The Complete White Oxen
Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke
University of California Press, (1968)
Fifteen of the stories reproduced in this edition
Appeared in The White Oxen and Other Stories
Albert & Charles Boni, (1924)
Completion Order and Publishing Dates Pages
The White Oxen 1924 3-42
The Excursion 1920 43-48
A Man of Forethought 1919 49-58
Mrs. Maecenas 1920 59-76
The Soul of Kajn Tafha 1920 77-84
Olympians 1922 85-92
Scherzando 1922 93-98
Portrait of an Arrived Critic 1922 99-104
David Wassermann 1921 105-124
After Hours 1922 125-134
My Dear Mrs. Wurtelbach 1923 135-144
The Death of Tragedy 1922 145-158
The Book of Yul 1922 159-174
A Progression 1923 175-188
In Quest of Olympus 1923 189-206
First Pastoral 1922 207-218
Prince Llan 1924 219-236
Metamorphoses of Venus 1924 237-252 Parabolic Tale, with Invocation 1917 included
Following are brief outlines of each short story contained in the Burke collection. The book is dedicated to “My Wife” and is prefaced with this brief quote.
Lascivam verborum licentiam. . . excusarem, si meum esset exemplum: sic scribit Catullus, sic Marxus, sic Pedo, sic Getulicus, sic quicunque perlegitur.
Translation: I would ask you to excuse the playful candor of my words if I were setting the example, but Catullus writes this way, and Marsus, and Pedo, and Getulicus, and everyone else who can be read all the way through.
Burke also supplied the following Author’s note:
With the exception of “The White Oxen,” these stories have appeared in Broom, The Dial
The Little Review, Manuscripts, Secession, and S4N. They are arranged approximately
in the order of their completion, and represent, it seems to me, a certain progression of
method. In stressing one aesthetic method, we lose others. I see these stories as a
gradual shifting of the stress away from the realistically convincing and true-to-life,
while there is a corresponding increase of stress upon the more theoretical properties of
letters. It is a great privilege to do this in an age when rhetoric is so universally
Everyone needs a source of stability and contentment in this troubled world. This source often arises in the form of other human beings or a special location. In Burke’s opening story, from which his collection gains its title, we see this source becoming the White Oxen at the local zoo. The story unfolds in a surprisingly coherent narrative involving Matthew Carr, who personifies the attitude of Thoreau’s “men who lead lives of quiet desperation… who have to console themselves with the bravery of minks and muskrats.” In this case it is not the lives of minks and muskrats but white oxen that provide the focus for life’s lessons.
Told in five parts, (Of course, for Burke, how could there be any other number?) we are introduced, in part one, to Matthew’s family and childhood. His father inherits money that “enables him to marry and settle down without ever having come to grips with life” (3). It is a quiet household including Matthew, his father, his mother, and his sister Dorothy. Within a short span of time we find that Matthew’s mother dies. His father soon follows. “He rounded out an uneventful life by slipping from a rock and breaking his neck, probably the only vigorous action of his career” (4). Within two years his sister Dorothy was also dead and Matthew was left alone. (5).
Following the deaths of his family Matthew goes to live with his aunt and uncle in Pittsburgh and descends further into his purposeless life. “He never read, perhaps because his father had allowed him only the best of books, and they did not interest him” (6). He spends much of his time walking about the city. Until one day, drawn by the roar of the lions, he enters the zoological gardens. Here, he encounters the white oxen for the first time. Unlike the lions and other animals, that exhibited activities that Matthew perceived to be signs of “treachery” and the potential for misunderstanding, he was impressed with the white oxen’s “deliberate contentment” and their “calm, harmless, sleepy” demeanor as they lolled about their cage (9).
Now fifteen years old, this attachment with the white oxen continues and his time spent with them leads his uncle to impute impure motives to Matthew’s absences. Over supper one evening he said to Matthew. “Matthew, I think your are in love. Boys don’t want to go to the park every morning except for one thing, to moon and coo and cuddle up. And I warn you Matthew, I warn you…If you have to marry her---“ (13).
