Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-31 
by Jack Selzer.
Wisconsin, 284 pp., £45, February 1997, 0 299 15184 0
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Like many people who came to New York City in the high-flying years of the early 20th century, Kenneth Burke approached the city as a work of art. ‘I cannot express it, it is too sweeping,’ he rhapsodised to a friend, exiled at Harvard, shortly after his arrival from Pittsburgh in 1917. He marvelled at the skies: ‘Oh, oh! if I ever can express those things with words.’ Such pleasure had only recently become available. Twenty, even ten years earlier, the city still appeared both to residents and tourists a grubby, dingy place, the towering verticals and endless horizontals of the grid plan emblems of a new age cross-hatched with ugliness and foreboding.

But Burke, along with other exiles and refugees from provincial America or wartorn Europe, was the beneficiary of the new apprehension of New York as a gorgeously set stage for the modern self. Only the previous year, a French refugee painter had pronounced the city the capital of the modern world – quite a judgment coming from a Parisian. The idea of New York as a city of lyrical modernity, a running metropolitan romance, was in large measure the invention of artists and intellectuals who began to gather in downtown Greenwich Village around 1912. It was Greenwich Village that drew Kenneth Burke. There, Jack Selzer argues, he found the materials and the employment over the next fifteen years to establish himself as one of America’s most original and provocative literary critics.

Burke never graduated from college; he held no formal post in the academy. He was one of a generation of critics – Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley were his contemporaries – who subsisted outside formal institutions of learning and cultural patronage by piecing together journalism, editorial work and freelance writing. Burke is not generally remembered as a New York intellectual, because during the Depression he moved to a farm in Andover, New Jersey and initiated a fifty-year career as a brilliant rustic. As book after book of stunningly learned and searching work issued from rural New Jersey, Burke the one-time Villager became the literary old man of the woods or, as Selzer describes him, the Strangely Inspired Hermit of Andover.

Like many hermits, Burke had found the resources for his later seclusion in years of hectic sociability, in his case, in Greenwich Village. And although Selzer doesn’t say so, it is certainly the case that nowhere else in the country – perhaps in the world – could a young American of modest provincial origins find a better place to realise grand intellectual ambitions than in a city where the uptown old guard, compromised by their last-ditch defence of moribund Victorian literary values, was buckling from the assault of the Modernist Young Turks downtown. ‘I shall get a room in New York,’ Burke declared in 1918 when he dropped out of Columbia University, ‘and begin my existence as a Flaubert ... I don’t want to be a virtuoso, I want to be a – a – oh hell, why not? I want to be a – yes – a genius.’

Greenwich Village was full of young men determined to be geniuses – young women, too. The times bred an immensely hopeful vision of the ‘new’ in literature, politics and the relations between the sexes – a hopefulness not yet blighted by the war raging in Europe. Aspiring geniuses were not dying in the trenches, nor were they starving in garrets: apartments were still cheap in the Village and work was easy to find (even though for a time Burke lived on oatmeal and milk). The radical intelligentsia spilled over into the realm of commerce, taking advantage of a booming literary market in the many little magazines produced in the Village and in access to ‘new’ book and magazine publishers. Freelance advances, fees for articles and work in editorial offices provided rent and grocery money for self-styled Flauberts.

Early Modernist New York was a writer’s, not a painter’s, world. The city was only beginning to be preoccupied with visual spectacle rather than print, and remained a place where newspapers, magazines and books – not art – remained the chief forms of entertainment and obsession, especially in the Village. Extended epistolary exchanges over French Symbolism and feuds over the aesthetic merits of literary nationalism pepper Selzer’s account. ‘Words, words, mountains of words,’ Burke reflected, in what is a characterisation of his own agenda and a description of the social life around him. ‘If I can do that I am saved.’

As soon as he came to the Village, Burke began to add his own pile of words to the mountains. There is little of interest in his early poetry and short fiction, but Selzer shows the literary veins which a young genius thought he could mine with good results. Burke’s first productions were vers libre, the aesthetic form of choice for Greenwich Villagers for whom writing poetry in the new manner signalled a revolt against gentility in art and stultifying Victorian versifying. Some of this vast body of poetry was superb (William Carlos Williams), most of it mediocre and some of it dreadful. Burke’s verse hovers around the middle of the spectrum, the best of it plain-spoken and terse in the American idiom which Williams was perfecting, the worst allusive in the manner of warmed-over French Symbolism. The short stories employ familiar late 19th and early 20th-century themes – the vagaries of sensitive young men whose passions distance them from a materialistic society – but strive to shed the trappings of conventional narrative logic, as Woolf and Joyce were beginning to do. Burke was very much a man of the Twenties in the way he thought of narrative as suspect and slightly low, a pabulum for lesser minds. But unlike Joyce and Woolf, who were extraordinarily sensuous, Burke remained a cerebral writer whose fiction served to work out intellectual and philosophical problems of form. He was interested in equivalents – between life and art, between writing and other arts – and in his short fiction aimed for a cognitive arrangement of ‘relationships between parts’ that he believed existed in a piece of modern music or on a Cubist canvas.

