L 23 Kenneth Burke (1897-)

Not a part of the academic world

High school with Malcolm Cowley

One semester each at Ohio State and Columbia. Dropped out.

Part of the Greenwich Village scene during its heyday

Music, art, and book reviewer/editor for The Dial

Brother-in-law of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker

Taught at New School for Social Research in 30s-with Hitler refugees

Much later, taught at Bennington, private progressive women's’ college outside New York City

Social Reformer--"Towards a Better Life" (title of his novel)

"Fellow traveler" of American Communist Party for decades

But never an "activist"--an intellectual but not an academic

Brilliant theorist, but misunderstood and often despised

The Early Burke (to abut 1940)

Counterstatement (1931) collection of essays from 20s

Attacks art for art’s sake, "formalism"--a common academic view) and attacks 20s bourgeoisie

Artist is social critic, bohemian, anti-bourgeoisie

"When in Rome, do as the Greeks"

Art is rhetorical, utility is aesthetic

Form is "the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite." Every work of art is both utilitarian and aesthetic

Every work of art "A particular mode of adjustment to a particular cluster of [historical] conditions" 107

Permanence and Change (1935) response to the Depression

Further broadened his thinking to include "culture" seen in the broadest terms, not merely art

Language can overcome faction, prevent social collapse ("the problem of evil")

Unity of science and art in rhetoric

Cultures "collective poems," history "a five-act play

Study of communication central to better life

Middle Burke

Grammar of Motives (1945) a response to Facism

Broadened thought to systematic "study of human relations via a methodological inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions

"Dramatism"--five "key terms" ("pentad") to analyze not only language but motives (human relations)






Meaning implies purpose, motive(grammar of motives)

Alternative "namings"

What is said implies what is unsaid

Urged "creative conflict," resolution by seeing alternatives, new perspectives on motives

Principle of "identification" (slang now)

Rhetoric based on identification

Model is courtship, not battle

Whole communities can come to "identify"

US constitution a good example

But wanted even more, overcoming of hierarchies

Identification brings not only communication but also "communion"

However, there can never be "perfect" identification or there would be no difference, no "goadings of mystery," no rhetoric (we wouldn’t be human)

Rhetoric of Motives (1950)

Communication improved through "modes of appeal" and "eloquence." Brings communion, groups united or at least engaged without violence

Very social perspective

Sociologists first academics to acclaim him

Opposite of Richards, who sees communication in individual terms (behavioral psychology)

Later Burke (c. 1960-date)

Language as Symbolic Action (1966)

Words related to action, but all action is symbolic

Naming (defining) is scientific (positivistic)

Acting (creating, symbolizing) is dramatistic (rhetorical)

Concept of "terministic screens"

Words direct the attention into one channel rather than others.

The said always implies the unsaid

Reality shaped by language

We see what language teaches us to see

Influence of Burke

Always a few American followers, but most thought him eccentric

Sociologists first adopted him

Then european literati

Then some from literary criticism (still a few)

Rhetoric in speech communication

Rhetoric and composition in English departments

Pentad adapted as pedagogical heuristic

Burke’s reaction to that mixed

QUESTIONS (You may focus on 992-108a, 1018-1029a, 1034-1040

What does the term "human barnyard" imply for Burke? (993b)

•What does Burke mean by "ratios" among the key terms? 996b-1006. How many of those ratios are there?

Find a word in the sta family and use it in a sentence. Does Burke’s analysis hold up? (1006b-1008)

What does Burke mean by "identification"? What is the disease of identification? Can identification prevent war? (1019-1021)

How is the ownership of property (and all the human barnyard that goes with it) an instance of "identification." (121-23)

How might rhetoric be extended to include not only deception but self-deceptions? (1028)

What are terministic screens? (1034ff)

Does Burke have a solution to the problem of relativism that the concept of terministic screens implies? (1039b-1041)





A Puzzling Figure in Literary Criticism Is Suddenly Central




At the age of 20, Kenneth Burke left academic life for good;

or so he thought. "It is now time for me to quit college," he

announced to a friend, "and begin studying." So he dropped out

of Columbia University, and right into the heart of the

Greenwich Village avant garde.


Burke (1897-1993) soon made a mark with his poetry, fiction,

and essays. In 1924, he published the first English

translation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, a version W. H.

