David Blakesley, Purdue University
In August, 1959, an anxious Bill Rueckert wrote Kenneth Burke to ask, “When on earth is that perpetually “forthcoming” A Symbolic of Motives forthcoming? Will it be soon enough so that I can wait for it before I complete my book [Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations]? If the Symbolic is not forthcoming soon, would it be too much trouble for you to send me a list of exactly what will be included in the book, and some idea of the structure of the book?” Burke replied, “Holla! If you’re uncomfortable, think how uncomfortable I am. But I’ll do the best I can . . .” (Letters 1-2). In the course of their long correspondence, the nature of the Symbolic—Burke’s much-anticipated third volume in his Motivorum trilogy—vexed both men, and they discussed its contents often. Ultimately, Burke left the job of pulling it all together to Rueckert.
Forty-eight years after they first discussed the Symbolic, Rueckert fulfilled his end of the bargain with Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950 to 1955 (2007, Parlor Press)*. This collection contains some, if not most, of the work Burke hoped to include in the third book in his trilogy, which began with A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of Motives (1950). In this book—some of which appears in print for the first time—Burke offers his most precise and elaborated account of his dramatistic poetics, providing readers with representative analyses of such writers as Aeschylus, Goethe, Hawthorne, Roethke, Shakespeare, and Whitman. Following Rueckert’s Introduction, Burke lays out his approach in essays that theorize and illustrate the method, which he considered essential for understanding language as symbolic action and human relations generally. Burke concludes with a focused account of humans as symbol-using and misusing animals and his tour de force reading of Goethe’s Faust.
Precisely why Burke was never able to finish the job himself remains somewhat of a mystery. In this issue of KB Journal, Richard Thames (The Gordian Not: Untangling the Motivorum) and Robert Wess ("Looking for the Figure in the Carpet of the Symbolic of Motives") examine this question and extend it to include questions about what later work Burke thought fell within the scope of the Symbolic. Thames argues persuasively that Burke had developed sufficient content for a fourth volume, An Ethics of Motives. Both Thames and Wess launch the important work of analyzing Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950 to 1955 and invite others to consider the impact of this book on our understanding of Burke and the development of his thought.
In my role as Parlor Press's publisher, I was fortunate to work with Bill and Barbara Rueckert as they pulled together this collection during a time when Bill was in failing health. A few weeks before his death on December 30, 2006, I sent Bill and Barbara the finished book. Barbara reported that Bill was "cheered up." With KB and now Bill departed, one thing is certain: though the hour grows late, the discussion is still vigorously in progress. I'm sure both would be pleased at that.
* The cover design of Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950 to 1955 uses the cover design of the 1945 edition of A Grammar of Motives for inspiration, shown here in all its tatteredness. Members of the Kenneth Burke Society can now purchase this book at a 20 percent discount. For cost and other details, see the book's page at Parlor Press.
Rueckert, William H., ed. Letters from Kenneth Burke to William H. Rueckert, 1959-1987. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2003.