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 Hart Crane called it in 1923. Burke’s closest friend was Malcolm Cowley, but he was also on discursive and argumentative terms with Gilbert Seldes, Scofield Thayer, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, Crane, Slater Brown, Matthew Josephson. The Dial published his stories, poems, musical criticism—he still composes a little music—and parts of what was eventually published as Towards a Better Life, his novel about a man under great stress, in which especially resourceful sentences are presented as medicine.

I see Burke’s interests as having developed in three phases, with plenty of continuity to complicate the narrative of change. He found in himself enough evidence that new affiliations never entirely suppress old ones. The first phase is appropriate to a man who pursued bohemian and avant-garde sentiments in Greenwich Village, and rented for a spell Hart Crane’s apartment on Grove Street, while writing poetry and fiction acceptable only to fugitive magazines. Burke’s interests chimed with those of writers who thought of themselves as modern—Joyce and Eliot, especially. His first book, The White Oxen, a collection of fifteen short stories, was published in 1924. His early fiction is heavily if ingeniously indebted to Thomas Mann’s—he was the first American translator of Der Tod in Venedig—and it features twisted, lonely characters like John Neal, the morbidly inventive hero of Towards a Better Life.

This phase may be called aestheticism, since it proposes the bohemian life as a response to the social conditions otherwise imposed by bureaucracy, the corporations, banks, and government at large. Literature and art are presented as counterstatements to the statements made by the rough magicians in power. Burke’s motto, in this phase, was: “When in Rome, do as the Greeks do,” a program consistent with his somewhat desperate belief that “an art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself.” Art could not be expected to defeat science and positivism in the streets, but it might modify the rampancy of their success.


To give his morbid heroes some encouragement, lest they fall into the despair of thinking that they must merely put up with the actions of others, Burke urged them to regard their own thinking as an action. In this spirit he invented what he called dramatism, “a technique of analysis of language and thought as basically modes of action rather than as means of conveying information.” This he presented in his first and most influential work of literary criticism, Counter-Statement (1931). He showed, in the chapter on Mann and Gide, that one may become skillful in the management of vacillation, experimentally fastidious in nuances of doubt:

Irony, novelty, experimentalism, vacillation, the cult of conflict—are not these men trying to make us at home in indecision, are they not trying to humanize the state of doubt?…Could action be destroyed by such an art, this art would be disastrous. But art can at best serve to make action more labored…. Why could one not come to accept [one’s] social wilderness without anguish, utilizing for [one’s] self-respect either the irony and melancholy of Mann, or the curiosity of Gide?

In the chapter on Flaubert, Pater, and Rémy de Gourmont in Counter-Statement, Burke argued that a writer’s style should be understood as the property that can’t be taken from him. Should style then be cultivated for its own sake? “Decidedly, not at all,” Burke answered in the essays collected in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941). Rather, we should understand “style solely as the beneath-which-not, as the admonitory and hortatory act, as the example that would prod continually for its completion in all aspects of life, and so, in Eliot’s phrase, ‘keep something alive,’ tiding us over a lean season.” In a bad time, as Burke suggested, one should have the decency to compose good sentences. No particular style was prescribed. It was understood that a writer would somehow turn his predicament to aesthetic advantage, and guard his style against encroachment, as Pater in Marius the Epicurean used ideology “for its flavor of beauty, rather than of argument,” and treated ideas “not for their value as statements, but as horizons, situations, developments of plot, in short, as any other element of fiction.”

I would make much of Burke’s first phase, and give it shamelessly the character of aestheticism, against those who too neatly regard him as a man of the Thirties, fully in league with the Marxizing decade. It is true that Burke aligned his interests with those of the American left, and wrote essays in Marxist cultural analysis in the hope of hastening the collapse of capitalism. But he made himself a nuisance to his colleagues, as at the American Writers’ Congress in April 1935, by uttering sentiments in keeping with his aestheticist, formal, and musical temper.

Briefly, I would regard Burke’s progress much as he defined William Empson’s development from Seven Types of Ambiguity to Some Versions of Pastoral:

Here the balloons of Empson’s earlier pure aestheticism are effectively tied to a social basis of reference; the later work has a kind of “gravitational pull” in which the former is lacking. Yet he has by no means abandoned the liquidity of his previous volume—the happy result being that there is here no sociological simplism.

