The Works of Russell Kirk

One of traditionalRIGHT’s mentors and my greatest inspiration is the late Dr. Russell Kirk. Dr. Kirk, whom I got to know late in his life, was in some ways the only real conservative in the post-war conservative movement clustered around William F. Buckley and National Review. The rest of the NR crowd was made up of a collection of anti-Communists and advocates of a free market economy, both worthy causes to be sure but not the essence of conservatism. Dr. Kirk knew that, and while he wrote a column for National Review, he also wrote vastly more, works that embodied the heart of conservative thought, not merely its capillaries.

The word “vast” is appropriate when referring to Russell Kirk’s works because he wrote a great deal. Fortunately for those who would know real conservatism, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2011 published a book-length bibliography, compiled by Charles C. Brown, of Dr. Kirk’s writings. The bibliography includes all his books, essays, columns, lectures, and novels (he wrote Gothic fiction) as well as translations of his works and reviews and other writings about him. The book, Russell Kirk: A Bibliography, is invaluable.

When facing the Everest that is Dr. Kirk’s published Nachlass, the question is, where to begin? It may be said of Russell Kirk, as of Samuel Johnson but few others, that everything he wrote may be read with profit. But neither that advice nor Charles Brown’s bibliography, which is not annotated, are enough for those approaching Mt. Kirk for the first time. So let me offer a bit of advice.

The best of Dr. Kirk’s books for the beginner is The Politics of Prudence. This work looks at a variety of components of the current conservative movement and topics facing contemporary conservatives from a genuinely conservative perspective. It warns conservatives at the outset against the foxfire of ideology. It discusses ten conservative principles, the conservative cause, ten conservative books, and ten exemplary conservatives . It considers Davidson and the Soutern Agrarians, the economics of Roepke, the cultural critique of the curmudgeonly Malcolm Muggeridge (who argued that “Once a society gets television, it is finished.”) and conservative populism. Prudence scourges the libertarians, cheers for the cultural conservatives (including a small institute I once led), recommends a foreign policy based on American interests (no “wars of choice,” please), warns against centralization, cautions about the risks of popular sovereignty, and ends with a dollop, no more, of hope. In short, it takes on a tour d’horizon of applied conservative thought, which is just the right place to start.

After The Politics of Prudence, he who would know real conservatism may plunge in where he wills, with Russell Kirk: A Bibliograghy as his guide. However, if he wishes to attain Everest’s summit, sooner or later he must tackle Dr. Kirk’s summa, the book which made his name and still his greatest, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. First published in 1953 and republished since in many new editions (some significantly different) , The Conservative Mind is essential reading for all conservatives who want to understand what they are at. I will not attempt to summarize it here, as it is too weighty for that. But if you want to know what traditionalRIGHT is all about, read it you must. If it daunts you at first, it quickly becomes a pleasure.

Dr. Kirk’s style was somewhat antique when he was writing, and may strike the reader as more so today. Remember that “antique” usually means higher, not lower, and better, not worse. Learn from it. You too may someday write.

Bon Voyage!