“WE WRITE FOR THE WORKERS”: Authorship and Communism in Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright

John Logie, University of Minnesota

Abstract: This article supplements recent scholarship on Kenneth Burke’s notorious speech at the 1935 American Writers’ Congress by comparing Burke’s experiences and recollections of the Congress with those of his rough contemporary, Richard Wright. Both men later presented vivid accounts of this event as the point at which they recognized their own pronounced distance from their colleagues in the American Communist Party. Viewing these accounts in tandem offers a richer sense of the context in which Burke spoke. Burke and Wright’s reflections also point up the particular challenges facing those who aspired to the mantle of authorship within the Party’s structure.


INTRODUCTION: “Writers’ Congress” as Oxymoron?

KENNETH BURKE'S 1980 ACCOUNT of the reaction to his 1935 speech at the first American Writers’ Congress has proven irresistible for a generation of Burke scholars. This account is drawn from a fairly breathless profile of Burke entitled “Kenneth Burke: The greatest literary critic since Coleridge?” written by film critic Ben Yagoda for the obscure (and now defunct) arts magazine Horizon. Yagoda describes Burke as “devastated” by the response to the speech, and then quotes Burke offering this rich description of the events:

Joe Freeman [a party leader] gets up throbbing like a locomotive and shouts, “We have a traitor among us!” Later, when I was leaving the hall, I eavesdropped on a couple of girls. One of them was saying “Yet he seemed so honest!

I went home and lay down, but just as I was about to fall asleep I’d hear “Burke!”—and I’d awake with a start. Then I’d doze off again, and suddenly again: “Burke!” My name had become a kind of charge against me—a dirty word. Then I experienced a fantasy, a feeling that excrement was dripping from my tongue. It was just as near to hallucination as you can get. (68)

Frank Lentricchia’s 1983 monograph Criticism and Social Change commences with a précis of this passage, and the events of the Writers’ Congress are positioned as evidence of Burke’s critical prescience. But Lentricchia also suggests that Burke was deeply wounded by the response to the speech, entitled “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” Lentricchia observes that Burke had, to that point, “deferred” publication of the 1935 speech “in his books and collections” (21). While the speech was readily available in the published conference proceedings, and later in a 1962 edited volume, Lentricchia ascribes particular significance to the speech’s absence from a work like Burke’s 1941 collection of roughly a decade’s critical writing, The Philosophy of Literary Form. Whether Burke actively suppressed the speech (as Lentricchia implies) or not, it is clear that Burke harbored a lingering discomfort with respect to the events of the 1935 Congress, and that the particular character of his reported distress offers significant insight into how Burke understood his responsibilities as a writer committed to meaningful symbolic action.

The appendix to Herbert Simons and Trevor Melia’s 1989 edited volume, The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, responds to Lentricchia by reprinting both Burke’s speech, described as “oft-mentioned but seldom seen” and “controversial” (viii) and the account of the discussion following Burke’s speech reprinted from the proceedings of the Writers’ Congress. The appendix also includes a lengthy excerpt from Lentricchia’s Criticism and Social Change, beginning with the above-cited précis of Burke’s nightmare visions. It is these renditions of the events of the Writers’ Congress, ultimately based in Burke as quoted in Yagoda, that are now commonly cited in Burke scholarship, even though the critical passage taken from Yagoda appears to be a pastiche, and, at one key point, a misquote of a longer passage in a 1979 Southern Review article by Malcolm Cowley.

In “1935: The Year of Congresses” Cowley quotes Burke at length (without citing another source) as Burke recounts the events of the Writers’ Congress. Though Yagoda’s article bears no citations, the now-famous Burke passage is very likely drawn from the Cowley article, which I must quote at length in order to point up what was lost or transformed in Yagoda’s distillation. The following is Burke’s remembrance as presented in Cowley’s 1979 article, framed by Cowley’s own description of the events:

Another paper followed [Burke’s], to which he gave little attention, and then came a discussion of all the papers. It was centered on Burke’s suggestion. [Burke] says, “The boys got going. Oof! Joe Freeman gets up throbbing like a locomotive and shouts, ‘We have a snob among us!’” Kenneth had become a snob by conceding that he would have to speak like a petty bourgeoius. “Then,” he continues, “Mike Gold followed and put the steamroller on me. A German emigré, Friedrich Wolf, attacked my proposal to address ‘the people’ rather than ‘the workers.’ He pointed to the similarity between this usage and Hitler’s harangues on das Volk. And so on, and so on, until I was slain, slaughtered.”

I listened to the diatribes that morning and was disturbed by them, for Kenneth’s sake, but was also amused. I had been attacked in much the same fashion, if with less violence, and hadn’t been hurt by the abuse because I thought it was uttered chiefly to affirm the speaker’s position as a loyal Communist. Kenneth felt wretched, though; his dream of fellowship was shattered. “I remember that when leaving the hall,” he tells us, “I was walking behind two girls. One of them said to the other, as though discussing a criminal, ‘Yet he seemed so honest!’

“I was tired out and went home,” he continues. “There had been a late party the night before, after the meeting in the big hall uptown. I lay down and began to doze off. But of a sudden, just as I was about to fall asleep I’d hear ‘Burke!’—and I’d wake with a start. Then I’d doze off, and suddenly again, ‘Burke!’ My name had become a charge against me, a dirty word. After this jolt had happened several times, another symptom took over. Of a sudden I experienced a fantasy, a feeling that excrement was dripping from my tongue. . . . I felt absolutely lost.” (279–80)

Readers can judge for themselves whether Yagoda borrowed from Cowley’s article withour acknowledging Cowley as his source. It is also possible that Burke’s recounting of this story had happened so regularly that not merely particular events, but also key turns of phrase were repeated by Burke with absolute consistency each time he was asked to recount this story late in his life. Whatever the case, the critical difference between the Yagoda account and the Cowley account is whether Freeman labeled Burke a “traitor” or a “snob.” If we accept Cowley’s account as the more complete and probable representation of the events, it seems clear that Burke endured the comparatively mild charge of snobbery at the Congress, but that this charge was sufficient to trigger not only the “hallucination” reported by Yagoda, but also Burke’s “wretched” feeling, Burke’s sense that a “dream of fellowship had been shattered” (both noted by Cowley) and Burke’s own description of himself as feeling “absolutely lost.”

Nevertheless, Burke’s speech is increasingly tethered to the Lentricchia text, and its more limited representation of Burke’s distress. In Ann George and Jack Selzer’s 2003 article on Burke and the American Writers’ Congress, George and Selzer begin by suggesting that “just about everyone has by now heard the story of the first American Writers’ Congress” (47). They later describe Lentricchia as having repeated “the oft told story of how Burke reacted to those responses by having hallucinations . . .” (49). George and Selzer then quote Lentricchia’s compressed version of Burke’s lament. But George and Selzer also suggest that Burke’s account of his distress was somewhat overblown, describing it as “nourished by Burke’s own tendency . . . to understand himself as part of the marginalized literary avant garde” (58). Lentricchia also acknowledges a measure of uncertainty with regard to Burke’s recollection, writing that descriptions of the events of the Congress by Burke and others might be “hysterical and inaccurate,” and “fictive or real” (22). George and Selzer ultimately conclude that the “bruising” Burke recalled as represented in the Yagoda piece “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” (58) and suggest further that “the response to Burke’s speech was very probably not all that hostile” (57). Cowley’s account complicates this picture, as Cowley acknowledges both being “disturbed” and “amused” by the response to Burke’s speech. Cowley suggests that, relative to Burke, he was able to place the response in a broader context and associate it with the pressures and demands of contemporary Party politics. This raises the question of why Burke was unable to follow Cowley’s approach. While George and Selzer have offered what will likely be regarded as the definitive account of Burke’s experience at the Writers’ Congress, their account does not wholly explain why the aging Burke attributed such tremendous significance to the responses his paper received at the 1935 Writers’ Congress.

George and Selzer’s suggestion that Burke was responding perhaps too personally to the Congress’ “overly charged situation” is reinforced when one is reminded that Burke was not the only speaker at the Congress who described his experiences as a speaker at the Congress as personally devastating. Richard Wright’s accounts of his experiences at the Congress superficially parallel Burke’s, and like Burke, Wright identified the Congress as marking the beginning of the end of his participation in party politics. In the pages that follow, I will contrast Wright’s accounts with Burke’s and demonstrate the degree to which the Congress demanded of both men a sustained and wrenching engagement with questions of authorship. In particular, both men argued at the Congress (albeit somewhat tentatively) that the mantle of authorship ought not remain the property of “intellectuals and middle class people.” By their own accounts, the sharply discouraging responses Burke and Wright received prompted pronounced changes in their understandings of themselves as writers working within and on behalf of the Communist Party. While both writers went on to write cogent and powerful texts which address the complexities of composers and their connections to their communities, both also would recall having left the 1935 Congress mourning their evident distance from their supposed comrades.

