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Rhetoric Society of America

What Happened at the First American Writers' Congress? Kenneth Burke's "Revolutionary
Symbolism in America"
Author(s): Ann George and Jack Selzer
Source: Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Spring, 2003), pp. 47-66
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3886097
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ANN GEORGE AND JACK SELZER

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FIRST AMERICAN WRITERS'


CONGRESS?

KENNETH BURKE'S "REVOLUTIONARY

SYMBOLISM IN AMERICAS'
Abstract. Burke'sfamous performance at the First American Writers'
Congress in 1935 should be understood in relation to its occasion. The
Congress was held to enlist the services of writers in creating a broad
Popular Front, or People 'sFront, to encourage social change, so Burke's
recommendationthat "thepeople " ought to be substitutedfor"theworker"
in CommunistParty symbolism-that "propagandaby inclusion" ought
to succeed "propagandaby exclusion"-was actually in moderatekeeping
with the Congress' broad aim. Though his recommendationwas resisted
by some, Burkewas actually not so much marginalizedby the Congress as
identified with its controversies.

Just about everyone has by now heardthe storyof the firstAmericanWriters' Congress, held at the Mecca Temple and the New School for Social
Research in New YorkCity from April 26-28, 1935. The Congress was attended by 216 of the most politically engaged literaryfigures in America
(people like GranvilleHicks, IsidorSchneider,CorlessLamont,WaldoFrank,
Horace Gregory, Richard Wright, Robert Cantwell, Genevieve Taggard,
JosephineHerbst,MalcolmCowley, Mike Gold, Tillie Lerner[Olson], James
T. Farrell) and many others from Europe and Latin America (e.g., Louis
Aragon,AndreGide,AndreMalraux,Emilio Enricos,andFordMadoxFord).
Sixty-four of the writerswere from 24 states other thanNew York.Thirtysix were women, and twenty-one were AfricanAmerican.Langston Hughes
was unable to attend but sent a paper that was read at the opening session
(New Masses, May 7, 1935, 7). FrankLentricchiahas recounted the basic
story of the Congress, which was one manifestationof that flowering of the
arts, entertainment,and political thought known as the CulturalFront: the
meeting was called, Lentricchiaindicates, "to extend the reach of the John
Reed Clubs" by helping radical writers to "bandtogether"in the cause of
"the destructionof decaying capitalismand the establishmentof a workers'
government"(21).
One of the speakersat the meeting was KennethBurke.Burke's famous
"RevolutionarySymbolismin America,"presentedon the morningof Saturday,April 27,1 examinedin hardheaded,pragmatictermsthe semiotics then
associated with the revolutionarymovementin the UnitedStates,the "myths"

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RhetoricSociety Quarterly
Volume33, Number2 Spring2003

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RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY

48

and "symbols"aroundwhich the left was seeking to create "areasof allegiance"-particularly the terms "themasses" and "theworker." "Considering the matterpurely from the standpointof propaganda,"taking into account the demagogic "procedures of men like Huey Long and Father
Coughlin,'*andborrowingexplicitly from the logic of advertisingmen, sales
organizations,and Hollywood, Burkeurgedthe substitutionof the term "the
people" for "the masses" and for "the workers"because it seemed to him
closer to American values. A term like "the worker"tended to exclude the
very elements that Communist propagandahoped to recruit, Burke felt,
whereas "the symbol of 'the people"' contained "connotationsboth of oppression and of unity": "In suggesting that 'the people,' rather than 'the
worker,'rate highest in our hierarchyof symbols, I suppose I am suggesting
fundamentallythatone cannot extend the doctrine of revolutionarythought
among the lower middle class without using middle-class values." In keeping with the generaltenor of the Congress, Burke's talk attendedbroadlyto
the writer's relation to society; by using the key word "propaganda"even
with reference to high brow or avant garde "literature,"Burke constructed
literature(and especially proletarianliterature)as a form of propagandathat
was in dialogue not only with the converted leftists but with the still
unconvinced. Moreover, Burke was also in the process of arguing strenuously for a broadview of what might constituteproletarianliterature:
The acceptanceof 'the people' as the basic symbol also has the great
virtuethatit makes for less likelihood of schematizationon the partof
our writers.So far at least, the proletariannovel has been oversimplified.
The symbol of 'thepeople' shouldmakefor greaterbreadthin
a writer's allegiance. By informinghis work mainly from the standpoint of his positive symbol, he would come to see, I believe, that a
poet does not sufficientlyglorify his political cause by picturesof sufferingandrevolt.Rather,a poet makeshis soundestcontributionin this
wise: He shows himself alive to all the aspects of contemporaryeffort
and thought.

. .

. The complete propagandist, it seems to me, would

takean interestin as manyimaginative,aesthetic,andspeculativefields


as he can handle.... The writer'sbest contributionto the revolutionary
cause is implicit. If he shows a keen interestin every manifestationof
ourculturaldevelopment,andat the same time gives a clear indication
as to where his sympathies lie, this seems to me the most effective
long-pullcontributionto propagandahe can make.... I am suggesting
that an approachbased on the positive symbol of 'the people,' rather
than upon the negative symbol of 'the worker,'makes more naturally
for this kindof identificationwherebyone's politicalalignmentis fused
with broaderculturalelements.

