Russell Kirk Shaped Conservative Thought from a Northern Michigan Farm

When Russell Kirk quit the faculty of Michigan State College in 1953, he owned one of the hottest résumés of any professor in the country. He had published more than a dozen articles in various journals that year—a fine achievement in the “publish or perish” world of higher education. More important, he was the author of a brand-new book, The Conservative Mind, which was winning rave reviews in all the right places. It would go on to become one of the most influential works of political thought in the 20th century and would position Kirk to eventually be regarded as a founding father of modern conservative thought. He was also relatively young—at just 34 years of age, Kirk stood at the dawn of what promised to be a long and bright career in academics.

Yet he gave it all up for an independent life of letters in rural Michigan. Kirk brushed aside overtures from several schools and instead he took up residence in “stump country,” a reference to what the lumberjacks had left behind years earlier. 

Specifically, he moved to Mecosta, a speck of a town east of Big Rapids. As a boy, he had spent summers there. It was his ancestral home, founded by a great-grandfather and his nephew. Kirk joined a couple of spinster aunts and became a self-described “bohemian Tory” who dressed formally, kept nocturnal hours and collected a personal library of more than 10,000 volumes.

From this unlikely perch, Kirk pounded out thousands of newspaper and magazine columns, hundreds of essays and more than two dozen books. In addition to this mix of scholarship and journalism, he wrote award-winning ghost stories and novels of Gothic horror. He eventually married a woman almost a generation younger. Together, they raised four daughters and provided a home to an assortment of college students, wandering hobos and international refugees. Until his death in 1994, Kirk led one of the most unconventional and extraordinary careers of any American writer.

Russell Amos Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan, in 1918. He was bookish from the start, and showed a flair for writing. Upon the urging of his high-school principal, he applied for a scholarship to Michigan State and won it. Much of his learning actually took place outside of the classroom and on his own. To feed an appetite for knowledge, Kirk spent what little money he had on secondhand books. He otherwise subsisted on a diet of peanut butter and crackers. During breaks, he worked as a guide at Greenfield Village in Dearborn.

That’s where he was on December 7, 1941, when he learned about Pearl Harbor. He had just completed a master’s degree at Duke University, and his thesis, on the 19th-century Virginia politician John Randolph, was coming out from the University of Chicago Press. Within months, this studious young man was in the Army, spending most of the war at a proving ground for chemical weapons in Utah. There, he edited a camp newspaper, working so late into the night that his superiors exempted him from reveille. “Those Army years would seem almost a prolonged vacation at public expense,” he recalled.

After the war, he returned to East Lansing as a lecturer, but he began to scorn what he considered its low academic standards, which were “calculated to encourage the conditioned response of the indoctrinated mediocre student rather than the calculated judgment of the serious student.” The G.I. Bill helped him escape to Scotland, where he enrolled in a doctoral program. He took a leave from Michigan State, and began what would become his seminal book, The Conservative Mind.

At a time when conservative principles are reshaping American law and culture, it is difficult to imagine that half a century ago, the conservative movement barely existed. Its few adherents struggled against the widespread perception, voiced by 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, that they comprised “the stupid party.” The literary critic Lionel Trilling equated conservative thought to “irritable mental gestures.”

Into this environment stepped Kirk, who claimed that conservatives were the inheritors of a proud tradition whose members included the likes of Edmund Burke, John Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This genealogy was idiosyncratic as well as useful: it presented conservatives with an intellectual pedigree that they sorely needed.

“Before Kirk came along, conservatives didn’t even know what to call themselves,” said Lee Edwards, a historian at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “After Kirk, they had a name for themselves.”

In The Conservative Mind, Kirk outlined a set of basic principles that defined conservatism, such as belief in a divine moral order, an understanding that private property and political freedom are linked, and a disapproval of radical change. Above all, Kirk insisted on a deep respect for time-tested traditions: “Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements; but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose.” He often made this point by stating, simply, “The individual is foolish, the species is wise.”

