A poet, novelist, and short story writer, Kenneth Burke is best known as one of the most important literary critics and rhetoricians of the 20th century. His essays and reviews encompass a range of subjects from aesthetics and music to anthropology and sociology, and have been influential in areas such as linguistics, communication theory, semiotics, and composition studies. In recent years, Burke’s reputation has grown exponentially as his insights and ideas have been rediscovered and applied in a variety of fields.
Burke was first published in the avant-garde magazines of the 1920s, such as Broom and the Dial. In the 1930s, the major outlets for his essays, book and music reviews were the Nation and the New Republic, magazines that reached a larger general audience. By the 1940s, he had found an academic audience in the critical quarterlies and specialized publications. He began collecting his work in book form in 1931; many important essays, however, remain uncollected.
Stanley Edgar Hyman (1948), an early admirer of Burke, claimed that “Like Bacon, Burke has set out to do no less than to integrate all man’s knowledge into one workable critical frame.” Returning to the Baconian roots of the essay as a vehicle for investigation, Burke devoted his critical efforts to analyzing the effects that symbols, when elaborated into rhetorical systems—whether literary, philosophical, or social—have on human beings. He defined man as “the symbol-using animal” and literature as a variety of “symbolic action” (“Definition of Man,” 1966). The use of language, moreover, is never disinterested, but always motivated; works of art, he stressed, are strategies for encompassing situations (“Literature as Equipment for Living,” 1941). A poet, for example, might write a poem as a way of working out an oppressive sense of guilt (see “The Philosophy of Literary Form,” 1941, on Coleridge). All texts, for Burke, are potential subjects for probing rhetorical analysis.
Burke’s first collection of essays, Counter-Statement (1931), treated artists known for their aestheticism: André Gide, Walter Pater, Gustave Flaubert, Remy de Gourmont.
Throughout these essays, Burke considers not only what each artist’s work did for them, but also what it did for the audience they addressed—what “situations” the “strategies” encompassed. Many of Burke’s most memorable aphorisms are found here: “Beauty is the term we apply to the poet’s success in evoking our emotions” (“The Poetic Process”) or “An art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself” (“Thomas Mann and André Gide”).
In the shadow of the Depression, Burke began to stress “Literature as Equipment for Living.” That essay, and others collected in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), treat “a sociological criticism of literature.” In “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” for example, Burke analyzes how Mein Kampf helped “unify” the German people by offering Hitler’s “strategy for encompassing a situation”—finding a scapegoat for his own persecution mania—as a “world-view” they might adopt.
Books such as Permanence and Change (1935) and Attitudes Toward History (1937) explore symbolic action in such areas as magic, ritual, history, and religion, while A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) work out what Burke calls the “dramatistic” basis of all symbolic action. He argues that “any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (A Grammar of Motives).
Burke’s last major collection, Language as Symbolic Action (1966), contains “Five Summarizing Essays,” including his “Definition of Man.” In elaborate “dramatistic” analyses of several plays by Shakespeare, Goethe’s Faust, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and Emerson’s Nature, Burke displays the strengths and weaknesses of his style and methods. The essays are, as usual, provocative and surprising, but the style could be seen as abstract, often obscure, repetitious, and too much in debt to Burke’s own terminology.
Critics have seized on such phrases as “Where, then, are we?” as evidence of the author’s Byzantine elaboration. Burke’s prose, like Bacon’s, is at its most resonant when it is most aphoristic, e.g. “The poet, in his pious or tragic role, would immunize us by stylistically infecting us with his disease” (“The Philosophy of Literary Form”).
Burke once wrote, “The main ideal of criticism, as I conceive it, is to use all that there is to use” (“The Philosophy of Literary Form”). As modern criticism moves away from an exclusively text-centered study to engage all forms of human behavior—“symbolic actions”—Burke has come increasingly to be seen as a central figure. His essays provoke, inspire, even infuriate. Burke has become, according to the critic Denis Donoghue (in the New York Review of Books, 26 September 1985), an American “sage.”
Kenneth Duva Burke. Born 5 May 1897 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Studied at Ohio State University, Columbus, 1916–17; Columbia University, New York, 1917–18.
Married Lillian Mary Batterham, 1919 (divorced, early 1930s): three daughters. Coeditor, Secession, 1923; member of the research staff, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, New York, 1926–27; music critic, Dial, 1927–29, and the Nation, 1934–36; editor, Bureau of Social Hygiene, New York, 1928–29. Married Elizabeth Batterham, 1933: two sons. Lectured and taught at various American colleges and universities, 1937–76.
Awards: many, including several grants and fellowships; National Endowment for the Arts Award, 1968; Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, 1970; American Academy Gold Medal, 1975; American Academy of Arts and Sciences Award, 1977; National Medal for Literature, 1981; Bobst Award, 1983; honorary degrees from eight universities. Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Died in Andover, New Jersey, 19 November 1993.
Essays and Related Prose
Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 1935
Attitudes Toward History, 1937
The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 1941; revised edition, 1957
A Grammar of Motives, 1945
A Rhetoric of Motives, 1950
The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology, 1961
Perspectives by Incongruity; Terms for Order, edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Barbara Karmiller, 1964
Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method, 1966
Other writings: the novel Towards a Better Life (1932), poetry, short stories, and literary criticism. Also translated works from the German, including Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1925).
Bewley, Marius, “Kenneth Burke as Literary Critic,” in The Complex Fate: Hawthorne, Henry James and Some Other American Writers, London: Chatto and Windus, 1952;
New York: Grove Press, 1954
Brown, Merle E., Kenneth Burke, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969
Crusius, Timothy, “A Case for Kenneth Burke’s Dialectic and Rhetoric,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 19, no. 1 (1986):23–37
Duncan, Hugh Dalziel, Language and Literature in Society: A Sociological Essay, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953
Duncan, Hugh Dalziel, Communication and Social Order, New York: Bedminster Press, 1962,; London: Oxford University Press, 1968
Frank, Armin Paul, Kenneth Burke, New York: Twayne, 1969
Heath, Robert L., Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986
Henderson, Greig E., Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988
Holland, L.Virginia, Counterpoint: Kenneth Burke and Aristotle’s Theories of Rhetoric, New York: Philosophical Library, 1959
Hyman, Stanley Edgar, “Kenneth Burke and the Criticism of Symbolic Action,” in his The Armed Vision, New York: Knopf, 1948; revised edition, 1955
Knox, George, Critical Moments: Kenneth Burke’s Categories and Critiques, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1957
Lentricchia, Frank, Criticism and Social Change, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983
Nemerov, Howard, “Everything, Preferably All at Once: Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke,” Sewanee Review 79 (April-June 1971):189–205
Ransom, John Crowe, “An Address to Kenneth Burke,” Kenyon Review 4 (Spring 1942):219–37
Rueckert, William H., Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982 (original edition, 1963)
Rueckert, William H., editor, Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1924–1966, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969
Rueckert, William H., Encounters with Kenneth Burke, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994
Southwell, Samuel B., Kenneth Burke and Martin Heidegger—with a Note Against Deconstructionism, Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1987
Wellek, René, “Kenneth Burke,” in A History of Modern Criticism, Volume 6: American Criticism, 1900–1950, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1986
White, Hayden, and Margaret Brose, Representing Kenneth Burke, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982
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