This paper examines how Burke and Wright came to articulate their roles and responsibilities as writers in the broader context of a movement which was struggling to reconcile competing constructions of authorship and party membership. In pursuing a sharpened sense of the context in which Burke and Wright spoke and also the circumstances that prompted their frustrations, this paper is informed by Stephen Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics. Mailloux describes this practice as one which “takes an historical act of interpretation . . . and does a rhetorical analysis of the cultural conversations in which that act participated” (238–9) or, more epigrammatically, “us[ing] rhetoric to practice theory by doing history” (233). The “acts of interpretation” at the heart of this paper are, respectively, Burke’s now-(in)famous 1980 recollection of his discomfort at the Writers’ Congress and Wright’s account of his own distress at the Congress first published in The Atlantic as “I Tried to Be A Communist,” and later incorporated into his memoir, Black Boy. This paper will demonstrate that the cultural conversation in which Burke’s and Wright’s acts participated was an already pitched contest between the conventional understanding of what it meant to be an author on the one hand, and the demands of committed Communist Party participation on the other.

This tension is evident in The New Masses’ published call for participation in the American Writers’ Congress, composed by Granville Hicks. The call’s depiction of the revolutionary writer is divided into polarized portraits of, first, the socially disconnected individual author, and then, of a socially-connected composer overwhelmed by commitment to the cause:

Many revolutionary writers live virtually in isolation, lacking opportunities to discuss vital problems with their fellows. Others are so absorbed in the revolutionary cause that they have few opportunities for thorough examination and analysis. Never have the writers of the nation come together for fundamental discussion. (20)

This tension between the “isolation” of traditional authorship and the “absorption” which might await those who commit to the Party reverberates throughout the call.

Like Hicks, The New Masses’ editors also attempted to reconcile these competing roles. In their introductory paragraph, the editors make a special point of announcing that, unlike previous Party Congresses, “the American Writers’ Congress will not be a delegated body” (20). And the editors’ rationale for the lack of delegates confirms just how difficult it was, at the time, to coordinate the implicitly individual work of writing with the Communist program of collective struggle:

Each writer will represent his own personal allegiance. With hundreds of writers attending from all sections, however, and united in a basic program, the Congress will be the voice of many thousands of intellectuals, and middle class people allied with the working class. (20, emphasis added)

This last sentence suggests that the Writers’ Congress would speak primarily for, and possibly from within a larger community of “intellectuals” and “middle class people,” but all of these groups are positioned as “allies” and not members of the working class. This formulation implies that, at least as far as the editors of The New Masses were concerned, writers were understood to operate in spaces somewhat removed from the quotidian struggles of the proletariat.

The tentativeness with which the call forwards the notion of a gathering of writers testifies to the persistence of what Karen Burke LeFevre later identified as the “Platonic view of invention.” In her 1987 book, “Invention as a Social Act,” LeFevre describes this view as one in which:

Invention is regarded as an unfolding, a manifestation of an individual’s ideas, feelings, voice, personality, and patterns of thought. Like Plato’s metaphor of the soul whose wings unfold when it is reminded of the ideal forms it once beheld, this view of invention stresses the recovery and expression of an individual’s inner (and perhaps latent) voice or cognitive structures. Truth is sought through purely individual efforts. (1, emphasis added)

LeFevre argues that this Platonic view of invention has remained the dominant view within Western cultures, having been complemented and extended by traditional readings of the Romantic Author as a solitary, inspired genius. According to LeFevre, this view “is certainly in line with the aims of Western capitalistic societies, in which ideas and discoveries, like nearly everything else, become property owned by individuals, able to be bought and sold” (17–20). LeFevre also argues that the Platonic view of invention underpins many major movements in literary theory up to and including the New Criticism. LeFevre writes, “The New Critical legacy has accustomed a number of us to looking at individual details or characters, created by an individual author, and occurring in a self-contained text” (16). LeFevre’s broad argument suggests that Western cultures stretching from Plato to at least W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are marked by their preference for individualism, whether philosophical, economic, or literary. In this light, the conflicted prose of the 1935 call can be seen as reflecting the deep entrenchment of the Platonic view of invention, which had by this time been reinforced by a narrow reading of Romantic poetic theory, and which thereby participated in what Herbert Hoover, in a 1928 campaign speech, termed “the American system of rugged individualism.”

1.) “Good Writers” and “Bad Strike Leaders”

The first American Writers’ Congress was held from Friday, April 26 to Sunday, April 28, 1935 in New York City. As outlined in the call, the Congress concluded with the founding of the League of American Writers, which would become the Communist Party’s central literary forum. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that an event like the Congress was at least likely, and perhaps bound to disappoint many attendees, as the 1935 Congress was, in part, an attempt by the party to establish a rarefied space for already-established writers.

At the Congress’ opening session, Earl Browder’s speech on “Communism and Literature” effectively released the assembled revolutionary writers from the sort of “administrative tasks” which, presumably, had absorbed too much of their time and talents:

The first demand of the party upon its writer members is that they shall be good writers, constantly better writers so they can really serve the party. We do not want to take good writers and make bad strike leaders out of them. (qtd. in Fabre 117)

Browder’s “good writer” is a writer first and a party member second, thereby maintaining the traditional Western bias towards authorial autonomy. And Browder’s approach is in keeping with the larger literary milieu, wherein composer and audience were understood by many leading literary critics to have achieved a newly productive level of separation. As Lentricchia suggests in Criticism and Social Change, the American critical orientations which dominated the 1930s, and which continue to resonate throughout the practice of literary criticism, cannot be readily reconciled with the Marxist program. Lentricchia writes:

One of the lessons to be drawn from Kenneth Burke’s career is that American (“self-reliant”) Marxism is fundamentally an absurd proposition. The “active” critical soul in America, from Emerson to Burke, joins parties of one, because it is there, in America, that critical power flourishes. (Lentricchia 6)

For Lentricchia, Kenneth Burke represents an exemplary “literary intellectual” whose individualism cannot be reconciled with Marxism’s expressly collective, collaborative agenda. Lentricchia places Burke in a “party of one” because, in Lentricchia’s estimation, critical power is derived from critical distance; from a disengagement with one’s contemporaries. While Lentricchia clearly means to praise Burke for establishing his own “party of one,” this argument maintains the sharp division between composer and community which both Burke and Wright challenged when they spoke at the 1935 Conference. Indeed, Lentricchia’s argument reinscribes the divisive rhetoric which characterized the bulk of the Congress, and ultimately drove Burke and Wright to seek other audiences.

In a 1965 symposium on the Writers’ Congress, William Phillips clarifies the then-favored understanding of the proper relationship between writer and worker:

In the thirties, I think we were acting on an implicit idea, the Marxian idea of the writer and the intellectual as the alienated man. And as the alienated man he naturally was outside of society. But having a little bit of class consciousness, he sided with the radical forces of the society. That was his political role, in alliance with the working class and other active and strong social forces. (“Symposium” 516)

Phillips’ recollection maintains and reinforces the division implicit within the call. The “alienated” writers and intellectuals are described as having a vague alliance with the working class, but this alliance somehow occurs without drawing writers and intellectuals “inside” society. Writers and intellectuals are linked to the working class only by their “little bit of class consciousness.” And the possibility that writers might themselves be members of either the working class or any of Phillips’ other undefined “social forces” remains unexamined. It was against this backdrop that both Burke and Wright, despite their latter-day reputations as isolated individualists, argued against the maintenance of the alienated writer/intellectual as a distinct figure, insulated from the larger social circumstance.

Over the past few decades, both Burke and Wright have been repeatedly described in terms that emphasize their distance from their contemporaries. In his 1998 book, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village, Jack Selzer provides a concise summary of the key terms which have been mobilized to emphasize Burke’s supposed distance from his contemporaries. Selzer writes, “Burke has customarily been considered an ‘individual’ [attributed to Lentricchia], a solitary genius and a gadfly, as someone apart from movements and schools” (15). Similar terms are routinely applied to Wright. In his biography, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Michél Fabre writes of Wright’s “refusal to belong to any kind of tradition,” and that “in addition to the current definition of Wright the novelist as an artist and storyteller, and of Wright the individual as militant, he can be considered as a lone explorer” (528, 530).

Both writers’ personal circumstances superficially support these characterizations. Burke lived for over seventy years in Andover, New Jersey, in what Tilly Warnock describes as a “rural scene, distanced from the mainstream” (90). In 1980, Burke’s closest friend, Malcolm Cowley described the then 83-year-old rhetorician, whose second wife had died ten years earlier, as “living a sort of posthumous life by himself” (qtd. in Yagoda 69). In Wright’s case, the chief marker of Wright’s putative separatism is his 1946 move from New York to Paris. In his introduction to the 1978 anthology, Richard Wright Reader, Michél Fabre writes “it has been alleged that Wright’s exile in France, where he lived from 1946 to his death in 1960, dealt a death blow to his creative imagination by estranging him from the situation of the blacks at home” (vii). Portrayals of “Burke the hermit” and “Wright the exile” circulate throughout biographies and critical assessments.

