Jennifer Richards (Newcastle University - UK)

Kenneth Burke: Literary-Rhetorical Thinker

Photo of Jennifer RichardsIn this lecture I will explore how a literary-rhetorical frame of mind might equip us not simply to live but to live well with each other. I aim to explore what Burke meant by describing ‘literature’ as ‘equipment for living’ and to think about how this might also work for rhetoric. Initially, it is hard to see how his major contribution to rhetoric, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), equips us for living so difficult is its mode of argument. Burke knows but doesn't really use the terminology of the classical art. Instead he provides ‘literary’ readings. He not only uses many literary examples from across the centuries, but also weaves his way around texts, teasing out meanings that authors something intended, sometimes did not. This is not rhetorical analysis as we know it. I will want to draw out what is difficult and, apparently, impractical about A Rhetoric of Motives by comparing it with a recent attempt to revive rhetorical analysis, Sam Leith's You talkin' to me (2011), which does set out self-consciously to ‘equip’ readers with a method of rhetorical and political analysis.

I make this comparison not to show up Burke but to try to understand what was different about the use of rhetoric he had in mind. Despite the difficulty of A Rhetoric of Motives, its mode of argument does aim to equip us to live well. To help explain how, I will turn to Burke's short essay on Literature as Equipment for Living that gave this conference its title, focussing on his conception of literary writing in terms of proverbial wisdom: strategies or attitudes for different situations. There is nothing about rhetoric in this essay, but Burke's comparison of literary genres to proverbs will provide me with a starting point for thinking about rhetoric again, and the rhetoric of literary experience that might clarify Burke's own style of thinking. What Literature can give us - and what Burke certainly does in A Rhetoric of Motives - is equipment for thinking. He furnishes us with a different style of thinking in utramque partem, i.e. on different sides. This, I want to suggest, really is essential for living well.


Jennifer Richards is Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the School of English Literature, Language ands Linguistics at Newcastle University. She is the author of 'Rhetoric: The New Critical Idiom' (Routledge, 2007) and 'Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature' (Cambridge University Press, 2003; 2007). She has published articles in 'Renaissance Quarterly', 'Criticism', 'Huntington Library Quarterly' and 'The Journal of the History of Ideas'. She is currently editing Thomas Nash, with Andrew Hadfield, for Oxford University Press, and she is writing a new monograph, 'Useful Books: Reading and Talking in the English Renaissance'. This last project is supported by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, 2013-2015. She is the Editor of the journal 'Renaissance Studies'.