As stu­dents in American Her­itage class discuss political the­orist Russell Kirk’s essay in their course readers, the author’s per­sonal books sit perched above them in Lane Hall. More than 10,000 volumes are packed away in boxes on the locked fourth floor. Placed in storage during library ren­o­va­tions more than a decade ago, the books are a valuable piece of con­ser­v­ative history.

But 18 years after their arrival on campus, no one can read them — and the papers that once were sup­posed to join them never have arrived.

“I’m very glad to have Russell Kirk’s books at Hillsdale College,” College Pres­ident Larry Arnn said. “We’re going to build a place for them and we have a com­mitment to do it.”

Kirk (1918 – 1994) spent most of his life in Mecosta, Mich. He authored “The Con­ser­v­ative Mind,” an influ­ential book whose 60th anniversary is this year. He was a fierce critic of modernity, and an even more out­spoken defender of tra­dition, mystery, and social order.

“He was a man of phe­nomenal intel­lectual output and ver­sa­tility,” his­torian George H. Nash said. “He was con­stantly urging us to look deeper and higher in defense of what a good tra­dition should be.”

Kirk taught at Hillsdale College in the 1970s and ’80s, holds the record for most CCA speeches, and sent two daughters to the college. He hosted weekend sem­inars for stu­dents at his home. In 1985, he gave the com­mencement address and the college honored him with its “Freedom Lead­ership Award.” The American Studies department has an endowed chair named after him.

Chairman and Pro­fessor of Art Sam Knecht recalled seeing Kirk in the halls of the old fine arts building, where he had an office.

“My initial impression of the man was that he looks inter­esting, but he mumbles if you speak to him.” he said. “Even­tually, I started coming across some of his articles. Then I under­stood.”

Kirk told the Col­legian in 1974, “I am very fond of Hillsdale. In fact, it is one of my favorite col­leges.”

During the final years of his life, Kirk and his wife, Annette, arranged for Kirk’s per­sonal library and papers to come to the college after his death. The books arrived in 1995. The library hired extra stu­dents to help catalog the vast col­lection, and even­tually some items were dis­played in the Carr Library. The college also com­mis­sioned Knecht to paint a por­trait of Kirk.

A Col­legian article from March of 1995 reported “an area within the Carr Library is being worked on with the intent of opening it as a ‘reading room’ much like that of the von Mises room,” referring to the basement room in Mossey Library that con­tains the books of Aus­trian econ­omist Ludwig von Mises. But today there is no Russell Kirk reading room. Knecht’s por­trait hangs in the office of Head Librarian Dan Knoch.

“I don’t know if that was a funding issue,” former Head Librarian Dan Jold­ersma said. “I’m not privy to all of the reasons it never occurred. The painting would have gone into that room.”

Annette Kirk, who con­tinues to live in Mecosta and runs the Russell Kirk Center for Cul­tural Renewal, declined to comment for this article.

The college does not cur­rently have a timeline to display the col­lection, but a bequest to fund a roughly $3.5 million archive center will provide a per­manent home for the library, said Vice Pres­ident of Insti­tu­tional Advancement John Cervini. Other prominent con­ser­v­a­tives have also left books and papers to Hillsdale College, including William F. Buckley Jr., Martin Gilbert, Harry Jaffa, and Richard Weaver.

“Hillsdale has become an important repos­itory for post-war intel­lec­tuals,” Cervini said.

The archive center will store these doc­u­ments with the proper tem­per­ature control and ven­ti­lation. Knoch hopes to hire a full-time archivist to supervise the col­lec­tions.
When the college removed Kirk’s books from Carr, it first put them in the basement of Delp Hall. When that space was needed for faculty offices, they were moved to their current location on the top floor of Lane.

The papers, however, remain in Mecosta, in the col­lection of the Russell Kirk Center for Cul­tural Renewal. “The Kirks decided to rescind the papers.” Cervini said. “It wasn’t an adver­sarial position. They decided they weren’t going to make a gift of the papers.”

Kirk was a pro­lific letter writer, cor­re­sponding with the likes of T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Leo Strauss. Central Michigan Uni­versity has a small col­lection of Kirk papers, but they are on loan and require explicit per­mission from the Kirk estate to access.

Brad Birzer, the Russell Kirk chairman in American studies, is the only scholar who has enjoyed full access to the books as well as the papers still in Mecosta. Birzer described the papers as “immac­ulate.” Kirk wrote so much, Birzer added, “It’s almost as if he had a third arm.”

Birzer is cur­rently writing a biog­raphy of Kirk, to be pub­lished by the Uni­versity of Ken­tucky Press.

“There is nothing in the letters that would not put Kirk in a good light,” Birzer said. “If any­thing, it would do just the opposite. He’s the most humane person you can imagine.”
Many of Kirk’s papers are letters from his cor­re­spon­dents. “Some of these letters are sen­sitive not for Kirk, but the people who wrote them, some of whom are still alive,” Birzer said.
Until the college acquires the means to build an archive center, Kirk’s books will remain in Lane’s attic, next to the papers of one of Kirk’s intel­lectual rivals, Jaffa, with whom Kirk quar­reled about the nature of the American founding.

“We have not for­gotten about Russell Kirk here,” Cervini said. “He was a won­derful scholar.”

Kirk often wrote of “the per­manent things,” a phrase that the Kirk Center uses as the title of its twice-a-year newsletter. His words and ideas remain alive in the minds of con­ser­v­a­tives, but his books and papers still search for a per­manent home.