Burke’s First Publications

Clarke Rountree

Jack Selzer reports in his fascinating and erudite book, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village, that Burke’s first publication came in 1916 when his poem, “Adam’s Song, and Mine,” was published in Others in March of that year. Actually, that’s not quite true. When I visited Burke at his farm in Andover for a week in 1986 (taking advantage of an invitation following my work with him as a graduate student in the Burke interviews at the University of Iowa), I came across some earlier publications on his shelf. These appeared in The Peabody, the literary magazine of Burke’s high school in Pittsburgh. Burke had just been given a photocopy machine and he allowed me to make copies of his earliest published work. With the kind approval of Michael Burke, we have reprinted two of his early publications here, giving Burke scholars a chance to see the earliest work from the impressive young Kenny. The first is a short story, “La Fino de la Homar’,” published in January 1913 when Burke was in the 10th grade. It is a story of a scientist who discovers an asteroid destined to destroy the earth. Lest you think Burke ever failed to "use all that is there to use,” consider this passage from Language as Symbolic Action, published 53 years later, where Burke is discussing the concept of humans as “rotten with perfection”:

There is a kind of “terministic compulsion” to carry out the implications of one’s terminology, quite as if an astronomer discovered by his observations and computations that a certain wandering body was likely to hit the earth and destroy us, he would nonetheless feel compelled to argue for the correctness of his computations, despite the ominousness of the outcome. (19)

(Thanks to David Langston for reminding me where to find this passage.)

The second, “Invince Harvey, Jr.,” published in May 1913, is the story of a high school Machiavelli who gets control of a school publication. It has a wonderful closing speech by this self-proclaimed demagogue trying to hang on to power. We invite KB Journal readers to post comments on these early essays in the Conversations section of the journal or at the bottom of each.

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