Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
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 Declamations, published in 1932. This novel signaled a personal and professional change in Burke’s life: It was his last work of fiction.
Like many writers during the 1930’s, Burke was attracted to social causes. His 1935 book Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose reflected his belief that literature and criticism should serve a social, rhetorical function. That year, Burke took part in the first Writers’ Congress, a gathering of important American literary figures who advocated social, political, and economic changes, and accepted a position on the Executive Committee of the League of American Writers. He participated in the second Writers’ Congress in 1937, advocating a rhetoric that would unite rather than divide.
In 1937, Burke joined the New School for Social Research in New York as a lecturer in criticism, the start of a long teaching career. From 1943 to 1961, he taught at Bennington College in Vermont, where he received an honorary doctorate in 1966. Burke spent most of his career as a visiting professor at various institutions, including Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Princeton University. He distinguished himself not only as an instructor but also as a prolific theorist and writer. The Philosophy of Literary Form, published in 1941, collects critical essays and reviews written during the 1930’s. His major contributions to the modern study of rhetoric—A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, The Rhetoric of Religion, and Language as Symbolic Action—demonstrate the breadth of his scholarship and his interest in the role of symbolism in everyday rhetoric. In 1981, Burke received the National Medal for Literature, an award honoring living American writers for their achievements in American letters. He died in 1993 at the age of ninety-six.
Burke’s impact on rhetorical study stems from his theory of dramatism, explored in A Grammar of Motives. Defining a human being as a symbol-using animal who seeks to move others to action, he uses the image of stage drama to explain an act of communication. Dramatism centers on five key terms that constitute the “pentad.” The “act” describes what took place, while the “scene” depicts the background, the setting for the act. The “agent” is the person or kind of person who performs the act, the “agency” explains the means or instruments used by the agent, and the “purpose” represents the end of those means. When critics employ these terms to analyze a rhetorical act, they examine the ratio, or relationship, between the different elements in the pentad, to discover motive. Rhetoricians, scholars, and critics have employed dramatism, the pentad, and Burke’s other theories to analyze literature, speeches, and student writing—in fact, almost any act of communication.
Burke’s importance as a theorist remains a subject of debate. Many supporters acknowledge the scope of his study and his approach to fundamental rhetorical and philosophical questions as evidence of the most powerful mind of the twentieth century. For Burke enthusiasts, the breadth of his work offers continual challenge and opportunity for new applications. Burke’s detractors, particularly philosophers, criticize him on the basis of that same broadness. They fault Burke’s theories with inconsistency and vagueness and credit his range to an eagerness to exhibit his self-taught education. Problems of style, language, and terminology all fuel a controversy over Burke’s merits. His theories are difficult and challenging to even the most practiced reader of rhetorical theory. In spite of the debate over his place in rhetorical tradition, Kenneth Burke’s volumes of commentary on the twentieth century establish him as a substantial figure in contemporary letters.