What Happened at the First American Writers Congress? Kenneth Burkes "Revolutionary Symbolism in America"
Everyone has heard the story by now of the first American Writers' Congress, held at the Mecca Temple and the New School for Social Research in New York City from April 26-28, 1935. The Congress was attended by 216 of the most politically engaged literary figures in America (people like Granville Hicks, Isidor Schneider, Corless Lamont, Waldo Frank, Horace Gregory, Richard Wright, Robert Cantwell, Genevieve Taggard, Josephine Herbst, Malcolm Cowley, Mike Gold, Tillie Lerner [Olson], James T. Farrell) and many others from Europe and Latin America (e.g., Louis Aragon, Andre Gide, Andre Malraux, Emilio Enricos, and Ford Madox Ford). Sixty-four of the writers were from 24 states other than New York. Thirty six were women, and 21 were African American. Langston Hughes was unable to attend but sent a paper that was read at the opening sesssion (New Masses, May 7, 1935, 7). Frank Lentricchia has recounted the basic story of the Congress (though Lentricchia places it at Madison Square Garden): One manifestation of that flowering of the arts, entertainment, and political thought known as the Cultural Front, the meeting was called, Lentricchia notes, to extend the reach of the John Reed Clubs by helping radical writers to band together in the cause of the destruction of decaying capitalism and the establishment of a workers' government (21).
One of the speakers at the meeting was Kenneth Burke. Burkes famous "Revolutionary Symbolism in America," presented on the morning of Saturday, April 27, examined in hardheaded, pragmatic terms the semiotics then associated with the revolutionary movement in the United States, the "myths" and "symbols" around which the left was seeking to create "areas of allegiance"particularly the terms "the masses" and "the worker." "Considering the matter purely from the standpoint of propaganda," taking into account the demagogic "procedures of men like Huey Long and Father Coughlin," and borrowing explicitly from the logic of advertising men, sales organizations, and Hollywood, Burke urged the substitution of the term "the people" for "the masses" and for "the workers" because it seemed to him closer to American values. A term like "the worker" tended to exclude the very elements that Communist propaganda hoped to recruit whereas for Burke "the symbol of 'the people'" contained "connotations both of oppression and of unity": "In suggesting that the people, rather than the worker, rate highest in our hierarchy of symbols, I suppose I am suggesting fundamentally that one cannot extend the doctrine of revolutionary thought among the lower middle class without using middle-class values." In keeping with the general tenor of the Congress, Burke's talk attended broadly to the writer's relation to society; by using the key word "propaganda" even with reference to high brow or avant garde "literature," Burke constructed literature (and especially proletarian literature) as a form of propaganda that was in dialogue not only with the converted leftists but with the still unconvinced. Moreover, Burke was also in the process of arguing strenuously for a less-than-narrow view of what might constitute proletarian literature:
The acceptance of the people as the basic symbol also has the great virtue that it makes for less likelihood of schematization on the part of our writers. So far at least, the proletarian novel has been oversimplified. . . . The symbol of the people should make for greater breadth in a writers allegiance. By informing his work mainly from the standpoint of his positive symbol, he would come to see, I believe, that a poet does not sufficiently glorify his political cause by pictures of suffering and revolt. Rather, a poet makes his soundest contribution in this wise: He shows himself alive to all the aspects of contemporary effort and thought. . . . The complete propagandist, it seems to me, would take an interest in as many imaginative, aesthetic, and speculative fields as he can handle. . . . The writers best contribution to the revolutionary cause is implicit. If he shows a keen interest in every manifestation of our cultural development, and at the same time gives a clear indication as to where his sympathies lie, this seems to me the most effective long-pull contribution to propaganda he can make. . . . I am suggesting that an approach based on the positive symbol of the people, rather than upon the negative symbol of the worker, makes more naturally for this kind of identification whereby ones political alignment is fused with broader cultural elements.
