Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Conservative Mind- An ISI Weekend Retreat on the Life and Mind of Russell Kirk

Several weeks ago, your editor-in-chief Matt Smith took Mary Kate Daly and me to Mecosta, Michigan to spend a weekend discussing the life and influence of the Catholic Conservative intellectual Russell Kirk, most famous for his explication of the soul of conservative thought made in his 1953 work, "The Conservative Mind".

From library circle, Matt picked Mary and me up in his beige Ford "Exploder" and, to the tune of the Red Hot Chili Peppers "Snow" (yours truly's favorite new song), cruised onto the interstate, where the beautiful colors of fall were just beginning to show on the trees along the way.

Arriving just in time for dinner, the three of us sat down to ribs and mashed potatoes cooked by the hosts of the Bread and Breakfast at which we were staying, while libations were made readily available to those of age. After dinner, Annette Kirk, the widow of Russell Kirk, introduced us to the life of the man to whom she had been married for thirty years. An energetic, talkative, and intellectually stimulating woman, Mrs. Kirk described the life of an introverted, quiet, and humble man who enjoyed telling fairy stories to his children and was buried beside a hobo whom he had invited to live with his family (a wife and four daughters) for many years. She also shared stories of his vast intellectual and political influence, particularly with regards to his books and his writings in the National Review and The New York Times, among other places.

After the talk, guests went out onto the balcony for late night conversations, which flowed like the choice beverages in the hands of several of the group's older members. Matt Smith and Mary Kate graced the evening with their well-dressed presences. Yours truly stuck to his wrinkled "Solidarity Shirt" from earlier in the day.

Saturday morning, the group awoke (some later than others) to a meal of eggs and sausage, then drove to Russell Kirk's library to hear several talks on the political, social, and moral implications of the conservative's thought.

George Nash, a Harvard Ph. D., conservative political thinker, and author of the seminal work "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945" presented a biography of Russell Kirk's life and spoke of his influence on the American conservative movement. A well-spoken man, Nash united the works of Russell Kirk with the ideological underpinnings of true American conservatism, particularly with regards to the recognition of a transcendent moral order, a respect for ancestry and the future, and a recognition and explication of America's role in the development of Western civilization.

Richard Gamble, a Professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan, followed with a talk on "Russell Kirk and the American Identity" which discussed how Russell Kirk's thought influenced the development of American conservatism, and how Russell Kirk's own work serves as a drive behind much of the humanism that imbues conservatism.

Following the talk, students and Professors headed to lunch at Northern Shores restaurant, where William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk first met in the 1950s to discuss the development of a national newspaper which would become the National Review. The group enjoyed delicious cheeseburgers (blue-cheese?) and iced tea, topped off with ice cream sundaes of striking proportion.

After lunch, group members went to see Russell Kirk's grave site. A simple black marble stone was etched with Kirk's famous letterhead and, in fitting fashion, the words from T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets":

The communication of the dead
is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.

Mrs. Kirk told her guests that she had called Mrs. Eliot to ask permission to use this quote on Russell's tombstone. Mrs. Eliot quickly granted this request, but not before informing Mrs. Kirk that this quote was, in fact, the very same one to be found on the burial stone of Eliot himself.

After this, the group returned to Piety Hill for a final talk by Dr. Bradley Birzer, a Hillsdale college History professor, and a true-blue Notre Dame grad (though, as a former member of Zahm Hall, we're not sure if he counts). Birzer spoke on the influence of Kirk's thought in our own world today, and how study of his work could positively impact future generations of conservative thinkers.

After this talk, the group retired to Piety Hill, Russell Kirk's home, for a splendid dinner with Mrs. Kirk. Guests were treated to a tour of the house, which included a suit of armor, Persian battle armaments, a few Marian statues, some relics, and a ceiling made of Church pews. All were impressed with the varied decorations, as well as the chicken and vegetables that was served over warm conversation.

After dinner, the group retired to the family room to hear ghost stories from Russell Kirk's collection "Ancestral Shadows". Audience members were held to the edge of their seats with tales from "The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost", and "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding," about a petty criminal who decides to make a final stand for goodness in the protection of a family he loves. All were thoroughly entertained by the speaker, whose varied pitch and tones, as well as brisk Southern accent, made the stories come alive on the family room floor. One student, enjoying the stories a great deal, went so far as to check the book out of the library, and found "There's A Long, Long Trail A-Winding" as entertaining and captivating as the condensed version of the story presented that evening.

After dinner, the tired lads returned to the Bed & Breakfast. The young men stayed up late engaging in friendly discussion about philosophy, theology, and politics. Mary Daly, being wise and intelligent, retired to her room to study.

The next morning, all woke up and, after a warm breakfast, e-mail and phone number exchange, headed to the cars for a long ride home.

All together, the weekend was a truly memorable experience for all involved. Coming away from it, each of us remarked how fun it was to be away from campus for a weekend with friends old and new, discussing the merits of conservative thought, and enjoying the company afforded by the life and spirit of the great conservative thinker and, as evidenced by his wife, even greater man, Russell Kirk.

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