My estimation of Russell can best be summed up by an incident
that occurred several years ago: After an especially tiresome
travel schedule delivering lectures in several states, Russell
returned home with a very sore throat. When I phoned the doctor's
office to obtain an appointment for him, the receptionist said she
had no appointments available for at least a month. Hoping to
explain the urgency of my request, I burst out, "But he's a
national treasure; civilization needs him!"
And so it did and does need the words of Russell Kirk and those
other giants who serve as guardians of culture, transmitters of our
heritage. We are but dwarves standing on the shoulders of these
giants who provided the philosophical underpinnings of our present
political discourse. Russell's own significant historical and
literary contributions have been widely recorded. As Ken Cribb
observed, "He lifted with his own hands our forgotten patrimony
from dusty oblivion."
After almost 30 years of marriage to Russell Kirk, there is
simply so much to say that it is hard to know where to begin.
Russell recounts his life in his memoir, The Sword of
Imagination (published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995). Today, I will
offer my reflections on what life with Russell was like, and
insight into how his conservative heart shaped his conservative
Let me begin by answering a question I am often asked: "Where
did you and Russell meet?" When I was a junior in college, and
president of the student body, I attended many student gatherings,
at which I met the young men and women who were later to emerge as
the leaders of the conservative movement. During this time, I
became involved in the founding of several conservative youth
organizations. One snowy Saturday morning in February of 1960, I
spoke at a conference in Manhattan on a book entitled The
American Cause. At the luncheon, I was invited to sit next to
the author, Russell Kirk. I found him charming and shy and, by
dessert, discovered that we were kindred spirits.
The next year, as a college senior, I arranged lectures for him
at my college, as well as at several campuses on the east coast.
After graduation, I began teaching English and directing dramatic
productions in a high school on Long Island, while also taking
courses for a master's degree and remaining politically active.
During these years, Russell and I saw each other on many occasions,
but wrote each other even more often. The two years prior to our
marriage, he wrote long missives daily -- letters often amusing,
but always full of wise insights.
In addition to writing long letters, Russell also sent me books
as gifts -- books such as W.H. Mallock's An Immortal Soul,
George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, and
The Mind and Heart of Love by the theologian Martin D'Arcy.
It was this last book, which contrasts the classical concept of
love as eros with the Christian concept of love as agape, that
captured our imagination. We discovered that we both envisioned
marriage as a vocation, an opportunity to serve not only each other
and one's family, but one's community, one's culture. To explain
how we got from this point of agreement on marriage in the
abstract, to my writing him a letter agreeing to marry him in
particular, would take at least another lecture. So suffice it to
say that it had long been evident that Russell wished to marry me.
Simultaneously, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live all
my days with him, to be part of his life, of his world -- in short,
that I loved him.
On March 17, 1964, I wrote Russell a letter announcing, "Our
marriage is inevitable," which sounds rather dour at this distance.
Amused, he replied, "Yes, inevitable like death and taxes." We were
married on September 19 of that year at my parish chapel, named
"Our Lady of the Skies" because it was located at, of all places,
Kennedy Airport. A zither-player from a restaurant called the House
of Habsburg performed, and after a small reception at my parents'
home, during which Bill Buckley held court in the kitchen, we were
driven to the airport to depart for our honeymoon in a 1929
Rolls-Royce Phantom II hearse, with a bumper-sticker affixed to it
proclaiming "Goldwater for President." A classmate of Russell's
from St. Andrews University was trying to sell this car and was
eager to drive us to the church. This seemed a bit much, but not
wanting to offend him, we had him take us to the airport instead,
with our wedding party in the back of the hearse.
After a brief honeymoon on remote Beaver Island in the middle of
Lake Michigan -- a long way from the pleasant caf's and hectic pace
of New York City where we had courted -- we soon departed for
California, where we feverishly campaigned for Senator Goldwater in
the weeks before the election. This was the first of many campaigns
in which we would be active, attending state conventions as
delegates and hosting in our home innumerable gatherings for
candidates for public office.