Lentricchia builds his discussion of Burkes speech in rather sensational fashion, in keeping with legends of Burkes marginalization: his version emphasizes how reaction to the talk was so hostile that Joseph Freeman, one of the conference organizers, was moved to shout, "we have a traitor among us!" and that someone else explicitly linked Burke's thought to Hitler's; and he repeats the oft told story of how Burke reacted to those responses to his speech by having hallucinations of "excrement . . . dripping from [his] tongue" and of his name being shouted as "a kind of charge" against him, "a dirty word"--"Burke!" (Yagoda).
Why was the reaction to Burke's address so negative? Lentricchia offered his own explanations, based on his meticulous and powerful reading of the speech and his own formidable knowledge of leftist texts and contexts. He speculates, with reason, that Burke must have been vilified for a series of ideological deviances: To use a phrase like "revolutionary symbolism" was "to confuse mere superstructural effect with the directive . . . motor principle of revolution." To add the phrase "in America" was to put on blinders of nationalism that tended to hide the historical inevitability of revolution, to imply that the United States was somehow exempt from the Marxist scenario of class conflict and revolution. To offer "the people" in place of "the worker" was to employ naively the rhetorical methods of Hitler (who was appealing analogously to "the folk"). To critique Marxist dogma in any way was to part with the pure Marxism of the true believers there gathered and to promote a "deviant" Marxism attentive not to theory but to the practical implications of ideology within culture. To offer only a general critique of capitalist culture was to shift attention away from the proper focus of Marxist attention, economics. And to recommend that the left might appropriate, even speak through, some of capitalism's key mechanisms of repression--to claim that the socialist cause in America could triumph only if it could infiltrate the powerful language of liberty so central to American ideology--was to recommend heresy. Burke, according to Lentricchia, "was asking his radical auditors to resist thinking of social doctrine as separable from its medium of dissemination," was "telling them that right social action, for a literary intellectual, was preeminently a literary act because it was grounded in . . . the rhetorical textures . . . and structures of discourse." Burkes listeners had trouble making an integral connection between radical social vision and literary discourse: they could not accept his insistence that the literary is always a form of social action, could not appreciate that the proletarian novel was an indulgence because, while it was applauded by the already convinced, it was also unread by the working class, alienating to the unconvinced, and hence risked no real dialogue with non-Marxists (22-28). And so the Congress, concludes Lentricchia, was hostile in its response to Burke: "We can see Burkes participation . . . [as] an intellectual theatre, with Burke enacting the fathers role of historical materialist and his hostile respondents playing the parts of purists, sons anxious to purge . . . all fascist misappropriations of the masters word" (23). Within Lentricchias theatre, Burke played the role of the righteous soul in a morality play, beset by an audience of mean-spirited and single-minded antagonists.
But the complete story of the speech, its claims and circumstances, and reactions to it is, to quote Burke himself from another context, "more complicated than that," particularly because Lentricchia was reading Burke--naturally enough--against his own project in Criticism and Social Change (wherein Burke is something of a stand-in for Gramsci) and was interpreting it under the influence of Burkes later selective recollection of its circumstances. But when the Congress and Burkes role in it are measured against other contemporary and not so contemporary accounts of the event, including those in Burke's unpublished manuscripts and in other archives of the American left, it is possible to flesh out the episode and the speech more fully, and to understand Burkes position as less marginal though not less controversial.
