Russell Kirk: American Conservative, by Bradley J. Birzer. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 574 pp. $34.95.
Russell Kirk was one of the most important figures in twentieth-century American intellectual, cultural, and political life, and he has been the subject of a number of books. The most recent is a most impressive study by Bradley Birzer, Rusell Kirk: American Conservative. It has had a deservedly grand reception, including the Paolucci Book Award from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and many favorable reviews not only in academic journals but in such mass-circulation publications as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Professor Birzer's book represents a major advance in Kirk scholarship and invites comparisons with earlier studies of Kirk. It more fully and successfully than any of the others conveys the scope, meaning, and magnitude of Kirk's accomplishment. One of Birzer's many strengths is his truly amazing command of the primary sources. His archival labors are those of an outstanding scholar and historian. What commands even more respect is his capacity for organizing and interpreting a vast amount of material and discerning the significance of particular pieces of evidence. Birzer remedies a number of common and sometimes serious inadequacies of earlier studies that interpret and assess Kirk as a thinker and a person. (1)
The Birzer volume follows the publication of four other major Kirk studies, which suggests the vitality and breadth of Kirk scholarship. The first systematic study of Kirk to appear was James Person's highly accessible and readable introduction to the life and works of the "Duke of Mecosta," Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind. (2) Person provides a coherent and convincing analysis of Kirk's thought and its enduring significance for American politics and humane learning. Originally published in 1999 and reprinted in 2016 (without revision), it remains an excellent source. Person wants to introduce a new generation of readers to "one of the greatest minds this nation has produced during the twentieth century" (xi). (3) Kirk's achievements are organized into four sections. The first section interprets Kirk's background, his historical consciousness, and his views on education and constitutionalism. The second section deals with Kirk's devotion to the importance of literature and his social criticism. The third and fourth sections survey Kirk's thought on economics and assess his lasting importance as a political thinker. The greatest contribution of this volume is its discussion of Kirk's defense of a social order grounded in justice and the diffusion of political power.
Person's biography of Kirk is for...