Kenneth Duva Burke was born May 5, 1897, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and attended Ohio State University from 1916-1917 and Columbia University from 1917-1918. He lived most of his life, from about 1921 until his death in 1993, at his home in Andover, New Jersey.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Burke was a prominent intellectual in New York literary circles. He also was associated closely with Bennington College, Vermont, where he began teaching in 1943. After resigning from Bennington in 1961, Burke accepted shorter teaching and lecturing opportunities at universities across the United States (including Penn State). During this time, Burke received many honorary doctorates and other awards, among them the Gold Medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1975) and the National Medal for Literature (1981).
Kenneth Burke was a poet, essayist, reviewer, novelist, translator, social commentator, and writer of short stories. But Burke was more widely known in scholarly circles as a philosopher of language, and his ever-fertile writings have continued to influence contemporary thought, particularly in areas of rhetoric, philosophy, literary theory, cultural studies, and communication studies.
Burke’s noted works include Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935; 3rd rev. ed. 1984), Attitudes Toward History (2 volumes, 1937; 3rd. rev. ed. 1984), The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941; 3rd. ed. 1973), A Grammar of Motives (1945; 2nd ed. 1955; 1969), A Rhetoric of Motives (1950; 2nd ed. 1955; 1969), The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (1961; 1970), Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (1966), and Dramatism and Development (1972). Many of Burke's essays have been selected and published in different collections.
The Kenneth Burke Papers provide a valuable historical context for understanding the life and thought of Burke, particularly in the second Burke collection, Burke-2, which contains copies of Burke’s own letters. Because Burke frequently used his correspondence to develop ideas he later presented in books and essays, his letters often suggest ways to read his published texts.
Burke’s letters also shed light on many of the lesser known writings of his productive late period, writings that are just now becoming better known through an online bibliography in the K.B. Journal, sponsored by the Kenneth Burke Society, and through recently published collections, Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke, edited by Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams (c2001), On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, 1967-1984, edited by William H. Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna (c2003), and Late Poems, 1968-1993, edited by Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley (c2005).
Not least, Burke’s letters reveal his stylistic mastery of a genre he valued. Word-play, ideas, emotion, “sparring,” humor, and anecdote all exemplify Burke’s virtuosity in rhetorically accommodating various purposes, occasions, and relationships.
Primarily correspondence collections, the Kenneth Burke Papers record dialogues that illuminate the lives of Burke and his correspondents.
Photograph: Kenneth Burke at Andover, about 1971. A family photograph from Burke-2.