What exactly was the Writers' Congress all about? And what was Kenneth Burke's role in it? First, the Congress was not in fact an effort to extend the influence and agenda of the John Reed Clubs, although the Congress was indeed developed by many of the members of the John Reed Club of New York, founders of Partisan Review. John Reed Clubs had been established in the first years of the Great Depression in New York and other cities to develop a cadre of revolutionary artists who would have the power to promote a proletarian revolution. Loosely but intimately tied to the American Communist Party, founded by the editors of The New Masses in the same month that the stock market crashed, modeled after Soviet cultural organizations like the Proletarian Artists and Writers League, and sporting the motto "Art Is a Class Weapon," John Reed Clubs discovered and encouraged young artists and writers, exposed those young writers to industrial settings to add to the authenticity of their proletarian writing, organized and promoted art exhibits, supported avowedly leftist little magazines, and held dances, concerts, and shows to enhance proletarian appreciation for art even as that art moved the masses toward revolution. In other words, as Malcolm Cowley succinctly summarized, John Reed Clubs were organized "to clarify the principles and purposes of revolutionary art and literature, to propagate them, and to practice them" (Dream 135-36). There were JRC classes and lectures on poetry, fiction, Marxism, and many other topics. Kenneth Burke in fact participated in the John Reed Club of New York, spoke formally before the group on several occasions (Dupee to Burke, November 28, 1931; Rahv to Burke, December 26, 1933. Burke Papers), and offered a course on "English Prose" under its auspices--his first formal effort at teaching. In 1934 club membership expanded greatly both in New York and elsewhere. As the Depression hardened, novices were joining JRCs in droves, attracted by the prospect of publishing their work in Partisan Review or New Masses or The Hammer or Left Front or Dynamo or Anvil or Blast or Red Spark or one of the many other leftist magazines that were springing up, and active chapters were becoming well established in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and a great many other citieseven unlikely ones such as Oklahoma City and Davenport. By the end of 1934 there were at least 1200 members in thirty clubs across America (Klehr 350; Homberger 129). In September of 1934, representatives of the John Reed Clubs met in Chicago to assess their considerable progress and chart their future.
But even as the John Reed Clubs were prospering, they were also being put out of business as a result of larger world events. A November, 1930 conference in Kharkov, Russia, an effort by the Communist Party to formulate a unified program for revolutionary culture, had already directed John Reed Clubs and similar groups to be somewhat more inclusive--to include Negroes and workers (as opposed to just the intellectuals), to increase contacts with other socialist groups, to recruit new writers (Aaron 223; Schwartz 42-45; Homberger 136-38; Cowley, Dream 136). Then Stalin and his allies in the face of the very real threat being posed by Hitler in 1934-1935 moved toward the formation of a United Front or People's Front or Popular Front (the precise term depending on your translation), an effort at a still broader, more inclusive and powerful leftist membership capable of aligning with other socialist and workers groups ("Thirty Years Later" 498). It was Stalin's wish to counter the strength of the increasingly intimidating right by establishing international ties--alliances with every kind of Western left. Instead of emphasizing strict orthodoxy, instead of persisting further in his increasingly notorious policy of exclusion and expulsion, Stalin now out of necessity was encouraging a policy of relative openness and toleration. Hence, it was decided in September, 1934, at the urging of Alexander Trachtenberg (the leader of the Communist Partys American publishing house), that the John Reed Clubs were to be dissolved in 1934-35 and replaced by an organization that would come to be known as the League of American Writers. As John Chamberlain explained in Saturday Review on May 11, 1935, "since last autumn . . . the literary line has changed; the threat of war and reaction has had its effect. Exposed on the extreme Left, the communists, and the writers sympathetic to communism, have seen the need of making common cause against the forces of reaction with all who more or less agree with them" ("Literary Left" 3).
In fact, the Writers Congress was actually the occasion for forming the League of American Writers (as the official Call for the Congress made clear); the LAW was formally instituted at the final session of the Congress as a broadly based "united front manoeuvre, with only fascists and 'out and out' reactionaries excluded. Membership in it [did] not imply acceptance of the Communist political position" (Chamberlain, "First" 4), though Communists and fellow travelers of course dominated. The LAW and the Congress even officially muted their criticisms of FDR, as the proceedings make clear: "I think the Communist Party had reached the point of being neutral on the New Deal but dead against Fascism," noted Granville Hicks. "It was on those grounds that the Congress stood ("Thirty Years Later" 504). May Day observances two days after the Congress were literally to the tune of the United Front, reported New Masses on April 30, calling attention to "the excellent song United Front by J. Fairbanks just published in the Workers Song Book, Number 2" (30). The first American Writers' Congress, then, was something of an olive branch (Wess 57), an effort not so much at John-Reed-Club-style solidarity but at reaching out to a broader range of writers--particularly established writers, not the new finds of the John Reed Clubsand recruiting them to the proletarian cause. The invitation to speak to Burke was a part of that olive branch, given Burke's critical stance toward the Party in his Auscultation, Creation, and Revision (though it remained unpublished until much later), and in Permanence and Change itself, which had recently been published and which recommended a "poetic" orientation as a gentle leaven to the hard-core Marxist interpretive slant. And so the content and thesis of Burke's speech were constrained by the occasion: in it Burke was simply suggesting strategies for reaching out that were in moderate keeping with the official theme of the Congress and that anticipated the Cominterns official declaration of the Peoples Front strategy two months later. A historian of the Communist Party of the United States remembers the Congress as an opportunity to show that "cultural activities should be less sectarian, and that sympathetic writers should not be confronted with either joining the party or perceived as a outcasts." When, in January, 1935, Granville Hicks drafted for The New Masses and Partisan Review an "official call for an American Writers' Congress" that invited "all writers who have achieved some standing in their respective fields [and] who have clearly indicated their sympathy to the revolutionary cause" to gather for the event, Kenneth Burke was an appropriate signer.
