Burke, Kenneth

Burke, Kenneth
▪ 1994

      U.S. literary critic and philosopher (b. May 5, 1897, Pittsburgh, Pa.—d. Nov. 19, 1993, Andover, N.J.), studied the relationships between language, literature, culture, and power in a variety of wide-ranging and complex works; for many years his theories were often dismissed as obscure and idiosyncratic, but they later gained a renewed appreciation. Although drawn to language and literature from an early age, Burke quit college because he was disenchanted with formal education ("horrified . . . what college can do to a man of promise") and began a rigorous and expansive self-education. While working on his own stories, Burke began to formulate the ideas on literary form elaborated in his first work of criticism, Counter-Statement (1931). While he worked as a reviewer, editor, translator, and writer, his theoretical work gained influence, and he earned prominence in the literary critical school known as New Criticism. Burke produced a body of original and ever evolving work whose cross-disciplinary approach made them difficult for readers and reviewers to easily consume and categorize and put him out of the academic mainstream, yet late 20th-century approaches to literary criticism brought rekindled interest in and praise for his works. Burke never held a permanent university position and spent most of his life at his farm in New Jersey. Among his works are The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966).

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▪ American critic
in full  Kenneth Duva Burke 
born May 5, 1897, Pittsburgh, Pa., U.S.
died Nov. 19, 1993, Andover, N.J.

      American literary critic who is best known for his rhetorically based analyses of the nature of knowledge and for his views of literature as “symbolic action,” where language and human agency combine.

      Burke attended universities briefly—Ohio State University (Columbus, 1916–17) and Columbia University (New York City, 1917–18)—but never took a degree. He wrote poems, a novel, and short stories and translated the works of many German writers into English. He was the music critic of The Dial (1927–29) and of The Nation (Nation, The) (1934–36). He then turned to literary criticism, lecturing on this subject at the University of Chicago (1938; 1949–50), and he taught at Bennington College (Vermont) from 1943 through 1961.

      Burke's unorthodox critical thought is complex and subtle. He was concerned not to look only at the “intrinsic” elements of literature (the formal aspects of the literary text itself), and he called for a larger view that also included a work's “extrinsic” elements—the relationship of the literary work to its full context (its audience, its author's biography, its social, historical, and political background). Realizing that the critic should criticize criticism as well as literature, he became an early advocate for literary theory. Among his books are: Counter-Statement (1931; rev. ed., 1968); The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941; 3rd ed., 1974); Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935; rev. ed., 1959); Attitudes Toward History, 2 vol. (1937; rev. ed., 1959); A Grammar of Motives (1945); A Rhetoric of Motives (1950); and Language as Symbolic Action (1966).

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Universalium. 2010.

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