But very different portraits of these writers emerge when the events of the 1935 Writers’ Congress are revisited with particular attentiveness to Burke’s and Wright’s attempts to better understand how the committed revolutionary writer might best connect with and represent his larger constituencies. The Communist call for the abolition of private property necessarily implies dramatic and substantive revision of the American implementation of the traditional construction of authorship, which, predictably, centers on “ideas becoming property owned by individuals, able to be bought and sold.” But Burke and Wright’s contentious interventions within the Congress suggest that despite the members’ stated commitments to the Communist cause, autonomous American authorship was so entrenched that most of the Congress’ attendees were incapable of seriously engaging with the implications of their politics for the practice of writing. Unlike their fellow attendees, by the time of the 1935 Congress, both Burke and Wright were developing constructions of authorship predicated on their rejections of individual “genius” as the ideal model for the modern composer. Even so, both had demonstrably found this construction appealing early in their careers as writers.

2.) Portraits of the Artists as Young Men (or Vice-Versa)

Burke and Wright’s early writings and correspondence are littered with evidence of their respective attractions to the mantle of Romantic authorship.

In October of 1916, Malcolm Cowley—writing to Burke in the near aftermath of a meeting of the Harvard Poetry Society at which Cowley, by his own admission, had been a bit overserved—was likely the first of many to label Burke a “genius.” Cowley pays Burke this backhanded compliment: “I went home and read your letters again, and even under the genial influence of the Piehl, I felt that I could never do such work. I came to the conclusion for the first time that you were a genius” (31). Burke’s reply to this characterization, written in the context of a sharp rebuke to Cowley for his having internalized Harvard’s elitism, suggests Burke’s healthy skepticism at being so labeled:

Someday, when you are feeling particularly well disposed, you must tell me more explicitly why I am a genius. Cela m’intrigue. I am a little piqued. So far, all I know is that I am a genius because I have written letters which you, when you were drunk, decided you couldn’t write. (cited in Jay, Selected Correspondence 33)

But six months later, Burke had apparently embarked upon the project of re-shaping himself in the image of the stereotypical languorously contemplative Romantic Author. Burke writes:

To write novels, one must be careful not to live them; for it is the ruthless denial of action which fosters that feeling of incompleteness in us which makes us turn to art. People who do things blunt their sense of the need for expression; people who don’t do things are invariably thrown into a state of agitation; which is not healthy, but is productive. Art, of course, increases rather than lulls this dissatisfaction, but who, after all, would prefer satisfaction to art? Allow me to arraign alongside of little Kenney Nietzsche’s statement that he lived not for happiness, but for his work. I too, can assume as much genius as that bond of sympathy between him and me is good for. (42)

Burke’s description of himself as having chosen art over action precisely anticipates Frank Kermode’s 1957 description of the Romantic artist as “lonely, haunted, victimised, devoted to suffering rather than action—or, to state this is a manner more acceptable to the twentieth century, he is exempt from the normal human orientation towards action and so enabled to intuit those images which are truth” (Romantic Image 6).

By January of 1918, Burke was sufficiently immersed in his own artistry to issue a hesitating confirmation of his earlier letter, accepting the mantle of genius, and with it, the attendant suffering for his art:

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. I want to learn to work, to work like a Sisyphus—that is my only chance. I am afraid, I confess it, but I am going to try hard. This is my final showdown. I am in it for life and death this time. Words, words—mountains of words—If I can do that I am saved. (56)

Despite the classical reference, Burke is clearly casting himself in the role of the stereotypical Romantic Author, and preparing to embark upon the grand struggle for truth and beauty. Cowley responds by (teasingly) expressing his admiration for Burke’s willingness to suffer in the grand Romantic tradition: “One of my chief ambitions . . . has been to starve in a garret for my Art. . . . If you carry out your plan, you will succeed in touching the imagination, something you have never done before” (58). But Cowley also identifies Burke’s January 6, 1918 letter as one in which Burke’s self-centered pursuit of genius has introduced a measure of distance between them: “Our friendship has usually consisted in our interchangeability as audience and performer. Now you ask the boon of being sole performer, and of allowing me to play audience continually” (58). Cowley also pointedly summarizes Burke’s letter: “I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . you write” (58). In fairness to Burke, it should be noted that his grandiose statement of purpose was composed when he was only twenty, and Burke is by no means the only person of meager years to characterize his artistic ambitions in such melodramatic terms.

But by the mid-1930s, Burke was articulating a dramatically revised construction of author and audience, and this revision was almost certainly a by-product of his increasing engagement with the principles and practices of the Communist party. Paul Jay cites Burke’s 1931 book, Counter-Statement, as tracing Burke’s “changing orientation as he moves, under the influence of Marxism, away from conceptualizing art in aesthetic terms as self-expression and toward viewing it as a socially symbolic act” (“Kenneth Burke” 70). And indeed, early in Counter-Statement, Burke revises the terms of Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” as he recasts the artist’s expression as an expressly social act:

Self-expression today is too often confused with pure utterance, the spontaneous cry of distress. . . . [I]f it is a form of self-expression to utter our emotions, it is just as truly a form of self-expression to provoke emotion in others. (53)

If Counter-Statement bespeaks a Burke in transition from abstracted aesthete to social symbolist (or symbolic socialist), Burke’s 1934 New Masses article, “My Approach to Communism,” reveals a Burke whose orientation toward the social and away from individualistic models of the composing process is everywhere apparent. Burke writes:

A medium of communication is not merely a body of words; the words themselves derive their emotional and intellectual content from the social or environmental texture in which they are used and to which they apply. Under a stable environment, a corresponding stability of moral and esthetic values can arise and permeate the group—and it is this “superstructure” of values which the artist draws upon in constructing an effective work of art. In periods of marked instability, such a superstructure tends to disintegrate into individualistic differentiations. (20)

While Burke’s references to “stability of moral and ethical values” as the basis for artistic expression might seem at odds with his commitment to revolutionary politics, this “stability” ties into Burke’s more general rejection of a Romanticism rooted in the individual, rather than the social. In the above passage, Burke is pursuing a “stability” which recalls the expressly social mode of Classicism outlined by Cowley in an August, 1921 letter to Burke:

Classicism is the product, or at least is the modern expression of thickly settled countries where man has influenced that landscape to such an extent that it is an expression of man’s emotion. Classicism is an expression of man as a social animal.

Romanticism is the expression of man as a solitary animal, and of landscape independent of man. It is the natural expression of the more unkempt countries; Russia, Scandinavia, the United States.

In this article, Burke’s articulation of the artist’s dependence upon the social “superstructure” is emblematic of his increasing commitment to a critical program which blends elements of Marxism with a literary criticism inflected by Burke’s developing engagement with rhetorical theory. Thus Burke’s 1934 identification of a “stable superstructure” partakes both of Classicism (by way of Cowley) and Marxism (by way of Marx). And Burke does so by developing a brand of Classicism which, unlike its predecessors, does not depend upon the glorification of the powers that be. Indeed, in a 1923 article for The Dial, Burke argued that the present times were so “gnarled” that a new classicism would constitute “nothing other than howling rebellion,” which “in the present state of society [would] be much more radical than Bolshevism” (qtd. in Selzer 41). By 1934, Burke had largely realized his complex critical orientation, which blended Marxism with a classicism defined, in large degree, by a rejection of Romantic individualism in favor of a social orientation. It is with this approach to communism that Burke set off for the 1935 Writers’ Congress.

A similar shift from the individualistic to the social is evident in the first stages of Richard Wright’s career. Unlike Burke, Wright was never afforded the luxury of even considering a program of “ruthless denial of action.” But like Burke, Wright’s initial steps toward self-identification as a writer were cast in terms of the separation and suffering routinely cited as emblematic of Romantic authorship. These elements are foregrounded in the original manuscript of Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, in which the first section, entitled “Southern Night,” concludes with the nineteen-year old Wright abandoning his rural Southern past in order to move to Chicago.1 As Wright prepares to leave Memphis, he reflects upon his increasing separation from his social circumstances, and this is a separation which is effected through Wright’s engagement with canonical literary texts, including the works of Conrad, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Twain, and Poe, and more recent American fiction, including Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie. Wright writes:

My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day. My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension and anxiety. (253)

“Southern Night” concludes with Wright’s sharp indictment of his Southern upbringing: “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled” (257). And the second section, “The Horror and the Glory” begins with Wright testifying to his own isolation:

In all my life—though surrounded by many people—I had not had a single satisfying, sustained relationship with another human being and, not having had any, I did not miss it. (261)

Wright cites reading as his sole form of diversion and recreation, and, by extension, his sole link to any larger culture.

While Black Boy is often classified as “autobiography,” Wright consistently rejected the label. Faced with a publisher’s demand for an explanatory subtitle for the 1945 edition of Black Boy, in which the second half of the manuscript was not included, Wright offered subtitles which classified the work variously as “study,” “record,” “chronicle,” “odyssey,” and “story” (Fabre, Unfinished Quest 578). There is a tension among these terms, which reflects the fluidity with which Black Boy intertwines fact and fiction. And indeed, this tension circulates throughout Wright’s oeuvre. In his introduction to the second edition of The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, leading Wright biographer and scholar Michél Fabre acknowledges that Wright’s work usually occupies spaces between the poles of fact and fiction:

I have become more convinced that the line is thin indeed between fact and fiction; that history and biography which I considered objective re-creations are mostly constructions that bear the stamp of individual vision.” (viii)

Fabre anticipates the generic re-classification Geta LeSeur offers in the her 1995 book, Ten is the Age of Darkness wherein Black Boy is cited as an exemplary “Black Bildungsroman,”cannily blending the conventions of the historically European form with the rigors of African-American experience. As originally published, Black Boy concludes with a moment precisely paralleling Stephen Dedalus’ dramatic non serviam at the conclusion of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like Stephen, Black Boy’s protagonist has chosen a self-imposed program of silence, cunning and exile in order to set the stage for his first forays into literary artistry.