But of course maintaining a consensus about this official mission for the Congress wasnt easy, especially given the infighting characteristic of American intellectual leftists in New York. Not without reason did the April 1935, issue of Vanity Fair poke fun at members of the radical left for being "proverbial for their marplot mischief" and "incapable of cooperating with any other radical at any time" (Franklin). And not without reason did the New Yorker that April publish a cartoon that capitalized on the ideological divisions among those who attended the Writers Congress. Many of the writers at the Congress in fact felt betrayed by the decision to dissolve the John Reed Clubs in favor of the League of American Writers, to reach for a broader constituency (Kutulas 90). Cowley reported that radical writers from the bottom of the social spectrum, those originally recruited by the John Reed Clubs, were especially alienated by the Popular Front policy ("Thirty Years Later" 512-13), a perspective that is supported by Richard Wrights bitter reminiscence in The God That Failed. Trotskyites were opposing the Peoples Front on the grounds that it obscured the class issue, and many sectarian younger and old guard leftists alike wanted to maintain the resolutely avant garde, politically committed nature of the John Reed Clubs. When hardcore leftist critics of the party leadership (e.g., Max Eastman, Edmund Wilson, V. F. Calverton, Sidney Hook) were subsequently excluded from the list of those invited, their allies objected loudly. For their part, Mike Gold, Joseph Freeman, and other Communist Party hardliners explicitly and bitterly protested the moderation of the planned proceedings and argued strenuously in their talks that that artists should portray without compromise or exception the lives of workers so that workers would be inspired to protest and revolt. "The proletarian novel has got to be . . . a novel that deals with the working class," noted Martin Russak. "In the working class we have a distinct kind of human being" (Hart 165). Novelist Jack Conroy agreed. In an uncompromising paper delivered just after Burkes, "The Worker As Writer," Conroy (lately the editor of Anvil and author of The Disinherited, one of the most acclaimed proletarian novels) countered the broad and forgiving definition of proletarian writing favored in Burkes speech: "the works of too many contemporary writers are imbued with a false conception of working class life and what really matters to the worker. . . . As Michael Gold has pointed out [in his opening address at the Congress], American proletarian fiction must of necessity deal with prophesy, with hopes, with the decay of society and the manifestations of such decay in the lives of people" (Hart 84). The poet Robert Gessner agreed: "The proletarian poet has not been sufficiently revolutionary. . . . Workers have appeared at this Congress and asked us to come and see them as they actually are. . . . One thing that keeps revolutionary writers from doing so is the fear that their technique would be lost. Leave your technique on the fence. It will come trotting after you with its tail between its legs" (Hart 177-78).
