Hicks-Burke Exchange on Counter-Statement (1931)

This page contains Granville Hicks’s (1901-1982) review of Burke’s Counter-Statement and the short exchange between Burke and Hicks regarding the review. Hicks was an assistant professor of English at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when he wrote this review and had begun work on his best-known book of criticism, The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (New York: Macmillan, 1933). In his criticism of Burke’s emphasis on literary technique, we can see Hicks’s emerging concern with the political dimension of literature and literary criticism. In fact, according to his autobiography, Part of the Truth, it is at this time that Hicks embraces Marxism in response to what he sees during the early years of the Great Depression:

Often I went by train from Troy to Albany, to work in the library there, and I would stare with dismay at the Hooverville that had grown up by the tracks, wondering what life could be like in those shacks made of packing boxes and hunks of corrugated iron and odds and ends of cardboard and cloth. When I was in New York, and had been to the theatre or to a party, I would see men sleeping in the subway entrances, on and even under the newspapers they had managed to salvage. I knew as well as I had ever known anything that I could not ignore all this. Something had to be done, and the voices were asking, more and more insistently, “Why not Communism?”

Hicks’s political concerns, specifically his joining the editorial staff of The New Masses in 1934, would lead to his dismissal from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1935 and result in an important controversy regarding academic freedom. Hicks’s political critique of Burke reflects the forceful socio-political conditions that Burke would have to address in the writings following the publication of Counter-Statement.

Malcolm Cowley, in his 20 October 1931 letter to Burke, writes,

Granville Hicks has reviewed your book for the New Republic, not very satisfactorily. He differs with most of what you say, understands most of it, but simply misses the significance of your central definition of form. (By the way, I think that definition, by its logical implicatins, is responsible for what I have just called the Marxian elements in Counter-Statement.) I’m going to see Hicks on Saturday and argue with him.

Granville Hicks, “A Defense of Eloquence,” review of Counter-Statement, by Kenneth Burke, New Republic (02 Dec 1931): 75-76.

COUNTER-STATEMENT contains two essays on the principles of literary composition, an essay on the status of art, an essay on Flaubert, Pater and De Goncourt [sic], an essay on Gide and Mann, an essay called “Program,” a “Lexicon Rhetoricae” and in essay on “Applications of the Terminology.” The two essays first mentioned are the backbone of the book. The “Lexicon” codifies the principles laid down in these-essays and draws certain corollaries from them; “The Status of Art” applies these principles in a defense of art against the attacks that have been made in the past century; “Program ” indicates the social and political implications of the principles; “Applications of the Terminology” employs them to solve certain ancient dilemmas of critical discourse; and the discussions of particular writers both illustrate the principles and demonstrate their utility in literary analysis.

The writer begins, says Mr. Burke in the essay on “The Poetic Process,” with a mood. This mood is a universal experience, though its pattern will depend on the relationship between the particular organism—i. e., the writer—and its environment. The writer’s aim is to find a symbol for this mood, a symbol being “a verbal parallel to a pattern of experience.” To illustrate, Mr. Burke imagines a writer who is suffering sullenly and mutely under a feeling of inferiority until “he spontaneously generates a symbol to externalize this suffering”—a story, say, of a king and a peasant. “This means simply,” he goes on, “that he has attained articulacy by linking his emotion to a technical form, and it is precisely this junction of emotion and technical form which we designate as ‘the germ of a plot,’ or ‘an idea for a poem.’”

What he means by form Mr. Burke has already indicated in the preceding essay: “Form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” Precisely how the discovery of the symbol involves this question of form is never made quite clear; Mr. Burke merely assures us that the symbol is “a principle of logical guidance” because it indicates a relationship whose repetition “in varying details . . . makes for one aspect of technical form.” Let us assume that he is right and follow him as he develops his theory. The object of any work of art is to arouse and fulfill desires, he insists, not to impart information or to act as a substitute for life. The inappropriate methods of maintaining interest are surprise and suspense; the proper method is eloquence. Eloquence is, therefore, the essence of art. A work based on eloquence may be read again and again, and each time a desire is aroused and each time fulfilled. A work based on suspense, however, will not bear a second reading. (This distinction throws some light on the question of form in Faulkner’s “Sanctuary.”) The literary virtues are: eloquence, thoroughness, power and complexity (of the symbol and of the pattern underlying the symbol), manner (power without monotony) and style (complexity without diffusion).

