Kenneth Duva Burke puzzles anyone hoping to classify him within a narrow genre of American letters. His long career covers a range of subjects: social philosophy, music, poetry, literary criticism, fiction, and economics. Yet his most important contributions have been to the study of rhetoric. Burke saw rhetoric as an integral part of everyday life and demonstrated his theories by drawing upon numerous bits of culture gleaned from a lifetime of inquiry and self-education. His work contains a breadth of ideas that makes him one of the most fascinating figures in twentieth century philosophy.
Burke was born in Pittsburgh on May 5, 1897, to working-class parents, and he shared his childhood with his lifelong friend Malcolm Cowley. He attended Peabody High School in Pittsburgh. A semester at Ohio State University preceded a year at Columbia University, after which Burke left academe and pursued his ambition to write. In New York, Burke joined a group of young American writers based in bohemian Greenwich Village, including Cowley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Allen Tate, and E. E. Cummings. In 1919, he married Lillian Batterham, and soon he was supporting a family of three daughters through assorted writing and editing assignments.
In 1921, Burke joined the staff of The Dial, a literary magazine, where he worked as editor, music critic, and contributor. In 1924, he published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled The White Oxen, and Other Stories. He began submitting to other publications as well, including The Nation and The New Republic, and in 1929 he received the Dial Award for outstanding contribution to American letters. After a brief stint researching for several government agencies, Burke published in 1931 his first book of literary criticism, Counter-Statement, in which he responds to literature as a piece of rhetoric that reveals the author’s self. Despite his early publishing success, Burke’s personal life disintegrated during these years as he fell in love with his wife’s sister, Elizabeth Batterham. He divorced Lillian and in 1933 married Elizabeth. The couple had two sons. The emotional turmoil of those years resulted in his novel, Towards a Better Life, Being a Series of Epistles, or...
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