The Strangely Inspired Hermit of Andover

Christine Stansell

  • Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-31 by Jack Selzer
    Wisconsin, 284 pp, £45.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 299 15184 0

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.

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