Kenneth Duva Burke (May 5, 1897 – November 19, 1993) was an American literary theorist and philosopher. Burke’s primary interests were in rhetoric and aesthetics. Burke became a highly distinguished writer after getting out of college, and starting off serving as an editor and critic instead, while he developed his relationships with other successful writers. He would later return to the university to lecture and teach. He was born on May 5 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Peabody High School, where his friend Malcolm Cowley was also a student.
Burke attended Ohio State University for only a semester, then studied at Columbia University in 1916-1917 before dropping out to be a writer. In Greenwich Village he kept company with avant-garde writers such as Hart Crane, Malcolm Cowley, Gorham Munson, and later Allen Tate. Raised Roman Catholic, Burke later became an avowed agnostic.
In 1919, he married Lily Mary Batterham, with whom he had three daughters: the late feminist, Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock (1922–1987); musician (Jeanne) Elspeth Chapin Hart (b. 1920); and writer and poet France Burke (b. 1925). He would later marry her sister Elizabeth Batterham in 1933 and have two sons, Michael and Anthony. Burke served as the editor of the modernist literary magazine The Dial in 1923, and as its music critic from 1927-1929. Kenneth himself was an avid player of the saxophone and flute. He received the Dial Award in 1928 for distinguished service to American literature. He was the music critic of The Nation from 1934–1936, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. His work on criticism was a driving force for placing him back into the university spotlight.
As a result, he was able to teach and lecture at various colleges, including Bennington College, while continuing his literary work. Many of Kenneth Burke’s personal papers and correspondence are housed at Pennsylvania State University’s Special Collections Library. In later life, his New Jersey farm was a popular summer retreat for his extended family, as reported by his grandson Harry Chapin, a contemporary popular song artist. He died of heart failure at his home in Andover, New Jersey. Burke, like many twentieth century theorists and critics, was heavily influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
He was a lifelong interpreter of Shakespeare, and was also significantly influenced by Thorstein Veblen. He resisted being pigeonholed as a follower of any philosophical or political school of thought, and had a notable and very public break with the Marxists who dominated the literary criticism set in the 1930s. Burke corresponded with a number of literary critics, thinkers, and writers over the years, including William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Ralph Ellison,Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Toomer, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore.
Later thinkers who have acknowledged Burke’s influence include Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, Susan Sontag (his student at the University of Chicago), Erving Goffman, Geoffrey Hartman, Edward Said, Rene Girard, Fredric Jameson, Michael Calvin McGee, Dell Hymes and Clifford Geertz. Burke was one of the first prominent American critics to appreciate and articulate the importance of Thomas Mann and Andre Gide; Burke produced the first English translation of “Death in Venice”, which first appeared in The Dial in 1924. It is now considered to be much more faithful and explicit than H. T. Lowe-Porter’s more famous 1930 translation.
Burke’s political engagement is evident, for example, A Grammar of Motives takes as its epigraph, ad bellum purificandum — toward the purification of (the human spirit from) war. American literary critic Harold Bloom singled out Burke’s Counterstatement and A Rhetoric of Motives for inclusion in his “Western Canon”. The political and social power of symbols was central to Burke’s scholarship throughout his career. He felt that through understanding “what is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it”, we could gain insight into the cognitive basis for our perception of the world.
For Burke, the way in which we decide to narrate gives importance to specific qualities over others. He believed that this could tell us a great deal about how we see the world. Burke called the social and political rhetorical analysis “dramatism” and believed that such an approach to language analysis and language usage could help us understand the basis of conflict, the virtues and dangers of cooperation, and the opportunities of identification and consubstantiality.
Burke defined the rhetorical function of language as “a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols. ” His definition of humanity states that “man” is “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection. ” For Burke, some of the most significant problems in human behavior resulted from instances of symbols using human beings rather than human beings using symbols.
Burke proposed that when we attribute motives to others, we tend to rely on ratios between five elements: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. This has become known as the dramatistic pentad. The pentad is grounded in his dramatistic method, which considers human communication as a form of action. Dramatism “invites one to consider the matter of motives in a perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action” (Grammar of Motives xxii).
Burke pursued literary criticism not as a formalistic enterprise but rather as an enterprise with significant sociological impact; he saw literature as “equipment for living,” offering folk wisdom and common sense to people and thus guiding the way they lived their lives. Another key concept for Burke is the terministic screen — a set of symbols that becomes a kind of screen or grid of intelligibility through which the world makes sense to us. Here Burke offers rhetorical theorists and critics a way of understanding the relationship between language and ideology.
Language, Burke thought, doesn’t simply “reflect” reality; it also helps select reality as well as deflect reality. In Language as Symbolic Action (1966), he writes, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent must function also as a deflection of reality. In his book Language as Symbolic Action (1966), Burke defined humankind as a “symbol using animal” (p. 3).
This definition of man, he argued, means that “reality” has actually “been built up for us through nothing but our symbol system” (p. 5). Without our encyclopedias, atlases, and other assorted reference guides, we would know little about the world that lies beyond our immediate sensory experience. What we call “reality,” Burke stated, is actually a “clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present . . . construct of our symbol systems” (p. 5). College students wandering from class to class, from English literature to sociology to biology to calculus, encounter a new reality each time they enter a classroom; the courses listed in a university’s catalogue “are in effect but so many different terminologies” (p. 5). It stands to reason then that people who consider themselves to be Christian, and who internalize that religion’s symbol system, inhabit a reality that is different from the one of practicing Buddhists, or Jews, or Muslims.