In Henry Regnery's preface to the 40th anniversary edition of
The Conservative Mind, there is a description of Russell as
a young man: "He doesn't say much, about as communicative as a
turtle, but when he gets behind a typewriter the results are
During the first few years of our acquaintance, I experienced
the truth of that statement -- Russell's preference for typing
rather than talking. If he happened to be in New York when my
parents held their Sunday evening gathering of conservatives,
Russell would come. If he were asked a question, he would give an
excellent response. When one asked him to tell a story, he kept us
in charmed awe. Otherwise, he was mostly silent. Within a few days
after the gathering, however, once he had returned to his
typewriter, I would receive a letter from Mecosta containing
wonderful comments and reflections provoked by our discussions.
After some years of marriage, one of Russell's assistants put
the question to him: "Dr. Kirk, you and Mrs. Kirk are two very
different people. Mrs. Kirk is very energetic, always on the move,
and outgoing. You, on the other hand, are more meditative, stoical,
and reserved. How is it that you have such a happy marriage?"
Russell replied in his typical manner -- without hesitation and to
the point -- "What you have said is true -- we are very different.
First Principles -- this is the basis of our happiness." Needless
to say, the young man was startled to receive such an encapsulated
We did agree on all important matters. Yet, there were two items
on which there was some contention -- how much the monthly phone
bill should be and whether we should drive home the 70 miles from
the airport via the expressway or the scenic route. I'll leave it
to you to guess who always wanted to take the scenic route.
Perhaps some background on my education can shed light on
Russell's response to the question posed to him about our apparent
differences, and in doing so touch upon his influence on my mind as
well as on my heart. When I attended a Catholic college in the late
'50s, the curriculum was designed to introduce students to first
principles, to both the life of the mind and the realm of the
spirit -- to dispose them to what Newman termed a "philosophical
habit of mind." Philosophy, emphasizing logic, and theology,
especially apologetics, were then at the core of the
Unlike most of the young men I knew, Russell enjoyed discussing
the essential questions in which I was interested -- questions such
as the metaphysical understanding of "being," the proofs for the
existence of God, and the meaning and purpose of life. While he
agreed that what made man unique was his ability to reason and to
know the difference between right and wrong, Russell also believed
that pure reason had its limits and that logical proofs were not
needed to validate religious truths. He persuaded me that even if a
transcendent order were denied in the realm of reason, evidences of
every sort -- proofs from natural science, history, and physics --
demonstrated that we were part of some grand mysterious scheme
working upon us providentially.
Russell introduced me to the "illative sense," an expression
employed by Newman to explain a method of reasoning beyond logic.
The illative sense is constituted by impressions that are borne in
upon us from a source deeper than our conscious and formal reason.
It is the combined product of intuition, instinct, imagination,
experience, and much reading and meditation. (See The
Conservative Mind, Chapter VIII, "Conservatism with
Imagination: Disraeli and Newman.") Quoting Pascal, Russell often
reminded me that "The heart has reasons that the reason does not
Russell's emphasis on things of the heart and the hearth became
more evident after we were married and began to have daughters. So
mindful was he of pleasing children that when building an addition
onto his ancestral home, he instructed the carpenters to place the
windows closer to the floor so little ones could look out more
easily. He also made sure there was a room in a tower that could be
used as a clubhouse and a winding staircase to a cupola set atop
the house allowing them to view village fireworks on the Fourth of
July. To entertain them he created a garden walk and called it the
Perhaps an episode that occurred when our first three daughters
were young will illustrate Russell's enjoyment of everyday life and
display how he derived profound insights from ordinary events. In
his memoirs, which he wrote in the third person, he recounts this
At Mecosta, snowdrifts persist well into April; when
the drifts vanish, the lilacs bloom. On the first warm and bright
morning of April 1971, there burst out of the pantry door of the
Old House Monica, aged three; Cecilia, aged two; and Felicia, aged
eleven months -- the latter two in their pajamas. They commenced to
caper and sing.
