“There’s Your Whole World”: A Critical Introduction to KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke

Ethan Sproat, Utah Valley University
Erin Doss, Indiana University Kokomo


As a critical introduction to Harry Chapin’s documentary about Kenneth Burke, this essay is part of the ongoing Kenneth Burke Digital Archive. This essay provides both historical and critical contexts for various subjects in the documentary, which was first released in VHS format 25 years ago.

Kenneth Burke in the Mid-1970s

In the mid-1970s, Kenneth Burke was in his late 70s and living a quiet life on his farm in Andover, New Jersey, which was his home and workspace when he was not traveling to various universities to lecture or teach. During this august phase of life, Burke's grandson Harry Chapin interviewed Burke on film with the goal of making a documentary about him. Due to Chapin's untimely death in 1981, the project remained unfinished for several years. In the early 1990s, some of Chapin’s family and friends edited together the extant interviews into a short documentary titled KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke.

Today, 25 years after being initially edited together, this documentary continues to provide a rare window into Kenneth Burke's world in the mid-1970s and a valuable set of summarizing statements by Burke on his theories of language. Throughout this short film, Burke touches on a wide array of topics that stem from his career as a language theorist, author, and poet. Some of these include his Definition of Human, what it means to be a symbol-using animal, the affective power of language and symbols, the relationship between literature/poetry and human motives, the role of death as a motivational force, and how the interactions of non-symbolic motion and symbolic action serve to form the entirety of human consciousness (or, as Burke exclaims to Chapin at one point in the film, “There’s your whole world!”).

At the time of filming, all of Burke’s children were already on their own, and he was still a relatively recent widower. Burke's spouse Elizabeth “Libbie” Batterham had passed away only a handful of years earlier in May 1969. The film shows Burke still keenly feeling the sorrow of her absence. Despite his personal loss and advancing years, Burke remained professionally active as he kept himself busy delivering lectures and writing essays, reviews, and poetry. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, when he was at an age when most people are winding down their lives’ professional activities, Burke continued to publish an impressive amount of material including over two dozen academic essays, seven literary reviews, a handful of new poems, and the third edition of The Philosophy of Literary Form. Though his Andover farm was still home, Burke held several temporary university positions throughout the 1970s. These positions included serving as a visiting professor at Washington University, St. Louis; a lecturer at Wesleyan University; the Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh; and the Walker-Ames Visiting Professor of English at the University of Washington. During this same decade, Burke was awarded honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Fairfield University, Northwestern University, the University of Rochester, Indiana State University, and Kenyon College (Cratis Williams 11). He was also awarded the 1977 Award for Humanistic Studies by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Chapin’s film also captures Burke when we was still building and revising his “Definition of Man” that appeared in a slightly different form years earlier in Language as Symbolic Action. In the film, Burke suggests adding to the definition a section discussing the threat of death as a motive, "a situation that contains or rationalizes human action, particularly symbolic human action" (Whitaker and Blakesley xvii).

When asked on film if the threat of death frightened him, Burke responds into the camera that he was more frightened of death as a child than he is as an old man. Instead of fearing death, Burke asserts, he became used to the idea as he grew older, which led him to add the "acquiring the foreknowledge of death" clause to what would be his renamed “Definition of Human.” The “foreknowledge of death” addition to Burke’s “Definition of Human” has been cited in numerous books and articles and was added to a later formal version of the definition in poem form.

Harry Chapin in the Mid-1970s

Harry Chapin is the most famous of the Chapin family, and he is best known for his music, especially the songs “Taxi," "W*O*L*D," and the number-one hit "Cat's in the Cradle." In the mid-1970s, Chapin had just begun to focus solely on music and had released only two albums, Short Stories (1974, which rose to #61), and Verities & Balderdash (1974, #4), which was a success, bolstered by the chart-topping single "Cat's in the Cradle." Prior to his success as a musician, Chapin was a documentary film maker and had directed the documentary Legendary Champions in 1968, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 (“Academy”). In addition to music and documentary filmmaking, Chapin wanted to make Long Island, New York, a place for art and learning. Toward this end, he founded the Long Island Philharmonic, the Eglevsky Ballet, and the Performing Arts Foundation. He also served as a trustee for Hofstra University. Chapin also raised funds to help end the causes of hunger in the United States and around the world. Part of this effort involved donating the proceeds from nearly one-third of his concerts and resulted in the creation of the Harry Chapin Foundation. This foundation, directed by Chapin's widow Sandra Chapin, was responsible for originally producing KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke.