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Lentricchiabuildshis discussion of Burke'sspeech in rathersensationalfashion, in keeping with legends of Burke'smarginalization:his version emphasizes how reactionto the talk was so hostile that Joseph Freeman,one of the
conference organizers,was moved to shout, "We have a traitoramong us!"
and that someone else explicitly linked Burke's thought to Hitler's; and he
repeatsthe oft told story of how Burkereactedto those responsesto his speech
by having hallucinationsof "excrement. . . drippingfrom [his] tongue" and
of his name being shoutedas "akindof charge"againsthim, "adirtyword""Burke!"(Yagoda).2
Why was the reaction to Burke's address apparently so negative?
Lentricchiaoffers his own explanations,based on his meticulous and powerful reading of the speech and his own formidableknowledge of leftist texts
and contexts. He speculates, with reason,that Burke must have been vilified
for a series of ideological deviances: To use a phrase like "revolutionary
symbolism"was "toconfuse mere superstructuraleffect with the directive . .
. motor principle of revolution."To add the phrase "in America" was to put
on blinders of nationalismthat tended to hide the historical inevitability of
revolution, to imply that the United States was somehow exempt from the
Marxist scenario of class conflict and revolution. To offer "the people" in
place of "theworker"was to employ naively the rhetoricalmethods of Hitler
(who was appealinganalogously to "thefolk").3 To critiqueMarxistdogma
in any way was to part with the pure Marxism of the true believers there
gatheredand to promote a "deviant"Marxism attentive not to theory but to
the practicalimplications of ideology within culture.To offer only a general
critiqueof capitalistculturewas to shift attentionaway from the properfocus
of Marxist attention,economics. And to recommend that the left might appropriate,even speak through, some of capitalism's key mechanisms of repression-to claim that the socialist cause in America could triumphonly if
it could infiltrate the powerful language of liberty so central to American
ideology-was to recommendheresy.Burke,accordingto Lentricchia,"was
asking his radical auditorsto resist thinking of social doctrine as separable
from its medium of dissemination,"was "telling them that right social action, for a literaryintellectual, was preeminentlya literaryact because it was
groundedin . . . therhetoricaltextures. . . andstructuresof discourse."Burke's
listeners had trouble making an integralconnection between radical social
vision and literary discourse: they could not accept his insistence that the
literaryis always a form of social action, could not appreciatethat the proletariannovel was an indulgence because, while it was applaudedby the already convinced, it was also unreadby the working class, alienating to the
unconvinced,andhence risked no real dialogue with non-Marxists(22-28).4
And so the Congress, concludes Lentricchia,was hostile in its response to
Burke:"Wecan see Burke's participation... [as] an intellectual theatre,with

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Burke enacting the father's role of historical materialistand his hostile respondents playing the parts of purists, sons anxious to purge . .. all fascist
misappropriationsof the master's word" (23). WithinLentricchia'stheatre,
Burke played the role of the righteous soul in a morality play, beset by an
audience of mean-spiritedand single-mindedantagonists.
But the complete story of the speech, its claims and circumstances,and
reactions to it is, to quote Burke himself from anothercontext, "morecomplicated than that," particularlybecause Lentricchiawas reading Burkenaturallyenough-against his own project in Criticismand Social Change
(whereinBurke is something of a stand-infor Gramsci)and was interpreting
it under the influence of Burke's later selective recollection of its circumstances. But when the Congress and Burke's role in it are measuredagainst
other contemporaryand not so contemporaryaccounts of the event, including those in Burke's unpublishedmanuscriptsand in other archives of the
American left, it is possible to flesh out the episode and the speech more
fully, and to understandBurke's position as less marginal,though not less
controversial.'

What exactly was the Writers'Congress all about? And what was Kenneth Burke's role in it? First, the Congress was not really an effort to extend
the influence and agendaof the John Reed Clubs, althoughthe Congresswas
indeed developed by many of the members of the John Reed Club of New
York,foundersof Partisan Review. John Reed Clubs had been establishedin
the first years of the Great Depression in New York and other cities to develop a cadre of revolutionaryartistswho would have the power to promote
a proletarianrevolution. Loosely but intimately tied to the AmericanCommunist Party,founded by the editors of TheNew Masses in the same month
that the stock market crashed, modeled after Soviet culturalorganizations
like the ProletarianArtists and WritersLeague, and sportingthe motto "Art
Is a Class Weapon,"JohnReed Clubs discovered andencouragedyoung artists and writers, exposed those young writersto industrialsettings to add to
the authenticityof their proletarianwriting, organizedand promotedart exhibits, supported avowedly leftist little magazines and dramaproductions,
and held dances, concerts, and shows to enhanceproletarianappreciationfor
art even as that art moved the masses towardrevolution. In other words, as
Malcolm Cowley succinctly summarized,John Reed Clubs were organized
"to clarify the principles and purposes of revolutionaryart and literature,to
propagate them, and to practice them" (Dream 135-36). There were JRC
classes and lectures on poetry,fiction, Marxism,andmanyothertopics. Kenneth Burke in fact participatedin the John Reed Club of New York, spoke
formally before the group on several occasions (Dupee to Burke,November
28, 1931; Rahv to Burke, December 26, 1933. Burke Papers),and offered a
course on "EnglishProse"underits auspices-his firstformaleffortat teach-

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ing.6 In 1934 club membership expanded greatly both in New York and
elsewhere.As the Depressionhardened,novices werejoining JRCsin droves,
attractedby the prospectof publishingtheirwork in Partisan Reviewor New
Masses or The Hammer or Left Front or Dynamo or Anvil or Blast or Red
Sparkor one of the many other leftist magazinesthat were springingup, and
active chapters were becoming well established in Boston, Philadelphia,
Chicago, San Francisco, and a great many other cities-even unlikely ones
such as Oklahoma City and Davenport. By the end of 1934 there were at
least 1200 members in thirtyclubs across America (Klehr 350; Homberger
129). In September of 1934, representativesof the John Reed Clubs met in
Chicago to assess their considerableprogressand charttheir future.
But even as the John Reed Clubs were prospering,they were also being
put out of business as a result of larger world events. A November, 1930
conference in Kharkov,Russia, an effort by the CommunistPartyto formulate a unified programfor revolutionaryculture, had already directed John
Reed Clubs and similar groups to be somewhat more inclusive-to include
Negroes and workers (as opposed to just the intellectuals), to increase contacts with other socialist groups,to recruitnew writers(Aaron223; Schwartz
42-45; Homberger 136-38; Cowley, Dream 136). Then Stalin and his allies
in the face of the very real threatbeing posed by Hitler in 1934-1935 moved
toward the formation of a United Front or People's Front or PopularFront
(the precise term dependingon your translation)7,an effort at a still broader,
more inclusive and powerful leftist membershipcapable of aligning with
othersocialist and workers'groups("ThirtyYearsLater"498). It was Stalin's
wish to counter the strengthof the increasinglyintimidatingright by establishing internationalties-alliances with every kind of Westernleft. Instead
of emphasizing strict orthodoxy,instead of persisting furtherin his increasingly notorious policy of exclusion and expulsion, Stalin now out of necessity was encouraginga policy of relative openness and toleration.8 Hence, it
was decided in September, 1934, at the urging of Alexander Trachtenberg
(the leader of the Communist Party'sAmericanpublishing house), that the
John Reed Clubs were to be dissolved in 1934-35 and replacedby an organization that would come to be known as the League of AmericanWriters.As
John Chamberlainexplained in SaturdayReview on May 11, 1935, "since
last autumn... the literary 'line' has changed;the threatof war and reaction
has had its effect. Exposed on the extreme Left, the communists, and the
writers sympatheticto communism, have seen the need of makingcommon
cause against the forces of reaction with all who more or less agree with
them"("LiteraryLeft" 3).
In fact, the Writers'Congress was actuallythe occasion for forming the
Leagueof AmericanWriters(as the officialCallfor the Congressmadeclear');
the LAW was formally instituted at the final session of the Congress as a

