The political Left dominates some of the important institutions of Western society today. Besides controlling mainstream media and higher education, the Left is powerfully entrenched in the world of the arts. To get a grant, a museum showing, a book deal, or a good review from the intelligentsia, it helps to be a leftist.
However, despite this cultural dominance, many of the greatest writers in the history of Western literature have been broadly conservative in their outlook. This post is an attempt to highlight these great conservatives of our literary tradition, to show how their conservatism influenced their work, and to make a case for conservatism as a serious intellectual tradition that is compatible with the best art.
The post will choose for its subjects writers who are broadly considered great and important as writers, and who are attested by a variety of sources to represent conservatism not only in their writing but also in their personal lives.
Introduction: Our Odyssey
Homer’s Odyssey is a foundational poem of Western literature. It describes the heroic efforts of a man and his wife to be reunited at home. The happy ending is not saving or changing the world, but merely the establishment of a family. Western civilization contains within it this foundational conservative idea – the importance of preserving a home and protecting a family. The conservative writers described here are all in one way or another continuing the tradition of the affirmation of home, family, and tradition (literary and otherwise) begun by Homer. In a sense, since literature is an attempt to write down and therefore preserve fleeting impressions, literature itself is an inherently conservative endeavor. Great conservative authors produce works that affirm tradition and the moral order, as well as our cultural home in the West. Future conservative writers will stand on the shoulders of the giants described here.
Skeptical Mystic: Jorge Luis Borges
Borges once wrote that his membership in his country’s Conservative political party was “proof of his skepticism.” He was skeptical of the great leftist schemes and disasters of his day: Marxism, communism, eugenics, and progressive utopianism. His skepticism ran so deep that he was even skeptical of the world itself – he thought that we are surrounded by appearances that do not correspond to the ultimate reality of God. This deep skepticism made Borges something of a mystic, unlike many of the atheist skeptics more visible today. In his writing, his conservatism is apparent in his rejection of statist solutions and his emphasis on the civil and personal over the political. See here for more about Borges, including the longstanding bad blood between Borges and the leftist dictator Juan Peron.
Home Free: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Wilder’s classic memoirs of the American frontier life still have a strong hold on the American imagination. Her stories of a family taming the wild West support the “rugged individualism” associated with the American Right today. Her books are conservative affirmations of the value of the nuclear family, the importance of voluntary community, and the beauty of the natural world. They provide a compelling account of a quintessentially conservative goal: building a happy home, free from outside interference. Wilder’s daughter later became politically active on behalf of libertarian causes in California.
Manly Humility: Rudyard Kipling
Kipling was born in British India and became known as the poet laureate of British imperialism. However, he was not an unthinking apologist for colonial oppression. His work shows a sensitivity that is not widely appreciated today, as well as a sympathy and admiration for his characters and the colonized places he describes. For example, in The Jungle Book a conversation between an animal and a human boy explores the question of what constitutes a man rather than an animal (which is important for political questions like suffrage, abortion, and citizenship). The animal says that tears, not strength or skill or dominance, are the true sign of manhood. His conclusions here presage the writing in our own day of conservative Roger Scruton, whose scholarly book On Human Nature recently explored this topic deeply. Borges wrote that Kipling had a habit of describing events as if he did not fully understand them. It was as if he had an epistemological humility, a knowledge that the world was so big and diverse that we could never fully comprehend its mysterious operation. This is a conservative position to take, since if we do not fully understand the world, we should have a conservative reticence to meddle in it in the way that progressives want to.
Honor and Glory: Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh is known today as a representative of the British upper class. He was born into a distinguished family, educated at Oxford, and always well-connected and prosperous. He loved his home and family, but became best known early in his career as a satirist, mocking the pretensions of the social elites of his day including their “virtue signaling.” Later in life, he turned to more serious topics, including the Roman Catholicism he converted to, and the war in which he was an active and eager participant. His conservatism is apparent in his work in his appreciation for traditional forms and older writers, in his opposition to the welfare state and mass popular culture, and in his clear royalist sympathies. His best writing highlights two conservative mainstays: the glory of our civilization and the importance of personal honor.
