Getting to Know Russell Kirk (2015)

While I started reading Dr. Kirk in the late 1980s, as mentioned above, it wasn’t until meeting Winston Elliott (our beloved founder™ of this website) and Gleaves Whitney (he of Hausenstein fame) in the mid to late 1990s that I really felt as though I understood the importance of Kirk within not only the twentieth century, but within all of the western tradition.  Here, after all, was a man who spent his adult life dedicated to pursuing—in a rather Platonic and Augustinian fashion—all that is good, true, and beautiful.  I also came to know, rather closely, that whirlwind of nature, Annette Kirk.

At roughly the same time, I had the privilege of meeting many who had known Dr. Kirk well: Bruce Frohnen, John Willson, Jeff Nelson, Ben Lockerd,  Michael Jordan, Roger Thomas, and Jim Person.  Each struck me as intelligence, witty, personable, creative, and full of integrity.  What a fascinating segment of humanity Kirk attracted.  Some of these persons ranks as the most individualistic non-individualists one could imagine.  The same could be said of Russell Kirk—and has been.  Over time, I met others—Alan Cornett, Gary Gregg, and Lee Cheek—all of whom carried the same kind of wisdom.  Not surprisingly, the two daughters I’ve gotten to know, radiate the same things, and do so with a kind of honed grace.

I began to read as much of Kirk’s writing as possible after first meeting Winston and Gleaves.  For those who know me, you won’t be surprised by this, but I’m not good at doing things halfway.  If I’m going to read Kirk, I’m going to read Kirk.  Not dip into him, not read through his works, but read everything.  And, so it began.  The kids were much younger and fewer when I started delving into all things Kirk.

About five years ago, Annette Kirk sent me one of the best emails I’ve ever received.  “Brad, you’re welcome to start working in the archives, if you’re interested.”  I’m quoting this from memory, which, of course, means it’s really a sort of paraphrase at best.

Regardless, I’d been given the keys.  Amazing.  Astounding.  Astonishing.  The keys.  The actual keys.  Well, symbolic keys.  As the great Kirk scholar Wes McDonald has argued, Kirk probably published more in his life time than the average intelligent reader.

During college and graduate school, I became intensely interested in the role of biography and autobiography.  Would it be possible, I wondered (and still do) to construct history based on a life or a number of lives?  This was, to some extent, my own response to the Catholic ideal of personalism and the Hayekian ideal of individualism.  My amazing M.A. advisor, Anne Butler, encouraged this by noting that biography allowed a “lens” by which to understand a time or even, perhaps, the human condition.

As I’ve aged—somewhat like cheese on my bad days, somewhat like wine on my best ones—I’ve become increasingly convinced of the power of biography and autobiography.  The post moderns have argued that we know things only subjectively through the creation of a narrative.  While one could argue strongly against the first part of the statement, the second is much more foolproof.  At least to this fool.  How do we not create narratives?  Just think for a moment about your own life.  If you had to construct it in a half hour conversation or a ten page paper, how would you do it?  Most likely, you’d create a narrative.  Life began here, culminating in this.  Not a single one of us would rationally argue this is the ONLY interpretation or a comprehensive one.  Indeed, throughout our lives, we struggle intensely to understand moments as a part of something larger.  What did this success or failure mean to our existence?  Do we accept our failures, ignore them, or try to reform them.  Do we understand our successes as something beyond mere luck or chance?  If so, how and why and where and when and when again?

Well, my own personal narrative will now never be complete without Russell Kirk being a major part of it.  So, I might never have gotten to know him in a tangible way in this world, but I hope and trust we’ll get to hang out, drink a beer, smoke a pipe, and talk quite a bit in the next one.  This is my narrative, and I’m sticking to it.