In the paragraphs Wright composed in order to bolster the conclusion of the truncated 1945 edition of Black Boy, the protagonist’s sense of separation is soon counterbalanced by a recognition that literature might provide an avenue for meaningful social action. Wright recalls:

what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books—written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lews—seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action. (283)

But this paragraph, composed in part to compensate for the 1945 edition’s elimination of the second half of Wright’s manuscript, injects a level of political and social awareness into the narrative which Wright developed only after his decade-long engagement with the Communist Party. In the full edition of Black Boy, Wright’s recollection of this engagement constitutes almost the whole of the book’s second section, and this narrative centers on Wright’s fitful attempts to move from a disconnected, individualistic existence to an expressly social and situated mode of composition, in keeping with the stated principles of the Communist Party.

In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright describes his first forays as a writer in terms which situate him somewhere between the stereotypical Romantic Author and an Imagist on the model of Ezra Pound:

I strove to master words, to make them disappear, to make them important by making them new, to make them melt into a rising spiral of emotional stimuli, each greater than the other, each feeding and reinforcing the other, and all ending in an emotional climax that would drench the reader with a sense of a new world. That was the single aim of my living. (280)

In this passage, Wright constructs authorship as mastery, first of words, and then of the audience. This construction was entirely in keeping with then au courant understandings of the composing process. If we accept this passage as accurately reflecting Wright’s composing process circa 1928 (though the passage was written by Wright circa 1944) the young Wright appears as an adherent to the main currents of Modernism, blending aspects of Pound’s Imagism with T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative” (Wright also writes of his attempts to “capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression” very nearly paraphrasing Eliot’s proposed program in The Sacred Wood). As in many Modernist texts, Wright here positions readers as passive recipients of an enlightened author’s textual stimuli.

While Wright retroactively ascribes this reasonably cogent authorial program to his earliest forays as a writer, he was unable to produce any significant writing until after he joined the Chicago John Reed Club in 1933. Wright’s arrival coincided with an explosion of activity within the Club. In June of 1933, the Club began publishing Left Front, one of the many “little magazines” published by local Reed Clubs. According to Fabre, while the official party magazine, The New Masses, generally accepted only “established authors,” Left Front was established specifically to provide publishing opportunities for beginning writers with Communist sympathies. In the summer of 1933, the Chicago Club also committed to the recruitment of black members, and Abraham Aaron, Wright’s fellow worker at the Chicago Post Office, invited Wright to join. In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright’s fictionalized account of this exchange testifies to his willful isolation:

Sol repeatedly begged me to attend the meetings of the club, but I always found an easy excuse for refusing.

“You’d like them,” Sol said.

“I don’t want to be organized,” I said.

“They can help you to write,” he said.

“Nobody can tell me how or what to write,” I said. (315)

Nevertheless, in the fall of 1933, Wright attended his first Reed Club meeting. Wright recalls having been “impressed by the scope and seriousness of its activities” and describes the Club’s members as “fervent, democratic, restless, eager, self-sacrificing” (“Horror” 321). According to Fabre, Wright listened to the Club members discuss their plans for Left Front, and left the meeting with an armful of issues of New Masses and International Literature.

In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright depicts his response to reading these magazines in terms which both recall and reverse the polarities of the literary awakening at the end of “Southern Night.” While Wright’s reading of Conrad, Dreiser and other now-canonical writers created, by Wright’s account, a “vast sense of distance” between Wright and his social circumstances, his reading of the Communist magazines had very nearly the opposite effect. Wright recalls:

[M]y attention was caught by the similarity of the experiences of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred people into a whole. My cynicism—which had been my protection against an America that had cast me out—slid from me and, timidly, I began to wonder if a solution of unity was possible. (318)

While the canonical novels had contributed to Wright’s sense of isolation, the Communist magazines encouraged Wright to think of himself in terms of his social connectedness. And Wright initially reveled in the opportunity to subsume his individuality for the cause:

I hungered to share the dominant assumptions of my time and act upon them. I did not want to feel, like an animal in a jungle, that the whole world was alien and hostile. I did not want to make individual war or individual peace. (318)

Wright’s willingness to subsume his individuality was grounded in his own sense of the inadequacy of his attempts at autonomous composition:

Something was missing in my imaginative efforts: my flights of imagination were too subjective, too lacking in reference to social action. I hungered for a grasp of the framework of contemporary living, for a knowledge of the forms of life about me. . . . (284)

In the following months, Wright joined the Communist party, was elected executive secretary of the Chicago John Reed Club, published his poems in Left Front, and became the magazine’s co-editor in April of 1934. In June, his poem, “I Have Seen Black Hands” was published in the Party’s primary outlet, The New Masses. Thus, it was as an established Communist author who had risen through the ranks—and as an official delegate—that Wright set out for the first American Writers’ Congress in New York.

3.) New York, New York, It’s A Hell of a Town

Like Kenneth Burke, Wright arrived in New York City having rejected autonomous authorship in favor of a newfound commitment to writing as social action. But Wright’s commitment was not mirrored by the Congress’ organizers. In “The Horror and the Glory,” Wright recounts the disastrous first evening of his trip. Wright and a group of fellow delegates hitchhiked from Chicago to New York in time for the Congress’ opening ceremonies on Friday, April 26, 1935. Upon the group’s arrival, the representatives of the New York John Reed Club were prepared to house the white delegates, but due to the potential racism of local hosts, were unable to provide accommodations for Wright. After the opening session, Wright wandered the streets of New York until nearly 3 a.m., when a chance meeting with a fellow Chicago club member resulted in three hours of rest on a cot in the kitchen of a relatively generous local. Wright describes Saturday as a day in which “I sat through the congress sessions, but what I heard did not touch me” (349). That evening, he again wandered the streets before finding accommodations at the Negro Young Men’s Christian Association in Harlem. The following morning, Wright “lay in bed thinking: I’ve got to go it alone. . . . I’ve got to learn how again” (350). While Wright here recalls Saturday evening as the point at which he first felt a decisive break with the Party, he nevertheless was an active participant in the Congress’ Sunday sessions.

On Sunday morning, the Congress’ final meeting was dominated by Granville Hicks’ paper, “The Dialectic Evolution of Marxist Criticism,” which, predictably, set the stage for the founding of the League of American Writers, scheduled for the end of the meeting. But the birth of the League was not an extension of the existing Party activities. Rather, it was a calculated substitution. While the Congress’ final gesture was the foundation of the League, its penultimate gesture was to vote the John Reed Clubs out of existence.

In her 1995 book The Long War: The Intellectual People’s Front and Anti-Stalinism, historian Judy Kutulas identifies the John Reed Clubs as having been “the only place young day laborers, bricklayers and factory workers might be taken seriously as writers” (41). Wright fit this profile: in the years immediately prior to his attendance at the Congress, he labored in Chicago as a postal worker, a street sweeper, a hospital porter, and a counselor at a South Side boys’ club. According to Kutulas, the first John Reed Club was

a spontaneous creation by young writers with nowhere to go. For a while they tried meeting at The New Masses’ offices, but the staff there treated them badly and they decided to find their own office and organize themselves. (40)

The John Reed Clubs were, within the context of the Party, tremendously popular. By 1934, there were at least thirty clubs with a membership of at least 1,200. And most of the thirty clubs, like the Chicago Club, published their own magazines. Nevertheless, late in 1934, in the last of a series of annual John Reed Club Congresses, the Communist Party leadership determined to eliminate the Clubs. Kutulas reports that the initial rationale for the closing was a desire to build a “more inclusive cultural organization with a more respectable membership” (90). But the stated goal of inclusiveness was, in Wright’s eyes, quickly compromised by the Party’s desire to lure “leading” writers. Wright attended this last John Reed Club Congress, and recalls his distress at hearing the Party functionaries’ plan:

Then I was stunned when I heard a nationally known Communist announce a decision to dissolve the clubs. Why? I asked. Because the clubs do not serve the new People’s Front policy, I was told. That can be remedied; the clubs can be made healthy and broad, I said. No; a bigger and better organization must be launched, one in which the leading writers of the nation could be included, they said. I was informed that the People’s Front policy was now the correct vision of life and that the clubs could no longer exist. I asked what was to become of the young writers whom the Communist party had implored to join the clubs and who were ineligible for the new group, and there was no answer. (344)

Thus, the first American Writers’ Congress, with its stated goal of forming the more “respectable” League of American Writers, represented a significant shift in the Party’s strategy with regard to the promotion of writing. And while Cowley identified the Writers’ Congress as a sign that “the sectarianism of the Third Period was going out of fashion,” and that the more inclusive politics of the Popular Front were taking hold, he also acknowledged that The New Masses’ call to Congress instantiated a new and sinister variant of the Third Period’s exclusivity:

About another important provision in the call, I heard no discussion. It was that members of the congress should be “writers who have achieved some standing in their respective fields.” This meant, in substance, that there were to be no invitations for the eager beginners, the kids, those in various cities who had flocked hundreds into John Reed Clubs or Pen and Hammer Groups. Though nobody spoke of the matter, it had already been decided that such groups were to be dissolved, their meeting places deserted, their dozens of little magazines allowed to die. (“1935” 275)

According to Kutulas, “only about half of the Reed Club membership” were invited to the first American Writers’ Congress, resulting in an eviction of “the youngsters and the proletarians” which, in Kutulas’ estimation, “had no cultural rationalization whatsoever” (91). Wright was among the Reed Club members invited, and his activities at the Congress culminated in a moving defense of the organization which had encouraged him.