It seems clear, however, that the Depression forced Burke to acknowledge his own version of the gravitational pull, and to develop his work beyond aestheticism. He proposed, in this second phase, to read literature “as equipment for living.” His idea of regarding thinking as action was put to more specific uses. Poems, plays, and novels were approached as strategies for dealing with particular situations. One might find in a poem “the dancing of an attitude.” A novel could deal with a situation not by disposing of it but by naming it:

A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to “need a word for it” and to adopt an attitude towards it.

In The Philosophy of Literary Form Burke proposed “a sociological criticism of literature” which would codify the various strategies that artists have developed to name situations. But he made the point that many of these would be “timeless,” “for many of the ‘typical, recurrent situations’ are not peculiar to our own civilization at all.” Aesop’s Fables, for instance, still name situations familiar to any modern reader. Burke would compare particular books on the basis of some strategic element common to them, rather than on considerations of genre or quality. The works examined in The Philosophy of Literary Form include, for the elucidation of the diverse situations they name, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night, Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, and various writings of Marx, Freud, Mann, and Coleridge. Burke was inclined to use anything that came to hand, and he gave up worrying about neat distinctions between literary and subliterary works. Anything can be read as a strategy for dealing with a situation.


Mein Kampf, for instance, explained Hitler’s proposed medicine for the illness of confusion, the parliamentary Babel, and general muddlement: it showed one man’s plan to gain certitude by projecting his woes upon a scapegoat—the Jews—ennobling himself by recourse to Aryan purity, and offering a spiritual explanation for economic catastrophe. As Burke said,

A people in collapse, suffering under economic frustration and the defeat of nationalistic aspirations, with the very midrib of their integrative efforts (the army) in a state of dispersion, have little other than some “spiritual” basis to which they could refer their nationalistic dignity. Hence, the categorical dignity of superior race was a perfect recipe for the situation. It was “spiritual” in so far as it was “above” crude economic “interests,” but it was “materialized” at the psychologically “right” spot in that “the enemy” was something you could see.

In this second phase, Burke developed a far more elaborate system than any required in the first. Start, he suggested, with the fact that we are bodies: many of my motives are attributable to the interests attendant upon my being a physical organism. Hence the need of a metabiology, as it appears to Burke, rather than a metaphysic. We have to understand the central nervous system even if the divine logos remains obscure. Burke seems to me to invoke biological considerations where someone else would invoke “human nature,” in pointing to the continuity and repetition of fundamental human responses. In The Philosophy of Literary Form he refers to “the permanent forms that underlie changing historical emphases.” These permanent forms are stirred by symbols: symbolism is our knowledge of them, and of the degree to which we share them with others.

Burke’s dramatism is not, therefore, a philosophy of Cartesian consciousness; it is not an idealism or an essentialism. Grounded upon a metabiology, it resorts to Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric for their endorsement of action as the central term to concentrate on, and to Aristotle’s Metaphysics as main authority for the scholastic definition of God as “pure act.” Keeping his argument cool, and taking precaution against the eruption of idealism, Burke calls upon American pragmatism, and especially upon William James, to set reasonable limits upon an Aristotelian or Thomist affiliation.

I have in view, documenting this second phase, not only Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, but The Philosophy of Literary Form, the Grammar and the Rhetoric of Motives. Dramatism is fully worked out in the two books on motives, though Burke has long felt that a third volume, “Symbolic of Motives,” would be necessary to complete the project. “Motive” is indeed an embarrassing word, because its ordinary usage disturbs the distinction that Burke makes between action and motion, a distinction he has to enforce since his system is predicated upon drama as its ideal form. “The man who designs a computer is acting. The computer that he designs can but move.” Things move—the waves in the sea, for instance—but people act. Presumably the distinction would enable us to throw into the bin marked “motion” any “action” that is spurious. If I think I am playing a role I have composed for myself, and the role then turns out to have been already enforced or inscribed, I would remove it from action, understand it as motion, and discount it accordingly.

The key words of dramatism are five: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. The act is what took place, in thought or deed. It may be prepared for by a corresponding attitude, which Burke thinks of as an incipient act, a head of steam worked up to bring the act into play. The scene is the setting in which the act is performed. The agent is the performer, the role player, the central nervous system, which in the case in point is his and not mine. The agency is the means, the instrument employed by the agent, as a poet resorts to available formal procedures and the body to its metabolism. Purpose is the chosen end.