Kirk was a strong supporter of conventionally conservative politicians such as Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and John Engler (who represented Mecosta in the Michigan legislature before becoming governor). Yet his brand of conservatism wasalso distinctive. In its application, many of today’s conservatives would recognize only parts. Kirk regarded culture as far more important than economics—he rarely bothered himself with tax policy and viewed capitalism itself with some apprehension.

What’s more, he was so skeptical of foreign entanglements that he cast a presidential vote in 1944 for Norman Thomas, a socialist and pacifist who opposed U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Later, Kirk criticized the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and the Gulf War in 1991. He also held a dim view of technology, never owning a drivers license (he said cars were “mechanical Jacobins”) and hating television. One time, when he caught a daughter watching the tube, he cut its power cord and hurled “the accursed set” from a high window.

By the time Kirk finished his doctoral studies in Scotland, he concluded that although he might have made a career as a professor, he didn’t want one. Shortly after the release of The Conservative Mind, he informed the administration at Michigan State that he didn’t want to return. He resettled in Mecosta and spent the rest of his days at the old farmstead, ahome, barn and assorted outbuildings he called Piety Hill.

Kirk typically woke late, answered correspondence in the afternoon, and worked on his books and articles when the sun went down. He dressed formally, even when he didn’t plan on seeing anybody in particular. Ties were a regular part of hiswardrobe, including a favorite bolo tie that was fastened by a Petoskey stone cut into the shape of the Lower Peninsula. His jackets were specially tailored to include what he called a “poacher’s pocket” on the inside—a pocket big enough to let him carry a book wherever he went. He also loved to go on long walks, often planting trees in areas that had been clear-cut many years earlier.

Although Kirk could be painfully shy—his publisher once described him as “about as communicative as a turtle”—he was no hermit. He engaged himself in Michigan politics, fighting for the preservation of rural schools. He also became a bit of a celebrity in right-leaning intellectual circles. He lectured on college campuses and traveled extensively. He founded a pair of small publications, Modern Age and The University Bookman, which remain in print. He continued to write at a feverish pace. Kirk said that he “never understood how a man could get work done if he sat all day in an office at New York or Washington, at the mercy of all comers.”

Yet even in Mecosta there was the occasional comer. One of them was William F. Buckley, Jr., a young man who was planning to start a political magazine. He flew to Michigan in 1955 with the hope of persuading Kirk to become a columnist. Upon his arrival in Mecosta, Buckley stopped at a pay phone and asked for Dr. Kirk’s number.

“You looking for Russell?” inquired the operator. “He’s at the store right now.” The two men met and went out for dinner and drinks. Kirk accepted Buckley’s offer, beginning a formal association with National Review that would last for 25 years.

“The evening proceeded toward a pitch of such genial exuberance that, at nearly midnight, I was barely able to drive back to Piety Hill,” recalled Buckley, who went straight to bed. The next morning, he received a lesson in his host’s work habits: Kirk had stayed up all night to write a book chapter. He served breakfast to Buckley and finally slept.

This night-owl routine produced not only an enormous amount of writing, but also an enormous range of it. In addition to high-minded nonfiction, Kirk published short stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, London Mystery Magazine and New Terrors. In 1958, T.S. Eliot wrote to him: “How amazingly versatile and prolific you are! Now you have written what I should have least expected of you—ghost stories!”

In truth, ghosts had been on Kirk’s mind for years. He believed that his home was haunted and often told eerie tales by candlelight. One of his favorites involved his visit to Piety Hill as a boy of 8 or 9 years, when he woke in the middle of thenight and spied two men staring at him through a bay window: one tall and bearded, the other short and clean-shaven, and both with distinguishing hats. He pulled his covers over his head and fell back to sleep. The next morning, he looked out the window and saw no footsteps on the freshly fallen snow.

He told nobody about this encounter until he was an adult, when he revealed it to his aunt. She informed him that when she was a girl, she had a pair of imaginary friends who peered at her through the same window and appeared exactly asthe figures Kirk described. Their names, she added, were Dr. Cady and Patti. Years later, one of Kirk’s daughters, at the age of two, waved to the window and called out, “Hi Patti! Hi Patti!” She explained that Patti was a short man. “Many children have invisible playmates of fancy; but this coincidence of names was remarkable,” wrote Kirk. “Spectres persisting through three generations at Piety Hill? And perceived only by innocents, but in consistent form?” To Kirk, the rational explanation was a supernatural one.