Within the Congress’ Sunday meeting, prior to the closing votes, Wright was able to weigh in with a powerful account of his own isolation prior to his membership in the Chicago John Reed Club:

You may not understand it. . . . I don’t think you can, unless you feel it. You can understand the causes and oppose them, but the human results are tragic in peculiar ways. Some of the more obvious results are lack of contact with other writers, a lack of personal culture, a tendency toward escape mechanisms of ingenious, insidious kinds. Other results of his isolation are the monotony of subject matter and becoming the victim of a sort of traditional Negro character. (qtd. in Fabre 119)

Wright’s tenure within the Club was often marked by his own ambivalence. Wright often clashed with party leaders over his insistence that “writers . . . make their contributions in the form of their artistic work” (343). In practical terms, this meant Wright refused to write pamphlets for trade unions, and argued that the Party ought not attempt to “persuade writers to abandon imaginative work to write pamphlets” (342). At times, Wright’s membership in the Club, and by extension the Party, appeared to hinge upon Wright’s ability to maintain a near-absolute autonomy with respect to his writing, and Wright’s insistence on this autonomy occurred despite his oft-stated valuation of the structure and supportive culture of the Club.

In “The Horror and the Glory,” Wright depicts his tenure within the Chicago John Reed Club as a period very nearly marred by the Club’s intermittent commitment to his work as a writer of poetry and fiction. Wright’s resistance to the Party’s daily work was demonstrably offensive to his fellow Party members. In his 1971 autobiography, leading African-American Communist William L. Patterson sharply criticizes Wright for his failure to properly balance his own authorial impulses with the Party’s needs. Patterson observes that Wright

came to the Communist Party and was inspired to begin his career as a writer. Although he was convinced that the political philosophy of Communism was correct he did not see a book as a political weapon. He thought that the creative genius of a writer should be freed from all restrictions and restraints, especially those of a political nature and that the writer should do as he pleased. (149)

Patterson’s critique paints Wright as an autonomous genius incapable of the social sensitivity that characterizes the revolutionary writer. But while Wright did chafe at the Reed Clubs’ restrictions and restraints, at the Writers’ Congress, Wright was the Clubs’ sole vocal defender:

A New York Communist writer summed up the history of the clubs and made a motion for their dissolution. Debate started and I rose and explained what the clubs had meant to young writers and begged for their continuance. I sat down amid silence. Debate was closed. The vote was called. The room filled with uplifted hands to dissolve. Then there came a call for those who disagreed and my hand went up alone. I knew that my stand would be interpreted as one of opposition to the Communist party, but I thought: The hell with it . . .

New York held no further interest and the next morning I left for home. (“Horror” 350, ellipsis in original)

While Wright often was insistent upon his own autonomy, at the Congress he defended the Reed Clubs because they offered relief from the isolation he had felt as he struggled to become an author. Ironically, Wright’s defense of the Clubs, at least as depicted by Wright in “The Horror and the Glory,” returns him to a position of isolation, of autonomy by default. Wright’s memoir casts the Congress at the point where he reverted to going it alone.

Wright’s depiction of these events involves a measure of dramatic license. Wright biographer Gayle Addison asserts that Wright remained in New York to attend Broadway theater, and that his mood was by no means as bitter as Wright’s account suggests. Addison writes that “as he headed back to Chicago after the Congress, despite his disappointing episode there was a feeling of accomplishment, even of elation,” which Addison attributes to Wright’s having been selected as one of fifty members of the National Council for the League of American Writers (82). Similarly, Fabre’s biography lists five plays which Wright saw after the Congress, including three(!) by Clifford Odets and Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Tobacco Road. Fabre also writes that Wright “joined the League’s contingent of the May Day parade and knew the exhilaration of participating in a mass demonstration” (120). But while Wright’s account of his departure from the Congress is almost certainly historically inaccurate, it nevertheless accurately reflects Wright’s identification of the Congress as the point at which his eventual departure from the Party became an inevitability. Wright properly identifies the first American Writers’ Congress as the point at which the American Communist Party formalized a program of support for writers from outside the working class, while dismantling the organizations which had encouraged and published the writing of the proletariat. And while Wright was no doubt flattered by the invitation to join the League, this compliment could not make up for the isolation Wright clearly felt as the sole defender of the John Reed Clubs.

In “The Horror and the Glory” Wright describes himself as “free of all party relations” immediately after the Congress (350). In reality, it took Wright nearly seven years to engineer a decisive break with the Party. Wright’s biographers have struggled to account for the sluggishness of Wright’s response. Fabre attributes the delay to Wright’s belief that in Chicago, “there was no way of being heard as a progressive writer independent of the Party” (120). Addison suggests that the Party functioned much as Christianity had for his Wright’s mother and grandmother, “loom[ing] omnipresent and magisterial” and thereby foreclosing Wright’s ability to leave. Addison’s argument is heavily hedged. She writes that Wright “probably did not make the connection” between the Party and the familial religion, and further, that Wright “needed the Party in a way incomprehensible to even himself” (92–93). But a more satisfying explanation for Wright’s ongoing participation in the League of American Writers and attendant Communist Party functions becomes available when one pairs Wright with the other writer whose experience at the Congress was marked by a profound sense of rejection and isolation: Kenneth Burke.

4.) “I Had a Terrific Desire to Belong . . .”

Wright’s assertion that the Congress’ Saturday sessions left him unmoved is somewhat surprising, in that Saturday was the day that Burke delivered “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” Wright almost certainly attended Burke’s session. Fabre’s definitive biography of Wright lists Burke’s Permanence and Change as one of a handful of books in Wright’s “meager” library in 1935 (112). As most of these books were novels (including works by D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust) it seems indisputable that Burke’s critical writing had a special significance for Wright. Another of Wright’s books was Henry Hart’s edited volume of the speeches from the Writers’ Congress, which cites Burke’s paper as one of two “which provoked the most discussion” within the large session (165), and Cowley identifies the discussion following Burke’s paper as the “central dispute” of the Congress (277). It is difficult to imagine Wright failing to have noted the dramatic exchanges surrounding Burke’s speech. Indeed, Ernest Miller has argued that Burke’s critical writing, and “Revolutionary Symbolism” in particular had direct repercussions in Wright’s fiction, concluding: “[a] small book would be required to detail the various ways in which Burke’s theories have relevance to Wright’s works and what he was seeking to do in his fiction” (181). But Wright’s account might reflect the degree to which he was already distancing himself from the Party as it wa embodied at the Congress.

While Wright’s experience of exclusion upon arrival in New York had already profoundly shaken his faith in the Party, Kenneth Burke began his Saturday morning speech still hungering to share the dominant assumptions of his time. Years later, Burke recalled, “I didn’t want to do anything that in any way would be considered wrong. I had a terrific desire to belong; as they put it later in the mass media, you know, ‘togetherness’” (“Thirty Years Later” 506). Burke sought this “togetherness” despite his own stated unwillingness to join the Communist party, so there were, no doubt, limits on Burke’s “desire to belong.”

The central argument within Burke’s speech is that “the people” be substituted for “the worker” within anti-capitalist propaganda. Burke carefully articulates his rationale for the proposed shift in terminology:

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—just as the Church invariably converted pagans by making the local deities into saints. I should also point out that we are very close to this symbol of the people” in our term “the masses,” which is embodied in the title of the leading radical magazine. But I think that the term “the people” is closer to our folkways. . . . (269–70)

Burke’s argument both anticipates and extends the then-burgeoning movement by many members of his audience away from the Third Period’s extremist isolationism towards the Popular Front’s collective and collaborative agenda. Cowley goes so far as to label Burke an “innocent” whose speech was “more daring than he recognized” because it exposed Burke as “a premature adherent of the People’s Front” (“1935” 279). Indeed, Burke was encouraging a rhetorical strategy which would have the effect of eliding the class boundaries which were so apparent in the call’s specification of “intellectuals, and middle class people allied with the working class.” Burke’s speech specifically rejects the habits of thought which produced this stratified formulation as falling outside the boundaries of artistry. Burke argues:

In the last analysis, art strains toward universalization. It tends to overleap imaginatively the class divisions of the moment and go after modes of thought that would appeal to a society freed of class divisions. It seeks to consider the problems of man, not of classes of men. (272)

Burke goes on to argue that while his argument “bears the telltale stamp of my class, the petty bourgeoisie” he believes that within an American context, the recruitment of this class as well as the proletariat is necessary. To this end, Burke calls upon each “imaginative writer” to “propagandize his cause by surrounding it with as full a cultural texture as he can manage ” and participate in a “process of broadly and generally associating his political alignment with cultural awareness in the large” (273). Burke is suggesting that the lines dividing the classes are permeable, and that much is to be gained when composers from all classes make informed and negotiated crossings of these boundaries.