Burke’s success in publishing in the highest of the high Village magazines drew him into the inner circles. Modernism had stepped up the pace of cultural renewal and succession. The youthful generation who had come into their own in downtown New York around 1912 – the left-wing radicals who clustered around the Masses and Mabel Dodge Luhan’s bohemian salon – were by the early Twenties the old fogeys. Burke’s friend Malcolm Cowley observed nastily that after the war, ‘the Village was full of former people’ – former trade unionists, former feminists, former labour leaders, former anarchists – who endlessly reminisced ‘about the good old days of 1916’. Cowley’s essay of 1921, ‘This Youngest Generation’, was a declaration of independence from the generation who had marched under the banner of ‘youth’ less than a decade before. According to the emerging rules of Modernist culture, the new generation, the youth of the moment, had the right – indeed, the duty – to sweep the place clean and re-invent it. Burke was present at this changing of the guard and benefited from his placement on the new cutting edge: he was political, but not too political, and he was immersed in the latest aesthetic discussions from Europe.

The high-water mark of his time in the Village was the period from 1922 until 1926 when he worked as managing editor at the Dial, the chief organ of literary high Modernism in the United States. He quickly made himself indispensable at the magazine by ‘doing just about everything and doing it well’ from proof-reading, page-design and paste-up to book reviews. One of his first jobs was setting The Waste Land in type for the poem’s first American appearance. Selzer is enchanted – perhaps rightly so – with the brilliance of the journal’s contents and much of his account of the Dial consists of long, dense and loving lists of the authors and articles published and reviewed under Burke’s aegis. These compendia may strain one’s attention, but it is certainly worth pausing to consider one or two of them and reflect on the nature of a creative moment – and a publishing enterprise – which, within the space of a few years, commissioned Ezra Pound’s letters from Paris and Thomas Mann’s from Vienna, ran an excerpt from Mrs Dalloway and the first English translation (by Burke) of Death in Venice; published The Waste Land, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’; and reviewed Ulysses, Marianne Moore (by T.S. Eliot), Charlie Chaplin, Gertrude Stein, Pirandello, Hemingway and Al Jolson. Just about the only body of avant-garde work that was missing was that of the Russians, from whom the Dial shied away because of the editors’ cautious politics. Through the Dial, Selzer concludes, ‘Kenneth Burke became one of the best informed students and practitioners of Modernist art in the world. This is no exaggeration,’ Selzer insists. I agree.

The ‘old’ Greenwich Village had been committed to the fusion of art and politics, both socialist and feminist. Women in literary life had benefited greatly from the attempt to meld a new art and a new ‘life’; the New Woman, the feminist Freewoman, was a paradigm of Modernism in the years before 1920. In the Bloomsbury manner, the early generation saw the inclusion of women as equal partners in conversation and art as crucial to new, reconstituted communities free of the divisions of sex and class which structured Victorian culture. Women writers and editors were prominent in all the ‘original’ Village literary and intellectual institutions: indeed what was emancipated and shocking about Greenwich Village after 1910 was in no small measure the militant feminism that pervaded it.

The relative decline of the New Woman after this initial flurry of sexual egalitarianism is a peculiar and puzzling feature of American Modernism. By the time Burke came of age, ambitious women were relegated to the supporting cast. To be sure, he worked for a time with Marianne Moore and he reviewed Virginia Woolf, but there was no group of women, like those of the earlier Modernist milieu, holding their own in the decidedly masculine world of the Twenties, where young men bellowed at each other about fine points in Gourmont and young women cleaned up. There was no American manifesto of modern masculinity comparable to Wyndham Lewis’s screed for Vorticism and no misogynist ranting comparable to Pound’s. Nevertheless, the late-night drinking and fisticuffs at editorial meetings evoke a determined, if unconscious, effort to reinscribe ‘the artist’ within a proper fraternity. The early Village circles had formed around writer and artist couples, spouses and lovers who were committed, in theory, to sharing work and love. Burke’s friends retained a few of the older Village’s habits of free love – adultery and serial love affairs were à la mode – but the feminism that had once attended bohemian sexuality seemed now to be drearily ideological and passé. The New Women of the Twenties were one-time high-rollers who settled down to lives as bohemian housewives, intellectually engagée companions and housekeepers to the men of genius, observers and interlocutors, rather than principals and participants of editorial controversies.

