Bradley J. Birzer: Russell Kirk

American Conservative

University Press of Kentucky, 2015

BirzerEmerging from two decades of the Great Depression and the New Deal and facing the rise of radical ideologies abroad, the American Right seemed beaten, broken, and adrift in the early 1950s. Although conservative luminaries such as T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley Jr., Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin all published important works at this time, none of their writings would match the influence of Russell Kirk’s 1953 masterpiece The Conservative Mind. This seminal book became the intellectual touchstone for a reinvigorated movement and began a sea change in Americans’ attitudes toward traditionalism.

In Russell Kirk, Bradley J. Birzer investigates the life and work of the man known as the founder of postwar conservatism in America. Drawing on papers and diaries that have only recently become available to the public, Birzer presents a thorough exploration of Kirk’s intellectual roots and development. The first to examine the theorist’s prolific writings on literature and culture, this magisterial study illuminates Kirk’s lasting influence on figures such as T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley Jr., and Senator Barry Goldwater – who persuaded a reluctant Kirk to participate in his campaign for the presidency in 1964.

While several books examine the evolution of postwar conservatism and libertarianism, surprisingly few works explore Kirk’s life and thought in detail. This engaging biography not only offers a fresh and thorough assessment of one of America’s most influential thinkers but also reasserts his humane vision in an increasingly inhumane time.

Reviews:

“An extraordinary book. Birzer has written a capacious and deeply humane treatment of an important thinker, writer, and actor who has been largely forgotten by an America that once regarded him as a singular and important voice. This lively and fascinating book will be read and talked about.”  Patrick Deneen, author of Democratic Faith

“Bradley J. Birzer’s Russell Kirk will blow away the stereotypes of what it means to be a conservative in modern America. Kirk’s thinking is sharp, his writing is rich, and the fruits of his imagination retain their power to strike even the most skeptical of readers. Birzer has produced an essential introduction to this towering figure.”  Gary L. Gregg, Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership, University of Louisville

Russell Kirk: American Conservative [is] a beautifully written and deeply insightful biography…Birzer traces the development of Kirk’s ideas, especially the influence Burke, Dawson, Eliot and (surprise) the political philosopher Leo Strauss. He explores Kirk’s concept of the transcendent, which moved from Stoicism to ‘full communion with the Catholic Church.’ And he considers Kirk’s forays in the public square, not least his association with Barry Goldwater, the 1964 presidential candidate.”  Wall Street Journal

“Given the confused and dispirited state of American conservatism at the present moment, it is high time for a Russell Kirk revival. The very thought of such a revival is appealing, even exhilarating, and the appearance of Bradley J. Birzer’s splendid and exhaustively researched biography of Kirk just might provide the catalyst needed to set it in motion.”  National Review

“Birzer covers it all, from Kirk’s family life and Catholic conversion to his disputes with Jaffa and other Straussians over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence…At last, we have the definitive book about this important, fascinating, and good man.”  Claremont Review

About the Author:

Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and professor of history at Hillsdale College. He is also the second Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy, Colorado University–Boulder. He is the author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll and Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson.

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