The edited account of the discussion following the session in which Burke spoke suggest that the assembled audience first addressed itself to Edwin Seaver’s talk on “The Proletarian Novel,” but this discussion nevertheless addresses the central thrust of Burke’s argument. Seaver’s argument was that “the proletarian novel could be one that treated any subject matter provided it did so from the standpoint and in the interest of the working class” (“Discussion” 274). Martin Russak’s response addresses both Seaver’s and Burke’s arguments, in turn:

I think the proletarian novel has got to be, . . . and is already becoming, a novel that deals with the working class. . . . I think that, if we completely understood the nature of class division, we would not say that all people are the same. In the working class, we have a distinct kind of human being, a new type of human being with an emotional life and a psychology that is different, and distinct, and with which we should deal. (“Discussion” 274)

Russak’s response moves from Seaver’s limited argument about the permeability of boundaries surrounding the proletarian novel, to Burke’s larger argument, which suggests that the boundaries surrounding the proletariat itself might also be permeable, and productively permeable at that. Russak’s response counters with a rigorous insistence upon the specificity of the proletariat.

Michael Gold’s response takes issue with Russak’s argument, and supports Seaver’s suggestion anyone with the the proper “viewpoint” might compose revolutionary literature. But Gold then turns to an argument which appears to have Burke as its target:

I think the tone of many of our papers this morning showed that our literary movement is in danger of becoming a petty bourgeois movement. I think we must guard against that. It cannot become that. It is our main task to see that a strong working class is developed in the United States to lead the revolutionary vanguard. We may not lead it. So I think one of the basic tasks of every writer is to stimulate and encourage and help the growth of proletarian literature which is written by workers. (“Discussion” 275)

Gold counters Burke’s suggestion that it is “vitally important to enlist the allegiance of [the petty bourgeoisie]” by arguing instead that the exclusive focus, at least for the time being, should be the encouragement of writing by and from the working class. Gold concludes that “this picture of real life, of real working class struggle” ought to be used as “the final answer we can give to the abstractions of the bourgeoisie” (“Discussion” 276). While Burke’s speech had not yet been directly addressed, Russak and Gold’s responses establish the audience members’ resolute rejection of the bourgeoisie as potential proletarian ally.

The edited transcripts of the audience response to Burke’s paper do not quite support Burke’s famous nightmare visions of his name having “become a kind of charge against me—a dirty word” and “excrement dripping from my tongue,” but the critiques of Burke’s speech by Allen Porter, Friedrich Wolf and Joseph Freeman (Burke’s “locomotive”) are indeed harsh, with both Wolf and Freeman pointing to an uncomfortable link between Burke’s “people” and Hitler’s das volk. Porter argues that Burke’s proposed substitution of “people” for “worker” has “historically . . . been the ruse of the exploiting class to confuse the issue” (“Discussion” 276). In a similar vein, Wolf argues that:

Substitution of the symbol “people” confuses the interests of this fundamental and all-important class and renders a picture of society that is not merely un-Marxian but one which history has proven to be necessary for the continuation of power of the exploiting class. (“Discussion” 277)

Freeman’s lengthy fulmination concludes: “If we do not get lost in ‘myths,’ if we stick to the reality, it is only in the working class that the other exploited classes of society—including the intellectuals—can find leadership” (“Discussion” 278). Over the course of these critiques, Burke was painted as at best, a naive member of the petty bourgeoisie, and at worst, a perpetrator of a brand of deceit and repression redolent of fascism. With the benefit of hindsight, this response seems entirely predictable, given the distance between Burke’s idiosyncratic “Marxoid” positionings and the politics underpinning the Congress.

5.) “Workers” vs. “People”

While contemporaneous critics hesitate only momentarily before labeling Burke a “Communist critic” (Allan Tate does so in a 1936 review of a Burke article, 363) and a “Marxist” (Charles Glicksberg invokes the label in his 1937 review of Permanence and Change, 74), Burke’s connections to Marxism and Communism are complex and convoluted. In a 1991 article on the revised editions of Permanence and Change which eliminated the 1935 edition’s direct references to Communism, James Arnt Aune argues that each edition produces a corresponding Burke. Aune frames his discussion by invoking Borges’ short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which an author’s replication of the Cervantes text centuries in the twentieth century is textually identical to the original, but nevertheless distinct in its meaning because of the radical shift in its authorship and context. Similarly, Aune argues, each successive edition of Permanence and Change offers up a distinct Burke, beginning with “the pragmatic Marxist” who composed the 1935 edition, proceeding to “the premature neoconservative critic of Marxism” who oversaw 1954’s second revised edition, and concluding with “Burke the unrepentant ‘left liberal’” who composed the afterword for the 1984 University of California Press edition (235). Despite Aune’s establishment of this rather orderly progression, a few paragraphs later, he begins to question the first of his characterizations:

Did Burke develop the seeds of a rhetoricized, pragmatic Marxism in 1930s [sic] only to have this project sidetracked by a complex set of forces including McCarthyism; the lack of intelligent, independent Marxist thought in the United States; Burke’s own petty bourgeois class origins; his privileging of art over politics throughout his work; and his own experience of “the god that failed”? Or was Burke all along a non-Marxist American original, a kind of anarchic individualist‚ far closer to the spirit of Emerson, James, Dewey, or Veblen? (235)

Aune’s inability to maintain Burke as “pragmatic Marxist” is attributable, in part, to the lingering appeal of rugged individualism (note Aune’s pairing of independence and intelligence, and the forwarding of the “American original” as the preferred counter to the “Marxist”). But Aune also is struggling to make sense of a conflicted and self-contradictory body of work, which opens itself to a variety of interpretations. In a 1932 letter to Cowley, Burke tends toward the American original, writing:

I am not a joiner of societies. I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it to my own vocabulary. . . . My book [Auscultation, Creation and Revision] will have the communist objectives, and the communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me. (Jay, Selected Correspondence 202)

But two years later, Burke is fully inhabiting the mantle of the pragmatic Marxist in his 1934 New Masses article “My Approach to Communism,” in which Burke flatly asserts:

Communism alone provides the kind of motives adequate for turning the combative potentialities of man into cooperative channels. . . . The Communistic orientation is the only one which successfully produces the combative-coöperative fusion under conditions of peace, hence the only one upon which a permanent social structure can be founded. It does not eliminate the competitive genius, since that is ineradicable, being rooted in the very nature of man. But it does permit of its maximum harnessing to the ends of social cohesion. (19)

The tension between the “literary man” of 1932 and the “harnessed genius” of 1934 figures prominently in Don Burks’ 1991 article, “Kenneth Burke: The Agro-Bohemian Marxoid,” in which Burks concludes that Burke’s Communism is both pronounced enough and personal enough to warrant the coining of a descriptor drawn from two of Burke’s favored self-descriptions. In labeling Burke an “Agro-Bohemian Marxoid,” Burks balances the binary, acknowledging Burke’s evident Communism without requiring Burke’s idiosyncratic formulations to adhere to Party doctrine. By contrast, drawing on materials from the same period, Kutulas describes Burke as “neither a Communist nor a very enthusiastic front worker” whose “appearance on the Congress program was testimony to the new and more inclusive Party line” (92). While Kutulas’ flat assertion that Burke was not a Communist is an overstatement, Kutulas is no doubt correct in identifying Burke’s lack of enthusiasm for the day-to-day chores of the Party’s front.

It is, no doubt, Burke’s distance from the internecine struggles that set the stage for the American Writers’ Congress which assured his proposed shift from “worker” to “the people” would be poorly received despite its arguable prescience. While the audience members who responded to Burke’s speech all were careful to specify both the centrality and ultimate leadership position of the proletariat, all did so against the backdrop of a Congress of writers which had been called, in large degree, to finalize the dissolution of the organizations which arguably were already achieving the goal articulated by Gold in his rebuke of Burke. Indeed, by 1935, the John Reed Clubs had established themselves as remarkable sites for the stimulation and growth of proletarian literature which was “written by workers.”

When Kenneth Burke rose to speak at the Congress, he was speaking before an elite cadre of writers who had achieved “some standing in their respective fields,” without, in most cases, “rising” from the ranks of the working class. More to the point, Burke’s audience was, for the most part, a group of writers who understood themselves as wholly distinct from the members of the proletariat: so distinct, in fact, that several of the members of Burke’s audience had already engineered the eradication of clubs which had served as sites for the Party’s most direct interactions with members of the proletariat. In proposing “the people” as central symbol, Burke was forwarding a term capacious enough to absorb workers and writers alike, and in so doing, he was undermining the Congress’ promise to regard writers as writers whose work was readily distinguishable from both industrial labor and direct revolutionary action.