This summary indicates, of course, merely the bare essentials of Burke’s rhetoric. The first question that will occur to the reader is, doubtless, whether literary creation always goes on in this order. May not an author begin, for example, with the desire to treat certain materials and subsequently seek the best point of view—best for him, for his mood—from which to treat them? But the more important question concerns the actual value of this set of principles for critical purposes. On Burke’s assumptions, one cannot criticize the author’s mood, for it is a mode of a universal experience. One cannot criticize the symbol, for, as he takes pain to point out, its power is determined by factors outside the control of the artist. One cannot criticize the individuation of the symbol, the choice of details to body it forth, except with relation to the symbol itself, for their sole purpose is to give it substance. One can, then, only criticize the form, the arrangement of details. And even here one cannot criticize the desire that the artist seeks to arouse, for all desires are natural, but only the success of the artist in arousing and satisfying that appetite. In short, the only proper concern of the critic is technique.

There is much to be said for this conclusion, and Mr. Burke says it in such a way that he clarifies many related issues. The trouble with the conclusion is that it prohibits the critic from dealing with many questions that may well interest him and will almost certainly interest the reading public. Do some moods lend themselves more effectively to artistic purposes than others? Are some periods better for art than others? In the writing of the novel can eloquence be a substitute for insight into character? Or, to put the question more generally, in the novel is not individuation always the most important matter? If power and complexity are virtues, does it not follow that the writer who has a clear understanding of the needs which his symbol is to meet for his readers and an imaginative power that meets those needs on the highest level is a greater writer than one who succeeds in arousing and fulfilling, however completely, a desire that is related to no fundamental need? Can the whole question of philosophical and social attitudes be disposed of by saying that a man who utilizes one set of principles will appeal to one group and a man who utilizes another set will appeal to another group ?

These are only a few of the questions that are outside the scope of Mr. Burke’s critical apparatus. He is aware of them, of course; he discusses some of them, if only to try to show that they are irrelevant. But he does not deal with any of them in such a way as to clarify the treatment which other critics might make of them. His nearest approach to a discussion of this kind is in the section on hierarchies. Here he says, “In asking that literature produce one sort of effect rather than another, we should be asking that literature fit one sort of situation rather than another.” This is perfectly true, and one expects him, in view of the opinions already outlined, to let the matter go at that, taking it for granted that such a request is ridiculous. But no, he goes on, rather half-heartedly, to explain that there are two general bases of critical exhortation, one a concept of an ideal situation and the other a concept of the contemporary situation. And he proceeds by discussing, and in a way defending, the latter basis. But his heart is not in it; his heart is where, if one may speak in parables, his treasure is; he remains principally concerned with eloquence.

The conclusion to which these objections point is, of course, that there can be no system of esthetics that is not based on an ethic and a philosophy. (Mr. Burke’s “Program” outlines social views derived from his critical system, not social views from which his system is derived.) This theme is one which cannot be developed here, but we might consider a kind of test case. We live in a period of transition, as Burke says. People are confused in their thinking and disorganized in their manner of living; the artist cannot assume any community of ideals or of emotional habits. What are writers to do? One writer, believing that his highest aim is to arouse and satisfy an appetite, will seek a symbol that is as far removed as possible from the controversial and important issues of the day, and will sacrifice the force of his symbol and its underlying pattern, to use Burke’s terminology, in order to give full sway to his eloquence. Another writer, conceiving his business to be the discovery of a symbol which will interpret a representative and important situation—and Burke admits this is a legitimate basis of appeal in the symbol—will plunge into this contemporary chaos, even though he thereby risks that clarity of outline and intensity of manner and style that arouse and satisfy the reader’s desire. Which writer will the critic single out for praise? On Burke’s basis, the former; on some other basis, the latter. To explain what that other basis is would require a book at least the size of Burke’s; to me it would be a more interesting and a more important book.


Kenneth Burke and Granville Hicks, “Counterblasts on ‘Counter-Statement,’” The New Republic (09 Dec 1931): 101.

SIR: Since some of Mr. Hicks’s objections to my “Counter-Statement” (The New Republic, December 2], seem to arise from a misunderstanding of my purposes, perhaps I should state briefly my own version of these purposes. The theoretical portions of my book might be brought under three heads: (1) an “apology for poesy,” an attempt to refute certain theories which had made art seem a by-product of other forces rather than an educative or coercive force in itself; (2) a “rhetoric,” an analysis of the processes by which a work of art is effective; (3) a “program,” a consideration of what effects should be produced at the present time.

Thus, when Mr. Hicks says that, on my assumptions, one cannot criticize an author’s mood, nor his symbol for expressing it, nor even “the desire that the artist seeks to arouse,” he is overlooking the fact that this objection applies only to my “rhetoric,” where I am discussing not what effects should be produced, but how effects are produced. In discussing the processes of walking, one must avoid any judgment as to whether a man should walk north or south. A moral imperative is not proper to a rhetoric, any more than the study of the mechanics of a motor equips us to decide whether motors should be used for warfare or trade. Such a judgment belongs elsewhere—it belongs in a “program” as to what effects should be produced.

