Burke Distinguished Scholar Series: An Interview With David Cratis Williams

Conducted By Andy King

David Cratis Williams PhotoAbout David Cratis Williams: David Cratis Williams is a seventh generation Appalachian mountaineer who landed as an Associate Professor of Public Communication at Florida Atlantic University on the flat sands of South Florida in Boca Raton. His study of Burke began in the late 1970's, progressed through several publications on Burke, and continues to this day. He was a funding member of the Kenneth burke Society, served as co-program planner for the Centennial Conference in Pittsburgh with Grieg Henderson (and together they edited Unending Conversations: New Writings By and About Kenneth Burke) and directed the Iowa City Conference. In addition to his work on burke, Williams also publishes in the areas of Appalachian Studies, argumentation, rhetorical criticism, and democratization/democratic renewal. He claims on affinity with Burke: a passion for playing tennis, particularly on clay courts.

King: You have done a great many things in your career but throughout it all you maintained a strong and steady interest in Burke? Why have you continued to explore Burke's theories and methods?

Williams: The Burkean theoretical and critical prism provides one with very resourceful, useful, and ultimately, I think, realistic ways of looking at and coming to understand the realms of human motivations and hence the world of human action and interaction (the 'drama of human relations'). I think it is true that we can become "infected" with Burke's perspectives ("Burke's disease," as he put it; depending upon how much one values the perspective, we might also call it, following Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Burkeology" or, more pejoratively, "Burkeitis"). I am not certain that the disease is curable (or that it should be). So after many years, I remain happily infected.

King: It has been more than 15 years since Burke's death. It still seems as if it were only yesterday, but the world has turned over many times since that violet hour. What do you think Burke would make of the wingspan of the Burkean enterprise if he were alive today?

Williams: My read of Burke suggests that he strongly desired validation of his theoretical and critical enterprise. As one who was frequently 'on the margins' both socially and intellectually, as one who was never properly pedigreed with academic degrees nor properly 'disciplined' within university sanctioned fields of inquiry, Burke thoroughly enjoyed the attention that he received in his later years. However, enjoying recognition and attention are quite different from seeking or encouraging acolytes. In "A Letter from Andover" in an the early issue of the Newsletter of the Kenneth Burke Society (Vol. 2, no. 1, July 1986, p. 3), Burke confessed his awkwardness with a eponymous society whose members were simply to "contribute a modest sum of pay for an honorary wreath on my Pre-Grave," preferring instead that "the members themselves joined the fray" contributing "propositions and plans of their own to do with matters Dramatistic and Logological." His hope was that "my nomenclature is used as the specific point of 'departure,'" with writers "not necessarily agreeing with my positions as interpreted by given members, or even wholly disagreeing; or perhaps but developing some line of thought further."

My guess is that Burke would be flattered, pleased, and somewhat embarrassed at the outpouring of scholarship on or employing of his theoretical and critical perspectives, but that he would take some measure of satisfaction in the range and divergence in that scholarship as well as the interpretive squabbles that have emerged. There is "co-haggling" aplenty, enacting that strangely paradoxical construct: vigorous expressions of differences that remain conjoined, all bounded together within a common nomenclature.

King: What is your favorite Burke story or anecdote?

Williams: This is the question that has me stumped. There are so many wonderful anecdotes about Burke, some funny, some poignant, some sad, some puzzling, etc. Some are published; others abound in the letters, tapes, and films. Still others survive in the oral tradition. Even if I consider only those which arose in my own encounters with Burke, I am somewhat paralyzed by choices—not because I had that many encounters with Burke, but rather because he richly created or inspired good stories. Harold Bloom kissing Burke on the forehead at the Seton Hall conference in 1986, calling him "my rabbi." Howard Nemorov telling how he and Burke, both too drunk late one night to navigate the walk safely between their cabins in Bennington, had spent the early morning hours walking each other home before finally parting halfway between the cabins as dawn approached. Or Burke hosting a party in his hotel room during the NCA in Boston around 1990 when Burke was himself in his 90s, a party that hotel security had to close down because of the noise and congestion. May we all host such gathering when we are in our 90s.

But an exchange with Burke that will always stay with me was of a somewhat different nature. I was fortunate enough in the early 90s to spend a couple of days talking with Burke at his home in Andover. During our conversation, the topic at one point turned to Burke's hearing loss, a problem that began in his youth and continued to worsen throughout his life. He told me that at one point, exactly when I do not recall but I have the impression that it might have been as recently as the mid-1980s, he basically lost all of his hearing. He could not hear the voices of those speaking to him and he could not understand the conversations going on around him. As he was telling me this, he became increasingly agitated. He had become paranoid, he said: he had thought that the conversations he could not hear must be plots against him. He had become quarrelsome. Finally, his family took him to an ear specialist, who used what Burke described as a machine of some sort that was inserted into his ear in an effort to dislodge a deep and compacted wax build-up. As he was telling me this, Burke's agitation increased: he half arose from his seat and leaned across his kitchen table toward me, his eyes riveted on me and his voice gaining volume. As the machine worked, he said, he began to feel pain build up, and the pain grew and grew as the machine got louder and louder. "Louder and louder!" he cried, and tears began streaming down his cheeks as he slowly settled back into his chair. The roar was not a deafening roar, but a roar that announced an end to deafness. Kenneth Burke had rejoined the conversation.

King: Despite your apparent youth, you have been around . Which is the most memorable of the Burke Conferences you have attended?