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broadlybased "unitedfrontmanoeuvre,with only fascists and 'out and out'


reactionariesexcluded. Membershipin it [did] not imply acceptance of the
Communistpolitical position"(Chamberlain,"First"4), thoughCommunists
and fellow travelersof course dominated.The LAW and the Congress even
officially muted their criticisms of FDR, as the proceedings make clear: "I
think the Communist Party had reached the point of being neutral on the
New Deal but dead againstFascism,"noted GranvilleHicks. "Itwas on those
groundsthat the Congress stood"("ThirtyYears Later"504). May Day observancestwo days afterthe Congresswere literally to the tune of the United
Front,reportedNew Masses on April 30, calling attentionto "the excellent
song 'UnitedFront'by J. Fairbanksjust publishedin the Workers'Song Book,
Number2" (30). The firstAmericanWriters'Congress, then, was something
of an olive branch(Wess 57), an effort not so much at John Reed Club-style
solidaritybut at reachingout to a broaderrange of writers-particularly establishedwriters, not the new finds of the John Reed Clubs-and recruiting
them to a broadly proletariancause. The invitation to Burke to speak was a
partof thatolive branch,given Burke'scritical stance towardthe Partyin his
Auscultation. Creation1and Revision (though it remainedunpublisheduntil
much later), and in Permanenceand Change itself, which had recently been
publishedand which recommendeda "poetic"orientationas a gentle leaven
to the hard-coreMarxistinterpretiveslant. And so the content and thesis of
Burke's speech were constrainedby the occasion: in it Burke was simply
suggesting strategiesfor reachingout thatwere in moderatekeeping with the
official theme of the Congressand that anticipatedthe Comintern'sofficial
declarationof the People's Frontstrategytwo monthslater.A historianof the
CommunistPartyof the United States remembersthe Congress as an opportunityto show that "culturalactivities should be less sectarian,and that sympathetic writers should not be confronted with either joining the party or
[being] perceived as outcasts."'"When, in January,1935, Granville Hicks
drafted for The New Masses and Partisan Review an "official call for an
American Writers' Congress"that invited "all writers who have achieved
some standing in their respective fields [and] who have clearly indicated
their sympathyto the revolutionarycause" to gatherfor the event, Kenneth
Burke was an appropriatesigner.
But, of course, maintaininga consensus about this official mission for
the Congress wasn't easy, especially given the infighting characteristicof
Americanintellectual leftists in New York.Not withoutreason did the April
1935 issue of VanityFair poke fun at members of the radical left for being
"proverbialfor their marplotmischief" and "incapableof cooperating with
any other radical at any time" (Franklin).And not without reason did the
New Yorkerthat April publish a cartoon that capitalized on the ideological
divisions among those who attendedthe Writers'Congress." Many of the

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writersat the Congress in fact felt betrayedby the decision to dissolve the
John Reed Clubs in favor of the League of AmericanWriters,to reach for a
broaderconstituency(Kutulas90). Cowley reportedthatradicalwritersfrom
the bottomof the social spectrum,those originallyrecruitedby the JohnReed
Clubs, were especially alienatedby the PopularFrontpolicy and by the decision to focus on establishedwriters("ThirtyYearsLater"512-13), a perspective that is supportedby RichardWright's bitterreminiscence in The God
ThatFailed."2 Trotskyistswere opposing the People's Front on the grounds
that it obscured the class issue, and many sectarianyounger and old guard
leftists alike wanted to maintainthe resolutely avant garde, politically committed natureof the John Reed Clubs. When hardcoreleftist critics of the
partyleadership(e.g., Max Eastman,EdmundWilson,V. F. Calverton,Sidney
Hook) were subsequentlyexcluded from the list of those invited, their allies
objectedloudly. For theirpart,Mike Gold, JosephFreeman,and other Communist Party hardlinersexplicitly and bitterly protested the moderation of
the plannedproceedingsand arguedstrenuouslyin theirtalks that that artists
shouldportraywithoutcompromiseor exception the lives of workersso that
workerswould be inspired to protest and revolt. "The proletariannovel has
got to be ... a novel thatdeals with the workingclass," noted MartinRussak.
"In the working class we have a distinct kind of human being" (Hart 165).
Novelist Jack Conroy agreed. In an uncompromisingpaper delivered just
after Burke's,'3 "The WorkerAs Writer,"Conroy (lately the editor of Anvil
and authorof The Disinherited, one of the most acclaimed proletariannovels) counteredthe broad and forgiving definition of proletarianwriting favored in Burke's speech:
The works of too many contemporarywritersare imbued with a false
conceptionof workingclass life and whatreally mattersto the worker.
... As Michael Gold has pointed out [in his opening address at the
Congress], American proletarianfiction must of necessity deal with
prophesy,with hopes, with the decay of society and the manifestations
of such decay in the lives of people. (Hart84)
The poet RobertGessneragreed:
The proletarianpoet has not been sufficientlyrevolutionary.... Workers have appearedat this Congressand asked us to come and see them
as they actually are.... One thing that keeps revolutionarywriters
from doing so is the fear thattheirtechniquewould be lost. Leave your
techniqueon the fence. It will come trottingafter you with its tail between its legs. (Hart 177-78)