Some less established but firmly committed writers attending the Congress, like Wright, were put off by what they interpreted as respectable, almost polite proceedings. In any event, according to Cowley, "the effect on the younger writers was to alienate them from the Communist party. Some of them became Trotskyites, some became independent radicals, and some sheared off from the movement entirely. There was a new war between literary generations that started at this first American Writers' Congress" ("Thirty Years" 513). In short, then, the Congress occurred at a moment of heated debate within the left that evinced its broad strength and appealand yet that proved disastrous in creating unity. Some (like Gold, Conroy, and Freeman) wanted to retain ideological purity and intellectual heft even at the expense of pragmatic ends, while others, less devoted to the Communist Party and more committed to the Peoples Front (including Burke, Edmund Seaver, and Matthew Josephson) were adopting a more outward-looking, pragmatic stance. The controversy in and about the John Reed Clubs and the American Writers Congress, then, is a representative anecdote that stands for the larger discussion about revolutionary culture that was going on outside Club and Congress meeting rooms; as such, it is a vehicle for marking some important positions and personalities in the conversation around Kenneth Burke. What becomes obvious from a study of this conversation is that not only were writers on the left anything but monolithic in their views in 1935--that is no doubt one reason why post mortem summaries of the event differ so much in their accounts--but that each point on the spectrum within the leftist position itself represented and recommended a complex and uneasy (and often unstable) negotiation between politics and aesthetics. Response to Burke's speech, therefore, was bound to be conflicted no matter what he said. And so resistance he got.
That resistance was intensified by Burke's history with his colleagues who were gathered at the Congress. Burke's uneasy affiliation with the left in the years before 1935 is easy enough to document. It is apparent as early as Counter-Statement, a 1931 book that (as one of us has indicated elsewhere) is deeply conflicted over the claims of the aesthetic versus the claims of the social in art. It's also apparent in the response to Counter-Statement: late in 1931, for example, Granville Hicks (speaking for many others) reviewed Counter-Statement as the work of an aesthete more interested in technique than in social criticism, and Burke and Hicks traded counter-blasts on the issue of Burke's social relevance throughout 1932. Its apparent in Burkes 1932 novel Towards a Better Lifeas stylized, artistically experimental, and aestheticized a piece of fiction as anyone could find, and something of an antithesis to the proletarian novel according to just about everyone except Burke. Auscultation, Creation, and Revision is another record of Burke's uneasy negotiation between the political left and the aesthetic right, and documents in Burkes personal archives make clear that in August of 1932, Burke was asked to sign a petition supporting the nomination of William Z. Foster and James W. Ford, the Communist candidates for President and Vice-President--but that he decided not to do so even though the most famous leftist writers were already aboard (e.g., Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Langston Hughes, Waldo Frank, Edmund Wilson, Countee Cullen, and Erskine Caldwell) and even though some of his best literary friends also signed and urged him to join them (e.g., Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, Slater Brown). Ever independent and capable of containing contraries, Burke could not help critiquing Marx almost as much as he was criticizing capitalist formulations, and his Permanence and Change (published right before the Congress), in its appropriation of Thorstein Veblen and its support for the same "poetic orientation" that is summoned in its own way in "Revolutionary Symbolism in America," shows his independence from doctrinaire Marxism. The first editions of Permanence and Change and Attitudes toward History do indeed pitch Communism, as Norman Guterman proclaimed in his April 16 review of Permanence and Change ("he advocates the practical action of Communism in the most noble and eloquent language"), but more at the level of culture than economics, and never uncritically. "Marxism does provide some necessary admonitions as to our faulty institutions," Burke wrote to Matthew Josephson on September 11 1935 (Josephson Papers), "but as I understand it, it is exactly 180 degrees short of being a completely rounded philosophy of human motivation"; that is, for Burke, economics could not explain all of culture. Finally, Burke's own early report of the first American Writers' Congress in The Nation is notable (as Robert Wess has also indicated) for showing the subtle contours of Burke's relationship with Communism.
