Kenneth (Duva) Burke

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Date: 2005
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,051 words

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About this Person
Born: May 05, 1897 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: November 19, 1993 in Andover, New Jersey, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Literary critic
Other Names: Burke, Kenneth Duva
Updated:Apr. 20, 2005

Born May 5, 1897, in Pittsburgh, PA; died of heart failure, November 19, 1993, in Andover, NJ; son of James Leslie and Lillyan May (Duva) Burke; married Lily Mary Batterham, 1919 (divorced); married Elizabeth Batterham, December 18, 1933 (deceased); children: (first marriage) Jeanne Elspeth, Eleanor Duva Leacock, Frances Batterham; (second marriage) James Anthony, Kenneth Michael. Education: Attended Ohio State University, 1916-17, and Columbia University, 1917-18. Memberships: National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Modern Languages Association (honorary fellow).


Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, New York, NY, researcher, 1926-27; Dial, New York, music critic, 1927-29; Bureau of Social Hygiene, New York, editor, 1928-29; Nation, New York, music critic, 1934-35; New School for Social Research, New York, lecturer on literary criticism, 1937; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, lecturer on literature and literary criticism, 1938 and 1949-50; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, instructor in theory and practice of literary criticism, 1943-62. Lecturer and/or visiting professor at numerous institutions, including Princeton University, 1949, Kenyon College, 1950, Indiana University School of Letters, 1953 and 1958, Drew University, 1962-64, Pennsylvania State University, 1963, University of California--Santa Barbara, 1964, Central Washington State University, 1966, Harvard University, 1967-68, Washington University, 1970-71, Wesleyan University, 1972, and University of Pittsburgh, 1972.


Dial Award for distinguished service to American letters, 1928; Guggenheim fellow, 1935; grants from American Academy of Arts and Letters and National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1946; fellow, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, 1949; fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, 1957-58; D.Litt. from Bennington College, 1966, Rutgers University, 1968, and Dartmouth College, 1969; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1966; Creative Arts Award from Brandeis University, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts award, 1968; National Council on the Arts award, 1969; award from New School for Social Research, 1970; L.H.D. from Fairfield University, 1970, Northwestern University, 1972, University of Rochester, 1972, and numerous others; gold medal from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975; National Medal for Literature, 1981; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award, 1984; a Kenneth Burke Society has been formed.



  • The White Oxen, and Other Stories, A. & C. Boni, 1924.
  • (Translator) Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, Knopf (New York, NY), 1925, new edition, 1965, limited edition with an introduction by Erich Heller and illustrated by Felix Hoffmann, Stinehour Press (Lunenberg, VT), 1972.
  • (Translator) Emile Baumann, Saint Paul, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1929.
  • (Translator) Emil Ludwig, Genius and Character, J. Cape (London, England), 1930, Blue Ribbon Books (New York, NY), 1931.
  • Counter-Statement (criticism), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1931, 2nd edition, Hermes (Los Altos, CA), 1953.
  • Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1932, revised edition, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1966.
  • Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, New Republic (New York, NY), 1935, 3rd edition, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1984.
  • Attitudes toward History, New Republic (New York, NY), Volume 1: Acceptance and Rejection: The Curve of History, 1937, Volume 2: Analysis of Symbolic Structure, 1937, revised edition published as one volume, Hermes (Los Altos, CA), 1959, 3rd edition, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1984.
  • The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1941, third edition, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1973.
  • A Grammar of Motives (also see below), Prentice-Hall (New York, NY), 1945.
  • A Rhetoric of Motives (also see below), Prentice-Hall (New York, NY), 1950.
  • (Contributor) Lyman Bryson, editor, Symbols and Values: An Initial Study, Harper (New York, NY), 1954.
  • Books of Moments: Poems, 1915-1954, Hermes (Los Altos, CA), 1955.
  • The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology, Beacon (Boston, MA), 1961.
  • A Rhetoric of Motives [and] A Grammar of Motives (also see above), World-Meridian (Cleveland, OH), 1962.
  • Perspective by Incongruity (also see below), edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Barbara Karmiller, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1964.
  • Terms for Order (also see below), edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Barbara Karmiller, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1964.
  • Perspective by Incongruity [and] Terms for Order (selections; also see above), edited by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Barbara Karmiller, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1964.
  • Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1966.
  • Collected Poems, 1915-1967, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1967.
  • The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1968.
  • Dramatism and Development, Clark University Press (Barre, MA), 1972.
  • (With others) Surrealism: Pro and Con, Gotham Book Mart (New York, NY), 1973.
  • (With Julie Kranhold) Ideas for Environment, ten volumes, Lear, Siegler, Fearon, 1973-74.
  • (With Emily M. Wallace) William Carlos Williams, edited by Charles Angoff, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Rutherford, NJ), 1974.
  • Representing Kenneth Burke, edited by Hayden White and Margaret Brose, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
  • (With Malcolm Cowley) The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981, edited by Paul Jay, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.
  • On Symbols and Society, edited and with an introduction by Joseph R. Gusfield, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1989.
  • The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, edited by Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1989.
  • Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert, 1959-1987, Parlor Press (West Lafayette, IN), 2002.
  • On Human Nature: A Gathering while Everything Flows, 1967-1984, edited by William H. Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2003.
  • The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke, edited by James H. East, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 2003.
  • Here and Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke, with an introduction by Denis Donoghue, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 2004.