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Some less established but firmly committed writersattendingthe Congress, like Wright,were put off by what they interpretedas respectable,almost polite proceedings. In any event, according to Cowley,
The effect on the youngerwriterswas to alienatethem from the Communist party.Some of them became Trotskyites,some became independentradicals, and some sheared off from the movement entirely.
There was a new war between literarygenerationsthat startedat this
firstAmericanWriters'Congress. ("ThirtyYears"513)14
In short,then,the Congress occurredat a moment of heateddebatewithinthe
left that evinced its broad strength and appeal-and yet that proved fairly
disastrousin creatingunity. Some (like Gold, Conroy,and Freeman)wanted
to retain ideological purity and intellectual heft even at the expense of pragmatic ends, while others, less devoted to the Communist Party and more
committedto the People's Front(including Burke,EdmundSeaver,andMatthew Josephson) were adoptinga more outward-looking,pragmaticstance.
The controversyin and aboutthe JohnReed Clubs andtheAmericanWriters'
Congress, then, is a representativeanecdote that standsfor the largerdiscussion about revolutionaryculture that was going on outside Club and Congress meeting rooms; as such, it is a vehicle for marking some important
positions andpersonalities in the conversationaroundKennethBurke.What
becomes obvious from a study of this conversation is that not only were
writerson the left anythingbut monolithic in their views in 1935-that is no
doubt one reason why post mortemsummariesof the event differ so much in
their accounts-but that each point on the spectrumwithin the leftist position itself representedand recommendeda complex and uneasy (and often
unstable) negotiation between politics and aesthetics. Response to Burke's
speech, therefore,was boundto be conflicted no matterwhat he said.And so
resistance he got.
That resistance was intensified by Burke's history with his colleagues
who were gatheredat the Congress. Burke'suneasy affiliationwith the left in
the years before 1935 is easy enough to document. It is apparentas early as
Counter-Statement,a 1931 book that(as indicatedpreviously) is deeply conflicted over the claims of the aesthetic versus the claims of the social in art.
It's also apparentin the response to Counter-Statement:late in 1931, for
example,GranvilleHicks (speakingfor many others)reviewedCounter-Statement as the work of an aesthete more interestedin technique than in social
criticism, and Burke and Hicks tradedcounter-blastson the issue of Burke's
social relevance throughout1932.15 It's apparentin Burke's 1932 novel Towards a BetterLife-as stylized, artisticallyexperimental,and aestheticized
a piece of fiction as anyone could find, and something of an antithesisto the

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proletariannovel according to just about everyone except Burke.16Auscultation, Creation,and Revision is anotherrecordof Burke's uneasy negotiation betweenthe politicalleft andthe aestheticright,and documentsin Burke's
personalarchivesmake clear thatin Augustof 1932, Burkewas asked to sign
a petition supportingthe nominationof WilliamZ. FosterandJamesW. Ford,
the Communist candidates for President and Vice-President'7-but that he
decided not to do so even though the most famousleftist writerswere already
aboard (e.g., Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser,
LangstonHughes,WaldoFrank,EdmundWilson,CounteeCullen,andErskine
Caldwell), and even though some of his best literaryfriends also signed and
urged him to join them (e.g., Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, Slater
Brown). Ever independentand capable of containingcontraries,Burkecould
not help critiquingMarx almost as much as he was criticizing capitalist formulations, and his Permanence and Change(publishedright before the Congress), in its appropriationof ThorsteinVeblen and its supportfor the same
"poeticorientation"thatis summonedin its own way in "RevolutionarySymbolism in America,"shows his independencefromdoctrinaireMarxism.The
first editions of Permanence and Change and Attitudes TowardHistory do
indeed pitch Communism, as Norman Gutermanproclaimedin his April 16
review of Permanence and Change ("he advocates the practical action of
Communismin the most noble and eloquentlanguage"),but more at the level
of culture than economics, and never uncritically."Marxismdoes provide
some necessary admonitions as to our faulty institutions,"Burke wrote to
Matthew Josephson on September 11, 1935 (Josephson Papers), "but as I
understandit, it is exactly 180 degrees shortof being a completely rounded
philosophy of humanmotivation";thatis, for Burke,economics simply could
not explain all of culture.Finally, Burke'sown earlyreportof the firstAmerican Writers' Congress in The Nation is notable (as Robert Wess has also
indicated)for showing the subtle contoursof Burke'srelationshipwith Communism."
Burke's position at the Writers'Congress,then, was actuallymore moderatethanLentricchiaimplies, andit was probablythismoderationin CounterStatement,Towardsa Better Life, Auscultation,andPermanenceand Change
that made some people angry with Burke, not any especially radicalparticulars of "RevolutionarySymbolism in America." In pleading for a broader
definition of what might count as proletarianliteratureand as propaganda,in
siding with Seaverand Schneideron thatSaturdaymorningstage, Burkewas
indeed independentand moderate in a way that Freeman,Conroy, Gellner,
and some others could not appreciate;John Chamberlainthereforeblamed
Burke for "pluralism"and "revolutionaryfree-willism"("LiteraryLeft" 17).
Speaking pointedly against "a certain anti-intellectualist,semi-obscurantist
trend among some in the strictly proletarianschool" and admittinghis mem-

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bershipin his own class, "thepetty bourgeoise"(as opposed to the working


class), Burkearguedthatwriterswho "focusall theirimaginativerangewithin
this orbit [of... strikes,lockouts, unemployment,unsavoryworkingconditions, organizedresistanceto the police, etc., ... must produce an oversimplified and impoverishedart, which would defeat its own purposes, failing
even as propaganda since it did not invigorate audiences....

One cannot

extend the doctrineof revolutionarythoughtamong the lower middle class


without using middle-class values."In constructivelycriticizing the rhetorical tactics of the Communists,Burkewas actually in close keeping with the
policies of the PopularFront:"I believe the symbol of 'the people' makes
more naturallyforpropagandaby inclusionthandoes the strictlyproletarian
symbol [of the worker], . . . which makes naturally for a propaganda by
exclusion, a tendency to eliminate from one's work all that does not deal
specifically with the realities of the workers'oppression-and which, by my
thesis, cannot for this reason engage even the full allegiance of the workers
themselves."And he was beginningto develop this point aboutinclusion and
exclusion into his well known, more generalpromotionof identificationas a
"masterterm"of rhetoric:significantly,the termidentificationappearsprominently in the speech, towardthe end of the long passage that we quotedearly
in this essay.

