[This review was published in the December 1979 issue of Universitas, the national publication of University Professors for Academic Order.]
Edmund Burke and His World
Alice P. Miller
Devin-Adair Company, 1979
Introduction by Russell Kirk
From a distance, a thinker or political figure often becomes known abstractly as almost an “institution” rather than as an actual person who has lived and breathed. In my own studies of Edmund Burke, for example, I have centered almost entirely on the ideas that he articulated so well; I have known relatively little about him as a man.
Alice P. Miller has filled something of a void for me, then, by providing the details of Burke’s life and of some of the events of his time. In easily readable language that she has intended for the general reader, she gives an account of a series of facets that are each deeply interesting in their own right: Burke’s upbringing in Ireland; his education at Trinity College in Dublin and at the Middle Temple in London; his long association intellectually with such fellow-luminaries as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, and Oliver Goldsmith; the circumstances across the Atlantic that prompted him to support the American colonists; his years-long prosecution of Warren Hastings on charges of corruption in India; his revulsion against the French Revolution; and many others.
It isn’t a book of unmitigated hero-worship; although always sympathetic, Miller is at times critical. When Russell Kirk reminds us in his Introduction, however, that American school children no longer study Burke, we feel a sense of loss that makes us hope that somehow Miller’s book can become an established part of their curriculum. If so, they may not imbibe hero worship, but they will at least develop a greater appreciation of our heritage.
I would be remiss if I left the impression that this is the definitive biography of Burke. It is a popular-style book with definite limitations. A reader will hardly come away with any sense of the role that Burke has played in the history of ideas, since his place in the larger context of Western civilization isn’t considered. Nor does Miller attempt much by way of psychological study. I never felt that the book “gets inside” Burke. In fact, several of his views seem simply to pop up unexpectedly in stark contrast to Miller’s own portrayal of twentieth-century-type social issues. (Conservative readers may not be altogether pleased, too, that she has worked in quite so much social-democratic thinking as the perspective from which she has viewed Burke and his time. But her emphasis on, say, the disparities between rich and poor will almost certainly help get the book adopted for use in today’s schools. And, as I’ve indicated, that will, on balance, be a plus.)
It may not be everything that a deeper book could be, but I do recommend it for readers who feel that they could benefit from knowing more about the actual detail of Burke’s life.
Dwight D. Murphey