When Burke rose to speak in his own defense, one of the charges he chose to address was that he had “made Communism appear like a religion” (“Discussion” 279). In response, Burke said:

As the Latin religio signifies a binding together, I take religion and Communism to be alike insofar as both are systems for binding people together—and the main difference at the present time resides in the fact that the Communistic vocabulary does the binding job much more accurately than the religious vocabulary. (“Discussion” 279)

While Burke’s rhetoric is entirely in keeping with the Popular Front’s expansive coalition-building agenda, Burke’s suggestion that Communism might bind together individuals from disparate classes much as the church had, again has the effect of collapsing the distinctions between workers and writers. As the fierceness of the response to Burke’s speech indicates, these distinctions were tremendously important to many of the members of his audience. And while the respondents honored the proletariat in their speeches, they had nevertheless convened a Congress populated almost wholly by “intellectuals and middle-class people allied with the working class,” which ultimately eliminated dozens of Clubs and magazines providing direct access to the writing welling up from the attendees’ proletarian “allies.”

The tensions between the class-based stratifications and separations codified by the 1935 Congress’ formation of the League of American Writers and the more expansive and inclusive line advocated by Burke are thrown into relief in an anecdote which is very likely rooted the 1935 May Day parade which took place shortly after the Congress. Burke was likely marching only steps away from Richard Wright, who, like Burke, had been appointed to the League’s National Council despite having challenged the Party line. Though neither of the following two narratives precisely specifies a 1935 date, each documents events likely to have been the outgrowth of the 1935 Congress. The first occurs in Norman Podhoretz’s tart 1999 memoir, Ex-Friends:

Once, in the 1930s, the literary theorist Kenneth Burke, whose writings were very arcane and obscure, was marching through Union Square in downtown New York in a May Day parade sponsored by the Communist Party. A fierce little man, Burke was calling attention to himself by energetically waving a placard, both sides of which bore the inscription WE WRITE FOR THE WORKERS. Another critic, Harold Rosenberg, towering in his great height over the dense crowd lining the parade route, spotted Burke and his placard. “Kenneth,” the anti-Stalinist Rosenberg yelled with all the sarcasm he could get into his voice, “you write for the workers?” To which Burke yelled back, “It’s an ambiguity in the preposition for!” (14n.)

In the published transcript of a 1965 symposium which gathered many of the key players at the first Writers’ Congress, including Burke, Cowley and Granville Hicks, William Phillips recalls a similar scene:

I remember one incident, Kenneth Burke, when you and I, and a lot of other people, were marching in a May Day parade. I’ve told this story many times and I think it illustrates a lot of things. I remember your joining in the shout, “We write for the working class,” and I remember wondering whether Kenneth Burke really thought he wrote for the working class. How many workers read Kenneth Burke? (“Thirty Years” 501)

Burke’s responses shed tremendous light on the controversy surrounding “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” Burke begins by admitting that he does not recall the incident, but acknowledges that it may have happened before explaining that “[f]ew can subscribe to all of the slogans printed or shouted in a parade, but I probably joined in the shouting” (“Thirty Years” 501). Burke’s clear import in this response is that he now does not and then did not subscribe to the slogan, “We write for the workers/working class” which, as the Podhoretz version of the anecdote suggests, betrays an uncomfortable ambiguity with respect to what it means to write “for” the workers. Both Rosenberg (within Podhoretz’ account) and Phillips are questioning the notion that Burke, already well-known for his challenging prose style, might understand himself to be composing for an audience of workers, whom Rosenberg and Phillips believed to be incapable of a meaningful engagement with such prose.

Of course, as Burke’s 1965 response suggests, he was chanting or waving a slogan well distant from the positions he had outlined in his speech at the Congress. Indeed, in a later retort to Phillips, Burke asserts that his speech directly countered the slogan attributed to him by Rosenberg and Phillips:

That was the basis of my talk at the first Writers’ Congress. That’s precisely what they got after me for: I said I couldn’t write for the working class. That was the irony of the case. (“Thirty Years” 501)

Thus, while Burke’s general argument is for the development of a “propaganda by inclusion” centered around the symbol of the people in order to supplant the “propaganda by exclusion,” which attends what Burke terms, “the strictly proletarian symbol,” Burke admits that as a member of the petty bourgeoisie, he cannot “write for the worker.” But Burke’s program is expressly directed at promoting cultural awareness among writers and among workers in ways which hasten the obsolescence of the class-centered compartmentalizations formalized by the first American Writers’ Congress. Burke cannot write for the working class because he fully expects the members of the working class to write for themselves. And he concludes his speech by encouraging all writers to “propagandize by inclusion, not confining themselves to a few schematic situations, but engaging the entire range of our interests” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 273). In the decades since the Congress, Burke’s argument has come to be seen as both prescient and benign. (At the 1965 symposium, Cowley reads an excerpt from the heart of Burke’s speech, and William Phillips immediately responds, “What was so unorthodox about that?”) But, within the context of a Congress which reinforced the hierarchical divisions between “the intellectuals, and middle class people” and their supposed allies within the “working class,” Burke’s turn from “the proletariat” toward the expansive, relatively classless symbol of “the people” constituted a threatening critique of the proceedings.

While Burke left the Congress convinced that his argument had been wholeheartedly rejected by its audience, there is considerable evidence that Burke’s argument did appeal to Richard Wright, whose subsequent defense of the John Reed Clubs parallels Burke in its insistence upon a Party open to meaningful interaction with the members of the class it professes to champion. Wright’s own development as a writer, achieved while working menial jobs and attending John Reed Club meetings, reinforces Burke’s tacit suggestion that the members of the working class might not need anyone to “write for” them. Indeed, Wright’s experience suggests that “We write for the workers” is problematic not only in its preposition, but in its subject and object.

Shortly after the Congress, Wright commenced writing a short story, “Fire and Cloud” which demonstrates how powerfully Burke’s speech had resonated with Wright. Wright’s attention to Burke’s argument is first suggested in a scene in which the protagonist, an African-American Reverend, Dan Taylor, is challenged by his city’s mayor, and the chief of police:

“You know these Goddam Reds are organizing a demonstration for tomorrow, dont you?” asked the mayor.

Taylor licked his lips before he answered.

“Yessuh. Ah done heard a lotta folks talking erbout it, suh.”

“That’s too bad, Dan,” said the mayor.

“Folks is talking about it everywhere . . .” began Taylor.

“What folks?” interjected Bruden.

“Waal, mos everybody, suh.”

Bruden leaned forward and shook his finger in Taylor’s face.

“Listen, boy! I want you to get this straight! Reds aint folks! Theyre Goddam sonafabitching lousy bastard rats trying to wreck our country, see? Theyre stirring up race hate! Youre old enough to understand that.” (Richard Wright Reader 310–11)

Wright’s dialogue places within the mouth of an evidently racist police office a variation on the arguments that Burke faced at the conclusion of his speech. Burke argued that “the people” was “closer to our folkways” than the various permutations of “the worker.” Friedrich Wolf’s retort centers on Burke’s invocation of an expansive American folk culture. Wolf asserts that Hitler’s “utilization of the myth of ‘das Volk,’—which Wolf translates as “the people”—led directly to the fascist seizure of power in his homeland. Wolf continues:

Substitution of the symbol “people” confuses the interests of this fundamental and all-important class [i.e. “workers and farmers”] and renders a picture of society that is not merely un-Marxian but one which history has proven to be necessary for the continuation of power of the exploiting class. (“Discussion” 277)

Or, to crudely summarize, Reds ain’t folks! While Wolf no doubt arrives at his conclusion from a far more sympathetic and cogent ideological framework than Wright’s fictional Chief Bruden, their conclusions revolve around the maintenance of discrete categories which distance “the people” from the Party.

In the story’s climactic scene, Reverend Taylor returns from a vicious beating at the hands of racist thugs. Taylor’s exchange with his son both echoes Burke, and extends Burke’s argument to the racially polarized circumstances of Depression-era African-Americans:

“We gotta git wid the people, son. Too long we done tried t do this thing our way n when we failed we wanted t turn out n pay-off the white folks. Then they kill us up like flies. Its the people, son! Wes too much erlone this way! Wes los when wes erlone! Wes gonna be wid our folks. . . .”

“But theys killin us!”

“N theyll keep on killin us less we learn how t fight! Son, its the people we mus gid wid us! Wes empty n weak this way! The reason we cant do nothin is cause wes so much erlone. . . .”

“Them Reds wuz right,” said Jimmy.

“Ah dunno,” said Taylor. “But let nothin come tween yuh and yo people. Even the Reds cant do nothin ef yuh lose yo people. . . .” Fire burned him as he talked, and he talked as though trying to escape it. “Membah what Ah tol yuh prayer wuz, son?”

There was silence, then Jimmy answered slowly:

“Yuh mean lettin Gawd be so real in yo life that everything yuh do is cause of Im?”

“Yeah, but its different now, son. Its the people! Theys the ones whut mus be real t us! Gawds wid the people! N the peoples gotta be real as Gawd t us! We cant hep ourselves er the people when wes erlone. . . .” (Richard Wright Reader 335–6)

In “The Horror and the Glory,” Wright remembers the evening of Saturday, April 27, 1935 as the point at which his own distance from the Congress prompted him to contemplate re-learning how to “go it alone.” But his very next fictional effort strikes precisely the opposite note: and it is Burke’s note.

