American Sage

Attitudes Toward History

third edition, with a new afterword by the author Kenneth Burke
University of California Press, 434 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose

third edition, with a new afterword by the author Kenneth Burke
University of California Press, 336 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Kenneth Burke
Kenneth Burke; drawing by David Levine


The White Oxen, a collection of fifteen short stories (1924), was extended to nineteen when issued as The Complete White Oxen in 1968. Counter-Statement (1931) is Burke’s most famous work in literary criticism, Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations (1932), his only novel. Permanence and Change (1935) is a study of purposes, motives, and interpretations. Attitudes Toward History (1937) is an inquiry into the attitudes people take toward historical continuity and change, and how new attitudes emerge and old ones linger. Burke thought of Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History as together making a treatise on communication. The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) is a selection of Burke’s essays and reviews in favor of an understanding of literary form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.”

A Grammar of Motives (1945) is Burke’s attempt to encompass virtually every philosophic system by relating each to a structure of five cardinal terms. A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) is a study of rhetorical appeal, the courtship of images and forms. The Rhetoric of Religion (1961) continues his linguistic approach to religious matters. Language as Symbolic Action (1968), subtitled “Essays on Life, Literature, and Method,” broods upon the symbol-using capacity and other attributes leading to a new “definition of man.” Collected Poems, 1915–1967 (1968) is a collection of Burke’s sporadic verses and aphorisms. All of Burke’s books are published by the University of California Press.

With these two books, the University of California Press has brought all of Kenneth Burke’s books—eleven to date—back into print. What are we to make of them? It is still not clear what kind of writer Burke is: it doesn’t seem adequate to call him a literary critic, a poet, a novelist, a short-story writer, a sociologist, or a philosopher of history. Perhaps we should simply call him a sage, and think of the latitude traditionally taken by such a mind. In a certain light his work resembles Emerson’s, especially in its zest to provoke the perceptions that a mind attains by sufficiently trusting itself, but Burke’s takes account of far more evidence and requires his vision to make its way against far keener objection. No comparison nearer home suggests itself.

Where to begin? Burke’s first literary problem, in the early 1920s, was clear enough: how to make a living, a bare one of necessity, and effect the swiftest transition from a dispiriting suburb of Pittsburgh to Greenwich Village. The solution was to live on a run-down farm in New Jersey and spend many talkative evenings at John Squarcialupi’s restaurant on Perry Street or loitering with the Provincetown Players in Macdougal Street. Burke soon involved himself in various little magazines: Secession, Broom, the Little Review, Hound and Horn, Pagany, and especially The Dial, “the deep and dirgeful Dial,” as…

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