Orestes Brownson, Selected Essays, edited by Russell Kirk
Even before 1939, when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published his biography, there had been a small continuing interest, particularly among Catholic intellectuals, in Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), the New England liberal and reformer who went over to Rome in the 1840’s. Schlesinger’s interpretation of this controversial writer, whom Lord Acton called the most penetrating American thinker of his day, was followed in the next few years by two more biographies, as well as specialized studies and several volumes of Brownson’s own writings. Now from the twenty volumes of his works Russell Kirk has made a small selection of six essays, all of them, except the famous “Present State of Society” (1843), written after Brown-son’s conversion. They are offered us by Mr. Kirk as another contribution to the literature of American neo-conservatism.
Brownson was a familiar American type: the rootless man, intelligent and energetic, moving from one system of ideas to another in a society which, lacking the fixities of European life, failed to settle any permanent claim on him. Aside from a brief enrollment in an academy, Brownson, born of a poor Vermont family, was self-educated, a fact perhaps reflected in the undisciplined character of his mind. He read Berkeley, Hume, Godwin, Locke, Kant, Cousin, Leroux, and Gioberti; sowed his Transcendental wild oats by often visiting and eventually enrolling his son at Brook Farm; and earned his living by writing, preaching, and editing. The list of his intellectual and religious affiliations reads like a survey of everything America had to offer in the age of Jackson: Congregationalism, Presby-terianism, Universalism, Robert Owenism and Fanny Wrightism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism.
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