Shadows in Context

David Pacchioli
September 01, 1997

In June 1991, at the dedication ceremony for the large bust of Kenneth Burke that graces the front of the Rare Books Room in Penn State's Pattee library, the live Burke, aged 94, reportedly greeted his bronze likeness with these cheerful words: "Hello, you sonofabitch." It has always been difficult to get a handle on Burke. His writing is abstract and technical, difficult to understand. His ideas routinely jump across disciplines. His thoughts, to quote an unnamed critic, "are as elusive as shadows."

Today, Burke is widely revered in intellectual circles: pondered and cited by historians, economists, and psychologists, as well as by rhetoricians and literary critics. His insights—about the nature of language, and how humans use it to interpret experience—have considerable currency. It wasn't always so. For a long time Burke was largely ignored by the literary and academic establishment. In one sense at least, dismissing him was easy. A self-made philosopher, he worked at the margins, never holding a full-time university post, living for some 70 years on his farm in Andover, New Jersey, from the early 1920s to his death in 1994 at age 97. He was aligned with no particular school of thought.

close up of statue of man with mustache

In fact, Burke's formulations went mostly against the grain. Unlike the dominant mid-century literary critics, who sought to interpret a work of art as a pure, transcendent, self-contained object, Burke refused to separate literature from the context of its making. "One of the things he always resisted was this idea of the poem as a museum piece, as a well-wrought urn," says Jack Selzer, professor of English at Penn State and author of Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village. "He understood a work of art as part of a culture, not apart from culture."

Too, Burke refused to draw the conventional distinctions between 'literature' and any other type of written communication. "This notion that literature is a kind of 'secular scripture,' and everything else is just rhetoric, was something he tried to work against," Selzer says.

Rhetoric, to Burke—as to Aristotle—is speech (whether written or spoken) designed to persuade. And for Burke, "Pretty much everything is rhetoric," Selzer says. A novel, just like a newspaper editorial or a billboard, aims to persuade its readers, to change their attitudes or their behavior.

Burke goes further. For him, language itself is a mode of action, not merely a way of conveying information. Literature is symbolic action: a means for the writer to act out the conflicts that exist in his or her psyche, and for the reader vicariously to do the same. Literature, in Burke's phrase, is "equipment for living"; stories and poems and plays are "strategies for dealing with situations," not "pure" expressions. To fail to account for this psychological and social dimension in a given work is to fail, as a critic, to understand it.

In 1935, the year Burke published his book Permanence and Change, this was radical thinking. At the time, a piece of writing, a text, was considered a pretty stable thing, its meaning something that could be objectively agreed upon. "People saw language as transparent," Selzer says. "It was as clear as a window pane."

"But Burke was already noticing that language is never clear in this sense." Language does not reflect experience directly, Burke asserted, it interprets experience according to a shared set of assumptions between writer and reader, a certain agreement on how experience is to be seen. That interpretation can never be neutral. "This was really a breakthrough," Selzer says.

To "crack open the atoms" of language, Burke coined or borrowed purposely incongruous terms that would forcibly show how language mediates reality. The term "trained incapacity," for instance, was meant to convey the idea that any way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. A businessperson (or an academic) trains himself or herself to view the world through a certain "screen," or set of assumptions. In doing so, he or she necessarily screens other interpretations out.

In Burke's heyday, the study of literature and the study of rhetoric were very separate disciplines: Their screens didn't mesh. In the 1990s, however, these two approaches are swiftly merging. The trend toward rhetorical criticism is evident in the ongoing battle over "the canon," i.e., which works are suitable for study, or praise. Burke was criticized because "his method could be applied with equal fruitfulness either to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, or Marie Corelli [a writer of popular romances in the 1920s]." Today, he is seen as a father of cultural studies, a field that sees all products of a culture, from Supreme Court decisions to toothpaste tubes, as gleanable "texts."

Burke was simply 50 years ahead of his time. "He was one of these people who seems to have thought of everything," says Selzer. Accordingly, everybody now claims him. "Cultural critics see him as a cultural critic, deconstructionists as a deconstructionist, rhetoricians as a rhetorician, postmoderns as a postmodern. . . . He gets homage from just about everyone."

Today, on the centenary of his birth, "There's a kind of roar behind Burke," Selzer says.

He is still difficult to contain. "People are just now trying to understand the sweep of his career," Selzer says. The Burke whom scholars refer to is almost exclusively the post-World War II version, the rhetorician and philosopher. But Burke was also a poet, short-story writer, novelist, and critic—and above all a man whose thinking was constantly evolving. Working from a core of materials in Penn State's sizeable Burke archives, Selzer has written a book that throws light on Burke's long-overlooked formative years.

Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village documents the young Burke, the one who in the decade after World War I plunged headlong into the artistic ferment known as modernism. This artistic and literary movement arose first in Europe in the early years of the 20th century, as a response to industrialism and Freud, urbanization and World War I; it was alive and kicking in Greenwich Village in 1915. Two years earlier, New York had hosted the famous Armory Show, the tumultuous unveiling of the abstract canvasses of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp. Modernism American-style was represented there by a constellation of young writers and artists, including the journalist John Reed, poet Wallace Stevens, photographer Man Ray, novelist Djuna Barnes, and playwright Eugene O'Neill, all of whom congregated in the Village.

