My Life with Russell Kirk
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: Some reflections by Annette Kirk, Dr. Kirk’s wife, about her life with him.
After almost thirty years of marriage of marriage to Russell Kirk, there is simply so much to say that it is hard to know where to begin. In this brief essay, I will offer my reflections on what life with Russell was like, and insight into how his conservative heart shaped his conservative mind.
In publisher Henry Regnery's preface to the fortieth anniversary addition of The Conservative Mind, there is a description of Russell as a young man: “He doesn't say much, about as communicative as a turtle, but when he gets behind a typewriter the results are most impressive.”
During the first few years of our acquaintance I experienced the truth of that statement—Russell's preference for typing rather than talking. If he happened to be in town when my parents held their Sunday evening gathering of conservatives, Russell would come. If he were asked a question, he would give an excellent response. When one asked him to tell a story, he kept us in charmed awe. Otherwise, he was mostly silent. Within a few days, after the gathering, however, once he had returned to his typewriter, I would receive a letter from Mecosta containing wonderful comments and reflections provoked by our discussions.
After some years of marriage, one of Russell's assistants put the question to him: “Dr. Kirk, you and Mrs. Kirk are two very different people. Mrs. Kirk is very energetic, always on the move, and outgoing. You, on the other hand, are more meditative, stoical, and reserved. How is that you have such a happy marriage?” Russell replied in his typical manner—without hesitation and to the point—”What you have said is true—we are very different. First Principles—this is the basis of our happiness.” Needless to say, the young man was startled to receive such an encapsulated answer.
Early on I found that Russell enjoyed discussing the essential questions in which I was interested—questions such as the metaphysical understanding of “being,” the proofs for the existence of God, and the meaning and purpose of life. While he agreed that what made man unique was his ability to reason and to know the difference between right and wrong, Russell also believed that pure reason had its limits and that logical proofs were not needed to validate religious truths. He persuaded me that even if a transcendent order were denied in the realm of reason, evidences of every sort—proofs from natural science, history, and physics demonstrated that we were part of some grand mysterious scheme working upon us providentially.
Russell introduced me to this “illative sense,” an expression employed by Newman to explain a method of reasoning beyond logic. The illative sense is constituted by impressions that are borne in upon us from a source deeper than our conscious and formal reason. It is the combined product of intuition, instinct, imagination, experience, and much reading and meditation. Quoting Pascal, Russell often reminded me that “The heart has reasons that the reason does not know.”
Russell's emphasis on things of the heart and the hearth became more evident after we married and began to have daughters. So mindful was he of pleasing children that when building an addition onto his ancestral home, he instructed the carpenters to place the windows closer to the floor so little ones could look out more easily. He also made sure there was a room in a tower that could be used as a clubhouse and a winding staircase to a cupola set atop the house allowing them to view village fireworks on the Fourth of July. To entertain them he created a garden walk and called it the Troll's Path.
“In the spring of life,” Russell reflected, “nearly everything is wondrous. The fortunate are those who have not lost their sense of wonder; who subsist upon the bread of spirit, laughing at the stones of dullness and hard materialism for 'the life eternal is determined by what one says and does here and now' so [theologian] Martin D'Arcy had said.” With his three playful daughters, one spring morning, Russell wrote that he “enjoyed one of those moments in which time and the timeless intersect: a glimpse of immortality...”
Russell believed that, “Those men and women who fail to perceive timeless moments are the prisoners of time and circumstance. Only by transcending the ravenous ego, and sharing their joy with others, do mortals come to know their true enduring selves and to put on immortality, for the garden before the fall.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he derived such pleasure from gardening.
With Chesterton, Russell believed that all life is an allegory and could be understood only in parable. Thus, he relied chiefly on myths, fables, imaginative tales to teach his children how to live in a bent world.
In an essay entitled “A Literary Patrimony,” written by our second daughter, Cecilia, she recalls:
Night after night my father read aloud to us, all of us delighted by the stories. Sometimes we listened for hours. Occasionally, he was even more eager to read than we were inclined to listen: when we fell asleep, we were carried up the wooden hill—the stairs—to the land of nod.
