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Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) was a literary theorist and critic whose work was influential in several fields of knowledge where symbols are a central focus of study.

Kenneth Duva Burke was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 5, 1897. Burke dropped out of college twice, first from Ohio State and then from Columbia, preferring to study on his own. He wanted to write rather than follow the path toward a college professorship. He became part of the literary culture of Greenwich Village, supported by a small allowance from his father. In 1919 Burke married Lillian Batterham, with whom he had three daughters. In 1933 he divorced Lillian and married her sister, Elizabeth, with whom he had two sons.

Burke participated fully in the literary and academic culture of the 1920s. Thereafter, although he was influenced by both Marx and Freud and held several academic positions, he never allowed himself the ease of dogmatism or the security of a permanent academic appointment. His many books are an unusual combination of powerful and original theory marked throughout by paradox, erudition, and a comic spirit.

Burke's early interest in poetry, music, and literature soon turned theoretical, and he began to explore the ways in which poetry and criticism could explain human relations in general. In a series of major works Burke began to explore literature not only as a potential social influence and reflection of social attitudes, but as a model of the structure of human action. Human action, said Burke, is essentially symbolic action, shaped and motivated as if it were drama. Hence, he used the term dramatism to describe a way of studying human motivation. The key to dramatism is that human action is free and purposeful, as opposed to motion, which is simply the physical movement of objects. Humans act, said Burke, and objects move. The structure of human action is dramatic, based on interaction of the five sources of motive that Burke identified in A Grammar of Motives (1945) as the pentad: act, agent, agency, purpose, scene (what was done, who did it, by what means, to what end, and where and when?).

In A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), Burke wrote that rhetoric, or persuasion, is central to any study of the human condition, defining rhetoric as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols." The key to Burke's concept of rhetoric is identification, a recognition of common interests or common "substance," with other humans and is based on the ever-present opposite of identification, division. Rhetoric preserves or alters social order by influencing the way people perceive their symbolic relations. Although rhetoric is historically rooted in language, Burke extended its operation to any human activity in which meaning could be found, and that means all human action. "Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is 'meaning,' there is 'persuasion."'

Because all human action is meaningful and therefore persuasive, both for its author and its audience, Burke thought of all symbolic behavior as strategic action that is directed at defining situations and attitudes for ourselves and others. But Burke noted that though rhetoric is inherently aimed at inducing cooperation by healing division, it can also lead to the futile and coercive attempt to create perfect unity.

In The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), Burke turned his attention to what he called logology, his term for the general study of language and symbols. In this and other works, Burke showed that humans organize their perceptions, their languages, their societies, and their religions on the basis of hierarchies, as in the religious ascent from earthly to eternal life. Burke claimed that a major human invention is the negative, which is what makes symbolic meaning and consequent human society possible, because all notions that something is depend on the implicit claim that it is not something else. The human desire for order and perfection leads to cycles of guilt-victimage-purification-redemption, such as that embodied in the Christian religion and reenacted, said Burke, throughout our history and daily experience. A life's work led Burke to his definition of man, set forth in Language as Symbolic Action (1966). He claimed, "Man is/the symbol-using (symbol making, symbol-misusing) animal/inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)/separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making/goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)/and rotten with perfection."

Burke's work was distinguished by its application of elements from both anthropology and psychoanalysis. Many hailed his use of these sciences, but others felt he neglected to fully apply their methodologies, instead, opting for a sort of smorgasbord approach, in which he took only the aspects that he wanted. In Psychoanalysis & American Literary Criticism, Louis Fraiberg describes Burke's approach. Fraiberg contends, "Psychoanalysis cannot exist without words, but this does not mean that words are the only things in it that matter. Burke has been guilty of taking the part for the whole, and this has thrown his entire critical view out of focus." While Burke had some detractors, he also had the support of notable literary figures such as W.H. Auden and John Crowe Ransom.

Burke received many awards in his lifetime, including the Creative Arts Award from Brandeis University in 1967, the National Endowment for the Arts award in 1968, the National Council on the Arts award in 1969, the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975, and the National Medal for Literature in 1981. He also received the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in 1984. Burke received fellowships from numerous organizations, such as the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (1949), Stanford University (1957), and the Rockefeller Foundation (1966). He died of heart failure on November 19, 1993, in Andover, New Jersey.

