Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert, 1959-1987

SKU: 0-9724772-0-9

Edited by William H. Rueckert

Transcribed from the originals by Barbara L. Rueckert; Foreword by Angelo Bonadonna

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ISBN: 0-9724772-0-9 (paperback; $25.00; £15); © 2003 by Parlor Press. 368 pages, with introduction, bibliography, notes, and index

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Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) has been hailed by many as one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. In The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Paul Jay refers to him as “the most theoretically challenging, unorthodox, and sophisticated of twentieth-century speculators on literature and culture.” Geoffrey Hartman praised him as “the wild man of American criticism.” We see him (finally) represented in the influential Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested in 2001 that Burke may have “accidentally create[d] cultural studies.”

Burke has profoundly influenced in one way or another a long list of major literary theorists, poets, novelists, linguists, and rhetoricians. They include Harold Bloom, Wayne Booth, Paul De Man, Hugh Duncan, Ralph Ellison, Dell Hymes, Richard Kostelanetz, Frank Lentricchia, Andrea Lunsford, Howard Nemerov, Edward Said, Victor Vitanza, Hayden White, and William Carlos Williams.

These letters show the development of Burke’s thought in the last thirty or so years of his life, when he remained remarkably productive not only as a correspondent but as a critic and traveling scholar. Rueckert became for Burke both student and “co-conspirator,” with Burke himself playing the roles of teacher, mentor, father, and peer. While Burke corresponded for many years with Malcolm Cowley, William Carlos Williams, Hugh Duncan, and others, with Rueckert, we see him writing to someone who may have understood and appreciated his work more than anyone. These letters often probe deeper, with less explanation and defensiveness, more inquiry and reflection. As one might expect among like-minded peers, we also see sharp critiques of contemporaries, including theorists who have had enormous influence of their own, including Marshall McLuhan and Fredric Jameson.

Rueckert’s Introduction to the letters sets this correspondence into relief. Angelo Bonadonna’s Foreword stands as one Burkean scholar’s use of these letters to make inroads of his own.

This appearance of previously unpublished writings of Kenneth Burke is an event not just for Burke studies, but for the wider community of readers interested in understanding the “progress” of literature, literary theory, culture, rhetoric, and philosophy in the late twentieth-century. If ever there was criticism played out as if it were a “blow-by-blow description of a prize-fight,” this is it.

The Burke-Rueckert correspondence provides a rich, fertile field for future Burke studies. Scholars will find references to every imaginable Burke theme. […] We see Burke charting his struggles with the Symbolic […]; his expansion of the Motivorum from a trilogy to a tetralogy; his dichotomous views on catharsis/dialectic; his method of conducting critical reviews. […] What may generate more immediate attention from scholars is Burke’s reflection on the themes of his remarkably productive late period, including his characterization of the relationship of “dramatism” to “logology”; the development of his “Bodies that Learn Language” formula; his take on postmodern language theory […]; and his development of the Super-Nature/Counter-Nature dichotomy.— Angelo Bonadonna, Foreword,“Some More of the Many Kenneth Burkes”

About the Editor

William H. Rueckert, the “Dean of Burke Studies,” authored or edited numerous groundbreaking books and articles on Kenneth Burke. They include the landmark study, Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1963, 1982), Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke, 1924-1966 (1969), and Encounters with Kenneth Burke (1994). With Angelo Bonadonna, he is the editor of Burke’s On Human Nature, A Gathering While Everything Flows: Essays, 1967-1984 (2005). He is also the author of Glenway Wescott (1965) and the Parlor Press book, Faulkner From Within—Destructive and Generative Being in the Novels of William Faulkner (2005). His essays include the often-cited “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” Shortly before his death in late 2006, Rueckert published the long-awaited edition of Burke's Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-1955.

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