In “Fire and Cloud,” Dan Taylor’s recognition that “the people” must serve as his central symbol sets the stage for the story’s final scene, a dramatic march on City Hall in which black marchers incensed by Taylor’s beating are joined by a sizable contingent of white Communist marchers. United by a shared sense of injustice, the marchers confront the corrupt mayor. Wright depicts Taylor drawing strength from subsuming himself within the crowd:

Taylor looked ahead and wondered what was about to happen: he wondered without fear; as though whatever would or could happen could not hurt this many-limbed, many-legged, many-handed crowd that was he. (Richard Wright Reader 344)

In “Fire and Cloud,” Wright provides a fictional counterweight to the criticism Burke received at the Congress. Taylor’s identification of “the people” as a symbol which must be as real as God, leads directly to his rebirth as an effective leader. (Wright describes a “baptism of clean joy” which washes over Taylor as he surveys a “sea of black and white faces.”) In the early pages of the story, Taylor’s religious rhetoric is inadequate to the task at hand: it is not until he finds a Burkean vocabulary that he is able to bind his people together.

CONCLUSION: A Party of One?

At the 1935 Congress, Kenneth Burke and Richard Wright articulated positions which challenged the Party line. Implicit in their arguments was their recognition that a commitment to political agenda grounded in Marxist principles necessarily implied a critical reexamination of the relationships between composers and their communities. Burke’s “Marxoid” speech, proposing “the people” as a central symbol for Party propaganda challenged the notion that a rarefied class of writers could or should “write for the workers.” Burke argued that revolutionary writing must “invigorate audiences by incorporating sufficient aspects of cultural glorification in its material” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 272). This necessarily obliges the revolutionary writer, whatever his class, to “take an interest in as many imaginative, aesthetic, and speculative fields as he can handle” in order to effectively critique “oppressive institutions” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 270). Burke’s speech does not congratulate the gathered writers for having momentarily abandoned their garrets, nor does he praise them for their willingness to channel their intellectual energies on behalf of the proletariat. Instead, Burke calls upon writers to become symbolic actors, participating as fully as possible in as much of the cultural milieu as they can handle. Within the speech, Burke reduces his argument to the following formula: “Let one encompass as many desirable features of our cultural heritage as possible, and let him make sure that his political alignment features prominently among them.” (“Revolutionary Symbolism” 271). Richard Wright’s speech at the close of the Congress point up the degree to which the Congress failed to live up to this standard. In establishing the League of American Writers and eliminating the John Reed Clubs, the Communist Party was foreclosing the path by which he and other proletarian writers had first participated in the broader cultural milieu.

In the years following the Congress, Wright gradually pulled away from the Communist Party. Wright’s departure is directly attributable to the Party’s failure to commit itself to a program which would create spaces for writers sharing Wright’s proletarian background to develop and participate in meaningful symbolic action. In a 1938 radio broadcast, Wright directly addressed the sense of isolation which was endemic to the writers of his time:

[M]any young writers today, writers whom I know, poets and novelists of talent, find it impossible to identify themselves wholeheartedly with their times. This lack of confidence, this gnawing doubt, manifests itself in the writers by their retreating from the world in which they live and spinning webs of obtuse theories to justify that retreat. They cultivate themselves in isolation and call it culture. (Kinnamon and Fabre 12)

Wright’s language very nearly paraphrases the language of Granville Hicks’ call. Three years after the Congress, Wright testifies that many writers still “live virtually in isolation”—but this is an isolation made all the more troubling by the Communist Party’s failure to articulate a viable alternative to the solitary, originary and proprietary authorship which is produced by the bourgeois market. Ultimately, this failure drove Wright not only from the Party, but from the socially-oriented mode of composition which characterized his early work. The Wright who did not wish to “make individual war or individual peace” was eventually supplanted by a Wright who saw no other alternative. In a 1949 interview conducted from Wright’s new home in Paris, Wright suggests that Wright had determined that the American system of rugged individualism was not individual enough for his tastes:

America demands the abdication of the personality in favor of its conventions. Besides, all the political parties stand for a discipline which also sacrifices the man to ideological coercion. I agree with Sartre, who thinks that the individual can do something by himself. (qtd. in Kinnamon and Fabre 132)

Wright’s insistence upon authorial autonomy recurs throughout his career. Indeed, Addison Gayle identifies Wright’s “hard-fought-for and valued individuality” as a continual source of friction in Wright’s interactions with the Communist Party (92). But Wright’s eventual championing of autonomous authorship is best understood in the wake of the 1935 Congress, wherein Wright spoke eloquently of the tragic consequences of the writer’s isolation, only to find himself alone in his support of the John Reed Clubs.

While Wright began the 1950s having reverted to an individualistic mode of authorship, Burke was in the process of articulating a rhetorical theory adequate to the task of balancing the composer’s desire for autonomy with the need to arouse and fulfill the desires of particular audiences. In his 1950 book, A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke sets the stage for his most definitive discussion of “identification”—the means by which autonomous individuals establish consubstantiality, or the recognition of shared “sensations, concepts, images, ideas, [and] attitudes”—by rehearsing the shifts in Western understandings of “property.” Burke’s reading rejects the excessively materialistic reading of property which he ascribes to Coleridge’s workings of “Imagination.” Burke then suggests that Marxism provides tremendous insight into the the formation of identities “in terms of property” (24). Burke often describes rhetoric as arising from the intersections between individuals and property relations. In a key passage, Burke suggests that effective rhetoric draws not only on the rhetorician’s skill, but on a social circumstance marked by property relations:

[O]ften we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.

If you would praise God, and in terms that happen to sanction one system of material property rather than another, you have forced Rhetorical considerations upon us. (26)

Burke’s rhetoric, having identification as its key term, and drawing upon the complex network of property relations surrounding each individual agent, leads him to redefine “autonomy” as a specialized type of activity occurring within a larger social framework. Burke writes:

The human agent qua human agent, is not motivated solely by the principles of a specialized activity, however strongly this specialized power, in its suggestive role as imagery, may affect his character. Any specialized activity participates in a larger unit of action. “Identification” is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd qua shepherd acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and harm. But he may be “identified” with a project that is raising the sheep for the market. (27)

In Burke’s framework, fully autonomous authorship is an impossibility. A simple shift in perspective reveals the wider context, the “larger unit of action” in which the “autonomous” author’s activities transpire. Thus autonomy is merely a perception of individuality which transpires against a backdrop of larger social and cultural forces. In his rigorous insistence upon viewing the autonomous agent in terms of his larger social context, or, perhaps, his episteme, Burke is anticipating the terms of the Continental critique of authorship inaugurated by Roland Barthes and epitomized by Michél Foucault at the end of the 1960s.

For Richard Wright, the isolation he experienced during the 1935 Congress set the tone for his eventual separation from the Party and his departure from the United States. Frustrated by the Communist Party’s evident inability to accommodate writing from workers even as it professed to “write for the workers,” Wright retreated to the autonomous authorship of his youth, and defended this retreat as the only real option for a true artist. For Kenneth Burke, the isolation he experienced in the wake of his speech appears to have prompted not a retreat but a great leap forward. Burke spent the remainder of his career articulating a rhetorical theory in which socially situated rhetoricians engage their audiences by means of identification. And this identification, as Burke tells us, is “got by property” (A Rhetoric of Motives 45). Burke’s “Marxoid” rhetorical theory takes up the challenge that the Marxists at the 1935 Congress were unable to meet: he develops a theoretical framework which situates composers within their social circumstances, fully acknowledging the impact of property relations on those circumstances, without allowing those circumstances to foreclose the possibility of meaningful symbolic action by any given agent. While by 1950, Burke had superficially established himself as the sole member of what Lentricchia terms his “party of one,” Burke’s rhetorical theory, which resituates authorial autonomy within a larger social landscape of political and cultural forces, suggests that, despite Lentricchia’s complaint, Burke’s American (“self-reliant”) Marxism might not be so absurd after all.

Note from the Author: The general arc of my arguments here leaves me with a special obligation to express my gratitude for the supportive and constructive critiques offered by my anonymous reviewers. Also, an early and significantly different draft of this article was published as a chapter of my dissertation, “The Author(‘s) Proper(ty): Rhetoric, Literature, and Constructions of Authorship,” directed by Don Bialostosky. Jack Selzer was particularly helpful in developing these ideas at that stage, and I thank him for his help.


John Logie is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota

1 The 1945 edition of Black Boy represents little more than half of Wright’s original manuscript, which consisted of two parts, entitled “Southern Night” and “The Horror and the Glory.” The latter half of the manuscript (“The Horror...”) was almost certainly considered too direct in its critique of contemporary America. The remaining portion was eventually published in 1977 as a free-standing volume entitled American Hunger. Happily, the current standard edition, published by HarperPerennial under the Library of America imprint restores the text, presenting Black Boy as Wright intended it to be read. All citations to Black Boy are to this edition unless otherwise noted.

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