Monica, emulated enthusiastically by Cecilia, began piling
stones on the back steps. "Stones for breakfast!" she shouted,
"We're going to have stones for breakfast tonight!" While Felicia
writhed in an endeavor to escape from her father's clutch to crawl
on the new grass, Cecilia, not to be outdone in fantasy, tried to
feed her pebbles while exclaiming, "Tones for b'ekfas'!"
"Hush!" said Monica, "I hear a bird!" Cecilia spied a
picturesque insect. Only [her father's] prompt exertions prevented
Felicia from devouring pebbles in earnest.
Returning from the post office, Annette reproved [her husband]
for surrendering feebly to the desires of their strong-willed
daughters who might catch cold outside in their pajamas; he
protested that their gamboling could not be restrained. Before
their marriage, Annette had declared that any husband of hers ought
to be ready to romp with the children. Now she found her Russell
all too liberally fulfilling her commandment.
In the spring of life, Kirk reflected, nearly everything is
wondrous. The fortunate are those who have not lost their sense of
wonder; who subsist upon the bread of spirit, laughing at the
stones of dullness and hard materialism.
"The life eternal is determined by what one says and does here
and now"; so Martin D'Arcy had said. With these three playful
daughters, that spring morning, Kirk enjoyed one of those moments
in which time and the timeless intersect: a glimpse of
Those men and women who fail to perceive timeless moments are
the prisoners of time and circumstance. Only by transcending the
ravenous ego, and sharing their joy with others, do mortals come to
know their true enduring selves and to put on immortality.
Russell believed that we all long for immortality, for the
garden before the fall. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he
derived such pleasure from gardening. Our fourth daughter, Andrea,
who has tended sheep, and shared her father's love of the land, has
When he first took up residence at Piety Hill, my
father found the land shaved of its lush trees by the family's
first settlers, earning it the name "Stump Country." So to make
amends for the sins of his ancestors, he planted hundreds of trees
on our land and in the village. Despite this great number, it
seemed as though he could remember when each tree was planted and
any other interesting detail about it.
Agrarian life was well understood and appreciated by my father.
Under the dimming September sun he and I worked together planting
and pruning. He loved to watch the progress his labors had
achieved; the growth of new life from his ancestral earth. The most
precious objects in my father's life were his family, his home, and
his five acres of land.
With Chesterton, Russell believed that all life is an allegory
and could be understood only in parable. Thus, he relied chiefly on
myths, fables, and imaginative tales to teach his children how to
live in a bent world.
In an essay entitled "A Literary Patrimony," our second
daughter, Cecilia, recalls:
Night after night my father read aloud to us, all of us
delighted by the stories. Sometimes we listened for hours.
Occasionally, he was even more eager to read than we were inclined
to listen: when we fell asleep, we were carried up the wooden hill
-- the stairs -- to the land of nod.
My father also invented his own tales. He related these stories
as installments beside the fireplace, the traditional place for a
community's stories, developing the characters and plots as he
spoke. We followed "Hew and His Knife," "The Elusive Earl," and
other tales. Often he would conclude an episode with the
protagonists caught in a perilous predicament -- surrounded by
bandits or the like -- which on one occasion so infuriated us that
we demanded that he "get those children home to their momma."
Laughing, he appeased us with a more satisfactory conclusion.
Haunting works, far removed from the tales he told us, my
father's published fiction often considers the eerie, the macabre,
even the diabolic. For the sheer pleasure of their evocative
titles, I specify: Old House of Fear, The Surly Sullen
Bell, The Princess of All Lands, Lord of the Hollow
Dark, and "The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost." His
published fiction and unwritten children's tales do, however, share
a common element: the appeal to the normative consciousness,
touching upon struggles of an ethical nature.
During our three decades together, Russell and I enjoyed the
company of dozens of people who became, for months or years, part
of our extended family. Because of their presence, we were able to
celebrate more fully holidays, feast-days, and birthdays. At one
point, we had so many celebrations that Russell conferred upon one
of our "little platoon" the distinction of "Mistress of Revels."
