Should Literature Be Regarded as "Rhetorical"?
An Introduction to the Burke-Howell Exchange on the Proper Scope of Rhetoric

In 1976, two of the most influential rhetoric scholars in North America—Kenneth Burke and Wilbur Samuel Howell—exchanged views on a key question in the study of rhetoric (and the study of literature): To what extent should literature be regarded as “rhetorical”; or more generally, what is the relationship between poetics and rhetoric? In their markedly different approaches to this matter, Burke’s and Howell’s responses exhibit some of the basic issues and concerns that complicate the task of defining rhetoric. Moreover, although both draw upon traditional rhetoric, especially Aristotle’s theory, Burke’s and Howell’s approaches exhibit quite different views of that history; and in doing so, their exchange was a staging—perhaps the last major staging—of the conflict between the “old” and “new” rhetoric. This page is an introduction to the Burke-Howell exchange, providing background information along with some bibliographical information.

I. Background to the Burke-Howell Exchange

The 1976 exchange had its beginning eleven years earlier, when Burke and Howell delivered papers on the topic of “rhetoric and poetics” at a 1965 symposium on the “History and Significance of Rhetoric” sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The staging of such a symposium reflects what was a revival of interest in “rhetoric” within the study of literature and composition pedagogy in the North American academy, an interest that had not been seen since the early years of the twentieth century. (We should keep in mind, however, that while the study of rhetoric languished in departments of English during much of the century, it continued to develop within the field of Communications). Organizers of the UCLA symposium had invited Burke, no doubt, because he was regarded as among the most influential literary critics in America and, following the publication of A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), widely regarded as the preeminent American theorist of rhetoric. Howell had been invited, no doubt, because of his historical studies of sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth-century English and French rhetorical theory, especially his Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (1956) and Eighteenth-Century British Logic and Rhetoric (1971).

In his paper, Burke (1897-1994)—a self-educated fiction writer, literary critic, and social philosopher—reiterated a basic position he had introduced over thirty years earlier, in the publication of his influential book of literary criticism and theory, Counter-Statement (1931). In several chapters of that book, especially “Lexicon Rhetoricæ,” Burke set forth a “rhetorical” approach to literature, that is, an approach especially attentive to how literary works produce effects on readers. Burke argued that, if rhetoric is the study of the ways in which language produces effects, then Hamlet, Poe’s detective stories, The Waste Land, and other literary works should be regarded as “rhetorical” inasmuch as readers are attracted to them because of the effects they produce.

Thirty-four years later at the UCLA symposium, Burke presented his paper unaware that, the following day, Wilbur Samuel Howell (1904-92) would present his critique of Burke’s “rhetorical” approach to literature, targeting the “Lexicon Rhetoricæ” of Counter-Statement and bemoaning its continuing influence on American literary criticism. Unlike Burke, Howell was an academically-trained historian of rhetoric, having received a PhD (1932) from the influential “school of rhetoric” at Cornell’s Department of Speech and Drama and having taught in Princeton's Department of English since 1934. In his symposium paper, Howell argued that it is a mistake to merge the disciplines of poetics and rhetoric because such a merger ignores essential differences between works of imagination and works that address actual political situations. Moreover, he expressed his concern that Burke had helped to make rhetoric “a stylish (if somewhat mystical) term,” which could result in the discipline of rhetoric losing its “full share of academic respectability and honor” (237).

Burke’s and Howell’s symposium papers, in spite of presenting opposing positions, do not constitute a true “exchange” since Burke’s paper could not have addressed the critique Howell delivered the following day. The true exchange would take place eleven years later, on the occasion of the reprinting of Howell’s critique as the concluding chapter of a collection of his essays, Poetics, Rhetoric, and Logic (1975). On the publication of Howell’s book, the editor of the Quarterly Journal of Speech (the primary journal in the field of Communications) invited Burke to respond to Howell's criticism and invited a rejoinder from Howell. There are, then, three texts that comprise the actual exchange:

  1. Howell’s initial critique: “Kenneth Burke’s ‘Lexicon Rhetoricæ’: A Critical Examination,” Poetics, Rhetoric, and Logic: Studies in the Basic Disciplines of Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 234-55. Students may contact me for online access.
  2. Burke’s response: “The Party-Line,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 62, no. 1 (1976): 62-68. Available online via Walker Library's subscription to the database Communication and Mass Media Complete (CMMC).
  3. Howell’s rejoinder: “The Two-Party Line: A Reply to Kenneth Burke,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 62, no. 1 (1976): 69-77. Available online via CMMC.

II. Additional Readings

In addition to the actual exchange, there are several important collateral texts, the most important being, of course, the chapters of Burke’s Counter-Statement that were the target of Howell’s critique. In spite of the title of his critique (“Kenneth Burke’s ‘Lexicon Rhetoricæ’”), Howell actually referenced four chapters in Counter-Statement. (Although Howell cited the first edition of Counter-Statement (1931), I have referenced the second, 1968 edition since it is more readily available. Students may contact me for online access.)

Burke’s Symposium Paper. Published a year after the UCLA symposium, Burke appended a short account of the symposium, including observations made in his oral response to Howell's paper, some of which he developed in “The Party Line”:

Secondary Literature. Little has been written about the exchange. However, one of the four reviews of Howell’s Poetics, Rhetoric, and Logic raises important points regarding the desirability of maintaining a distinction between poetics and rhetoric:

III. Links to Additional Notes

Coming soon.

Last update: 8/6/13

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James Comas (
Middle Tennessee State University
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Some pages on this site contain material from my classes taught in The Department of English at Middle Tennesse State University.