Mr. Watkins is assistant editor of The Freeman.
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was proof of the power of individuals. Kirk’s influence on the blossoming of contemporary American conservative thought cannot be measured. His 30 books on everything from economics to history will inspire their readers for years to come.
Kirk’s final work, completed shortly before his death in April 1994, ranks among his best. The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict contains his entertaining and informative ruminations spanning the 1920s to the 1990s. It is a personal chronicle of tumultuous times that anyone interested in ideas should not miss.
How Russell Kirk, enemy of omnipotent government, became interested in ideas and began his higher education is indeed ironic. As his secondary education drew to a close, Kirk felt he had had enough formal learning. Fortunately, he was persuaded by his high school principal to apply for a scholarship to Michigan State College. So as not to appear rude to the principal, Kirk applied for and won a scholarship that he really didn’t want. “Off he went to college against his will,” writes Kirk in the third person that he uses throughout the work, “having nothing better to do during the Roosevelt Recession in 1936. . . .” Hence, we can credit the New Deal and its ruinous economic policies as the impetus behind the career of one of this century’s great men of letters.
The year after he finished his formal education with a Doctor of Letters degree from St. Andrews in Scotland, Kirk published his most influential book, The Conservative Mind. He went on to become one of the intellectual leaders of the conservative movement as he clearly delineated its principles. The America of the 1950s was still very much FDR’s America. Voices of opposition to statist policies were not welcomed, much less understood.
Kirk describes the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower by the Republican convention in 1952 as an enormous setback for conservatism. Had the delegates not betrayed Senator Robert A. Taft, whom Kirk describes as the true leader of the party at the time, “the United States might have entered early upon far-reaching conservative measures. . . .” So instead of the repeal of the New Deal, the United States got the interstate highway system. Defeats of principle like this are one reason why Kirk almost titled The Conservative Mind, The Conservatives’ Rout instead.
The publication of The Conservative Mind was a watershed event. It helped give coherence to an inchoate opposition to the fads of modernity. The book sparked debate and revived interest in such seminal thinkers as John C. Calhoun and John Adams. Now in its seventh edition, the book continues to inspire thought in new readers as well as old. It is destined to become part of The Permanent Things that Kirk loved so dearly.
Of course his memoirs don’t stop with The Conservative Mind. Kirk goes on to recount how the political climate of the nation slowly changed. “The Remnant he had addressed had grown in numbers,” writes Kirk approvingly, “now and again it had taken a town or a castle.” Though it would be presumptuous to credit Kirk for the victories, his influence should not be given short shrift. Russell Kirk made an enormous difference in the intellectual environment.
Kirk’s memoirs are an honest and enlightening account of the intellectual battles of the past half-century. The Sword of Imagination is testimony to a life lived in defense of principle. It is a proper farewell from a giant of our times.