In arguingthus Burkewas clearly also in keeping with the sentimentsof


several other speakersat the conference.John Dos Passos, for example, like
Burkewas resistingthe dualistic thinkingthatconsideredall bourgeoiswriting as falsification and all expressions of working class life as truth. His
paper,"TheWriterAs Technician,"not only defended aestheticachievement
and artistic originality,but resoundinglydefended artisticindividualityand
freedom: "A writermust never, no matterhow much he is carriedaway by
even the noblest political partisanshipin the fight for social justice, allow
himself to forgetthathis real political aim ... is liberty.... A writercan be a
propagandistin the most limited sense of the word, or use his abilities for
partisaninvectiveor personalvituperation,butthe living materialout of which
his work is built must be what used to be called the humanities: the need for
clean truthand sharplywhittledexactitudes."'9WaldoFrank'stalk bore out
his belief that socialism was primarilya culturalor "human"matterand only
secondarily an economic one. While conceding resolutely that "the revolutionary worker [today] must not be a 'fellow traveler' [but one whose] art
must be coordinatewith, not subordinateto, the political-economic aspects
of the re-creationof mankind,"Frankneverthelessalso emphasizedthat"the
term 'proletarian'. . . should be a qualitative,not quantitative,term.A story
of middle-class or intellectual life, or even of mythological figures, if it is
alight with revolutionaryvision, is more effective proletarianart . .. thana
shelf-full of dull novels aboutstereotypicalworkers"(Hart71-76). The young

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editors of Partisan Review, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, coathored a


presentationthatwarnedagainstoverly sectarianapplicationsof Marxisttheories to writing. Matthew Josephson's Congress report on the "Role of the
Writerin the Soviet Union,"a role thathe had witnessedfirsthandduringhis
visit to the U.S.S.R. a year before, touched only tangentiallyon the situation
of the American writer,but in a brave presentationjust before the Congress
he expressed frankdisapprovalof narroworthodoxyin criticism: "I believe
thatthe political duties of writerscan be. . . broadenough to embracepeople
of variouspersuasions.20CarlBrowder'sspeech at the generalsession opening the Congress offered the same message of conciliation to the assembled
writers: "Thegreatmajorityof this Congress, being unaffiliatedto the Communist Party,are interestedin what it has to say because all recognize the
necessity of establishing cooperative working relations, a united front....
We don't wantto take good writersand make bad strikeleadersout of them,"
he summarized(Hart68). The Congress was far from revolutionary;it was
out to make friends-and Burke's remarkswere in keeping with that goal,
especially in recommendingthe appropriationof some of capitalism's key
mechanisms of repressionand mythmaking-Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
Actually, the response to Burke's speech was very probablynot all that
hostile. We do not wish to understatethe effects of the criticism that Burke
did receive, for it was a palpable hit that he felt for years. But Burke in his
retrospectiveaccount in 1965 ("ThirtyYearsLater")acknowledged that his
audience actually reacted warmly to his speech, with applause and encouragement. (Characteristically,his talk exceeded the time limit prescribed,but
he was permittedto finish by popularacclaim.) He wasn't drummedout of
the community,as Sidney Hook had been two years earlierfor other remarks
critical of the CommunistParty.Indeed, Burke was one of seventeen people
elected to the League's executive committee two days afterhis speech,21 and
Burkehimself in his commentaryin "ThirtyYearsAfter"describes his election to the executive committee as a reconciliation of sorts with Hicks and
otherswith whom he had been feuding. Josephson,Cowley, Gregory,James
T. Farrell,and Clinton Simpson (of Anvil magazine) respondedfavorably to
Burke's words at the time (as is visible in their letters) and in succeeding
years22;and othersemphasizethe tolerancefor criticaltalkat the Congress.23
Burke's own contemporarysummaryof the Congress in the May, 1935 Nation was anything but the record of an angry alien: the article is most respectfulof the Communistswho organizedthe meeting("divergenciesmerged
into unity"),it dismisses criticisms of his talk in good humored,mock heroic
terms ("[Burke'sspeech] called down on him the wrathof the party's most
demonic orators"),and it interpretsthe Congress as generallyfriendly to his
own general intellectualagenda ("everyone of [the delegates] exemplifiied]

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the philosophic mind"). And Burke's later, 1965 account and the one
Lentricchiadependedon (Yagoda)were nourishedby Burke'sown tendency,
inherited from his membershipin modernist artistic circles, to understand
himself as partof the marginalizedliteraryavant garde as well as by events
thattook place afterthe Congress,includingideological tussles over Stalinism
in the late 1930s, Burke'scomparativewithdrawalfrom politics in the 1940s
and 1950s, and the emergence of McCarthyism.We are certainly not claiming that Burke wasn't bruisedby the response he got, only that the bruising
came not directlyafterhis speech butduringa shorterandmore generalquestion-and-answerresponse period later in the Congress; only that the burly
"OldBolshevik"JosephFreemanbrushedoff the incidentas no big deal later
in the Congress and shook hands with Burke with a smile ("'Well, sorryold
man'-and it was over,"reportedBurke in "ThirtyYearsLater"508]); only
that other responses duringthe question-and-answerperiod were more conciliatory, especially in their published form (including Gold's)24;and only
that the bruising was in part Burke's overly personal response to an overly
charged situation brought about not by his speech but by the situation of
radicals at the meeting. In any case, Joseph Freemanprobablydid not yell,
"We have a traitoramongst us!" anyway but, "We have a snob among us"
(Cowley, Dream 278; Aaron, "ThirtyYears Later"506).'5 And other witnesses of the Congress"thoughtthatthe incident thatI had takenso seriously
was funny [and] laughed"(507).26
We want to close our account of the first American Writers'Congress
with two points. First, one thing we find most notable in Burke's "RevolutionarySymbolism in America"is his emphasis on the tactics of rhetoric,his
understandingof literatureas both persuasion and source of identification.
Burke's own Towardsa Better Life is something of an avant garde book, an
aestheticized effort to insulate the literary from the social, and a surprising
numberof the writersat the Congress (not to mention the more conservative
writerswho did not attend),steeped in one version of modernistliteraryideology, persistedas well in understandingliteratureas apartfrom persuasion.
The explicit attentionto the tactics of rhetoricand the shift in focus to identification in this speech strike us as notable therefore,especially in the light
of Burke's laterrhetorical,literary,and critical projects.Burke's assumption
in his speech that literaturewas a species of rhetoric,that "the imaginative
writerseeks to propagandizehis cause," though in a way different from the
lawyer or the ad writer,was probably yet anotherreason why some people
resisted his message.
Second, we read the first Writers'Congress episode to underminethe
legend of Burke'smarginalizationat the Congress because we are at pains to
reverse what we take to be a popularmisconception of him. KennethBurke
is often depicted as some sort of inspired genius set apartfrom society, the

