The Claremont Review of Books asked for Christmas book suggestions, and I recommended Brad Birzer’s new biography of Russell Kirk. Here’s what I wrote:
I met Harry V. Jaffa twice. The second time was to interview him for a National Review profile in 2013. The first was about 15 years earlier, at a Claremont Institute conference on immigration and citizenship. I was a panelist who made a favorable remark about Russell Kirk, the conservative writer. I don’t recall what I said, but it lit Jaffa like a firecracker. His explosive attack on Kirk left me dumbfounded, in part because back then I didn’t know much about Jaffa or his fiery personality. When it was over, Peter Schramm—who probably agreed with most of Jaffa’s reasoning—encouraged me not to take it personally. That’s just Harry, he explained.
So in reading Bradley J. Birzer’s excellent new biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, I was interested to discover how much Kirk admired Jaffa’s great teacher, Leo Strauss. “Many academics and intellectuals in the conservative movement of the twenty-first century would be astonished to know that Strauss and Kirk were once not only allies but at one point also close friends,” writes Birzer. In 1957, Kirk founded Modern Age, a quarterly journal that survives today, to defend Strauss from liberal attacks. Strauss tried to persuade the University of Chicago to hire Kirk. I wonder if Jaffa knew.
Birzer’s book contains much of the Kirk we’ve heard about before—the acclaimed author of The Conservative Mind, an advisor to Barry Goldwater, a man of letters who spent most of his life in rural Michigan. Yet it’s also full of surprises, as we might expect from the first scholar to receive extensive access to Kirk’s private papers. We learn, for example, that before Kirk came to regard T.S. Eliot as the greatest writer of the 20th century, he labeled him “a fraud.” (“Those silly notes to the ‘Wasteland’!,” wrote Kirk in 1948. “He is eager to show off the trifle he knows.”) We find that Flannery O’Connor was a fan, and that she once quipped that Kirk “looks like Humpty Dumpty (intact) with constant cigar and (outside) porkpie hat.” Finally, we get perhaps the best analysis of Kirk’s ghostly fiction yet to appear in print—a commonly neglected body of work that in fact reveals much about his thought.
Birzer covers it all, from Kirk’s family life and Catholic conversion to his disputes with Jaffa and other Straussians over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. He also confronts a hard subject: Kirk’s notorious remark about how some neoconservatives mistake Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States. This unfortunate dig has prompted charges of anti-Semitism, but Birzer shows that it’s an error to view Kirk as anything other than a generous and humane intellectual who in this instance chose his words poorly.
Kirk once listed “variety and diversity” as conservative principles. His ability to generate debate even now, more than two decades after his death, points to the power of his ideas, including the contestable ones. Continuing to take them seriously says something about our willingness to accept the conservative movement as a big tent, full of riotous disagreement and colorful characters.
At last, we have the definitive book about this important, fascinating, and good man.