Also ghostwriter of a book on drug addiction for the Rockefeller Foundation during the 1920s. Contributor of essays, reviews, stories, and poems to periodicals, including Dial, Poetry, Partisan Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Centennial Review, Kenyon Review, New Republic, and Critical Inquiry.



According to Merle E. Brown in his study Kenneth Burke, Burke "has worked in so many forms and on so many subjects that he may deserve to be acclaimed as the universal man of modern, mass democracy." Similarly, Paul Jay, in his article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, called Burke "the most theoretically challenging, unorthodox, and sophisticated of twentieth-century speculators on literature and culture."

Beginning with his essays of the 1920s, Burke brought techniques and insights used in a diverse range of fields to his examination of literature and language. In doing so, he formulated a diverse and eclectic brand of literary criticism which won him a host of admirers as well as detractors. He became, according to Stanley Edgar Hyman in New Leader, "simply the finest literary critic in the world, and perhaps the finest since Coleridge." But not all observers agree. Some argue that Burke's wholesale use of techniques from psychology, anthropology, and other fields is simply inappropriate. These techniques, when taken out of context, are useless, claim critics. Brown noted that "Burke is probably the most controversial literary figure of the past fifty years in America. He is said to have the finest speculative mind of our time; he is adjudged an irresponsible sophist."

"Because of his emphasis upon reading a literary text in a complex and thorough way," as Richard Kostelanetz wrote in the American Poetry Review, "Burke was regarded as a principal figure of the so-called New Criticism." Among the New Critics, Burke emphasized the use of techniques from the social sciences, particularly from anthropology and Marxist economics. For a time during the 1930s, he was even associated with the American Communist Party. In several of his books, according to Hyman in The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism, Burke identified Karl Marx as a great "dramatist," "poet," and "rhetorician" for writing his "masterpiece," The Communist Manifesto. But the relationship between Burke and the Communist Party was one-sided; the Communists believed Burke was not following their line closely enough, and they discounted his work.

Because of the scope of his writings and the different approaches he employed, Burke has been defined in conflicting ways. Wayne C. Booth, writing in his Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limitations of Pluralism, determined Burke's overall concern to be "language and the way symbolic communication is effected through language." But Charles I. Glicksberg, writing in South Atlantic Quarterly, claimed that Burke, "a subtle and adventurous critic," has attempted "the ambitious task of reappraising all hitherto existing critical values."

Burke's method resulted in unusual interpretations of literary works. His analysis of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" ends with the assertion that the line "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" should be interpreted as "Body is turd, turd body." Burke's analysis of language led him to other unique insights as well. For example, he believes that when the word "faces" is used by a writer, it is a screen-word for "feces." He finds hidden scatological meanings throughout the plays of Stephen Mallarme.

In other works, Burke uncovers religious or magical significance. He compares the poet to a kind of medicine man who, by writing a poem, is conducting a religious rite meant to heal something within his own life. Burke ties this essentially anthropological interpretation to Freudian psychology by emphasizing the dream-like nature of the poem and its roots in the poet's unconscious. "The poem is thus a symbolic act of the poet," Hyman explained in The Armed Vision, "but 'surviving as a structure or object, it enables us as readers to re-enact it,' so that reading too is the enactment of symbolic 'rites.'"

Burke's use of terms from anthropology and psychology has sometimes been criticized. Speaking of Burke's use of psychoanalytic terminology in Psychoanalysis & American Literary Criticism, Louis Fraiberg noted that Burke has written "serious literary criticism relying in part on psychoanalytic ideas and has thereby left himself open to censure for his lapses in handling those ideas. A clinically based scientific discipline cannot be dealt with as though its essence were verbal, despite the metaphoric quality of some psychoanalytic terminology. Psychoanalysis cannot exist without words, but this does not mean that words are the only things in it that matter. Burke has been guilty of taking the part for the whole, and this has thrown his entire critical view out of focus." Marius Bewley wrote, in The Complex Fate, of Burke's use of anthropological terms: "Classical anthropology exercises powerful prerogatives in contemporary criticism, whose exponents frequently seem to think that its myths and symbols can be lugged over from their original context to the present time with all their magic intact--a state of mind that suggests not only a collapse of the historical sense but an incredible simplification of the nature of man."

