A Review of Kenneth Burke’s On Human Nature

Boykin Witherspoon

I have read several reviews on this remarkable book. I do not intend to offer another in the usual sense of writing a book review. When I came across the book recently I was overwhelmed by its raw oral quality. This speaking volume of essays communicates the essence of Kenneth Burke’s mode of invention in a way that no one of his other works has done.

I was introduced to Burke at Princeton by that magisterial figure, Wilbur Samuel Howell, in 1970. I was one of “Howell’s boys” for Princeton was still an all-male school until the fall of 1972. As one of Howell’s boys I got stuffed with knowledge about the historical development of rhetoric in England and America.  A man of gravity, Howell never talked about applied rhetoric or the role of rhetoric in the popular culture. His students were to be guardians and explicators of the master texts.

Ironically, relatively few of his students entered the academy. In fact, like so many of his boys I took the short journey up the pike to New York and worked in advertising during Manhattan’s so-called Silver Age.  Although I never asked Howell about the matter, I think it must have bothered him that his young eagles wrote cheap doggerel for huge pay labor while he remained as the keeper of the flame teaching each rising generation about the rhyming scheme of the Elizabethan sonnet and the tragic journey of Peter Ramus.

One afternoon after completing a lecture on the anti-ciceronianism of Erasmus, Professor Howell handed me a battered copy a paper entitled “Creativity” (originally given at The Northwest English Conference of 1970).  The author’s name added in what looked like grease pencil was Kenneth Burke. The stapled sheets were covered with red ink annotations and marginal notes. The blue mimeograph ink l stained my hands and the smell reminded me of hand press announcements of anti-war demonstrations.

“I think you should read this,” said Howell, “it is written by a friend of mine. He has a rambling, free association kind of style, but if you stick with it, you will find he has a lot of very interesting ideas.”

 In 1970, the last decade of the steam age, creativity was not as good a word as it is today. Howell had schooled us in its dark side and we associated it with physically diseased and mental unstable 19th century Romantic poets ravaged by venery. These tubercular opium eating wrecks were seen as dangerous, destructive, and invincibly attractive to weak minded and undisciplined non-Ivy League undergraduates.  In many ways the 1970’s was an old fashioned decade, an interval between feverish Hippiedom and the 1980’s Neo-Gilded Age. We admired models, imitation, and were full of helpless admiration for Quintilian. I read the manuscript Howell had given me. It struck me as bombastic and shallow; something halfway between an essay and a bombastic speech. It was both pedantic and hyperbolic, straining for effect and then collapsing into broad parody. I was young and scared. I had an older brother who had been killed in military service in 1966 and I was taking no chances. I admired Howell’s tidy assessment of Hugh Blair suddenly delivered just at the close of an arid fact packed lecture:: “Classical discipline like an oriflamme streamed through all his works.”

I was immersed in personal and family tragedies at that time and I found Burke a kind of irritating gadfly rather than a serious intellectual.  When I finally met him at a luncheon at NYU in 1975 he told me he was experiencing traumatic shock. I suspected a death in his family or a terrible financial reverse. He told me that he was in mourning over the news of the dramatic ritual suicide of the famous Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. I walked away speechless and tried to hide my self behind a sideboard of sandwiches and dips.  A few minutes later I mustered the courage to wander back and Burke engaged me in the friendliest manner with a series of witty attacks against most of the famous literary critics I had studied in college.

 I had found Burke in print over-fluent and obsessive, irritating without informing, shining yet opaque.  Burke was very different in the flesh. He was profane and reckless and funny. Within five minutes I felt as if we were old, old friends.

On Human Nature was intended to be Burke’s ultimate logological statement. These were the “summing up essays” collected and edited by William H. Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna. The most important part of the book is the Interview with Burke called Counter-Gridlock (Chapter 14). This interview gives a vivid picture of Burke the conversationalist. It is repetitious, witty, energetic, digressive, full of brilliant insights, happy verbal associations, and a mind that leaps runs, jerks and rolls. Burke often said that we do not think with thoughts but think with our words. The reader of the interview will be impressed by the worlds that Burke has built with his words. The earlier essays reflect Burke’s lifelong involvement with technology, human entelechy, and logology. But the interview shows Burke at his most characteristic. He is the original Adam engaging in what he used to call “the naming day in Eden.”

The true Burke, the talking Burke is fully realized in the Final Interview. That was the Burke his friends knew. He was the Edenic Adam fixing names to everything about him, scrapping old names, testing new names and then becoming frustrated because the names suddenly seem confining, inadequate or inchoate.  On the final page of the book he characterizes the poet Wallace Stevens as trying to experience something that he doesn’t yet have a word for. Burke once told me the human capacity to invent names was powerful enough to invent destructive technology but not smart enough to control it. He said that our propensity to taxonomy meant that we could put all of our intelligence into our machines and then “just as that old bastard Samuel Butler predicted relinquish control of our societies to them”

He believed in word power and that every word was just like Plato’s archetypes, a vortex of light strong enough to generate an entire social system. Not until he was into his nineties did the daemon cease to assault him. This book is a record of the unique ardor of his linguistic pursuit.

Boykin Witherspoon
Independent Scholar