an organic fashion beyond the reach of the ideologues. The slogan-based diatribes of what passes for rhetoric in the current political and culture wars between so-called Right and Left would not pass muster with Kirk, who argued for civil discourse in an uncivil age. Such discourse requires patience and taking the long view.
T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr., observed that Kirk “was a man who planted trees throughout his life as a symbol of our duty to strive for good we may not live to see.” At least part of Kirk’s genius was the subordination of his ego to the larger things in life, the permanent things—truth, beauty, and the virtues through which we sometimes only fleetingly glimpse the image of God. Kirk did not draw attention to Kirk any more than the farmer draws attention to himself. Kirk was a planter, trusting in the inherent goodness of the soil, in the “unbought grace of life,” to produce in time a harvest of virtue. Whatever fruit does come—and it will and already has—will not be a testament to an innovator or crusader but to one who recognized and submitted himself to the grace of the Creator in whom we all live.
—James M. Kushiner