Williams: Well, I have attended all of them and remember most of them. But a definitional issue comes first. The Burke Society was formed at the Temple Conference, but did not sponsor its own conference until the New Harmony Conference in 1990. The Temple Conference was for me as fledgling Burkean unbelievable, but I think New Harmony really counts as the first "Burke Conference." And for me it is the most memorable, even though I was much more involved personally in the organization of subsequent conferences in Pittsburgh and Iowa City. The reason is of course quite simple: the New Harmony Conference was the only official conference of the Kenneth Burke Society that Burke himself attended.

I participated in the seminar on "Kenneth Burke and Postmodernism," which happened to also be the seminar that Burke attended for much of the time. And of course Burke's presence changed the dynamics within the seminar. Who could forget Burke fielding a cautiously worded question based on a letter in the Newsletter suggesting that scholars should not rely much on recent writings by, or interviews of, Burke. After all, he was quite old and probably not as sharp as he had once been. What, Burke was asked in round-about and indirect fashion, did he think of that. Burke paused and stared for a moment, then opined to the effect of: "In my younger days, I tended to look at the world through a series of what I called my 'representative anecdotes.' Now that I am older, I find that I look at the world more through my representative anecdotage." There was no follow-up question.

Toward the end of the Conference, Burke was interviewed in a plenary session by Jim Chesebro. But I had forgotten a wonderful line from Burke during that interview until reminded of it in Dale Bertlesen's synopsis of the conference, also published in the Newsletter (vol. 6, no. 2, October 1990): "Nobody wins in the unending conversation—it moves on" (p. 6).

King: Why was Burke so hard on the French? He called Jacques Derrida "Dumb Ass Derrida" and he referred to Foucualt as "Wonder Boy Frenchie" and sometimes "Wander-Boy" He once laughed about the matter saying: "Oh, maybe I am just not up to them Frenchies" and used a funny voice. Any ideas about that?

Williams: Hard on the French? Are you kidding? Burke loved the French. He was practically weaned on Laforgue and Flaubert and raised on de Gourmont. He was enamored of France: the pastoral country-sides, the litterateurs, the Symbolists poets, the cafes. The wine. Of course those were the writers of his youth and the France of his dreams. He wanted very much in the post-war teens and the early twenties to be an "exiled" poet, novelist, and short-story writer, drinking in the ambience and inspiration of Paris.

But by the upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s, Burke had moved more toward social theory, with a decidedly domestic slant, and eventually his own theory of human motivation. His focus became more insular; even his "exiled" fellow Francophiles from youth, Malcolm Cowley and Matthew Josephson, "came home" and began focusing more on American literature and biography. Burke's own focus was increasingly on elaboration of his own theories—and defense of them against inquisitors, mostly American. I think he had stopped paying much attention to things in France.

By the time Derrida and Foucault came along, Burke was attending to other things. They did not engage his theories, and I don't think they much attracted his interest. When Burke finally got around to dabbling in some of their writing—and I don't think he did much more than that—he was quite old and I suspect not really at all interested in major new projects that would pull him away from the projects he still had at hand, his "unfinished business." Besides, these weren't the French of his youth, the French he loved. They were mere poseurs in the forever unreal image the artistic milieu of Paris in the 1920s that had burned so radiantly in the imagination of Burke as a young man.

King: How did you first discover Burke and was it a pleasant experience for you?

Williams: It was quite by accident, an extension really of the accident of my matriculation as a graduate student in Speech Communication at the University of North Carolina. Both, as it has turned out, were quite happy accidents. I was an undergraduate English major at Chapel Hill and a member of the debate team. Following my senior year, I planned to work as a VISTA volunteer for a year and then pursue graduate studies in Southern literature, focusing on the relationship between literature and culture. But as that summer ended and I languished in my hometown of Boone, N.C., awaiting word of my VISTA assignment, my "old" debate coach at UNC, Bill Balthrop, called and asked if I would apply for a debate assistantship at UNC, explaining that the position had just come open because the anticipated assistant had changed his mind and decided to go elsewhere. I was excited: I could coach debate, receive an assistantship, and pursue my graduate studies in Southern literature. But then Bill explained the "catch": I had to be in the degree program in Speech Communication, a discipline about which I really knew very little despite the debate team's location within the Department. Not to worry, Bill assured me, I would like rhetoric. Not much knowing what that was, but eager to coach debate regardless, I assented.

The program at UNC in those days was not much like the one today: it was small, a Masters degree only, and did not feature a lot of classes in rhetoric. No sweat, said Bill. He and Robbie Cox would provide independent studies, and they did. It was through those independent studies that I was introduced to Burke, not in great depth but enough to whet my appetite. The Burke that I read offered what were to me new and exciting avenues for looking at the relationships between literature and culture . . . and beyond. "Rhetoric" took on new meaning for me. I became inspired to fulfill the appetite that had been created, so I headed for the doctoral program at the University of Kansas, where I studied Burke with Donn Parson, Karlyn Campbell, and Paul Campbell. I don't know that I would describe it all as "pleasant," but it was certainly an intellectual awakening, one which has shaped much of my thought and work ever since.

My interest in literature and culture made me a receptive host for an infection of "Burke's disease." And it was through Burke that I was led toward broader interest in and study of rhetoric.

King: This concludes the interview. Thank you, David, for what Samuel Johnson called "improving conversation on elevated subjects."