The Lost Library of Conservative Thought

by Katy Bachelder on February 21, 2013

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As students in American Heritage class discuss political theorist Russell Kirk’s essay in their course readers, the author’s personal books sit perched above them in Lane Hall. More than 10,000 volumes are packed away in boxes on the locked fourth floor. Placed in storage during library renovations more than a decade ago, the books are a valuable piece of conservative history.

But 18 years after their arrival on campus, no one can read them — and the papers that once were supposed to join them never have arrived.

“I’m very glad to have Russell Kirk’s books at Hillsdale College,” College President Larry Arnn said. “We’re going to build a place for them and we have a commitment to do it.”

Kirk (1918-1994) spent most of his life in Mecosta, Mich. He authored “The Conservative Mind,” an influential book whose 60th anniversary is this year. He was a fierce critic of modernity, and an even more outspoken defender of tradition, mystery, and social order.

“He was a man of phenomenal intellectual output and versatility,” historian George H. Nash said. “He was constantly urging us to look deeper and higher in defense of what a good tradition should be.”

Kirk taught at Hillsdale College in the 1970s and ’80s, holds the record for most CCA speeches, and sent two daughters to the college. He hosted weekend seminars for students at his home. In 1985, he gave the commencement address and the college honored him with its “Freedom Leadership Award.” The American Studies department has an endowed chair named after him.

Chairman and Professor of Art Sam Knecht recalled seeing Kirk in the halls of the old fine arts building, where he had an office.

“My initial impression of the man was that he looks interesting, but he mumbles if you speak to him.” he said. “Eventually, I started coming across some of his articles. Then I understood.”

Kirk told the Collegian in 1974, “I am very fond of Hillsdale. In fact, it is one of my favorite colleges.”

During the final years of his life, Kirk and his wife, Annette, arranged for Kirk’s personal library and papers to come to the college after his death. The books arrived in 1995. The library hired extra students to help catalog the vast collection, and eventually some items were displayed in the Carr Library. The college also commissioned Knecht to paint a portrait of Kirk.

A Collegian article from March of 1995 reported “an area within the Carr Library is being worked on with the intent of opening it as a ‘reading room’ much like that of the von Mises room,” referring to the basement room in Mossey Library that contains the books of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. But today there is no Russell Kirk reading room. Knecht’s portrait hangs in the office of Head Librarian Dan Knoch.

“I don’t know if that was a funding issue,” former Head Librarian Dan Joldersma said. “I’m not privy to all of the reasons it never occurred. The painting would have gone into that room.”

Annette Kirk, who continues to live in Mecosta and runs the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, declined to comment for this article.

The college does not currently have a timeline to display the collection, but a bequest to fund a roughly $3.5 million archive center will provide a permanent home for the library, said Vice President of Institutional Advancement John Cervini. Other prominent conservatives have also left books and papers to Hillsdale College, including William F. Buckley Jr., Martin Gilbert, Harry Jaffa, and Richard Weaver.

“Hillsdale has become an important repository for post-war intellectuals,” Cervini said.

The archive center will store these documents with the proper temperature control and ventilation. Knoch hopes to hire a full-time archivist to supervise the collections.
When the college removed Kirk’s books from Carr, it first put them in the basement of Delp Hall. When that space was needed for faculty offices, they were moved to their current location on the top floor of Lane.

The papers, however, remain in Mecosta, in the collection of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. “The Kirks decided to rescind the papers.” Cervini said. “It wasn’t an adversarial position. They decided they weren’t going to make a gift of the papers.”

Kirk was a prolific letter writer, corresponding with the likes of T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Leo Strauss. Central Michigan University has a small collection of Kirk papers, but they are on loan and require explicit permission from the Kirk estate to access.

Brad Birzer, the Russell Kirk chairman in American studies, is the only scholar who has enjoyed full access to the books as well as the papers still in Mecosta. Birzer described the papers as “immaculate.” Kirk wrote so much, Birzer added, “It’s almost as if he had a third arm.”

Birzer is currently writing a biography of Kirk, to be published by the University of Kentucky Press.

“There is nothing in the letters that would not put Kirk in a good light,” Birzer said. “If anything, it would do just the opposite. He’s the most humane person you can imagine.”
Many of Kirk’s papers are letters from his correspondents. “Some of these letters are sensitive not for Kirk, but the people who wrote them, some of whom are still alive,” Birzer said.
Until the college acquires the means to build an archive center, Kirk’s books will remain in Lane’s attic, next to the papers of one of Kirk’s intellectual rivals, Jaffa, with whom Kirk quarreled about the nature of the American founding.

“We have not forgotten about Russell Kirk here,” Cervini said. “He was a wonderful scholar.”

Kirk often wrote of “the permanent things,” a phrase that the Kirk Center uses as the title of its twice-a-year newsletter. His words and ideas remain alive in the minds of conservatives, but his books and papers still search for a permanent home. (1817)

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