Further Reading

Burke's works may be dipped into at almost any point, depending on the reader's interest. Burke's major works were Counter-Statement (1931); Towards a Better Life (1932); Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935); Attitudes Toward History (1937); Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941); A Grammar of Motives (1945); A Rhetoric of Motives (1950); The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (1961); Language as Symbolic Action (1966); Collected Poems, 1915-1967 (1968); and The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction (1924, 1968). Some of Burke's later works include, Dramatism and Development (1972) and On Symbols and Society (1989). He contributed to regularly to a variety of publications, such as Dial, Poetry, Kenyon Review, New Republic, and Critical Inquiry.

There are a number of books about Burke or heavily influenced by Burke. A good introduction is William H. Rueckert, Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (2nd edition, 1982). On Burke as a rhetorical theorist, a good introduction and excellent bibliography are provided in Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric (1985). For Burke's influence on rhetorical criticism, see also Martin J. Medhurst and Thomas W. Benson, Rhetorical Dimensions in Media: A Critical Casebook (1984). For Burke's place in literary and social theory, see also Hugh D. Duncan, Communication and Social Order (1962); Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism (1947); and Hayden White and Margaret Brose (editors), Representing Kenneth Burke (1982). Other biographical sources are Contemporary Authors (1994) Volume 143, Robert Heath's Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke (1986), and Greig Henderson's Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action (1989). □

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Burke, Kenneth Duva

Kenneth Duva Burke, 1897–1993, American critic, b. Pittsburgh, Pa. He was music critic for The Dial (1927–29) and The Nation (1934–36). A profound thinker whose writings have influenced other critics, Burke saw literature as "symbolic action" —man must view everything through a haze of symbols (language). Among his works are Counter-Statement (1931); Attitudes Towards History (1937); A Grammar of Motives (1945); Collected Poems (1968); and The Complete White Oxen (1968), a collection of short fiction.

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Burke, Kenneth Duva

Burke, Kenneth Duva

(b. 5 May 1897 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 19 November 1993 in Andover, New Jersey), writer best known for his literary and social criticism and for his many studies of the rhetorical properties of language, who also wrote poems, short stories, and a novel.

Burke was the only child of James Leslie Burke, a clerk for Westinghouse Electric Company, and Lillyan May Duva, a homemaker. He grew up in Pittsburgh, where he graduated from Peabody High School in 1915. Malcolm Cowley, his lifelong friend and correspondent, was one of his classmates. He moved to Weehawken, New Jersey, with his family in 1915. In 1916 he enrolled for a semester at Ohio State University in Columbus, and then returned to Wee-hawken in June. He enrolled at Columbia University in New York City that fall but withdrew in January 1918 because, as he wrote Cowley, he was afraid his formal education was doing him more harm than good and was interfering with his plan to become a “genius.” Burke never did receive a degree and, from 1918 on, was entirely self-educated. For the next few years, he lived, worked, wrote, and studied in New York City, where he met many of the leading literary figures of his time and played an active role in the vibrant literary life of the city.

On 19 May 1919 Burke married Lily Mary Batterham, with whom he had three daughters. In 1921 Burke bought the first of his two farmhouses in rural Andover, the town he would live in for the rest of his life. While working in New York City during most of the 1920s, he commuted two hours by train to and from work. He lived in Andover for many years without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing, until late in the 1960s when his second wife became ill, and he had to modernize his house. He chose a spartan existence because he did not want to clutter up his life any more than necessary with modern technology.

Burke’s first ambition as a writer was to become, like Gustave Flaubert, a writer of poetry and prose fiction and an advocate of art for art’s sake. His first published book was a collection of surrealistic short stories titled The White Oxen (1924). But as Burke was to discover while working as an editor for the literary magazine Dial (1924–1929), criticism and not fiction was to be his real calling, his true voice as a writer. Burke began writing critical essays in the mid-1920s even as he was working on his only novel, and it was as a literary critic that he first became well known with the publication of Counter-Statement in 1931. His first and only novel, Towards a Better Life, was finally published in 1932, and as Burke pointed out, was received with as much fanfare as a feather falling into the Grand Canyon. Burke’s determination to become a genius was to be fulfilled through his criticism.

