“From the Plaint to the Comic: Kenneth Burke’s Towards a Better Life,” by Krista K. Betts Van Dyck

Betts Van Dyk, Krista K. “From the Plaint to the Comic: Kenneth Burke’s Towards a Better Life.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36.1 (2006): 31–53.

Reviewed by Bjørn F. Stillion Southard, University of Maryland

Quoting a 1946 letter from Kenneth Burke to his lifelong pal Malcolm Cowley, Krista K. Betts Van Dyk begins her essay about Towards a Better Life (TBL) with the following:  “I had always said that, by the time I got through with my critical writings, people would see what I was doing in T.B.L. You now seem to suggest that excerpts from T.B.L. might help them to see what I am doing now” (31). Using Burke’s own rumination on his only novel, Betts Van Dyk focuses the reader on two issues concerning the Burke corpus:  first, the importance of TBL in his vast body of literature; and second, the nature of the relationship between TBL and Burke’s critical work. Betts Van Dyk’s resulting essay helps to clarify both of these issues and results in an illuminating piece of scholarship.

Betts Van Dyk begins to address the significance of Burke’s novel by recalling the reviews of TBL upon its release in 1932. The response was what one would expect of any Burke work:  some loved it and some hated it. Beginning with the reviews, Betts Van Dyk contextualizes Burke’s novel and reminds us of its innovativeness at the time. Furthermore, the reviews also address what is an important point for Betts Van Dyk’s essay; namely, the relationship between Burke’s critical and literary works. Noting that most have read TBL against Burke’s later works, Betts Van Dyk hones the purpose of her essay by asking, “what if Towards a Better Life is read not against other modernist fiction, against Burke’s biography, or even against his later theoretical works, and instead is read in relation to the books he was writing in the 1930s, just after he completed Towards a Better Life?” (33). By reading TBL against Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, Betts Van Dyk seeks the answers to three questions: “What kind of life does John Neal (Burke’s protagonist) initially have?”; “What is this ‘better life’ that he moves toward?”; and “How does he move toward that better life?” (33). Betts Van Dyk argues that John Neal moves toward “the comic frame” (the better life) through “rituals of rebirth.”  

Overall, Betts Van Dyk’s purpose is appreciative. She makes a compelling reason as to why “the novel should be read in relation to Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, and with the same attention as the critical works” (47).  In doing so, she elevates the importance of the novel by demonstrating its strong relationship to Burke’s non-fiction writings. Furthermore, Betts Van Dyk illustrates the similarities among Burke’s works in the late 1920s and early 1930s, providing a level of detail that will satisfy the careful Burkean reader.

Given that Betts Van Dyk focuses on appreciating the relationship between TBL and Burke’s other writings of the period, room remains for exploring the critical relationship between these texts. For example, Betts Van Dyk notes that TBL was an “experimental novel” and quotes Burke’s own observations as to its unique form. Yet, other than the suggestion of the linkage between the “rituals of rebirth” and the novel’s structure, her essay does not explore the critical ramifications of form in TBL. After the noting the unique presentation of the narrative in her introduction to the essay, Betts Van Dyk hones her watchful eye to the details of John Neal’s life without assessing the role of form in that narrative. For future research into TBL and Burke’s 1930s writings, a more reflexive perspective may further develop the complexity of the relationship.

A second question that is prompted by Betts Van Dyk’s essay is, how does TBL influence our reading of the non-fiction works? In general, Betts Van Dyk uses the theoretical vocabulary to explain TBL, as is evident when she writes, “Examining John Neal’s behavior in light of the comic frame and the good life reveals how different his lifestyle is, how far he is from valuing community” (37). Reading from theory to the novel lends a structure and vocabulary to TBL, but what about the impact of the novel on the theoretical and critical texts? Reading the works as constitutive of each other may provide more depth to understanding Burke’s early writings.

But these areas of future research do not diminish Betts Van Dyk’s work on TBL. Her essay is insightful, carefully written, and inspires a new inquiry into the intertextual relationships of Burke’s early writings. Those who teach courses on the works of Kenneth Burke should consider incorporating Betts Van Dyk’s essay, along with TBL, to further demonstrate the scope of Burke’s literary and intellectual program.