Auden later called definitive. A few years later, with the

money from a literary prize, Burke built a small farmhouse in

Andover, N.J. There, he grew vegetables and chopped wood to

heat the place, which had no electricity or plumbing. Burke

joked that he was the king of the Agro-Bohemians.


In that setting, one of the most curious episodes in American

intellectual history took place. The books that Kenneth Burke

started writing from his rustic hideaway -- titles such as

Attitudes Toward History (1938), The Philosophy of Literary

Form (1941), and The Rhetoric of Religion (1962) -- often

puzzled his contemporaries. But in recent years, critics have

read them with something like deja vu: Burke's literary

analysis extends to the most far-reaching speculations about

those familiar topics in contemporary theory: language, power,

and identity.


Although Burke did eventually return to the classroom, as a

visiting professor of literature at various colleges (still

without a B.A., much less a Ph.D.), he never quite fit into

academe. At the peak of his career, a sympathetic critic wrote

that Burke "has no field, unless it be Burkology." Today, he

would be said to be "doing theory." And the steady output of

books, dissertations, and journal articles about his work

makes clear that Burkology is now an established specialty.


Since his death eight years ago, academic presses have been

publishing work on "KB" (as friends and scholars alike call

him) at an impressive rate. In 1997, the centenary of his

birth was marked by the appearance of Kenneth Burke in

Greenwich Village: Conversing With the Moderns, 1915-1931

(University of Wisconsin Press) -- the first installment of a

projected three-volume intellectual biography by Jack Selzer,

an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State

University at University Park. A collection of papers, Kenneth

Burke and the 21st Century (State University of New York

Press, 1998), reflects the activity of the Kenneth Burke

Society, which sponsors a triennial conference drawing more

than 150 scholars. And Ross Wolin, an assistant professor of

humanities at Boston University, offers a survey of KB's

career as theorist in a forthcoming book, The Rhetorical

Imagination of Kenneth Burke (University of South Carolina

Press, July).


All of that may be the tip of the iceberg. Burke's complete

oeuvre fills a bookshelf, but there's more to come. Literary

historians are slowly wending their way to the Kenneth Burke

Papers at Penn State, which holds more than half a century of

KB's correspondence with literary figures such as Hart Crane,

Marianne Moore, Allen Tate, Ralph Ellison, and Susan Sontag.

His estate is preparing an edition of Burke's collected



In the fall of 2002, the University of South Carolina Press

will publish a collection of his correspondence with a fellow

New Jersey modernist, William Carlos Williams. And a sizable

volume of Burke's later theoretical essays is due sometime

next year from the University of California Press, under the

title On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows.


But perhaps the biggest development of all concerns a Burke

project that scholars have analyzed for years, without ever

quite getting to read: an unpublished treatise called A

Symbolic of Motives. The third part of a trilogy Burkeans

sometimes call the "Motivorum," it was to have been the

culmination of the theoretical system he called "dramatism."

The first two volumes of the series were in print by 1950 --

and for decades, Burke announced the final book as



"It has a mythic quality about it," says Mr. Selzer. "It's

kind of become the academic equivalent of an urban legend." As

with any such legend, there are debunkers. An entry in the

soon-to-be-published Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism

flatly states that "A Symbolic of Motives was never written."


News flash: The Symbolic actually exists. You can even read a

little of it in a recent collection, Unending Conversations:

New Writings by and About Kenneth Burke (Southern Illinois

University Press, 2001), edited by Greig Henderson and David

Cratis Williams. According to an essay in that volume by

William Rueckert, a professor emeritus of English at

SUNY-Geneseo, the unfinished, 269-page manuscript was found in

Burke's farmhouse in 1995. (Mr. Rueckert, often considered the

dean of Burke scholarship, prepared the forthcoming collection

On Human Nature and is now working on an edition of the

Symbolic.) A companion essay by Mr. Williams, an assistant

professor of speech communication at the University of

Missouri at Rolla, uses Burke's correspondence to trace the

project's tortuous history -- its endless delays reflecting

both conceptual problems and the less philosophical varieties

of procrastination.


The Symbolic marks one turning point in KB's thinking, and

promises to be a touchstone for scholars. During the 1920's,

Burke advocated "art for art's sake": the doctrine (tres

bohemian, at the time) that aesthetic values were utterly

distinct from political, religious, or economic ones. His

earliest critical essays analyzed the formal qualities of

creative works -- their imagery and the rhythms of their

language. But throughout the Great Depression, Burke paid ever

more attention to the rhetorical dimension of writing: how

texts hold readers' interest, persuading them to see the world

in a particular way.