Burke, 18, had arrived from Pittsburgh. He soon quit Columbia, over his mother's objections, and set himself to getting a "real education." "I shall get a room," he wrote his friend Malcolm Cowley, another Pittsburgh boy, "and begin my existence as a Flaubert. . . . I don't want to be a virtuoso, I want to be a—a—oh hell, why not? I want to be a—yes—a genius. . . ."

old man smiles next to statue

Burke, aged 94, at the dedication of the bronze likeness in June 1991. Sculpture by Virginia Burks.

He studied French and German, and read voraciously. He also met, befriended, and caroused with a heady cross-section of Village lights, including Cowley, who would later become well-known as a literary historian and critic, poets William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore, visual artists Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keefe, and Berenice Abbott, novelist Jean Toomer, and many others. An early letter to Cowley records his meeting the novelist Theodore Dreiser at a party: "It was late in the evening that he would even let me talk," the teenaged Burke reports, "to say nothing of paying attention to me. But . . . once or twice I managed to say something noticeable." Soon after, a mutual friend led him to O'Neill's budding theater group, the Provincetown Players. "I got a good education in the drama that way," Burke would later recall.

But Burke did more than socialize and absorb. He also wrote in torrents, beginning with poetry, then moving to short stories and critical essays. Much of his work was published in Secession, Broom, and The Dial, three of the most important modernist literary magazines of the period. He also worked as an editor and as music critic for The Dial, where he set into print T.S. Eliot's famous poem "The Wasteland," and translated Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice from the German. "From the time he took up residence in Greenwich Village," Selzer writes, "Burke was a . . . central participant in the artistic exchanges that comprised the modernist dialogue."

Burke and Penn State go back a ways. Peripatetic in body as well as mind, Burke migrated through a succession of visiting professorships and other guest stints at numerous colleges and universities, always returning eventually to Andover and the rural family life he referred to as "agro-bohemianism." His longest association was with Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught off and on between 1943 and 1961. In 1963, at the behest of his friend Henry Sams, then chair of Penn State's English department, Burke came to spend a semester at University Park.

Small in stature ("I'm a giant!" Burke once told a party of scholarly visitors. "At 5 feet 4 inches, I overtower Balzac by a whole inch."), Burke nonetheless cut a striking figure on campus, the "janitor's mop of blue-black hair" memorialized in verse by his lifelong friend Cowley having by then turned into a shock of white. Charles Mann, now chief of Penn State's Rare Books Room and then a young librarian and assistant professor, remembers inviting Burke to speak at a comparative literature department luncheon. "He talked about Ionesco's 'The Balcony,' a film that was just out," Mann remembers. "Nobody else had seen it."

After Sams, Mann became Burke's closest friend at Penn State. Over the years the two kept up a correspondence, and Mann visited Andover numerous times, often with students or other scholars. "I would go, and he or Butchie [Burke's son Anthony] would cook," recalls Mann. "Burke would cook these great big one-dish pots—fresh vegetables, mostly. And of course there was the opportunity to sit around and talk about whatever he was working on." Mann remembers Burke as an inveterate (and brilliant) punster, a copious drinker, and an entirely lovable fellow. "There at the farm, he would appear like some kind of a little wood creature. You just wanted to hug him."

In the early '70s, through the agency of Sams and Mann, Penn State acquired the bulk of Burke's early papers. It's a remarkable collection. Four filing cabinets bulge with letters to Burke from Cowley, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and from later acquaintances: poets Theodore Roethke (who taught at Penn State during the '50s), Howard Nemerov, and e.e. cummings, novelists Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, and Kay Boyle, critics John Crowe Ransom, Yvor Winters, and Edmund Wilson. . . . Another four cabinets' worth, the letters of later years (post 1961), are on long-term loan.

The correspondence between Burke and Cowley, some 1,700 letters in all, begins in 1916 and runs unflagging until Cowley's death in 1989, a kind of intellectual history of the 20th century. Williams, similarly, wrote Burke regularly for 42 years, sharing literary opinions and also medical ones, having treated both Burke and Burke's mother as a general practitioner. Other sheafs include just a few faded letters. But "even where the correspondence is small," says Mann, "the letters are quite often significant." Thus Porter, writing from Mexico in 1930, describes American involvement in politics south of the border: "This country is now being flooded with an abominable, treacly, oily, gooey mess of Political Good Will . . . There will be less shooting and more lying, and the graft must now be split half a dozen ways more, with the Americans superintending the split." Ellison, in a letter from 1945, expounds on the racial grounding of his art: "I . . . would like to write simply as an American, or even better, a citizen of the world; but that is impossible just now because it is to dangle in the air of abstractions while the fire which alone illuminates those abstractions issues precisely from my being a Negro, and all the 'felt experience' which being a Negro American entails."

