The Essential Russell Kirk Library

Editor’s Note: In recognition of the centenary of Russell Kirk’s birth, we present Russell Kirk Week here at FORMA. All of this week’s content will be free.


So you are interested in reading Russell Kirk, the political and cultural thinker who revived intellectual conservatism in the twentieth century. Kirk was a prolific writer on many topics, which begs the question: what should we read? Here is a list of some of the essential works of Russell Kirk.

The Roots of American Order

Considered by many to be his masterpiece, The Roots of American Order traces the historical threads that weave the uniquely American cultural identity. Beginning with the Old Testament prophets, Kirk explores the ideas and institutions that converge in the great experiment of American democracy, which he calls “a practical secular covenant, drawn up by men who (with few exceptions) believed in a sacred Covenant.” In its sweeping contemplation of the origins of republican ideals, The Roots of American Order could be described as “a tale of five cities” in its analysis of the ideals of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia. For those interested in understanding the vision and role of the American nation in the unfolding narrative of the history of the world, The Roots of American Order is critical reading.

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The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot

From the time of its publication in 1953, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot changed the landscape of American politics. Before Kirk published his seminal work, politicians on both sides of the aisle acknowledged the absence of intellectual or moral depth on the right, whether in academia or in office. Along came historian Russell Kirk, who declared that all serious political movements draw their strength from an earlier body of belief. Beginning with an exploration of the great British statesman, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk cast a vision for a robust, thriving conservatism, deeply rooted in flourishing intellectual traditions and Judeo-Christian ideals. No other single book has infused so much life into the American conservative tradition.

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The Sword of Imagination

The Sword of Imagination might be considered by some to be an anomaly amongst the more hard-hitting political and philosophical works of Russell Kirk's canon, but this is a mistake. The Sword of Imagination is quintessential Kirk. “Imagination rules the world,” he proclaims with bold precision. The book is a collection of Kirk's memoirs, written in delightful third-person, chronicling his fifty-year battle against the encroaching cultural fragmentation of modernity. In a series of martial metaphors, he announces that early on in his career he drew “the sword of imagination” to assail the “sensual errors of his time.” The Sword of Imagination is both a critique of the intellectual and moral poverty of the modern wasteland and a glimpse into a life well-lived in service of the Permanent Things.

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The Essential Russell Kirk

Although his full-length books are well on their way to becoming classics, do not miss Russell Kirk as an essayist. In The Essential Russell Kirk (edited by George A. Panichas), readers will undertake a comprehensive journey through Russell Kirk's full range of thought. From such foundational essays as “What is Conservatism?” and “The Moral Imagination,” to the more erudite “The Light of the Middle Ages” and “Criminal Character and Mercy,” The Essential Russell Kirk offers readers both a broad and a deep immersion into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.

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Heidi White is the deputy editor of FORMA and a contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives, writes, and teaches in Colorado.