Family Relationships

Much of Harry Chapin's early life was spent in New York except for the summers, which he spent visiting his grandparents in Andover. Life at the Andover farm revolved around Burke, who set the timetable and rules for everything that happened at the farm. Burke wrote in the mornings and imposed a three-hour siesta every afternoon, requiring all family members—including children—to remain quiet while he napped. According to Chapin's biographer Peter Coan, when Chapin was a child he was not particularly close to his grandfather (Coan 13-15). Chapin’s mother Elspeth Hart was Burke’s daughter. She explains that Burke “loved having family around but he was not a great 'sit up on my knee' kind of a grandfather” (Grayeb and McCarty). Part of this distance came from Burke's deep involvement in his work, as the grandchildren were often told they must be quiet while he worked and napped. Although they were not close emotionally, Chapin credited his grandfathers (both Burke and James Ormsbee Chapin, a musician and scenic painter) with inspiring many family members to work hard and believe that if you wanted to do something you could find a way to make it work. Hart describes this inspiration by saying her son grew up assuming that men could be creative and that making money is not the emphasis of creative work. "You supported your family,” she said, “but it wasn't what seems to be now the emphasis on expensive cars and all that. It was a whole different emphasis" (Grayeb and McCarty).

Throughout his life, Chapin respected Burke and desired his approval and acceptance. Because of Burke's success in the literary field, Chapin looked up to him as a model for his own artistic aspirations. Although some family members, including Burke, did not support Chapin's career choices at first, the environment of Andover allowed the budding poet and musician to converse with serious poets such as e e cummings and William Carlos Williams. Admittedly, music ran in Chapin's family. His father, famous jazz drummer Jim Chapin, provided the Chapin children with an example of success in the music industry. But it was Michael Burke, KB's son and Harry's uncle, who really got Chapin interested in folk music and the guitar (Coan 17, 41-42, 308). Following Chapin's death in 1981, Burke spoke at a 1987 Carnegie Hall Tribute event in Harry's honor.

Film Location: Andover, New Jersey

Chapin's documentary was filmed in and around Burke's home in Andover, New Jersey. As described by Chapin’s biographer, Burke owned 165 acres and had been living in some building on the property since the early 1920s. The property was a magical place for Chapin to visit as a child, complete with a big hill and valley, plenty of fields to run through, a swimming pond, and a natural clay tennis court. Elspeth Hart recalls the rustic Andover farm with almost Thoreau-like nostalgia:

“We went out every summer, and originally, it was a house without plumbing. In fact, we didn't put in plumbing until Harry made money and added a wing, and we put in a furnace and running water and all that kind of stuff. . . . It was quite simple living, but for the kids it was great because we didn't have TV or anything and they played outside. We had a lake and they went barefoot in the summer months. The only things you had to look out for were snakes and crossing the dirt road. There were all kinds of games they could play. We had a tennis court, and Harry, Tom and Steve played tennis.” (Grayeb and McCarty)

Burke lived at the farm year-round, but every summer he welcomed family members to fill the numerous houses and converted barn on the property. He hosted several famous guests at Andover, including Ralph Ellison, Alexander Calder, Malcolm Cowley, Shirley Jackson, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, and many others. While Burke's Andover home as a friendly and welcoming place, Burke’s kitchen workplace was so full of stacks of books and papers that entering it was a challenge (Whitaker and Blakesley xvii). But it was in this nexus of people and books and notes that Burke did his most productive work. As Julie Whitaker describes it, Burke worked amid the comings and goings of family members and professional acquaintances, pulling words, sentences and articles together from notes scratched on scrap pieces of paper and scattered throughout the kitchen. As the site where Burke developed many of his theories of language, his home is a fitting location for Chapin's film.

Artifacts Referenced in the Film

Throughout the film, Burke reads some of his poetry and refers to pieces of art in his home and on his property. The film begins with Burke reading "Heavy, Heavy—What Hangs Over?," a poem first published in the 1966 preface to the second edition of Burke's book Towards a Better Life. Evidently, this was a favorite poem of Burke’s to read at poetry readings in his advancing years (see his discussion of this poem in a 1970 poetry reading delivered at Washington University at St. Louis). Burke's final words in the film include the postlude from "Poems of Abandonment (to Libbie, who cleared out)," a poem he wrote for his wife Libbie after her death. In addition to these poems, Burke also reads “A Special Kind of Glass,” a humorous poem from Burke’s Collected Poems: 1915-1967 about an alcoholic’s childhood dream concerning a woman "with breasts like bunches of [glass] grapes." While reading his different poems, Burke freely laughs and weeps revealing how words exercise control over him (through rhetorical affect) even while he controls those very same words (through poetry). Burke’s personal affective relationship with the power of words seems to inform a more general claim about humans as symbol-using animals that he makes elsewhere in the documentary: “our kind of animal . . . has not only done all these marvelous things with learning symbol systems, but we get pushed around by it too in the same way. We are both in it and victimized by it at the same time.”