Halloween was always an especially festive night. Russell wore
his saffron-colored St. Andrews academic gown. The village children
always referred to him as "The Great Pumpkin." Later in the
evening, after the doorbell stopped ringing, he would gather us all
around to play an English game called "Snapdragon," which involved
snatching flaming raisins soaked in brandy from a brass tray and
eating them while they were still burning.
During those years, our household included students, refugees,
several musicians, and Russell's 90- year-old aunt, who lived in a
log cabin next door. Every day at 5 p.m., tiny Fay Jewell invited
all of us to join her in her daily drink, a single glass of whiskey
and water. The students always liked to join her to hear her tales
of Mecosta and to take a break from their more scholarly
One could give innumerable examples of Russell's hospitality,
shown in large and small acts of kindness to others regardless of
age or stature. Perhaps the best illustration of this hospitality
was his acceptance of the hobo who lived with us for six years
until he died. A stalwart white-haired Viking with piercing blue
eyes, Clinton Wallace came to us on probation, having done time for
stealing from church poor-boxes. He reasoned that he was the poor,
and so he was justified in taking what he needed. Other than
stealing on occasion, his only vices were laziness and buying
lottery tickets. For years he had kept himself warm while on the
road by visiting libraries, where he actually read the books. He
memorized reams of poetry and loved to recite it at our seminars,
especially Shakespeare and the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam.
Russell wrote his best and, to my mind, most beautiful short story
about Clinton and called it "A Long, Long Trail A-Winding." In it,
the main character, Frank Sarsfield, patterned after Clinton, dies
in a snowstorm. Ironically, just one year later, Clinton died in a
snowstorm, on his way home after seeing the movie "Across the Great
Divide." He is buried in our family plot, next to Russell.
For two decades, we held formal weekend seminars several times a
year, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. These
seminars addressed a wide variety of topics, including "Our
Classical Patrimony," "Historical Consciousness," "In Search of the
American Spirit," "Literature in an Ideological Age," and "Can
Virtue Be Taught?" We also held hundreds of informal seminars for
the many graduate students who lived with us. All together, some
two thousand students and professors attended these gatherings.
Several of these ISI/Piety Hill seminars were held over the New
Year's Eve holiday, and so naturally called for a celebration.
After three days of serious discussion, furniture in the drawing
room was pushed back to accommodate the dancing of reels, the
singing of carols, and the breaking of a pi¤ata. The most
memorable of these New Year's Eve seminars was the one attended by
Kitty and Malcolm Muggeridge. The topic was "Pilgrims in the Dark
Wood of Our Time." It was an awesome experience to hear Muggeridge
reflect upon his fascinating life, to take walks in the snowy
woods, returning to drink hot cider before the fireplace in
Russell's library -- the barn-like structure in which all such
seminars were held and where Russell did almost all of his writing
for 40 years.
His writing, or "scribbling," as he referred to it, resulted in
30 books, 500 National Review articles, 2,500 newspaper
columns, and 400 essays. He also wrote introductions and prefaces
to countless numbers of books, and edited 30 titles for his series
"The Library of Conservative Thought."
Russell was never a dry-as-dust type of scholar. He departed
from academe early on and instead strove to write evocative prose
which spoke to a larger audience, one he identified as "the common
reader." He deemed it urgent to speak to this group -- which might
include scholars, but mainly consisted of people in commerce, the
professions, public officials, parents, or students. He wished to
reach those who perceived that civilization had lost its object,
its aim or end, had become decadent. He sought to articulate this
loss, and to give hope that renewal was possible, to continually
remind us that for there to be outer order in society, there must
be inner order in the souls of its members.