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ANDSELZER/WRITERS'
CONGRESS

brilliantbut eccentric hermit of remote Andover farm who dreamed up his


insights largely removed from other people, someone who once and rather
famously remarkedthathe was "not a joiner of societies" (letter to Cowley,
June 4, 1932; Jay 202-03). Our researchrepeatedly turns up evidence of a
very differentBurke,a highly social Burkewho conceived his ideas while in
conversationand congresswith any numberof interestingintellectualcircles.
KennethBurke was not a gadfly marginalizedby all sorts of establishments
so much as he was an indefatigableculturalworkerwhose brillianceemerged
out of particularmaterialsites and intellectualcircles whose presence can be
measuredand felt in his work-must be measuredand felt, we would contend, if we are to understandKennethBurke well at all. The 1935 Writers'
Congress incident, as Burke himself has taughtus, had a history and a setting. It was not an isolated event but was part of the seamless stream of
interconnectedevents we call culture. And it is as part of culture that the
writings of KennethBurke should be understood.
Departmentof English
Texas Christian University
Departmentof English
Penn State University
Notes
Lentricchiaerroneously placed the Writers'Congress at Madison Square
Gardensand dated Burke'stalk on April 26.
2
story of the response to Burke's talk is also recountedin "ThirtyYears
Later"506-07; Skodnick 16;Woodcock708-09; Klehr353; Wander204; andCowley,
Dream277-78. Stullalso discussesLentricchia'sencounterwith Burke(30-36)-though
for very differentends thanours. Incidentally,for theirsuggestions on earlierversions
of this essay, we thankMichael Magee, RobertWess,andJames Klumpp.For research
assistance, we thankChristopherMalone and DanaAnderson.
3Friedrich Wolf,a Germandelegateto the Congress,madepreciselythis charge
during the Congress: see Hart 167-68 and Rahv. Rahv, from firsthandexperience,
offers a shortsummaryof the objectionsto Burke'stalk that anticipatesLentricchia's
catalog (24).
4 Lentricchia'saccountof Burke'srole in the Congress and his brilliantanalysis of the speech are on pages 21-38.
5Lentricchia cites Yagoda and may have been influenced by Daniel Aaron's
shortaccountof the Congressin his Writerson theLeft,thoughAaronfor some reason
strangelycontendedthateven in 1935 "implicitin all of Burke's social and aesthetic
theorizingwas his belief in the autonomyof the artist"(290). Lentricchiaalso worked
fromthe official proceedingsof the conference,Hart'sAmerican Writers'Congress.In

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what follows we draw from the same sources as well as from the Malcolm Cowley
Papers,the MatthewJosephsonPapers,the KennethBurkePapers,the GranvilleHicks
Papers(includingthe archive of the League of AmericanWritersin Box 33), and the
Joseph FreemanPapers. Our account of the Congress itself is generally in keeping
with Denning'smuch briefersummation(441-44). Denning also understandsBurke's
speech as a key formulationof People's Frontvalues, as does Wander202-04. See also
David Williams' account of Burke and the Congress, thoughWilliams maintainsthe
story of Burke'smarginalization;Josephson,Infidel; Klehr 350-53; and Shi.
6The course is advertisedin the Partisan Review,April-May1934 issue. With
JosuaKunitz,JohnChamberlain,andEdwardDahlberg,Burkewas also partof a JRC
panel on "Bourgeoisand ProletarianTypes in WorldLiterature"on January28, 1934
(Homberger130). For good, brief accountsof the John Reed Clubs,see chapterfive of
Homberger("ProletarianLiteratureand the John Reed Clubs");Aaron 221-30; and
Denning205-12. The JRCsaredocumentedelaboratelyin the JosephFreemanPapers.
I The People's Frontwas formallyannouncedat the SeventhCominternConferenceon August2, 1935 (Cowley,Dream 290-94; and his commentsin "ThirtyYears
Later"497), but as we will show, it was in the air well before then.
I As late as the spring and summer of 1934, devout Marxists-still mostly
unawarethat full employment and budget surpluses in the Soviet Union were being
bought at the price of the deportationof peasants and the tortureof resisters-were
still looking at Hitler as a positive development of sorts, in that the chaos he was
creating would speed the onset of the proletarianrevolution.In April, 1934, for example,the Cominterndeclaredthat"theNazi dictatorship,by destroyingall the democratic illusions of the masses, . . . acceleratesthe rate of Germany'sdevelopmenttoward proletarianrevolution."Earl Browder, secretary of the AmericanCommunist
Party,echoed that assessment: "fascism hastens the exposure of all demagogic $jupportersof capitalism.... It hastensthe revolutionizationof the workers,destroystheir
democraticillusions, andthereforepreparesthe masses for the revolutionarystruggle."
(Both statementsare quoted in Cowley's papers related to The Red Decade in the
NewberryLibrary.) By April 1935, such brave optimism aboutHitlerwas gone. For
an accessible short history of the highly sectarianCommunist"ThirdPeriod"(19281934), when it appearedto the Cominternthat capitalism was in its last days, and of
the change in policy to the PopularFront,see Wald, Farrell 4-8.
9"Webelieve such a Congressshould create the Leagueof AmericanWriters,
affiliatedwith the InternationalUnion of RevolutionaryWriters"(NewMasses, January 22, 1935).
LawrenceSchwartz,Marxismand Culture;quotedin Wess 57.
"The cartoon,by one "Alain"(real name Daniel Brustlein),depicts an artist
who is workingat his easel in his studio loft, presumablyin New York.Surroundedby
monumentalleftist paintingsin the stereotypicalproletarianmodethatdwarfhim from
all sides, he is engaged in something subversive:dressed in the conventionalgarb of
the bohemian artist who prefers beauty to politics, art to life, he has been working
surreptitiouslyon a still life study of fruit on a plate. So engrossedhas he been in his
own privatecreative process and in his traditionalart-for-art's-sakesubjectthat he is
obviously surprisedwhen a looming authorityfigure suddenlybarksto him from behind, "What'sthe meaning of this, Leo? Are you turninginto a dirtybourgeois?"In a