How does the scheme work? Mainly by alerting us to privileged relations between one term and another. But Burke starts by considering each term in itself, or as if it were removed for the moment from any further complications. He adverts, for instance, to the fact that idealism in philosophy features properties belonging to the word “agent.” Then he notes that “in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James gives us a characteristically idealistic statement when referring to the artist’s prime sensibility as the soil out of which his subject springs and which grows the work of art”:

Here a book is treated as an act grounded in the author’s mind as its motivating scene. The same idealistic pattern is carried into his methods as a novelist, when he selects some “sensibility” who will serve as the appreciative “centre” of his story, and lets the reader follow the story in terms of this single consciousness.

In this instance, you could go further by considering possible relations between James’s sensibility as agent and the other terms in Burke’s pentad.

Or suppose you were thinking of pragmatism, you would regard it as featuring agency rather than any of the other four terms. William James called pragmatism “a method only.” You would consider the implications of this stress on agency, and the resultant adjustment of the values denoted by the other four. You might then alert yourself to the stressing of agency where you would not expect to find it; as in Emerson’s early essay “Nature,” which ponders at one point the “uses” of Nature, and the natural things that “serve” in Nature’s “ministry to man.” One of the boons of the Grammar of Motives, not at all incidentally, is that the reader moves through the various philosophic schools without feeling intimidated by any of them. Were he to align himself with any one school, he would, if he were to follow Burke’s method of analysis, have to retain the thought that the choice features six of one and half a dozen of its rivals. This is not the worst of sentiments, given the virulence with which each of the rivals tries to enforce its authority.

The five terms also permit various ratios, as Burke calls them in the books on motives, various relations between one term and another. Take, for instance, the ratio between scene and act. There is, Burke argues, a qualitative kinship between what is done and the scene in which it is done, both in life and in literature. Suppose you are reading Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” On the prompting of the first stanza (“What men or gods are these?”) you distinguish two levels on which action may take place. You relate these to two aspects of Keats’s distraught state—on one side, there is a “breathing human passion” that leaves a heart “high-sorrowful and cloyed, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” On the other, a purified spiritual act is being evoked, as if “forever young.” What would this spiritual or transcendent act require to complete it? It would require, Burke says in A Grammar of Motives, “a scene of the same quality as itself,” because an act and a scene “belong together,” and the nature of the one must fit the nature of the other. The act, having transcended its bodily setting, “will require, as its new setting, a transcendent scene.” And lo, in the fourth stanza, we read:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

and so spiritually forth.

Has Burke himself a position, in this second phase, if only such a position as arises from a method?

Much edified by Rémy de Gourmont’s essay on the dissociation of ideas, Burke argued in these middle books that instead of basing our conduct upon long-congealed prejudices, we should cultivate “perspective by incongruity.” We should look at situations aslant, putting like with unlike. This policy would keep us alert to the fact that our differences are differences of interpretation. We are not moved by the reality of a cause but by our interpretation of it. As in Attitudes Toward History:

In men as different as Malraux and Whitehead, we see the essentially religious attempt to socialize one’s loneliness, though Whitehead stresses purely idealistic strategies in the accomplishment of this, whereas Malraux seeks the corrective “dialectically” in collective action, in according with Marx’s formula for the socialization of losses, to the effect that “I am not alone as a victim; I am in a class of victims.” Swift, being essentially religious, was essentially tragic; but overindividualistic emphases turned the tragic scapegoat into a satiric scapegoat, thereby turning a device for solace into a device for indictment.

Once we recognize that our enemy is just as muddled as we are, we are likely to act upon an ethic that mitigates what is offensive in his position. We are likely to construe his ostensibly evil acts as foibles, his vices as errors not much worse than our own.

What Burke is offering is both a poetics of social life and a way of reading as an epitome of a way of living. Like William James, he is willing to admit any recourse that enables him to have the sense of making things a little bit better: he prefers a philosophy of betterment to one that insists on having the best or nothing. “Towards a better life”: he claims no more than that.

The literary form that takes care of this sense of life is comedy: so the comic approach, the bundle of congenial attitudes that sustains at least one tradition of comedy—Shakespearean rather than Jonsonian—is “the most serviceable for the handling of human relationships.” Specifically, the comic attitude avoids the euphemism that goes with the more heroic modes of epic and tragedy—the euphemism that enables rotting corpses to turn into noble remains, and equally the debunking that paralyzes human relationships “by discovering too constantly the purely materialistic ingredients in human effort.” The program does not involve learning a style from a despair—Empson’s advice in one of his poems—but trying to reach an attitude undisdainfully beyond the specific conflict of interpretations.

