Years ago, when a Vanderbilt graduate-school party was careening toward promiscuity, a quiet young woman, an English major, suddenly shocked everyone by saying, “Tell you what let’s do: Let’s all name the books we’ve never read.” Suddenly it was time to go home. In five minutes the room was empty, except for the host and hostess, hauling half-filled glasses to the kitchen and dumping cigarette butts out of ashtrays.
I for one could have mentioned a number of “essential books” I hadn’t read, among them Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age, a study I’d frequently recommended to students as “the best single work on the subject.” I made that pronouncement without reservation. I knew Russell Kirk.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently reissued the title, and after having actually read it, I can confirm my original assessment: It’s the best book on Eliot ever written. And, more than that, it is a brilliant performance, the finest literary biography I’ve ever read.
First of all, it is gracefully written, yet full of linguistic surprises—witty and imaginative. Kirk was one of the premier stylists of his generation—and that means more to me than all the footnotes in the Library of Congress. In addition, his commentary on the poetry and the age is clear and precise, nothing like the academic...