In all, Kirk wrote about two dozen ghost stories plus three novels. But not all of Kirk’s fictional ghosts are as tame as Dr. Cady and Patti: some are capable of great violence. As much as Kirk enjoyed giving his readers a good shiver, however, his tales are never gory. Instead, they are often poignant and always grounded in a moral imagination. In several stories he sought to explore complex theological themes, in others he delivered a simple warning: don’t meddle with what you don’t understand.

“Mine was not an Enlightened mind,” he wrote, “it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.”

Kirk’s fiction was often inspired by the places, people and events of his real life. Many stories are set in Michigan. “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” is perhaps his best-known tale. It features a character based on Clinton Wallace, a drifter who memorized poems, occasionally stole money from church poor boxes, and lived for long stretches with the Kirks.

Kirk was a bachelor when he moved to Piety Hill, and Mecosta certainly wasn’t an ideal place for a quiet man who kept strange hours to meet a young lady. On a snowy morning in Manhattan in 1960, however, a 19-year-old woman spoke about one of Kirk’s books at a student conference. Annette Yvonne Cecile Courtemanche was raven-haired, brainy and vivacious.

At lunch, she sat next to the author, who was smitten. For several years, they traded letters, books and visits. In a 1964 letter, Annette made a pointed observation: “Our marriage is inevitable.” Kirk replied: “Yes, inevitable like death and taxes.” They wed within six months.

This young woman, half his age, transformed Kirk’s life. They had four daughters, who brought a new exuberance to Piety Hill. Annette also opened the home to more visitors. “My main contribution was organization,” she said.

The Kirks hosted groups of college students for weekends of scholarly discussion, walks in the woods and ghost stories. (I attended a session in 1990.) After the fall of Saigon, they put up a South Vietnamese military officer and his 10 dependents for three years in a neighboring house. Refugees from Ethiopia and professors from Eastern Europe, fleeing Communism, also made a temporary home with the Kirks. So did a handful of unwed mothers.

In Annette, Kirk had found a woman who was utterly devoted to him. Today, as a widow, she runs the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, which continues to sponsor programs for college students and fellowships for scholars. Lately, she has been promoting The Essential Russell Kirk, a recently released 500-page anthology of her husband’s nonfiction.

On his visit to Mecosta in 1955, Buckley asked Kirk what an intellectual did for friends in a remote village. Kirk smiled and waved his hand around a big room, lined with books on all four walls. This was before he had met Annette, of course. Eventually Kirk’s family replaced these tomes as the centerpiece of his life. Many of the people he touched are still with us, spread across the country raising their own families; some toil in the academic world that Kirk himself rejected. But in the end the books are what remain—not the ones Kirk collected and warehoused, but the ones he wrote and which still inspire.

John J. Miller writes for National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of The First Assassin, a historical thriller, plus several works of nonfiction. He is a contributing editor of Philanthropy magazine and a consultant to grant-making foundations. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called him “one of the best literary journalists in the country.”

This article first ran in the January, 2007 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Article Comments

  • coulterc

    Reading Kirk’s books gives me hope in the dark times we live in that our nation can return to sanity. Thank you for publishing this article so that more people can be familiar with his work. I very much enjoyed learning more of his personal life, a life well lived.

  • Anonymous

    One reading of The Conservative Mind is insufficient, a second reading finds more fulfillment and as I begin the third reading I find much was missed in the first two readings. Thank you for posting this article.

  • Anonymous

    I was a student of Russell Kirk at Michigan State College (now University) in 1950. I was too young to appreciate his brilliance. Years later, he came to Traverse City, Northwestern Michigan College. I spoke with him; I told him I had been a student of his. His response was “you must have been a very good student”. He was kind. Richard H. Crampton