Burke's position at the Writers Congress, then, was actually more moderate than Lentricchia implies, and it was probably this moderation in Counter-Statement, Towards a Better Life, Auscultation, and Permanence and Change that made some people angry with Burke, not any especially radical particulars of "Revolutionary Symbolism in America." In pleading for a broader definition of what might count as proletarian literature and as propaganda, in siding with Seaver and Schneider on that Saturday morning stage, Burke was indeed independent and moderate in a way that Freeman, Conroy, Gellner, and some others could not appreciate; John Chamberlain therefore blamed Burke for "pluralism" and "revolutionary free-willism" ("Literary Left" 17). Speaking pointedly against "a certain anti-intellectualist, semi-obscurantist trend among some in the strictly proletarian school" and admitting his membership in his own class, "the petty bourgeoise" (as opposed to the working class), Burke argued that writers who "focus all their imaginative range within this orbit [of] . . . strikes, lockouts, unemployment, unsavory working conditions, organized resistance to the police, etc., . . . must produce an oversimplified and impoverished art, which would defeat its own purposes, failing even as propaganda since it did not invigorate audiences. . . . One cannot extend the doctrine of revolutionary thought among the lower middle class without using middle-class values." In constructively criticizing the rhetorical tactics of the Communists, Burke was actually in close keeping with the policies of the Popular Front: "I believe the symbol of the people makes more naturally for propaganda by inclusion than does the strictly proletarian symbol [of the worker], . . . which makes naturally for a propaganda by exclusion, a tendency to eliminate from ones work all that does not deal specifically with the realities of the workers oppressionand which, by my thesis, cannot for this reason engage even the full allegiance of the workers themselves." And he was beginning to develop this point about inclusion and exclusion into his well known, more general promotion of identification as a "master term" of rhetoric: significantly, the term identification appears prominently in the speech, toward the end of the long passage that we quoted early in this essay.
In arguing thus Burke was clearly also in keeping with the sentiments of several other speakers at the conference. John Dos Passos, for example, like Burke was resisting the dualistic thinking that considered all bourgeois writing as falsification and all expressions of working class life as truth. His paper, "The Writer As Technician," not only defended aesthetic achievement and artistic originality, but resoundingly defended artistic individuality and freedom: "A writer must never, no matter how much he is carried away by even the noblest political partisanship in the fight for social justice, allow himself to forget that his real political aim . . . is liberty. . . . A writer can be a propagandist in the most limited sense of the word, or use his abilities for partisan invective or personal vituperation, but the living material out of which his work is built must be what used to be called the humanities: the need for clean truth and sharply whittled exactitudes." Waldo Frank's talk bore out his belief that socialism was primarily a cultural or "human" matter and only secondarily an economic one. While conceding resolutely that "the revolutionary worker [today] must not be a fellow traveler [but one whose] art must be coordinate with, not subordinate to, the political-economic aspects of the re-creation of mankind," Frank nevertheless also emphasized that "the term proletarian . . . should be a qualitative, not quantitative, term. A story of middle-class or intellectual life, or even of mythological figures, if it is alight with revolutionary vision, is more effective proletarian art . . . than a shelf-full of dull novels about stereotypical workers" (Hart 71-76). Matthew Josephsons Congress report on the "Role of the Writer in the Soviet Union," a role that he had witnessed firsthand during his visit to the U.S.S.R. a year before, touched only tangentially on the situation of the American writer, but in a resolute presentation just before the Congress he expressed frank disapproval of narrow orthodoxy in criticism: "I believe that the political duties of writers can be . . . broad enough to embrace people of various persuasions. Carl Browder's speech at the general session opening the Congress offered the same message of conciliation to the assembled writers: "The great majority of this Congress, being unaffiliated to the Communist Party, are interested in what it has to say because all recognize the necessity of establishing cooperative working relations, a united front. . . . We don't want to take good writers and make bad strike leaders out of them," he summarized (Hart 68). The Congress was far from revolutionary; it was out to make friends--and Burke's remarks were in keeping with that goal, especially in recommending the appropriation, even speaking through, some of capitalism's key mechanisms of repression and mythmakingHollywood and Madison Avenue.