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61

comic way, the cartoonwas implying thatartistsat the Congresswere being pressured,
directly or indirectly, to heel to an uncompromisingleftist artistic programagainst
their better artisticimpulses.
12Wrightreportedin The God ThatFailed that he was appalledin September,
1934, when he heard"thatthe People's Frontpolicy was now the correctvision of life
and that the [JohnReed] clubs could no longer exist" (136). He denouncedthe racism
thathe encounteredat the Congressitself, voted againstthe formationof the LAW,and
scored the narrowclosemindedness of the partyline thathe encountered.Whetherthe
disillusionment that Wright expressed in The God That Failed was a bit of dramatic
license is a matterfor debate, however: Gayle Addison claims thatWrightwas actually elated by his experiences at the Congress(82; see also Logie 126).
13 The Joseph FreemanPaperscontaina specific programof Congress events.
It indicates that Burke's paper at the Saturdaymorning session in the New School
auditoriumwas sandwichedbetweenhardliners':Freeman's"TheTraditionsof American RevolutionaryLiterature"and JackConroy's "TheWorkerAs Writer."Speaking
afterConroy were the less sectarianEdwinSeaver and IsidorSchneideron proletarian
fiction and poetry.
14 Cowley discusses the air of controversyaroundthe Congress in TheDream
of the Golden Mountain,270-79, and in "ThirtyYears,"496.
"The controversyis stimmarizedin Selzer, KennethBurkein GreenwichVillage, 155; 249-50. See that book for a study of the tension between the aesthetic and
the social as it plays out in Counter-Statement.
16 It is not difficult to think that Gessner's words ridiculing technique were
delivered with a glance at Burke and a recollectionof Towards."That'sprecisely what
they got afterme for,"said Burkein "ThirtyYearsLater"(501): "Isaid I couldn't write
for the working class."
17 The petition is filed under"Foster"in the 1932 files of the KennethBurke
Papers at Penn State.
18 Burke's summationexpressed strong supportfor the "vitality"of the Communist Party,but also made it clear thathe was not a Partymember;it expressed solidarity with the need to "considerartin relationto political necessities" but quoted,of
all people, the conservativeJacquesMaritainas articulatingthe sameneed;andit closed
with the hope thatthe "broadsympathies"and"latitude"of the PopularFrontwouldbe
maintainedby LAW.Sidney Hook, it shouldbe noted,caughtthe reservationsinherent
in Burke's summationalmost immediately.In a letter to Burke writtenin early May
(undated;KennethBurke Papers), he said he "read[Burke's]piece in the Nation with
a feeling of keen disappointment.Its quality suggests the attitudeof 'Oh Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief."'
19Dos Passos was not actuallypresentat the Congress,thoughhe was invited.
His paperdid arrivefor the proceedings,however, and is included in Hart78-82. Dos
Passos's words aboutthe Congress, offeredto MatthewJosephson,couldjust as easily
have been utteredby Burke: "Independentthinking is more valuable in the long run
than all this copying out of manifestos.... Withthese Union Squarerahrahboys, there
seems to be appearing . . . a sort of Methodist-rabbinicalsectarianismthat rapidly
becomes a racket.... You can stuff a redshirtjust as easily as any otherkind"(letterto
Josephson February6, 1935, JosephsonPapers;also quotedin partin Shi 171).

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20 Josephson's presentationwas published contemporaneouslywith Burke's


"RevolutionarySymbolism,"in the New Masses of April 30, 1935 ("For a Literary
United Front").Both the draftof the paper(MatthewJosephsonPapers,undatedand
untitled manuscript,1935) and the publishedversion suggest that Josephsonwas explicitly defendingBurkehimself: "A contemporarywriterwhose interestslately have
been chiefly criticaland philosophicalcame one day to the pass where he felt himself
converted to faith in communism;he wrote of his convictions in his own way....
Anotheryoung manwho was but a slightly less recentconvertset to work ... to prove
that my friend(who had publicly announcedhimself as hencefortha championof the
communistmovement)was actuallyan 'unconscious'Fascist!" The paperof Burke's
referredto was probably"My Approachto Communism."We have been unable to
identify Burke'syoung criticwith any certainty,but it is not unlikelythathe was at the
Congress.
21 Otherson the Executive Committeewere WaldoFrank,Malcolm Cowley,
Joseph Freeman,Mike Gold, Henry Hart,Josephine Herbst,Granville Hicks, Matthew Josephson, Alfred Kreymborg,John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Harold
Clurman, Edwin Seaver, Isidor Schneider, Genevieve Taggard, and Alexander
Trachtenberg.After the Congress, Burke, Hart,Seaver, and Hicks worked as a subcommittee/editorialboardto launch a LAW magazine (Buckles to Freeman,June 14
and 24, 1935, FreemanPapers).
22 Josephson, Infidel 371; Gregory to Burke, May 4, 1935 (Burke Papers);
Simpson to Burke,April 30, 1935 (BurkePapers).Cowley madeBurkethe intellectual
hero of his accountof the Congressin Dream(chapter23). Farrell'siconoclasticstance
at the Congresswas not unlikeBurke's.Committedto the left, he nonethelessregarded
"bourgeois"and "proletarian"
literatureto be not culturalstandardsper se but categories to be investigated.His cantankerousengagementwith Marxismthat would soon
lead him to breakwith Stalin was alreadyforming(Aaron, Writers287). Farrelllater
fictionalized the incident of Burke's speech and its response in his novel YetOther
Watersin a way that is rathercritical of Burke-and yet that account also depicts
Burke as less than devastatedby the incident. Their letters to each other before and
afterthe Congressmake lightheartedfun of variouspeople andevents associatedwith
the radicalleft.
And of course Burke could soon take consolation and vindication in events
subsequentto the Congress which in upholdingthe People's Frontbore out the wisdom of his position.For example, "'Frontpopulaire'is precisely the kind of symbol,
or slogan, I had in mind for this stage in ourpropaganda,"he wroteto IsidorSchneider
on May 11, 1936 (BurkePapers;probablyunsent)."Andhere it is in use, by the very
parties(anti-Fascistparties)I had hopedto see using it. I am not silly enough to think
that I had anythingto do with it. But on the otherhand,I am not self-effacing enough
to avoid feeling gratifiedwhen I see thatthe policy prevailsfor which I was bopped.If
anyone thinksthatthe 'symbol of the people' is necessarilyFascist,let him go afterthe
Party,not me." Burkewas respondingto Schneider'ssendingof a review of the Congress proceedingsthat was publishedin Europeand that spoke favorablyof Burke's
contribution(Klingender).Burke'sspeechwas also acknowledgedas prescientin Philip
Rahv's "TwoYearsof Progress,publishedin the Partisan Review in 1938. Moreevidence thatBurke'ssuggestion about "thepeople" as a termwas received favorablyis