Living Gladly: Robert Louis Stevenson
One biographer noted that Stevenson throughout his life preferred to support conservative (Tory) candidates in elections, including the well-known Benjamin Disraeli (himself a literary man). His conservative instincts may have been honed at least partially by his experiences traveling in the Pacific, where just like Kipling he gained an appreciation for the broad and inscrutable world and the folly of progressive schemes to remake it without paying proper attention to unforeseen consequences. This appreciation for the exciting world is clear in his gripping adventure stories and enriches the enjoyment one can gather from them. One of the most salient features of Stevenson’s life and his work is that he lived gladly – he was grateful for everything he had, including even his sicknesses and his misfortunes. Living gladly can be a motivation to be a conservative, since if one is glad for our traditions and our institutions, one will desire to conserve them; this attitude could explain Stevenson’s politics as well as his writing.
The Rambler: Samuel Johnson
Doctor Johnson was one of the most profound thinkers of history, and also a committed Tory who Boswell called an “arch-conservative.” In Rasselas, Johnson advances a conservative idea of life, positing that there is no best or ideal life, and that each person is probably happiest when remaining in their home and the surroundings of their birth. Aesthetically, Johnson loved writers from older eras including Juvenal. He wrote a publication called The Rambler, and the title reasonably describes his life: wandering between beautiful things, thinking and writing about them, with no destination in mind but only a desire to enjoy and appreciate the beauty all around.
The Undiscovered Country: Victor Segalen
Victor Segalen, like the other adventurers Stevenson and Kipling described above, possessed both a profound patriotism for his native land as well as a deep love for a culture on the other side of the world. Segalen brought a French and aesthetic eye to Chinese culture, and enriched world literature with his unique blend of these two traditions.
Urban (Dis)order: Tom Wolfe and James Ellroy
Tom Wolfe, like Samuel Johnson, believes strongly that books should be readable and enjoyable for a common, educated person. His books are fast-paced and action packed and occasionally adapted as movies. He takes on many of the difficult cultural topics under discussion today: immigration (in Back to Blood), the proper way for men to be men (A Man in Full), modern corporate life (Bonfire of the Vanities), and sexual revolution (I am Charlotte Simmons). In each of these topics he takes a nuanced but broadly conservative outlook. He shares with James Ellroy a journalistic style and a passion for writing about modern urban life with all its dysfunctions. For his part, James Ellroy has been called a “Tory Mystic” and is also broadly conservative in outlook. Both believe in public law and order.
The Broad Church: “Honorable Mentions”
Besides the great conservative writers described above above, there are dozens of writers who deserve mention in any post about literary conservatism. The following writers could be called “honorable mentions”:
- Hillaire Belloc. Belloc served as a conservative member of the British Parliament, and a gifted writer in his own right. He wrote on economics (The Servile State) and wrote a popular and hilarious book for children, implicitly supporting a conservative vision of childhood.
- T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s poetry, besides being hugely influential, is profoundly conservative in its outlook. In works like The Waste Land, Eliot describes a conservative vision of the perils of a dying culture and what it takes to preserve and renew it.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn. An anti-Communist activist as well as a gifted writer, Solzhenitsyn has contributed greatly to our understanding of man’s spiritual state both in the authoritarian regimes he experienced early in life as well as the materialist and capitalist regimes he experienced later.
- Ayn Rand. Controversial but influential, Ayn Rand galvanized generations of libertarians, many of whom have aligned with the political Right.
- J.R.R Tolkien. Tolkien’s popular fantasy novels present a world of enchantment and affirm the veneration of the sacred. They support the idea of a moral order and conservative notions of loyalty, honor, and sacrifice.