Actually, the response to Burke's speech was very probably not all that hostile. We do not wish to understate the effects of the criticism that Burke did receive, for it was a palpable hit that he felt for years. But Burke in his retrospective account in 1965 ("Thirty Years Later") acknowledged that his audience actually reacted warmly to his speech, with applause and encouragement. (Characteristically, his talk exceeded the time limit prescribed, but he was permitted to finish by popular acclaim.) He wasn't drummed out of the community, as Sidney Hook had been two years earlier for other remarks critical of the Communist Party. Indeed, Burke was one of seventeen people elected to the League's executive committee two days after his speech, and Burke himself in his commentary in "Thirty Years After" describes his election to the executive committee as a reconciliation of sorts with Hicks and others with whom he had been feuding. Josephson, Cowley, Gregory, James T. Farrell, and Clinton Simpson (of Anvil magazine) responded favorably to Burke's words at the time (as is visible in their letters) and in succeeding years; and others emphasize the tolerance for critical talk at the Congress. Burke's own contemporary summary of the Congress in the May, 1935 Nation was anything but the record of an angry alien: the article is most respectful of the Communists who organized the meeting ("divergencies merged into unity"), it dismisses criticisms of his talk in good humored, mock heroic terms ("[Burkes speech] called down on him the wrath of the partys most demonic orators"), and it interprets the Congress as generally friendly to his own general intellectual agenda ("every one of [the delegates] exemplif[ied] the philosophic mind"). And Burkes later, 1965 account and the one Lentricchia depended on (Yagoda) were nourished by Burkes own tendency, inherited from his membership in modernist artistic circles, to understand himself as part of the marginalized literary avant garde as well as by events that took place after the Congress, including ideological tussles over Stalinism in the late 1930s, Burkes comparative withdrawal from politics in the 1940s and 1950s, and the emergence of McCarthyism. We are certainly not claiming that Burke wasn't bruised by the response he got, only that the bruising came not directly after his speech but during a shorter and more general question-and-answer response period later in the Congress; only that the burly "Old Bolshevik" Joseph Freeman brushed off the incident as no big deal later in the Congress and shook hands with Burke with a smile ("'Well, sorry old man'--and it was over," reported Burke in "Thirty Years Later" 508]); only that other responses during the question-and-answer period were more conciliatory, especially in their published form (including Golds); and only that the bruising was in part Burke's overly personal response to an overly charged situation brought about not by his speech but by the situation of radicals at the meeting. In any case, Joseph Freeman probably did not yell, "We have a traitor amongst us!" anyway but "We have a snob among us" (Cowley, Dream 278; Aaron, "Thirty Years Later" 506). And other witnesses of the Congress "thought that the incident that I had taken so seriously was funny [and] laughed" (507).
We want to close our account of the first American Writers Congress with two points. First, one thing we find most notable in Burke's "Revolutionary Symbolism in America" is his emphasis on the tactics of rhetoric, his understanding of literature as both persuasion and source of identification. Burke's own Towards a Better Life is something of an avant garde book, an aestheticized effort to insulate the literary from the social, and a surprising number of the writers at the Congress (not to mention the more conservative writers who did not attend), steeped in one version of modernist literary ideology, persisted as well in understanding literature as apart from persuasion. The explicit attention to the tactics of rhetoric and the shift in focus to identification in this speech strike us as notable therefore, especially in the light of Burke's later rhetorical, literary, and critical projects. Burkes assumption in his speech that literature was a species of rhetoric, that "the imaginative writer seeks to propagandize his cause," though in a way different from the lawyer or the ad writer, was probably yet another reason why some people resisted his message.
Second, we read the first Writers' Congress episode to undermine the legend of Burke's marginalization at the Congress because we are at pains to reverse what we take to be a popular misconception of him. Kenneth Burke is often depicted as some sort of inspired genius set apart from society, the brilliant but eccentric hermit of remote Andover farm who dreamed up his insights largely removed from other people, someone who once famously remarked that he was "not a joiner of societies" (letter to Cowley, June 4, 1932; Jay 202-03). Our research repeatedly turns up evidence of a very different Burke, a highly social Burke who conceived his ideas while in conversation and congress with any number of interesting intellectual circles. Kenneth Burke was not a gadfly marginalized by all sorts of establishments so much as he was an indefatigable cultural worker whose brilliance emerged out of particular material sites and intellectual circles whose presence can be measured and felt in his work--must be measured and felt, we would contend, if we are to understand Kenneth Burke well at all. The 1935 Writers' Congress incident, as Burke himself has taught us, had a history and a setting. It was not an isolated event but was part of the seamless stream of interconnected events we call culture. And it is as part of culture that the writings of Kenneth Burke should be understood.