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Kenneth Burke: Pioneer of Ecocriticism

Coupe, Laurence (2001) Kenneth Burke: Pioneer of Ecocriticism. Journal of American studies, 35 (3). pp. 413-431. ISSN 0021-8758

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Abstract

Nearly every handbook of critical theory acknowledges Kenneth Burke (1897–1993) to be the twentieth-century North American critic who was most ahead of his time. Yet he seems to have been so ambitious that we still do not know how to place him. Indeed, it would require the space of a whole book to trace the extensive but scarcely documented impact which he has had. Concepts for which many other critics became famous may be traced back to him: ‘‘the order of words’’ (Frye); ‘‘the rhetoric of fiction’’ (Booth); ‘‘blindness and insight’’ (De Man); ‘‘narrative as a socially symbolic act’’ (Jameson); ‘‘the anxiety of influence’’ (Bloom). Indeed, it may well be that very anxiety which has led so many contemporary critics to repress his memory. But there is a change in the critical climate, corresponding to the global. This article is written in the hope that Burke will shortly be recognized as the first critic systematically to analyse culture and literature from an ecological perspective. As the dating of our epigraph indicates, he initiated this project over half a century before the rise of ecocriticism in the United States. Moreover, this was no passing phase for him; his whole career may be understood as a profound experiment in green thinking.

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