Ghost over the Conservative Graveyard

By McDonald, W. Wesley | The American Conservative, January 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

Ghost over the Conservative Graveyard


McDonald, W. Wesley, The American Conservative


Ghost Over the Conservative Graveyard [The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, edited by George A. Panichas, ISI Books, 578 pages]

RUSSELL KIRK (1918-94) burst upon the American intellectual scene in 1953 with the publication of his third book, The Conservative Mind. His discovery of an Anglo-American tradition of conservative ideas beginning with the 18th-century British thinker, Edmund Burke, catapulted the 35-year-old Michigan college professor of history from obscurity into national prominence. Recognized as a leading intellectual figure, his books were reviewed favorably in Time and Newsweek magazines and the New York Times. Newsweek hailed him as "one of the foremost intellectual spokesmen for the conservative position."

By the 1980s, though, all had changed. Kirk suffered neglect not only from the intellectual and media establishment, but even from many within the very movement he helped found. Following his death, two intellectual biographies have been written about him. A third book by Gerald Russello will be published next spring. George A. Panichas' superbly edited compilation of Kirk's essays provides further evidence that a welcomed and long overdue revival of interest in Kirk's thought is now underway.

Author of over 30 books and hundreds of essays, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and a regular contributor to National Review, Kirk wore many hats in his long and varied career. He was a leading spokesmen for the conservative movement, adviser to presidents, a scholar, educational reformer, a writer of ghostly tales, and, lastly and most proudly for him, a "man of letters."

The product of five years of meticulous editing, The Essential Kirk lives up to its title. Even though Kirk's essays have been anthologized before (mostly by Kirk himself), this collection is the first to cover the entire spectrum of his life's work. Panichas, a prolific literary scholar and critic, present editor of Modern Age, and a long-time friend of Kirk, has gleaned 43 representative writings from Kirk's canon, including essays, reviews, review-essays, prefatory pieces, public addresses, and entire chapters from books. Without Panichas' efforts, many of these pieces would have languished unread in hard-to-find journals and out-of-print books.

Panichas groups his selections thematically into nine sections to "identify the particular locales of the battles in which [Kirk] was engaged" and "encompass the strategies and tactics of the general warfare which demanded from him the utmost effort, tenacity, courage, belief." He introduces each section with a brief interpretive essay, and each interpretive essay is preceded by a descriptive head note. The bibliography includes works by Kirk and about him. Panichas has also compiled a useful narrative chronology of Kirk's life excerpted from Kirk's memoirs, The Sword of Imagination.

"The selections featured in this work," observes Panichas in his long, informative preface, "are indicative of Kirk's gifts as an essayist, critic, and lecturer." Whether they are about history, literature, morals, politics, economics, or religion, none of these essays can be considered as mere "fugitive" pieces of writing. The "interaction and interdependence between" these essays demonstrate the "unity and harmony" and "distinct character and discipline" exemplified in Kirk's thinking. His works "unfailingly return to a moral center ... there is always a state of judgment, a central creed and identity, to which he comes back again and again for support and ratification."

More than most who have written about Kirk, Panichas understands the importance of the concept of the moral imagination to Kirk's moral teaching. Kirk described the moral imagination, a term coined by Edmund Burke, as "that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment"; especially as found in "the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art. …

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