The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

Russell Kirk and the Conservative Heart
Mark C. Henrie - 01/12/11

As can be seen on the First Principles homepage, the topic and principle of "individual liberty" is being addressed on this web-journal. While it is important, perennial, and timely to discuss such a topic in theory, it is also worthwhile to consider how certain individuals have employed and encountered their own liberty in order to live a life well lived.

In this essay, Mark C. Henrie addresses Russell Kirk, his autobiography, and his seminal work The Conservative Mind. We get a glance at Kirk the man in Henrie's piece:

In The Sword of Imagination (1995), his autobiography and his last book, the late Russell Kirk (1918–1994) completed a lifetime of chastening the unruly passions and interests of modern men. In that book, a reader in search of confessional display and melancholy introspection is quickly confounded, as the dean of the conservative intellectual movement in America recounts a life of much incident, both public and private, a life, as he calls it, of “literary conflict.” And yet, as written, it remains a life in which the figure of Kirk stands at a distance, just beyond our grasp in his decorous equanimity. It is a life of formal reserve, propriety in the midst of domestic happiness; and it is a life that ends in quiet gratitude for the graces which are acknowledged to be such, unmerited. So little does Kirk’s memoir meet our modern expectation of the form that we are perplexed: why go to the trouble to write a memoir, only to hide one’s “authentic” self behind a mask of eighteenth-century pious platitudes?

Most extraordinarily, a modern reader is confounded by Kirk’s decision to write his memoirs in the third person, thereby definitively frustrating the hunger for novelistic self-disclosure. Surely—one can hear the irritated objection—this is simply impossible, this is affectation gone too far. To some critics, this last stylistic choice constituted a kind of proof that Kirk could be dismissed as no thinker, but only a poseur practicing an elaborate form of the “Tory harrumph.”

To read Henrie’s full essay, click here.

For more from Russell Kirk, read The Essential Russell Kirk (ISI Books).

To learn more about Kirk and conservative thought, visit the ISI short course on American Conservative Thought .

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