Not all of his examples were literary. Burke's most famous

essay from the 1930's was a close reading of Mein Kampf, an

effort to understand Hitler's appeal to Germans by examining

his memoir's style and narrative flow.


By the 1940's, Burke was working out a general theory of how

people use language -- and how the vocabularies they select in

order to make sense of the world come to dominate them.

(Someone who finds psychoanalytic ideas useful for

understanding a particular nightmare might soon start having

nothing but Freudian dreams.) Burke borrowed ideas from

Thorstein Veblen, George Herbert Mead, and dozens of other

thinkers. A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of

Motives (1950) contained long digressions on psychology,

philosophy, and legal theory.


Literary scholars who admired Burke's essays on Flaubert or

Mann often found his later work bewildering. They complained

that his ideas about "symbolic action" could apply just as

easily to advertising campaigns as to The Divine Comedy. In

other words, Burke may have accidentally created cultural



With the Symbolic, Burke announced that he would return from

the heights of abstraction to the analysis of literary works.

His philosophical speculations (despite seeming to run off in

20 directions simultaneously) would reveal how a poem or play

held together as a unique object. In his article in Unending

Conversations, SUNY's Mr. Rueckert includes a table of

contents for the Symbolic showing that it was a structured

argument, not just a heap of notes. "He kept rewriting," Mr.

Rueckert says, "but couldn't bring it together. He hit some

conceptual roadblocks along the way. After a while, I think he

just ran out of energy."


David E. Blakesley, director of professional writing in the

English department at Purdue University at West Lafayette,

suspects that Burke's years as a wandering scholar distracted

him from the Symbolic. "While writing the earlier books," he

notes, "Burke led a pretty settled life, whether on the farm

in Andover or teaching at Bennington [College]. Then, in the

60's, he started getting invitations from all over the place

-- Harvard, Palo Alto, wherever. He liked having an audience

for his work, but I think it meant he lost momentum on the

Symbolic." Even so, Mr. Blakesley, who is also an official of

the Kenneth Burke Society, is glad to have the traveling

theorist's posthumous work available. He hopes to include more

extracts from the manuscript in a forthcoming collection of

papers from the society's 1999 conference.


Mr. Selzer, now at work on the second volume of his Burke

biography, contemplates the Symbolic with a jaundiced eye.

"People think of Burke primarily as a system-builder, creating

this big encyclopedic philosophy of language and literature,"

he says. "And some of them want this book to be the part that

will bring everything together. But I don't see the trilogy as

the be-all and end-all of KB's work. I prefer to see his

career as much more heterogeneous and fragmented. The Symbolic

is interesting, but it's not the only thing to study."


While some Burkologists work out the architecture of his

system, other scholars are looking at Burke's dialogue with

his peers. Ann George, an assistant professor of English at

Texas Christian University, is at work on a new edition of

Permanence and Change (1935) -- the crucial early theoretical

work in which Burke shifted away from literary analysis

towards what a later generation would call semiotics.


Students of his work have long been aware that the author

tinkered with the book when he reissued it, in the 1950's. As

he later put it, an emphasis on "community" and

"communication" had led him to advocate a related but more

controversial term, namely "communism." (Although never

actually a member of the party, Burke remained close to it

throughout the Depression.)


But Ms. George wants to do more with her edition than restore

the passages that Burke discretely self-censored during the

McCarthy era. As a graduate student, she found the book

dazzling yet perplexing (a common response upon first reading

Burke). With the encouragement of Mr. Selzer, she searched the

Penn State archive to see what KB had written to friends about

Permanence and Change. "In no time, I was hooked," she says.

"I had never done archival research before and wasn't

especially interested in Burke until that point. But the

correspondence just drew me in. It's like a Who's Who of

American literary modernism. A lot of the things that most

puzzled me about the book started to make sense, given who he

was talking to."