In addition to poetry, the film features two notable art pieces. The most significant is a framed visual representation of Burke's “Definition of Human” created by a former student. The film displays each drawn section of the definition while Burke goes through the piece, explaining each element and what he intended by including it. Burke's definition of human was a continually developing work throughout the last decades of his life. He published his definition's first iteration in The Rhetoric of Religion in 1961. He developed it further in a 1963 essay in the Hudson Review, which was reprinted in Language as Symbolic Action (mentioned above). During the discussion in the film, Burke brings up the idea of adding "acquiring foreknowledge of death" as part of the definition. The final version of his definition, as delivered in a 1989 speech at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, includes this addition among other changes (Coe 353-54).

Another art piece included in the film is a toilet paper holder created by renowned sculptor Alexander Calder, who was a frequent visitor to Burke's Andover farm. In the film Chapin jokes about the toilet paper holder because it is shaped like a hand with the middle finger sticking out to slip the toilet paper over. This toilet paper holder must have made an impression on Chapin as a child, because it is discussed by Chapin's biographer as one of his summer vacation memories (Coan 16).

Finally, the song “One Light in a Dark Valley” can be heard playing instrumentally at the beginning of the film and with full lyrics during the closing credits. Burke wrote the song before 1955, and Chapin recorded a version of it on his 1977 album Dance Band on the Titanic. Interestingly, this is the only song Chapin recorded on an album that he did not have some part in writing (Coan 368). Years later, the song would continue to connect Kenneth Burke to the hearts of the Chapin family. In 1987 for instance, Kenneth Burke spoke at the Harry Chapin Tribute concert just before The Hooters played a cover of “One Light.” Also, the evening Burke died, Steve Chapin (Harry’s younger brother) arrived at Burke’s house at about the time Burke died; after viewing his deceased grandfather in the kitchen, Steve played “One Light” on Burke’s piano in the next room (Brand and Burks 24). In the film, Tom Chapin (another of Harry’s brothers) plays both an instrumental and a sung version of the song. While this song plays during the closing credits, the film displays several uncirculated photos of Burke by himself and with family and friends. The photos date from Burke's life in the early 20th century throughout his career.

Digitizing the Documentary

Although KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke was filmed in the mid-1970s, it was not produced by the Harry Chapin Foundation and Sandra Chapin until 1992. At that point, the film had limited distribution on VHS tape. In the fall of 2007, PhD students Katharine Tanski and Maria Granic-White of Purdue University transferred the film to digital format and created an initial transcript of the film. Their digitization project was finished in the spring of 2010 by a team of Purdue PhD students who were enrolled in a digital archives seminar taught by Patricia Sullivan and Jennifer Bay. This student team, led by [name redacted], included [name redacted], Ping Qui, and Adam Pope. Their project included producing both DVD and online-compatible versions of the film, subtitling the film, and researching various people and subjects portrayed or mentioned in the film. Most significantly, this digitization project provided the disciplinary and archival groundwork for what would become the Kenneth Burke Digital Archive (KBDA).

The KBDA invites any comments or feedback on this critical introduction to Chapin’s documentary. We are especially interested in missing information about specific scenes, people, topics, and images portrayed in the film (of particular interest is any information about the series of photographs during the closing credits—when they were taken, who besides Burke do they depict, and so forth). Please email any comments or feedback to David Blakesley (david.blakesley@gmail.com).

Works Cited

“The Academy Awards Database.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 4 March 2018.

Birenbaum, Rob. “Legendary Drum Teacher Jim Chapin Dead at 89.” DRUM! (6 July 2009).

Brand, Ginny and Don M. Burks. “KB’s Last Day.” The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 9.1 (December 1993): 11, 24.

Burke, Kenneth. Collected Poems: 1915-1967. U of California P, 1968.

—. “Kenneth Burke WUSTL Reading, 4 Dec. 1970, Washington University at St. Louis.” Eds. Adam Humes and Ethan Sproat. KB Journal: The Journal of the Kenneth Burke Society 12.2 (Spring 2017).

—. Language as Symbolic Action. U of California P, 1966.

—. Towards a Better Life. U of California P, 1982.

Burks, Don M. “KB and Burke: A Remembrance.” The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 9.1 (December 1993): 1-9.

Coan, Peter M. Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story. Citadel Press, 2001.

Coe, Richard M. “Defining Rhetoric—and Us: A Meditation on Burke's Definitions.” In The Kinneavy Papers: Theory and the Study of Discourse. Eds. Lynn Worsham, Sidney Dobrin, and Gary Olson. State U of New York P, 2000. 353-67.

Cratis Williams, David. “A Burke Chronology.” The Kenneth Burke Society Newsletter 9.1 (December 1993): 10-11.

Grayeb, Mike, and Linda McCarty. “Reflections from Harry's Mom: An Interview with Elspeth Hart.” Circle! (Winter 2005). Web.

Whitaker, Julie, and David Blakesley. Kenneth Burke: Late Poems, 1968-1993. U of South Carolina P, 2005.

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