Russell desired us to recognize that a conservative disposition
always displays piety toward the wisdom of its ancestors. Piety, by
which he meant reverence not merely for things spiritual, but also
for habit, custom, tradition, and history, provides us with an
understanding of the limits of our intellect and leaves us open to
the paradoxes and mysteries of life. Of piety, Richard Weaver has
[I]t seems to me that it signifies an attitude toward
things which are immeasurably larger and greater than oneself
without which man is an insufferably brash, conceited, and
frivolous animal. I do not in truth see how societies are able to
hold together without some measure of this ancient but now derided
feeling.... The realization that piety is a proper and constructive
attitude... helped me to develop what Russell Kirk calls "affection
for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life."...
[This realization] was for me a kind of recovery of lost power or
lost capacity for wonder and enchantment.
It seems significant that the last book Russell published before
he died was The Politics of Prudence, a selection from the
60 lectures he gave here at The Heritage Foundation over a period
of 16 years. The last chapter of this book is entitled, "May the
Rising Generation Redeem the Time?" One reviewer wrote: "There is
something fitting about Russell Kirk addressing the younger
generation... because there is a remarkable youthfulness about
Russell Kirk himself.... His impishness, his capacity for wonder
and delight, his intellectual enthusiasm, his freedom from academic
cant -- all make him the ideal pedagogue for the next generation of
conservatives." Of those Heritage lectures, Ed Feulner commented:
"I never ceased to be amazed by the inevitable overflow crowd of
young people who couldn't get enough of him. I asked one of them
what his hold was on them.... [A] young Reagan appointee said, 'He
taught us all why our role was important beyond ourselves and
Russell did not live to see the great congressional victory of
'94. While he would have been pleased at this turn of events, he
would have cautioned us to place this triumph in perspective.
Probably, he would have approved the "Contract with America," but
he would have reminded us of another contract, which joins in the
community of souls those dead, those living, and those yet to be
born -- the contract of eternal society.
This understanding of being part of a "community of souls" was
very much evident in a eulogy for her father delivered by our third
My father was delighted at my discovery at the age of
fifteen of the Afrikaaner writer Sir Laurens van der Post. One of
the first books of the many he presented to my mother before they
were married was The Seed and the Sower by van der Post,
whom he considered "a wise man."
As my interest in the works of Sir Laurens grew, my father began
searching his favorite book shops and catalogues for anything of a
similar topic. On my last birthday I received eighteen books in
this field. He often sent me postcards, typed of course, relating
his progress in this endeavor. Our talks were of the bushman and
his myths, of the land of Ethiopia, and the wonder of the
This was the original basis of our friendship -- a bond of two
of "God's spies," who did indeed as Shakespeare wrote in King
Lear: "live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh
at gilded butterflies... and take upon's the mystery of
At our last Christmas gathering my father gave me a tape of an
interview with Sir Laurens entitled "From the Heart." We watched it
together and listened to Sir Laurens speak of the prospect of his
impending death and how after seeing "people of all races, of all
cultures, and of all conditions die" [it was extraordinary to see
how] "a certain majesty and dignity inside the human spirit comes
to take people on to the end." This was the way my father met death
-- with reverence and dignity. What stories we'll have to tell, God
willing, when next we meet!
Being with Russell was never boring. Because he viewed life as a
perpetual adventure and loved so deeply, we were continually
surprised by joy. Through my reflections and through the words of
others, especially his daughters, I have tried to reveal the
essence of his mind and heart, which continues on in the legacy
that he has left us.
Perhaps our eldest daughter, Monica, best expressed our family's
thoughts on life with Russell: "My father was a great intellectual
and a distinguished writer. He was a teller of ghostly tales and a
planter of trees. He was a devoted husband and loving father. But
above all, in his words and in his actions, my father was a
gentleman. Even when he was in considerable pain, my father never
lost his gracious dignity. When I made a commitment to help my
mother care for my father in his illness, I knew that it was my
duty. I now realize that it was an honor."
For those of us who knew and loved Russell Kirk, the
promulgation of his wise words is both a duty and an honor. In this
regard, T.S. Eliot's words seem especially appropriate: "The
communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language
of the living."