Professor of History Brad Birzer spent the past year on sabbatical writing a biography on the eccentric life of Russell Kirk and finally found a publisher for his work: University Press of Kentucky.
“I think this might be one of the most important books I publish in my career,” said Stephan Wrinn, director of the publishing operation.
Birzer has nearly completed the biography and expects to release it in the fall of 2014. Birzer said the scope of the book extends beyond Kirk’s most famous work, “The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana” and went to places he did not intentionally set out to go.
“The center of the book believe it or not, has become his friendships, which was not where I expected it to go,” Birzer said. “In the book, I trace his life, but also as I go through his life. I get into some personal details.”
Birzer said that Kirk’s relationships were very dear to him, describing the regard to which he held his friends as “life and death.” He shared one of those friendships with T.S. Eliot.
Kirk believed, in the 1940s, that Eliot was a fraud and people enjoyed his work only because they thought they were supposed to enjoy it. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1953 that Kirk began to appreciate Eliot’s work.
The two men developed a close friendship and Elliot even trusted Kirk to write his biography, saying he was the only one he wanted to do it.
“The man was a full generation older and everything came together for Kirk. Every desire, every intellectual thought — Eliot answered all of that for him and they became really great friends,” Birzer said. “I think you have got Kirk, a young man who is really searching and is a brilliant thinker; and he has great ideas, but they don’t really come together for him until he meets Eliot.”
In the late 1940s, Kirk and his sister’s best friend went to Scotland so that he could continue his educational career. Kirk was infatuated with the young woman — Birzer described her as Kirk’s Beatrice. He said that when she broke off their relationship, Kirk wrote in his diary: ‘‘My life is over. I don’t know what to do. I was going to pour my whole self into Rosy now what can I do? Well maybe I will pour all my energy into reviving conservatism.”
Birzer said he wants to revive interest in Kirk because he thinks that he has fallen out of favor in conservatism since his death in the mid-1990s.
“Kirk was always very distrustful of politics,” Birzer said. “He didn’t see politics or political theory as really anything more than necessity and an expression of what needs to be done here and now.”
Birzer added that young conservatives who pick up Kirk’s “Conservative Mind” for guidance will probably be completely baffled by its silence on practical topics, such as taxes and politics.
“It is always about what is eternally true and what matters in the next world,” he said.
Birzer said that the dropping of the atomic bomb solidified Kirk’s views that government is nothing but a necessary evil.
“It would be hard, for example in the modern world, in a modern America, to find a patriotic Kirk,” he said.
Wrinn said this strangeness is what makes it important for the book to come out now.
“There are many conservatives like Brad who sort of represent a version of Russell Kirk’s conservatism,” Wrinn said. “But many people whom we identify as ‘conservative’ today would be unrecognizable to Russell Kirk as conservative.”
Russell Kirk was a man who was confident in his ideas and optimistic in the good of man. He was a very “eccentric man,” Birzer said, who had a very romantic air about him.
“He loved being himself and he loved just doing anything. Whether it shocked people or not, I don’t think he really cared,” Birzer said.
Annette Kirk said she believes Birzer to be an excellent person to write the biography because he understands certain things about her husband.
“[Birzer] referred to [Russell Kirk] as a meta-historian and I think that that is absolutely true,” Anette Kirk said. “[Russell] is a historian that is above just the particulars. He looks in deeper into the meanings behind the actions people do and the meanings of events in history.”
Wrinn says he believes Birzer’s book has “great potential” to become an important part of the Kirkian and conservative dialogue.
“I would rather have a critical dialogue then have a book be ignored,” Wrinn said, “and that to me is what Brad is going to achieve — a book that must be addressed by anyone who studies modern intellectual thought and intellectual history.” (112)