When Mann traveled to Andover to help gather these letters, "a lot of this stuff was stored in the garage, next to gasoline cans," he says. "Some had been eaten by ants." The collection has been safely ensconced at Penn State since 1974. Until recently, however, it had not been heavily used. "I had heard these papers were up there," Selzer says, "but I assumed that since no one was working on them there was not much there." Then, in the late 1980s, "a scholar named Frank Lentricchia published a book on Burke in the '30s. That was a new Burke for me—I had only known him for his later work. I wondered what he had been doing before that. So I thought, 'I'll look at his '20s stuff.' "

Once he dug into the archive, Selzer found it was a gold mine. Using the letters preserved there, and other archival material housed at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and elsewhere, Selzer in his book reconstructs Burke's early development as artist and critic.

From the youthful poems, patterned on the morbid, self-conscious free-verse expressions of the French Symbolists ("But when the chill leaps up, / And the leaves, with a beautiful melancholy, / Get out their silks to die in . . . / Then I love . . ."), Burke moved into an uneasy association with the so-called literary nationalists of the post-war period: writers including Williams and H.L. Mencken who envisioned a vigorous new start for American culture separate from European influences. "Yes, you are right in looking at America as 'a land of promise, something barbarous, and rich,' " Burke wrote Cowley in early 1923. "But alas! I feel that in your admiration . . . you have neglected to distinguish between a qualitative and a quantitative richness."

Burke also flirted with the cultural conservatives of his day, the New Humanists, who espoused a return to classicism and stressed the existence of "permanent principles of beauty." He eventually found a place among the younger artists of his own generation, the avant garde represented in such magazines as Broom (which proposed a "clean sweep" of the past) and Secession (a journal for which Burke had suggested the more muscular name Massacre). In these publications and in The Dial, Burke published experimental stories in which he worked out his theories of fiction before a tiny but appreciative audience.

Even among these kindred souls, however, Burke kept his distance. While Cowley, for instance, became enamored of Dadaism, the anarchic, deliberately incoherent protest art that flared briefly and brightly in the early '20s, Burke complained that the Dadaists were aesthetically undiscerning. "A finished work must be approached critically rather than creatively," he wrote, "and critically [Dadaism] is unintelligible."

By the mid-'20s, this one-time defender of art as "the possession of the initiated" had begun to think increasingly about the role of literature in society. He had begun to take the modernist obsession with form in a new, pragmatic direction. "In 1925, he was already defining form in psychological terms, as the arousing and fulfilling of expectations in a reader—not as a set of internal relations within a text," Selzer says. By the end of the decade Burke was linking literature to the rough-and-tumble of rhetorical persuasion. He had stopped thinking of literary art as self-expression, and begun to consider it as a form of communication.

The lasting impact of Burke's later, rhetorically oriented work, the stress put on his having been a remote and independent thinker, the tendency to view him through other critical lenses, like deconstructionism, or structuralism—all of these things, argues Selzer, have tended to obscure his early, modernist period. "His later work is the cornerstone of what people have found invigorating in Burke," he says. "With the rebirth of rhetoric as a discipline in the 1950s and '60s, scholars jumped on his interpretive system, the idea of language as symbolic action. They tended to forget about what Burke had done earlier."

By showing Burke in context, Selzer wants to provide a more complete view. "I also wanted to situate him, to read him as part of a culture, instead of just a critic of it.

"Rhetoricians are used to taking this kind of approach. In literary studies, texts have been played off against contexts in a more limited way—it's often been a one-to-one, linear kind of thing. Scholars can show, for example, how Eliot was influenced by Pound, or Crane by Eliot. I want people to see the whole modernist scene as implicated in the act of interpretation. These were not writers working alone in their studies, but people in coffeehouses and speakeasies, testing ideas on one another, showing their work around."

Considering Burke as participant in an ongoing rhetorical give-and-take, he acknowledges, is turning the master's tools upon the master. "Burke himself taught me to understand a piece of writing as part of a cultural conversation," Selzer says. "Not a self-contained item, but part of a chain of communication—a building on and negotiation with what has come before it. And I think he understood art in that way, and of course he understood his own criticism in that way."

For his own purposes, Selzer adds, modernism works as "an interpretive frame, a way of seeing Burke. You train this light of modernism on him and things jump out. It's like using infrared light.

"There's this myth of Burke the solitary genius, the eccentric genius of Andover. But I see Burke as a very social guy, as someone who loved to affiliate. I see his work emerging out of other writing, taking its place in the conversation.

"I don't think doing this diminishes his genius one bit."

Jack Seltzer, Ph.D., is professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts, 103 Burrowes Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0251, or jls25@psu.edu. Charles W. Mann, Jr., M.L.S., is professor of English and comparative literature and chief of rare books and special collections, W342 Pattee Library. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931, was published by The University of Wisconsin Press in 1996. For more information about the Kenneth Burke Papers at Penn State, call the Rare Books Room at Pattee Library, 865-1793.

Last Updated September 01, 1997