Obituary: Russell Kirk

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Russell Amos Kirk, writer and political philosopher: born Plymouth, Michigan 19 October 1918; married 1964 Annette Courtemanche (four daughters); died Mecosta, Michigan 29 April 1994.

RUSSELL KIRK, the American social philosopher, was credited with being singly responsible for the resurgence of conservatism in the United States with his seminal bestseller The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Santayana (1953), sparking the political trend which eventually found its fulfilment in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

During the same period when the activities of Senator McCarthy were deluding many into thinking he was a bona fide conservative, Kirk argued forcefully that conservatism was a coherent school of thought different from the basic doctrines of anti-Communism, and there must be room for tradition, culture and moral order.

His thesis was revised as The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot in 1960, in conjunction with several more books which expanded on similar themes: A Program for Conservatives (1954), The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Conservatism (1957), Edmund Burke: a genius reconsidered (1967), Eliot and His Age (1971), and many others.

Kirk began a separate part-time career as a master of spectral and Gothic literature while studying for his DLitt at St Andrews University from 1949 to 1952. While temporarily short of funds, he contributed four ghost stories ('Behind the Stumps', 'The Surly Sullen Bell', 'Uncle Isaiah', and 'Old Place of Sorworth') to a new bimonthly, London Mystery Magazine. These tales are now recognised as modern classics.

A much later tale, 'There's a Long, Long Trail a-Winding', brought Kirk the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1977. Many connoisseurs of the genre rated him as the sole remaining American fantasist whose ghost stories merit legitimate comparison with the old masters, especially Blackwood, de la Mare and Wharton. Barely two dozen in number, written over a period of nearly 40 years, his ghost stories were collected in three volumes, The Surly Sullen Bell (1962; reissued as Lost Lake, 1964); The Princess of All Lands (1979); and Watchers of the Strait Gate (1984). Old House of Fear (1961), a Gothic novel set in Scotland, ingeniously combined Kirk's two favourite themes: political theory and the supernatural.

Piety Hill, Kirk's ancestral home in Michigan where he lived most of his life, has always been regarded as a benevolently haunted house, most of the ghosts being Kirk's own 19th-century relatives. In recent years he often claimed that this tall Italianate mansion was usually crowded, in addition to its spectres, by refugees from Ethiopia, Vietnam, and elsewhere - not to mention the towering hobo who, as 'Frank Sarsfield', appears in several of his stories.