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in a letter publishedin New Masses by the poet WalterLowenfels on July 12, 1938:
"MayI suggest thatthe term 'proletarianliterature'be laid on the table for a while and
the term 'people'sliterature'be used instead?"Thenagain,Lowenfels'secho of Burke's
suggestion was opposed strenuouslyby the New Masses editor Joshua Kunitz ("In
Defense of a Term").
23 Chamberlainin the SaturdayReview ("LiteraryLeft") wrote that the meeting "certainlyshowed no willingness to accept any partyview"-though he was skeptical that the LAW could establish a "united front" without people like Hook and
Eastman.Burke's summaryof the event in TheNation also commendedthe tolerance
of the Congress. But for a contraryview, see Wright.
24 While takinga swipe at Burke's use of the term"myth"to describe revolutionary symbolism-"we cannot accept the idea that the class struggle is a myth, or
that the working class is a myth"-Gold nonetheless conceded that "if anythinghas
been cleared up in the last few years, it has been this point: that the revolution is a
revolutionled by the workingclass, andthe lower middleclasses are its allies. Thereis
thereforeroom in the revolutionfor literaturefrom all these groups.The viewpoint, as
Edwin Seaver said, is what is important.The man with the revolutionarymind and
approachcan write a revolutionarybook" (Hart 166). Nevertheless, Burke remained
generally unsentimentalabout the inflexibility of Gold, Conroy,Freeman, and their
camp. "I believe, with the Communists,that the organizedparty nucleus should be
fairly strictin its terminology,"he wrote to HoraceGregoryon May 21 (GregoryPapers). "Butnot, God knows, as naively strictas the old guardrhetoricianswould have
it. If there were a word 'hick' to designate a shoe when worn by a communist, and a
word 'boak' to designatea shoe worn by a non-communist,they would damn you for
a treacherousreactionaryif you suggested that, in certainkinds of discussion, both
'bicks' and 'boaks' could be classified togetheras shoes."
25 Determiningexactly what Freemansaid is now impossible because the official recordof the Congressincludes not a verbatimtranscriptof Freeman'swords but
a statementthathe wrotelateras a representationof his remarks.All post hoc recollections of the event except one use the word "snob"as opposed to "traitor."Aaron in
Writerson the Left (291) accepts Freeman'spublishedcommentsas the actual record
of his words, but the JosephFreemanPapersclearly indicatethatwhat is publishedin
Hartis Freeman'slaterconstruction: see J. F. Evans [Freeman'salias] to Henry Hart,
May 7, 1935: "I have takenthe libertyof editing the discussionfreely.... Ourstenographerbutchereda numberof speeches so that they sound simply stupid. As you remember,they were anythingbut that.In my own case, I happento speak so rapidlythat
in the course of fifteen years of public speaking, I have been unable to find a single
stenographerto follow me. I have my notes of the speech I made at the congress and
find that the steno left out sentences, paragraphs,passages so that the entire meaning
of what I said is lost. As recordedby the steno, Burke'srebuttalhas none of the lucidity
of the original.In his case, and in all otherspossible, we ought to have the speaker(if
immediately available) amend [the record of] his talk." The "notes of the speech"
mentioned by Freemanare still in the FreemanPapers;neitherthe word "snob"nor
"traitor"appearsin those notes.
Incidentally,Freeman,past editor of the New Masses, cofounder of Partisan
Review, proletarianpoet, and tireless workeron behalf of Marxism,was known infor-

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mally as an "oldBolshevik,"but he wasn't very old. Born in the Ukrainein the same
year as Burke (1897), he emigratedto the United States in 1904 when his father,a
rabbi,wished to avoid the Russo-Japanesewar.After graduatingin 1919 fromColumbia (where he had met Burkeas a fellow student),duringthe 1920s he workedas an
expatriatewriterin London and Paris, took jobs as a reporterfor The Liberatorand
several newspapers,committedhimself to leftist causes, and visited the Soviet Union
in 1926-27. FreemanpromotedJohn Reed clubs on trips around the country from
1931-33. For a portraitof Freeman,see Aaron 68-84; 130-40; 365-75.
26 HoraceGregoryin a letter to Burke (May 4, 1935; Burke Papers)describes
reaction to Burke's paperthis way: "My visits to the Congress were irregular,but I
made a point of being there when you read your paper.It seemed to me that all the
answersprovedyour point.And straightpartymembersI've met (not writers)told me
you were on the righttrack-as I knew you were. I thoughtFreemanwas very clever
to remove his objectionto your essay into anothercontext [i.e., the question-and-answer period].The momenthe did so (againprovingyourthesis) anythinghe hadto say
would appearlogical. In every attackthey had to ignore your specific definitions of
people' and 'myth,'which drove the argumentback to whereit was before you began.
This blindnessrises froma 'wordphobia'and the fact thatpeople hate to think." Robert Coates' letter to Burke (undated, 1935; Burke Papers)carries no mention of any
negative reaction to "RevolutionarySymbolism." Claude Simpson consoled Burke
the following day (Burke Papers) by noting in a letter "that your point about 'the
people' was not fully understood;and you were criticized for saying things you didn't
say.... I've seen Joe Freemanand others rush to defend what they think somebody
else may considerpolitical deviations, before. It doesn't mean much, apparently,except thatthe partyis very sensitive aboutits political line (as it must be), andin consequence aboutits slogans.... I suppose the blame must be laid on a certainsectarianism."

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