Matthew continues to visit the white oxen as he moves through his adolescent years. In his last year of high school he meets Waldemar Jones, “universally disliked, and omnivorous reader, who wore his learning as his archididascalus” (17). It is Waldemar that introduces Matthew to Edward Carroll, “ a studious, slightly myopic little fellow who went on steadily maintaining his reputation as the best student in the school” (20). Since Edward was “a frightfully thorough Catholic, and Matthew was of no religious bent whatsoever they hit it off completely.
“Matthew liked Edward and felt very comfortable in his presence. Without knowing it, Matthew was being lulled in a cradle of quiet satisfaction, as when he had seen the white oxen for the first time” (21). This relationship continued through their high school year and resulted in Matthew visiting the white oxen less often. On one rare visit, it occurred to Matthew that “Edward was one of his white oxen! Like them Edward was peaceful, and in repose. Like them, he asked little of life. He had found now that he loved white oxen” (23).
Matthew writes to Edward. “For we became friends; this woman of the streets and I became companions! She became to me what you had been…” (26). “She is one of my white oxen. I loved to think of her as pure, and that thought persisted even though I knew how she was still earning her living. She was very tender to me. But even then the dreadful thing was coming. Why should she have done so monstrous a thing? …that she approached me in a way that neither god nor devil had ever meant for man. And I yielded…” (27).
Matthew could never see this woman again. The first of his white oxen had failed him. Edward wrote back, admonishing Matthew in a jocular manner to just get over it and if he couldn’t to “read some of the sex psychologists” (229).
This reply crushed Matthew and he didn’t even finish reading the letter. Matthew had lost two of his white oxen. “Edward’s congenial apostasy had wounded him more than his affair with the harlot could ever have done. He settled down into himself, almost resigned to expect nothing more. But there was still Gabriel Harding” (29).
Loosing two of his white oxen drove Matthew into a despair that was noticed by fellow worker Gabriel Harding. The description of Gabriel as a “neat, middle-sized fellow, with the colorless but beautifully smooth skin and a peculiarly soft smile” (30) creates a continuing ambiguity surrounding Matthew’s male relationships. Gabriel displays sympathy towards Matthew and Matthew, though trying to resist placing any more trust in human beings, is drawn again to what he realizes is another white oxen.
Matthew and Gabriel decide to room together. Interestingly, we see Gabriel as an avid reader and while absorbed in his books it results in Matthew feeling left out (33). Other irritations arose but overall Matthew came to consider “the interests that had brought them together originally” and “would forget all the past difficulties between them in the sudden rediscovery that here was one of his white oxen, harmless and kindly. The two would spend glorious evenings together’ (34).
Two months later Gabriel made it known to Matthew that he needed extra money. Matthew, in his simple approach to life showed Gabriel where he kept his savings and offered it to him. Gabriel refused it then, but stole it later that night. He immediately left town, realizing he could never bring himself to face Matthew again.
“Matthew slept on, unaware that the last of his white oxen had failed him. But he still had the white oxen themselves” (37).
“He was now twenty-five. He expected nothing, and received nothing. When he looked about him, he saw jackals and coyotes where he had once seen white oxen. But he looked about him very seldom” (38).
So, Matthew learned the hard way. “What most people learn of humanity in a good-natured glance of the eye, he had to acquire laboriously by the cudgelings of experience itself. His life had been the gradual closing up of a shell which was never quite open” (39).
“But there was one attachment left; there were the white oxen. They, at least, had remained stationary” (39).
Mathew returned to his original white oxen. This time he was informed by the guard that he could no longer feed them grass as he had done on earlier visits. Accordingly, the white oxen quit coming up to the fence when Matthew talked to them. “They continued to lay in their favorite places and give Matthew “glances of silent rebuke” (40).
“He was deserted.”
Walking home he was struck by the bright lights and activity of the city. “For a moment a feeling of promise came over him, the hope of a boy of sixteen who sees a vision of futurity, of the world before him. For a few moments he was rich with this unreasonable foretaste of conquest.”
“Then it was gone, leaving him almost physically weakened. He thought again of his white oxen there behind him. He yearned to see things with their dull, slow-blinking eyes, to retire into their blissful sloth semi-sensation. He yearned to be one of these white oxen—he, the purest of his white oxen” (41).
