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Russell Kirk: A Kindly Introduction

December 26, 2016

Three thinkers shaped American conservatism in the wake of World War Two. Of the three, Russell Kirk was the most comprehensive. His writings are both voluminous and formidable. For those who have never met Kirk in print, Dermot Quinn provides and introduction to the man and his commitments at The Imaginative Conservative. His essay is “Religion and the Conservative Mind.”

He was an old-fashioned man—courtly, retiring, serene, formal in dress and manner—whose view of the world, proclaimed by every photograph, was traditional, anti-modern, even obscure. Captured in his study, his library, his home, surrounded by pens, books, family, and friends, he looks every bit the paternalist man of letters, a figure unmistakably of the past. To critics, he was a sort of mid-western Evelyn Waugh, tweedy, fustian, fond of a dram, a contramundum crank. To friends, he was a man who knew the good life and lived it to the full, preaching domestic joys and practicing them with panache. To the unpersuaded, Kirk’s social poise was social pose. By dress and manner, by truculent toryism, he mocked a world he did not understand. To the persuaded, he understood the world too well and wanted nothing to do with it. Certainly, his conservatism seemed at times compounded of complaint and cussedness. Mass production and mass consumption, history forgotten, the old ways of faith at a loss: If this was modernity, it was not for him. His home at Piety Hill, with its simpler commerce of family life, seasonal change, sacramental connection to the land, was more to his taste. In one sense, critics who dismiss him as a right-wing type, a persona, get the point yet miss it entirely. He played a role he wrote himself, actor and lines in perfect harmony. As for the part, he was proud to call himself Catholic, gentleman, husband, father, a man of letters, friend. These were badges of honor, not (as the psychologizers would have it) social masks concealing some more authentic self. “Manners maketh man” said William of Wykeham in the fourteenth century. The style is the thing itself. Kirk embodied the dictum. Of all men, he was mannerly, courteous, self-consciously gallant. At the heart of that manner, at the core of his private being, was religion. When the pen was laid down and the last letter written, he remained a man of God.

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