Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Russell Kirk: American Conservative

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Russell Kirk: American Conservative

Article excerpt

Russell Kirk: American Conservative. By Bradley J. Birzer. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Pp. viii, 574. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8131-6618-6.)

Over the past several years a number of commentators have explored various facets of political theorist Russell Kirk's thought and "imagination." Among the best of these are W. Wesley McDonald's Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology (Columbia, Mo., 2004) and Gerald J. Russello's The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (Columbia, Mo., 2007). Now arrives Bradley J. Birzer's big biography, which will immediately become the standard life-and-times account of Kirk.

This work offers a full portrait, appropriately devoting most of its pages to Kirk's writings, politics, and critical role as an intellectual engage helping elucidate a conservative tradition in America. Kirk's scholarship, particularly his important book The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago, 1953), challenged the notion advanced by much of the postwar professoriat that the country's political philosophy, as a rule, trended liberal. In effect, he gave the Right a respectable intellectual heritage, which included Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Adams, and Irving Babbitt. More than sixty years after publication, it remains an iconic text among conservatives.

The strengths of Birzer's biography are numerous. Birzer, a historian at Hillsdale College, has immersed himself in Kirk's oeuvre, reading not simply his subject's major writings but also Kirk's many opinion pieces, articles, and novels. He ventures into Kirk's psychology and makes altogether reasonable and insightful observations about Kirk's search for faith and community, delight in the gothic, and antisocial pose as an undergraduate at Michigan College, now Michigan State University, before flowering in Scotland, where he completed his graduate work at the University of St. Andrews. He was a Catholic convert who swore he saw sundry fairies, goblins, and ghosts throughout his life. …

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