The Permanent Things: An Interview with Andrea Kirk Assaf
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. Up next: Russell Kirk’s daughter, Andrea Kirk Assaf, chatting with our very own Heidi White about growing up in the Kirk home and protecting his legacy.
Russell Kirk was not only an influential and prolific political philosopher and theorist, but a devoted husband and the father of four daughters. I spoke with his youngest daughter, Andrea Kirk Assaf, to learn more about the man behind the ideas.
Russell Kirk was a giant in his field. It is common knowledge that the impact of his work has shaped intellectual conservatism in America. But to you, he was not first and foremost a philosopher or political theorist. He was your Dad. What was Russell Kirk like as a father?
My Dad was already fifty-five years old when I was born, so this large age gap meant several things—first of all, that I was the baby of the family and so had more one-on-one time with him as a child than my older sisters; secondly, that he could get the senior citizen discount while I got the child discount; and thirdly, that I never got to have a relationship with him as an adult as he died when I was eighteen years old.
He wrote for hours every day in his library down the street from our home and was frequently on the road lecturing or working as a visiting professor, so the times I remember most with him as a child were the bedtime stories when he wasn’t traveling. There were other times we spent together but these I remember best because it was just the two of us. Dad would build a fire, his several-times-daily ritual from October through April, and peel us both oranges while telling or reading a story aloud. I mainly remember the fairy tales from these sessions, though he delighted in making up his own bedtime stories and would tell me that he was constructing the next chapter in his mind when he saw me on his breaks home during the day. Unfortunately he never had the opportunity to write any of his original tales for children down and we only have a brief recording of one of these storytelling sessions from 1975. It is called “The Children of the Wood” and it’s my great hope to be able to complete it for my own children.
As anyone who knew Dad will have observed, he was not very talkative, but extremely prolific behind his typewriter. I think he was doing so much thinking in his head all the time that it was hard to stop and articulate it all into words. He was a calm person to be around, almost meditative at times because he would slowly twiddle his thumbs while sitting back and taking in whatever was happening around him. I suppose he was intimidating to some people who didn’t know his personality, but I never felt that he was standoffish or intimidating as a child. Once you got to know him, it was clear that he was a child at heart and loved to engage the imaginations of children and converse with them. Mostly, though, we didn’t do much chatting, we just read or gardened together, canoed or ate together. Once when I was seventeen we sat at the kitchen table alone when he was home on a lunch break. I made him his usual fare—natural peanut butter and raw onion on homemade bread (he had rather odd, mostly Scottish taste in food!). Not ones for chit-chat, I asked him out of the blue, “If you could do anything different in life, what would it be?”
He replied simply, “Be kinder to my mother.” His sweet and devoted mother died in her forties from cancer when my Dad was away at service during WWII. A collection of Dad’s letters just came out that illustrates the quality of their relationship that I’m only learning about now.
What was a typical dinner table conversation in the Kirk household like?
Well, I should first explain that we did not have many typical family dinners in our household, but we did have—and continue to have—frequent dinner parties. Our home saw a steady stream of guests from all over the world, particularly in the summer months, and my parents hosted a year-round residential community of graduate students who were part of our extended family. We also hosted a few refugee families from different countries during my childhood in the 1980s. So, there were almost always interesting and varied people at our dinner table, which of course led to interesting and varied dinner table conversations.
When my Dad was alive, most of the guests came to our home because they were his old friends or his new fans. We also had groups of university students come for weekend seminars to meet the author they studied in their political science or philosophy classes. Although my Dad was not a chatty person (the complete opposite of my mother, who is a real woman of words), he quietly held court at the dinner table and this was often the time when guests questioned him about whatever was on their minds. When I was little, I often sat on his lap and ate off of his plate while he talked to guests. Coincidentally, this is how my one-year-old prefers to take her meals now, too.
From what I can remember, the conversations were almost always rather deep; not necessarily academic but almost always philosophical. People came to Dad for his opinions and knowledge of the things that they believed were most important in life—what he called the Permanent Things. There was laughter and festivity, but I don’t recall much frivolity at the table. After dinner we would all gather in front of the fireplace where Dad would build a roaring fire in the wintertime and he would scare all the students and other guests with ghost stories—some real, gathered during his years in Scotland, and some fictional from his written work. I heard these tales over and over from the relative safety of the banister where I could hide in the darkness and creep upstairs if necessary.
