Chicago — The world's best conservative novelists and thinkers don't get the credit they deserve. At least, that is how many conservatives see it.
''When I started to research these things, I was astounded,'' says Leopold Tyrmand, vice-president of the Rockford Institute, a conservative cultural study center in Rockford, Ill. He ticks off several examples:
* Short-story writer Flannery O'Connor never won a Pulitzer Prize and received her National Book Award only posthumously.
* J. D. Salinger, author of ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' never won any of those prizes.
* Cultural philosopher Richard Weaver is virtually unknown, even though he was the kind of thinker ''America (has) produced only three or four times,'' Mr. Tyrmand says.
So two years ago the Ingersoll Foundation, in cooperation with the Rockford Institute, set out to redress the balance. Last year it handed out the first Ingersoll Prizes in literature and the humanities.
Earlier this month November in Chicago it awarded the second round of prizes. Russell Kirk, the social critic and conservative thinker, received the humanities prize; Anthony Dymoke Powell, the English novelist and a gentle critic of the Western left, got the prize for literature. Each received $15,000.
Many conservatives applaud this effort.
''That's certainly a valuable thing to attempt to do,'' says Jeffrey Hart, professor of English at Dartmouth College and senior editor of National Review. ''We see the liberal theology becoming sort of orthodoxy.''
''So far, I think, the foundation has made very promising strides,'' adds Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, managing editor of The American Spectator.
But these observers wonder aloud whether such a prize will work.
For one thing, says Mr. Pleszczynski, it is not easy to set up a prize that's a reaction to other prizes. ''It's a very tricky proposition.''
For another, the prize may have limited appeal, says T. John Jamieson, a conservative writer in Evanston, Ill., and frequent contributor to The American Spectator.''I think this is going to get very little attention in the outside world.''
Tyrmand, who plays an important role in choosing the winners, is also editor of a literary magazine published by the Rockford Institute, Chronicle of Culture - which gets mixed reviews from conservatives. ''I have a confused impression,'' Mr. Jamieson says. ''Mr. Tyrmand is raising (essayist) John Simon clones to fight liberalism with sarcasm.''
As Tyrmand sees it, the aim of the Ingersoll Foundation is to affect culture - and affect it in a certain way. ''By the end of the 20th century, we see very clearly that culture shapes politics'' and many other things, he says. A Reagan in the White House, for example, may have only a superficial effect on society through politics or economics. But an artist can change the world. He says it is a far-reaching metaphor, perhaps, but ''nobody who buys a tie at Woolworth's downtown realizes he's buying Picasso's designs.''
While the dominant liberal culture pooh-poohs such values as lawfulness, integrity, ethical norms that strengthen the family unit, he says, along with the Judeo-Christian ideals summarized by the Ten Commandments, the Ingersoll Prizes are one way of reinforcing these.
This point of view is already making some inroads, says Dr. Kirk, this year's co-winner. ''I think what we are seeing is a reaction of a Christian cast of mind against an aggressive secularism,'' he says. This appears to be occurring in certain quarters of both the right and the left.
On the right, ''there's been a resurgence of fundamentalism,'' he says, which can't last unless it gains the support of the intellectual community. On the left, many Roman Catholics have given up their belief in personal salvation and replaced it with a kind of archaic social gospel.
Everyone has been for the doctrine of separation of church and state,'' he says, but that means different things to different people. His view: ''I don't want political Christianity. On the other hand, I do want secular politics to be influenced by morals.''
This is part of what Kirk, most famous for his landmark work in 1953, ''The Conservative Mind,'' calls the ''moral imagination.'' A writer can create from three types of imagination, he says. The idyllic imagination sees man as naturally good but corrupted by institutions. The diabolical imagination - daily portrayed on television - looks at his evil side. And the moral imagination, he says, views man as a normal being with normal relationships.
''I had an idea long ago that there ought to be literary awards awarding normality,'' Kirk says. ''I'm glad to see this has been accomplished.''
Although critics don't generally consider Anthony Powell a writer whose work propounds a moral or Christian point of view, the institute's magazine, Chronicles of Culture, notes that Powell is a member of ''the uncommitted right.'' It goes on to say: ''As social commentaries, Powell's novels and memoirs must be ranked very high. . . . Without exposing either party or platform, 'The Music of Time' (Powell's major work, a 12-volume semiautobiographical novel) exposes the pretensions and posturings of the British Left to a gentle irony that is, in the long run, more withering than either (Evelyn) Waugh's black humor or (Malcolm) Muggeridge's blistering sarcasm.''