By the end of the 1920s, Burke was well established personally and professionally. He worked for the Dial until it ceased publication in 1929 and there met James Sibley Watson, who was to become his patron, and to whom he would dedicate three of his books in gratitude. The Wall Street crash of 1929 brought this period to a calamitous end and ushered in the economic miseries of the Great Depression. These two events had a profound effect on Burke’s career and development and coincided with upheavals in his personal life.

In response to the crash and the depression, which seemed to signal the collapse of democracy and capitalism, Burke attempted to work out a more inclusive conception of what it meant to be a critic in the two books he wrote in the mid-1930s: Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes Toward History (2 vols., 1937). These were the kind of books, Burke said, that critics in the 1930s often put together to keep themselves from falling apart. In these books Burke sought a more significant and functional role for both art (literature) and the critic. He developed an approach he called “comic criticism,” which was heavily dependent on an ironic perspective and treated literature as necessary equipment for living. It was also in the 1930s that Burke developed his important functional approach to literature as symbolic action, most thoroughly worked out in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), a collection of Burke’s essays and reviews from this period.

Burke quite literally wrote his way through the 1930s, supporting himself and his family with writing and occasional teaching at the New School for Social Research at the University of Chicago and at Syracuse University. He also revamped his personal life. In 1933 he divorced his first wife, Lily Batterham, and married her sister, Elizabeth (“Libbie”) Batterham, with whom he had two sons. He bought another farmhouse down the road from the first and lived there with Libbie and the boys until her death in 1969 and his own in 1993. The family, who remained on good terms, still occupies the house.

In 1943 Burke began a permanent part-time teaching job at Bennington College in Vermont, which lasted until 1961. It was the only regular teaching job he ever had. In the 1940s, Burke also began work on his magnum opus, the three “Motives” books. If ever there was a flowering of his “genius,” it was in A Grammar of Motives (1945), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), and A Symbolic of Motives (modeled on Aristotle’s Poetics), which was finished by 1956 but never published as a book. Burke called the approach to language and the drama of human relations in these three works “dramatism” because of its emphasis on language as action. Like all of Burke’s prose, the Motives books were partly written in response to the major events of Burke’s time—in this case, the carnage of World War II, including the Holocaust, and the anxiety of the seemingly interminable cold war with its threat of a nuclear war. Burke was to continue writing and publishing for thirty more years; after dramatism, he developed an approach to the study of language he called “logology,” which he applied in The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), and in the omnibus collection of his essays titled Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and in many still uncollected late (1966–1984) essays.

Burke was a prolific writer of reviews, producing more than 150, and a voluminous and extraordinary letter writer, authoring thousands upon thousands of letters, sometimes over periods of many years, as with the Burke/Cowley letters. He was also an accomplished poet whose Collected Poems was published in 1968.

Burke was a small man of prodigious energy and enormous intellect; he was a fabulous talker, a serious drinker, and a lifelong insomniac. He taught, lectured, and gave readings at colleges and universities all over the United States, especially in his later years, after his wife Libbie died in 1969. He died in Andover at the age of ninety-six of natural causes.

In spite of his achievements and reputation, Burke was always paranoid about his own work and its reception and treatment by other critics. He worried about his social status and lack of “Ivy League” credentials. But he could never be described as an unacknowledged or underappreciated or misunderstood genius, having received enormous recognition in his lifetime, including eleven honorary degrees; a score of books and hundreds of essays published about his work; and the formation of a Kenneth Burke Society in 1984 that meets every three years to reappraise and continue the work he started.

The main Kenneth Burke archives, in the Special Collections Department at Pennsylvania State University Library, includes many letters from Burke’s voluminous correspondence with many of the best-known literary figures of his time. See also Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981, ed. Paul Jay (1988); Jack Selzer, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931 (1996); and The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, ed. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (1989). Useful works for the study of Burke include William H. Rueckert, ed., Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke (1969); William H. Rueckert, Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (2d ed., 1982); Extensions of the Burkeian System, ed. James W. Chesebro (1993); and Robert Wess, Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism (1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (21 Nov. 1993).

William H. Rueckert

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