Indeed, I recall that in A Rhetoric of Motives Burke praised Empson’s book on pastoral for drawing attention to the ways in which pastoral sentiments and forms were felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor:

True, whereas the “proletarian” critic’s emphasis upon “class consciousness” would bring out the elements of class conflict, Empson is concerned with a kind of expression which, while throughly conscious of class differences, aims rather at a stylistic transcending of conflict.

You can see how incongruous it would be to try to enlist Burke in a rhetoric in favor of either left or right.

E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India is a work especially fitting to Burke’s recommendations in favor of the comic attitude; and it is so treated in an essay of 1966, reprinted in Language as Symbolic Action. Burke takes the book as social comedy: “The story is told from a novelistic point of view that transcends the perspective of any one character, and that is designed to evoke in the reader a mood of ironically sympathetic contemplation.” That last phrase is specifically designed to replace the words “through pity and fear effecting the catharsis of such emotions” in Aristotle’s recipe for Athenian tragedy. Burke then points out such details as these: in Forster’s novel there is no villain; the embarrassments of the “Bridge Party” in which the British and the natives are expected to “bridge” their “gulf” are an instance of improvised protocol. The incidents of personal separation on which the story closes—between Fielding and Aziz—take place during a Hindu ritual proclaiming the principle of universal unity. One is left respecting all the more both the novel and Burke’s use of it as illuminating the power of the comic.

I can be brief about Burke’s third phase, and think of it as the third act of a play, an intellectual comedy. Act I: Aestheticism. Act II: Communication. Act III: call it Entelechy, Aristotle’s word for the complete expression of some function, or the condition in which a potentiality becomes an actuality, or, for Burke, the rounding out of a vocabulary partly for the pleasure of seeing it rounded. Suppose you were to discover, while ardently engaged on communications in the spirit of fellowship and comedy, certain possibilities intrinsic to your medium but not strictly relevant to your undertaking: as Joyce came upon certain heady possibilities in writing the later chapters of Ulysses. You might be impelled to pursue those possibilities to the end of the line, even if they surpassed communication and threatened to undermine it, as they did in Finnegans Wake.

Such a motive predominates in Burke’s third phase, especially in The Rhetoric of Religion and some of the essays in Language as Symbolic Action. Burke speaks of it as “tracking down the implications,” and we may think of it as the critic’s version of entelechy or completeness, the determination to leave no linguistic resource untried. Burke’s strivings in this spirit are provoked, in The Rhetoric of Religion, by the Confessions of St. Augustine and the first chapters of Genesis. It is not a book about God but about man’s relation to the word “God” and the ultimate linguistic strategies that the word entails. Burke calls this inquiry “logology,” the secular cousin of theology:

If we defined “theology” as “words about God,” then by “logology” we should mean “words about words….” Our purpose is simply to ask how theological principles can be shown to have usable secular analogues that throw light upon the nature of language.

So he is concerned, in The Rhetoric of Religion, with secular analogues and correspondences to such matters as these: God, Creation, original sin, conversion, eternity, sacrifice, providence, predestination, salvation. No debunking is intended: the question of religious belief is put in parenthesis, where a believer is free to find it at any time. Statements within an avowedly religious literature (Genesis, Paul, Augustine, Bunyan, Pascal) are studied “in their sheer formality” as if they were observations about the nature of language. Perspective by incongruity indeed; and to be judged only on its results.

During the past year or two, as in the new afterword to Permanence and Change, Burke has compressed his “definition of man” into a phrase: we are “bodies that learn language.” Not a bad formula, if a formula is required.

Burke is now, however belatedly, revered, as literary critic, sage, expounder of symbolic actions. I know of no dissenters on that issue. He seems to me unique in the range and resourcefulness with which his mind engages its evidence. The mobility of his work makes it hard to assimilate, but I can’t regret that he remains a maverick, his mind running free and sometimes wild. Better that way than that he stand in line. I expect to see his work haggled over, and appropriated for one cause or another, as in Frank Lentricchia’s Criticism and Social Change (1983). Or attacked for not being as Marxist as a Marxist—Fredric Jameson, for instance—would like it to be. No matter. Burke’s books seem to me wonderfully intelligent, strange, often bizarre, and unfailingly vivid. I am content with that.

This Issue

September 26, 1985