Burke's supporters include some of the most prominent people in modern literature. W. H. Auden, in his review of The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action for the New Republic, claimed that Burke "is unquestionably the most brilliant and suggestive critic now writing in America." Writing in the Kenyon Review, John Crowe Ransom stated, "I strongly advise not to sell Burke's poetics short. For he employs both figures and turns of humor, and his prose has literary distinction. Furthermore, he has written wisely, and in advance of the rest of us, about the logic of the figures, and some other purely poetic usages, to indicate participation in a true aesthetic."

Burke explained his work as trying "to figure out what's wrong with the world, mine enemies and friends, and myself. I tinker shamefacedly at the piano, and make up lame pieces now and then. I fight sporadically to keep the fields around us from becoming too unbearably unsightly. Every now and then something crystallizes into a poem (which I think of as a 'moment'); then I lay aside my work on literary criticism and the philosophy of language until this 'moment' is disposed of.

"One must learn skills (that's the pragmatic angle); one must learn appreciation (that's the aesthetic angle); and one must learn to fear all skills and wonders (that's the ethical angle). Ideally, one should approach all human genius from all three angles. And so it goes, up to the point where (if I may quote a close friend-and-enemy of mine who belatedly but tinkeringly collaborated with an earlier author), 'the rest is rest in silence.'"




  • Bewley, Marius, The Complex Fate, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1952.
  • Biesecker, Barbara A., Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1997.
  • Booth, Wayne C., Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limitations of Pluralism, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1979.
  • Brock, Bernard L., Kenneth Burke and European Thought: Rhetoric in Transition, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1995.
  • Brown, Merle E., Kenneth Burke, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1969.
  • Bygrave, Stephen, Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology, Routledge (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Carter, Chris Allen, Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1996.
  • Chesebro, James W., Extensions of the Burkeian System, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1993.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974; Volume 24, 1983.
  • Cragan, John F. and Donald C. Shields, Symbolic Theories in Applied Communication Research: Bormann, Burke, and Fisher, Hampton Press (Cresskill, NJ), 1995.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 45: American Poets, 1880-1945, First Series, 1986; Volume 63: Modern American Critics, 1920-1955, 1988.
  • Fraiberg, Louis, Psychoanalysis & American Literary Criticism, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1960.
  • Heath, Robert L., Realism and Relativism: A Perspective on Kenneth Burke, Mercer University Press (Macon, GA), 1986.
  • Henderson, Greig E., Kenneth Burke: Literature and Language as Symbolic Action, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1989.
  • Hyman, Stanely Edgar, The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism, Knopf (New York, NY), 1948.
  • Kimberling, Ronald C., Kenneth Burke's Dramatism and Popular Arts, Bowling Green University (Bowling Green, OH), 1982.
  • Rueckert, William H., editor, Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1924-1966, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1969.
  • Rueckert, William H., Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1963, 2nd edition, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1981.
  • Selzer, Jack, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1996.
  • Southwell, Samuel B., Kenneth Burke and Martin Heidegger: With a Note against Deconstructionism, University Presses of Florida (Gainesville, FL), 1988.
  • Wess, Robert, Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
  • White, Hayden and Margaret Brose, editors, Representing Kenneth Burke: Selected Papers from the English Institute, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1983.


  • All Area, spring, 1983.
  • American Poetry Review, March-April, 1990, Richard Kostelanetz.
  • American Review, December, 1935.
  • Argumentation and Advocacy, spring, 1993, Donn W. Parson, "Kenneth Burke and Argument? An Introduction," pp. 145-147, David G. Levasseur, "Edifying Arguments and Perrspective by Incongruity: The Perplexing Argumentation Method of Kenneth Burke," pp. 195-203; fall, 2003, Bryan Crable, "Kenneth Burke's Continued Relevance: Arguments toward a Better Life," pp. 118-123.
  • Communication Studies, spring, 2002, Jason Ingram, "Hegemony and Globalism: Kenneth Burke and Paradoxes of Representation," pp. 4-24.
  • Kenyon Review, spring, 1942; spring, 1946.
  • Nation, February 17, 1962.
  • New Leader, May 22, 1967, Stanley Edgar Hyman.
  • New Republic, July 14, 1941, W. H. Auden, review of The Philosophy of Literary Form; June 5, 1950; March 13, 1989, Daniel Aaron, review of The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley: 1915-1981, pp. 34-37.
  • New Statesman, May 12, 1967.
  • New York Herald Tribune Books, December 13, 1931.
  • Pretext, fall-winter, 1985.
  • Riata, winter, 1963.
  • Scrutiny, December, 1948.
  • Sewanee Review, April-June, 1933; July-September, 1933; summer, 1994, special edition dedicated to Burke's work.
  • South Atlantic Quarterly, January, 1937, Charles I. Glicksberg.
  • Times Literary Supplement, February 23, 1967.
  • Washington Post Book World, July 2, 1967.
  • Western Review, winter, 1948.



  • New Republic, December 13, 1993, p. 10.
  • New York Times, November 21, 1993, pp. 21, 48.*


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000013997