My father also invented his own tales. He related these stories as installments beside the fireplace, the traditional place for a community's stories, developing the characters and plots as he spoke. We followed “Hew and His Knife,” “The Elusive Earl,” and other tales. Often he would conclude an episode with the protagonists caught in a perilous predicament—surrounded by bandits or the like—which on one occasion so infuriated us that we demanded that he “get those children home to their momma.” Laughing, he appeased us with a more satisfactory conclusion.
His writing, or “scribbling,” as he referred to it, resulted in thirty books, five hundred National Review articles, eight hundred articles and reviews, and 2,500 newspaper columns. He also wrote introductions and prefaces to countless numbers of books, and edited thirty titles for his series “The Library of Conservative Thought.”
Russell was never a dry-as-dust type of scholar. He departed from academe early on and instead strove to write evocative prose that spoke to a larger audience, one he identified as “the common reader.” He deemed it urgent to speak to this group—which might include scholars, but mainly consisted of people in commerce, the professions, public officials, parents or students. He wished to reach those who perceived that civilization had lost its object, its aim or end, had become decadent. He sought to articulate this loss, and to give hope that renewal as was possible, to continually remind us that for there to be outer order in society there must be inner order in the souls of its members.
Russell desired us to recognize that a conservative disposition always displays piety toward the wisdom of its ancestors. Piety, by which he meant reverence not merely for things spiritual, but also for habit, custom, tradition, and history, provides us with an understanding of the limits of our intellect and leaves us open to the paradoxes and mysteries of life.
It seems significant that the last book Russell published before he died was The Politics of Prudence, a selection from the sixty lectures he gave at the Heritage Foundation over a period of sixteen years. The last chapter of this book is entitled, “May the Rising Generation Redeem the Time?” One reviewer wrote: “There is something fitting about Russell Kirk addressing the younger generation..because there is a remarkable youthfulness about Russell Kirk himself....His impishness, his capacity for wonder and delight, his intellectual enthusiasm, his freedom from academic cant—all make him the ideal teacher for the next generation of conservatives.” Of those Heritage lectures, Ed Feulner commented: “...I never ceased to be amazed by the inevitable overflow crowd of young people who couldn't get enough of him. I asked one of them what his hold was on them...[A] young Reagan appointee said, 'He taught us all why our role was important beyond ourselves and beyond politics.'”
An understanding of being part of something larger and beyond ourselves and our time, in effect, part of a “community of souls,” was very much evident in a eulogy for her father delivered by our third daughter, Felicia.
My father was delighted at my discovery at the age of fifteen of the Afrikaaner writer Sir Laurens van der Post. One of the first books of many he presented to my mother before they were married was The Seed and the Sower by van der Post, whom he considered “a wise man.”
As my interest in the works of Sir Laurens grew, my father began searching his favorite book shops and catalogues for anything of a similar topic. This was the original basis of our friendship—a bond of two of “God's spies,” who did indeed as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear: “live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies ...and take upon's the mystery of things.”
Perhaps our eldest daughter Monica best summed up our family's thoughts on life with Russell: “My father was a great intellectual and a distinguished writer. He was a teller of ghostly tales and a planter of trees. He was a devoted husband and loving father. But above all, in his words and in his actions, my father was a gentleman. When I made a commitment to help my mother care for my father in his illness, I knew that it was my duty. I now realize that is was an honor.”
Thus for those of us who knew and loved Russell Kirk the promulgation of his wise words is both a duty and an honor. For as T.S. Eliot wrote, “the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
A longer version essay was originally delivered in the Russell Kirk Memorial Lecture Series at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. on April 29,1995.
Annette Kirk is president of The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. She has also served as president of the Educational Reviewer, Inc. (New York, New York), editor of The University Bookman, Director of Programs for the Wilbur Foundation (Santa Barbara, California), and a board member of The Philadelphia Society. Kirk was a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which in 1983 issued the educational-reform report, A Nation at Risk. From 1984 to 1987 she was a member of the committee on education of the United States Catholic Conference. She was married to Russell Kirk for thirty years and has four daughters.