If it was a particularly festive occasion, my Dad would invite guests to play the old Scottish parlor game “snapdragon” in which a tray of raisins are soaked with brandy and lit on fire. The person who consumed the most raisins while they were still aflame was the winner.
What aspect of your Dad's work was most formative to you as you grew up?
This is difficult to answer in a definitive way because I think—taking my cue from Charlotte Mason here—that education is an atmosphere and we often don’t realize all the influences upon our formation during childhood. There were common themes running through all his works, and it’s clear from my youthful writings that they exercised a strong influence upon my imagination. My Dad introduced me to the work of the Southern Agrarians at one seminar at our home in which Andrew Lytle and Cleanth Brooks were guests, and their affinity for tradition and culture closely tied to agriculture became a deep influence in my thought and future life decisions (my husband and I ended up settling on a farm near my parents’ home in Mecosta). When my sisters and I were asked to write remembrances of my Dad to read at his memorial, I entitled mine “A Northern Agrarian” and recalled my Dad’s love of the land and all it has to teach us about the Permanent Things.
The other theme I latched on to from Dad’s work is that of the moral imagination. From my childhood until today there is nothing I love more than beautifully illustrated children’s books, which are often the first experience of a work of the moral imagination in a person’s life. My Dad shared this passion and wrote extensively about it. I compiled his articles on this theme into an anthology for our annual moral imagination seminar at the Kirk Center last summer and I continue to consult Dad through this anthology as I homeschool and read aloud to my own children.
What do you wish that the world knew about Russell Kirk?
It may sound a bit strange for someone involved in preserving his legacy to say this, but what’s important is not the name Russell Kirk in the end but the themes and ideas in his work. He would have been the first to explain that he did not invent anything new in his books, he only put it all down and explained it in a way that gives us, his readers, eyes to see, and words to express, the Truth (and, in the case of his book Enemies of the Permanent Things, how to identify untruth). Conservatism is not an ideology, as he often said; in fact, it is quite the opposite of ideology, which seeks to re-make reality into a preferred image. Conservatism in its true sense is a recognition of a truth beyond ourselves as expressed in natural law—the law written on the human heart and the law written into creation. A conservative is careful to preserve and uphold what is worth preserving in life—the Permanent Things—because he submits to the collected wisdom of the ages rather than the spirit of the age. Dad’s expressions and ideas are already proliferating without attribution to him, and that is ultimately a very good thing.
But if I had to choose one thing that I wish the world knew about him, I suppose it would be that they knew how diverse his work was and then be inspired to read beyond only the first work of his they encountered, in order to see the consistency and richness of the themes that run through his treatment of literature, Gothic fiction, political science, history, economics, and philosophy. He was one of those rare renaissance men of the modern world that we could use more of today.
If you had your way, what impact would your Dad's legacy have in our nation?
Certainly his legacy has not had as profound an impact in the world of politics as I and the others involved in the Kirk Center would have wished. Fortunately in the world of education, his legacy continues to expand as more of his works are being translated around the world and put back into print. In the world of homeschools and classical schools, his books The Roots of American Order and Work and Prosperity (an economics textbook) continue to be used. (A Roots study guide will soon be available on the Kirk Center website.) Dad always reminded his readers that we must attend to the root of all change: culture. That is where we should first look and where we should focus our energies if we wish to be part of a lasting legacy in our nation and our world in general. The daily effort in our homes, our local community, our schools, our churches—that is where we can and should expend our energies. Dad often said that we must brighten the corner where we are—a motto I like to live by. Despite his love of the local, Dad also became both a national and international figure who has had, thanks be to God, a lasting positive legacy in the effort of cultural renewal; but he knew himself, and would remind us that all effort comes to naught if it does not follow the principle of subsidiarity and begin at home, begin in the heart. If my Dad could be remembered for this, and help remind our fractured nation to conserve the Permanent Things, then that is a message worth perpetuating.
Heidi White is the deputy editor of FORMA and a contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives, writes, and teaches in Colorado.