In 1918 Burke had the good fortune to marry the spirited and seemingly unflappable Lily Batterham, a woman willing to forgo the bourgeois comforts of marriage for an insouciance resolutely gleaned from penury. Selzer is not a biographer, so he says little about Lily Burke except that she came from western North Carolina, where she acquired some knowledge of camping and rural life. Yet her good nature and skills in making do contributed as much to Kenneth’s situation as a Modernist ‘agro-bohemian’ as the editorial relationships which Selzer chronicles. Once their two baby girls arrived, the Burkes’ marriage turned into an extended camping trip each summer, when the combination of low finances and the New York heat sent the family packing to various retreats. These were not the idyllic cottages of well-heeled writers but shacks out in the woods where the family subsisted on berry-picking, fishing, hunting rabbits and gardening. In 1922 the couple purchased their farm in Andover; Kenneth began to try on the mantle of the rustic writer, still commuting back and forth from New York, and Lily kept things going on the farm. What’s interesting is not so much the structure of the marriage – since Sonia Tolstoy, smart women had taken pride in burying themselves in rural retreats better to serve male genius – but how different this wifely role, swamped in domesticity, was from that of the previous generation of Greenwich Village women, with their determination to be in the thick of things.

Burke remained very much engaged with the broader political interests of writers and critics who belonged to the earlier generation. As he came into his own, he tried to find a third path between what can be characterised roughly as art for art’s sake and art for politics’ sake, between the aestheticism that was seizing the high ground of the Modernist movement and the didactic and ideological imperatives which increasingly dominated writers who remained on the left. Selzer, like other recent critics, is not interested in identifying Modernism as a fixed body of principles but in tracing a range of Modernist thought and initiative. Burke took exception to the proposition of his friend Allen Tate, as Tate moved towards what would become the stringently formalist New Criticism, that ‘high literature ... is not written for the specific purpose of moving anybody.’ At the same time, he eschewed the instrumentalist view of art harped on by the Communist-dominated Left and summed up in the dictum of the American Marxist Granville Hicks that ‘literature should make people go out and do some specific thing.’ In a firmly whimsical manner, Burke refused to remake his imagined literary sphere either as a place denuded of readers (not to speak of writers) or one in which writers became political partisans and readers their intended recruits.

Burke’s eccentric, non-programmatic interests had historical roots. ‘The artist does not run counter to his age; rather, he refines the propensities of his age, formulating their aesthetic equivalent,’ he observed in 1925. The interest in equivalents had begun among Village writers before the Twenties, as part of their search for forms which corresponded to the democratic life they believed was flourishing around them. Burke was still able to articulate, in incomparably more refined and precise language, the search for equivalents between art and ‘life’ that had, for other Twenties intellectuals, splintered into opposing camps. In so doing, he was able to retain a profound notion of the social value of art and at the same time to preserve the keen sense of formal elements generally associated with New Criticism.

In his first collection of critical essays, Counter-Statement (1931), he advanced a moral and civic notion of art as an emancipator, while remaining alert to the aesthetic particularities of the text ‘Form,’ he declared, ‘is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.’ Literature was liberating inasmuch as it encouraged people to act in and on the world. Yet the formal properties of language were intrinsic to the kinds of action literature encouraged. Burke turned away from the Marxist emphasis on the ability of art to embody ideas and focused instead on the persuasive capabilities of language as mediated through specific forms, the kinds of action proposed – or constituted – by the literary text.

Selzer’s analyses of Burke’s many-layered writings are a pleasure. Because he was such a complicated thinker, there’s some to-ing and fro-ing in the account but Selzer avoids any temptation to reduce him to one set of positions or another. Selzer’s Burke is a jumpy man, averse to categorisation: just when he seems to settle down into an American neo-pragmatist niche, he reverts to a high Modernist fascination with those standard-bearers of art for art’s sake, the French Symbolists. We find him slipping this way and that in the literary wars which raged around him, always retaining a stubborn aversion to the great systematisers whose work he encountered.

Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village is about the rich life of a metropolitan mind. Burke never travelled in Europe – he was very much a home boy – but he drew from the city and time in which he lived a marvellous repertoire of ideas and passions which drifted in from across the Atlantic. Selzer ends his book abruptly in 1932, with the publication of Burke’s Modernist novel, Towards a Better Life. ‘From there on,’ Selzer concludes with disarming modesty, ‘he would be going on to The Next Phase, as Burke liked to say, to new problems and intellectual circles and sets.’ Selzer’s distrust of the final pronunciamento echoes Burke’s own aversion to closure and is just the right ending for this paean to a Modernist forever on the move beyond certainty to a new range of questions.

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