Ms. George discovered that whole pages of Permanence and

Change had first been sketched in Burke's reviews of

now-forgotten authors. The book's weird energy and somewhat

puzzling structure were a byproduct of extensive dialogues

with other thinkers. His theories of communication make more

sense if you understand whom he was communicating with at the



"Burke once said he was not a joiner of clubs," Ms. George

says. "Scholars quote that a lot. I guess it's in keeping with

the image we have of him as a loner. But when you get into the

archive, what you find is that he was actually plugged into

the most remarkable set of intellectual networks. You see him

writing for Marxist publications, but also in touch with the

Agrarians who wrote I'll Take My Stand [a defense of Southern

traditionalism]. He's interested in psychoanalysis, but he's

also talking with the neo-Aristotelians who were at the

University of Chicago.


"If anything, I think that Burke actually joined as many clubs

as he could. We think of him as this hermit thinking complex

thoughts in the wilderness, but that's not the whole story."


Ms. George's dissertation on Permanence and Change is the

foundation of her annotated edition, which will fill in the

missing historical links.


There is plenty of archival work left for Burke researchers.

Penn State's holdings were expanded in 1997 by the addition of

correspondence from the last three decades of his life. A

friend, the poet Howard Nemerov, once described KB as "this

mind which can't stop exploding."


Scholars do not yet have access to Burke's unpublished

manuscripts and working notes, which fill more than a dozen

boxes, according to his son Anthony Burke, an astronomy

professor at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.


Pressed for a date when those materials will be made available

to the public, representatives of Burke's literary estate are

politely evasive. But the boon to scholarship will be

considerable. Alongside his Symbolic, Burke worked on books

(evidently never finished) about Shakespeare and Coleridge. He

produced an edition of Jeremy Bentham's Table of the Springs

of Action -- a curious treatise in which the British founder

of utilitarianism tried to diagram all the basic motives

governing human action. And over the years, Burke worked on a

sort of memoir of his own intellectual development.


It is anyone's guess what other provocative items will be

found in the literary remains.


Meanwhile, the secondary literature grows steadily, and

preparations continue for the 2002 conference of the Kenneth

Burke Society. Jack Selzer is in no hurry to see any more

abandoned projects from KB's last few decades. He hopes to

finish the next volume of his biography within a year or so --

tracing Burke's literary and philosophical development to the

end of the 1930's. "I've learned one thing from this, if

nothing else," he says. "Never get involved with studying a

thinker who lived to be more than 95 years old."




The best introduction to Kenneth Burke's work may be the

collections Perspectives by Incongruity and Terms for Order

(Indiana University Press, both 1964), edited by Stanley Edgar

Hyman. Drawing on KB's poetry and fiction as well as his

critical writings, those anthologies provide a condensed but

rich overview, and they include important essays not available

elsewhere. Both are long out of print.


The University of California Press, however, keeps all of

Burke's major theoretical books available. A more recent

selection of his work can be found in On Symbols and Society

(University of Chicago Press, 1989), edited by Joseph R.

Gusfield, a volume in the Heritage of Sociology series. And in

a different vein, see the running intellectual autobiography

in Paul Jay's edition of The Selected Correspondence of

Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981 (Viking, 1988).

Indispensable to the Burkologist, that volume also presents

the moving record of a lifelong friendship.


A number of dissertations and monographs on Burke appeared

during his lifetime. In 1984, scholars formed the Kenneth

Burke Society, which maintains a Web page at


The Elements of Dramatism, by David Blakesley (Longman, Fall



Encounters With Kenneth Burke, by William H. Rueckert

(University of Illinois Press, 1994).


Extensions of the Burkean System, edited by James W. Chesebro

(University of Alabama Press, 1993).


Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke's Extension of Aristotle's

Concept of Entelechy, by Stan A. Lindsay (University Press of

America, 1998).


Kenneth Burke and Contemporary European Thought: Rhetoric in

Transition,edited by Bernard L. Brock (University of Alabama

Press, 1995).


Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After Philosophy, by

Timothy W. Crusius (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999).


Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process, by C. Allen Carter

(University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).


Kenneth Burke and the 21st Century, edited by Bernard L. Brock

(State University of New York Press, 1998).


Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing With the

Moderns, 1915-1931, by Jack Selzer (University of Wisconsin

Press, 1997).


Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology, by Stephen Bygrave

(Routledge, 1993).


Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism, by

Robert Wess (Cambridge University Press, 1996).


The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke, by Ross Wolin

(University of South Carolina, July).


Unending Conversations: New Writings by and About Kenneth

Burke, edited by Greig E. Henderson and David Cratis Williams

(Southern Illinois University Press, 2001).