Kenneth Burke Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brummett, Barry, ed. Landmark Essays on Kenneth Burke. Davis, Calif.: Hermagoras Press, 1993. Includes essays by Wayne Booth and Frank Lentricchia.

Burke, Kenneth. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981. Edited by Paul Jay. New York: Viking Press, 1988. Introduces the reader to Burke’s correspondence.

Henderson, Greig. Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action. Athen: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Henderson, Greig, and David Cratis Williams, eds. Unending Conversations: New Writings by and About Kenneth Burke. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. Previously unpublished writings by and about Burke, plus essays by such critics as Wayne Booth, William Rueckert, Robert Wess, Thomas Carmichael, and Michael Feehan. A significant work in the field of Burke studies.

Lentricchia, Frank. Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Employs Burke’s theories to develop a historical criticism.

Pre/Text 6 (Fall/Winter, 1985). An entire journal issue devoted to Burke.

Rueckert, William. Encounters with Kenneth Burke. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Introduces the reader to Burke’s life and thought.

Rueckert, William. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. A comprehensive work.

Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. Draws on letters between Burke and his friends and on the memoirs of his colleagues to show the young Burke’s transformation into a social critic.

Simons, Herbert W., and Trevor Melia, eds. The Legacy of Kenneth Burke. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Contains a good bibliographical essay.

White, Hayden, and Margaret Brose, eds. Representing Kenneth Burke. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. Critical attention by noted theorists.