Wherefore, let us turn to my “Program.” Mr. Hicks has already interpreted me as saying “the only proper concern of the critic is technique.” I certainly did not mean to give such an impression. On the contrary, in my “Program” I state specifically: “A system of esthetics subsumes a system of politics, and though the artist—qua artist—may ignore it, the present program of critical orientation cannot ignore it.” And my “Program” proposes to advocate a certain kind of art because, for reasons given in the chapter, I think such art would have a certain kind of social effect. I invite Mr. Hicks to outline my other possible method of procedure.

As for his final paragraph saying that I, by my system, prefer a writer who seeks “a symbol that is as far removed as possible from the controversial and important issues of the day” above a writer who considers it his business “to interpret a representative and important situation,” I do not agree that this is a conclusion to be drawn from my book. On the contrary, I have given many reasons why the second kind of writer is often more effective than the first, though pointing out that such effectiveness may be less fit to survive further permutations of history. Far from confining myself to the choice which Mr. Hicks would force upon me, I had thought that my approach enabled me to avoid precisely such academic choices (and I do not see why Mr. Hicks, in turn, should limit himself by voting unconditionally for what he considers the opposite view to my own). Obviously, both kinds of art can figure in the business of social coercion. The essential trait that distinguishes man from a bundle of mere glandular reactions is vocabulary. Man is vocabulary. To manipulate his vocabulary is to manipulate him. And art, any art, is a major means of manipulating his vocabulary. And since such manipulation is done by both of Mr. Hicks’s two kinds of art, why not consider both kinds “praiseworthy,” as social implements?


SIR: It may be that, to some extent, my review misrepresents Mr. Burke’s book, and if so I am glad to have his letter clarify the situation. What he says does not, however, change my estimate of the book, nor does it indicate that my account of the book’s contents is in any fundamental way inaccurate. The emphasis of “Counter-Statement” is so unmistakably on technique, and its value is so exclusively in its discussion of technique, that the reader is bound to realize that it is technique alone that interests the author. Certainly Mr. Burke’s “Program,” which the brevity of my review prevented me from discussing in detail, is not, as his letter implies, an analysis of the relation of literature to social aims. It is a fragmentary, superficial and confused account of certain tendencies in contemporary society; it merely describes the social attitudes of a man who is principally interested in technique. The kindest thing to be said about it is that it is an afterthought; if Mr. Burke’s system of esthetics really depended on his “Program,” it would be invalidated from the start.

But Mr. Burke’s rhetoric and his “Program” are not organically related. They are, as his letter indicates, in separate compartments. Mr. Burke will, he says, permit the critic to deal not merely with the question of how effects are produced, but also with the question of what effects should be produced. He regards art as an instrument of social coercion, as a way of manipulating man, and he proceeds to advocate a certain sort of art because it has a certain sort of social effect. (What he means, of course, is that he advocates any sort of art that produces that effect.)

There is, as I pointed out in my review, the weakness of Mr. Burke’s book. As he sees it, the critic is confronted with two quite unrelated problems. He is to judge a book’s technique according to the criteria Mr. Burke lays down; then he is to judge the book’s effect by his own social views. That is, if the critic is a Republican, he will condemn any book that will make its readers Democrats. To all intents and purposes this means that all the critic can discuss, in his capacity as literary critic, is technique; other points he discusses as Republican, or as vegetarian, or as nudist.

Mr. Burke asks me to outline any other possible method of procedure. That does not, I must confess, seem very difficult. Where Mr. Burke goes astray is in his analogy between literature and walking. He says, “A moral imperative is not proper to a rhetoric.” I should say that both a rhetoric and a moral imperative must, in any sound system of esthetics, be indissolubly related as parts of a larger whole. I should say that the proper concern of the critic is not primarily either technique or social effect, but something that might be called imagination. Imagination is, let us say, the power of perceiving relationships. In this perception the author’s total outlook on life is at work. He reproduces the relationships he perceives in terms of concrete experience. His success in presenting a pattern of concrete experience (i. e., his technique) depends on many factors, but chiefly on the quality of his perception; and it cannot be judged apart from that. (One of the chief reasons for analyzing technique is that such analysis often calls attention to defects of imagination.)

The critic approaches a piece of literature as an interpretation of life. He judges its success within the field the author has chosen, and he judges also the social importance of that field. (Since what literature gives the reader is an increased capacity for having and assimilating experience, the critic will have to decide what kinds of experience are, either at a given moment or in the long run, most essential to the part of humanity for which the book is written.) If he finds the book a failure, he will seek the causes of that failure. He may find them in the fact that, being a Republican, the author has looked at life falsely; but he will criticize the falseness, not the Republicanism. He may detect a failure in the embodiment of the perception, in what Mr. Burke calls Individualism. But in any case he will regard the book as a whole.

This is sketchy; it is merely what Mr. Burke asked for, an outline, and a very incomplete outline. But I trust it indicates that there is another way, and a better way, of approaching literature than Mr. Burke’s.