Burke utilizes allegory to give the reader insight into the difficulties and sorrows of being God.
The only human character, “I”, goes for a walk to try and discover something to think about. “Having nothing to do, and having searched in vain among the notes of piano for something to think on, I started off on a walk” (45).
“At last, after trudging on for hours, I came upon a thought” (45).
The stimulus for this thought was an anthill. I observed the anthill from a God perspective, looking down on the ants struggling with burdens, his thoughts became God-like. “As I watched them they seemed so human to me that my heart went out to them. Poor little devils” (45).
As God, I tired of watching the masses and focused on an individual ant. Challenging and tormenting the ant the ant finally frustrated I to the point that I killed it. “I shouted and brought the stone down on his body, his passions, his dreams. Destiny had spoken” (46).
As I watched the other ants they also became irritating. “They were so earnest, so faithful”(46).
In a short time the industriousness and simplicity of the ants was more than I could bear. “And I began stepping on the other ants, digging up the anthill, scattering destruction broadcast about me. When my work was finished, and only a few mangled ants remained alive, my sorrow for the poor little ants had grown until it weighed on me, and crushed the vitality out of me” (46).
I thought about what I had just done, and I was bitter with the thought and “I prayed to God” (46).
Burke then leaves the reader with the reality of this thought experiment. I didn’t really do these things. “I did not address God, for at times I even wonder if there be no God” (47).
Concluding, Burke again gives us insight into his thought experiment and his perception of what it could be like to have the powers and observations of God. “O Almighty God, now I know why we suffer, and ache, and I pity Thee, God” (47).
The agony of having to make decisions, this is the dilemma facing John Carter in this story. “He was to decide a woman’s destiny today, and the woman was atrociously good-looking” (51).
First, Carter decides to flip a penny, in order to decide if he really should carry out his plan. Maybe that is rash, to depend on just one flip for a decision, he thinks. Maybe two out of three maybe would be more fitting to his approach, since he is a man of forethought. To decide if this action is appropriate he draws a card from the deck. If it is an ace he will rely on three flips instead of one. After these cautions he decide to continue.
His plan is to tell Clarisse, his long-time flame and wife of his good friend Dick, that he is really in love with her. Carter had the chance to marry her before she ever married Dick but he was too cautious and didn’t make a decision in time. Tonight he would carry it out. “He reflected with a certain relief that this half-affair between himself and Clarisse was to be settled at last” (53).
He called a taxi and was headed to see Clarisse. “As he was jolted about in the capricious taxi, he tried to form some definite plan of action. For decidedly he was a man of forethought” (54). He thought on the way. “Still, if he began immediately with these sudden tactics, it might lead to something embarrassing. He had better delay until he had made sure…” (54).
The taxi arrived at Clarisse’s. Still uncertain of his plan, he wanted to have the taxi drive around awhile but “the vividness of the scene renewed his zeal. For once in his life he would be wild, incautious. Perhaps it would stir him into a different sort of life, a careless, vicious existence with a maximum of dash…” (56).
The taxi stopped. “Drive through Central Park,” Carter told the taxi driver (57). The Taxi leapt ahead and Carter didn’t carry out his plan. “Crushed! Eternally a man of forethought. Carter was thoroughly sick of himself. For Carter there was nothing; he was ever a man of careful, painstaking forethought. He had the forethought to see that Clarisse was unattainable; he must pay the penalty with his endless mediocrity of action…” (57)
Two days later Carter discovers that Clarisse had run off with a movie actor. “He promptly buys a revolver, loads it, puts it to his head and, being a man of forethought, didn’t shoot himself” (57).
When aesthetics meets capitalism. That seems to be the situation confronting the reader in this story as we find Burke utilizing satire and Burkean symbolism. We find Mrs. Maecenas, the “scandalously younger wife” of the former professor-turned-university-president who had recently passed on.
“Within two years after her husband’s death, she had acquired a unique position in the life of the university” (62).
She became the honorary head of the Athenian Literary Society and the Society of Fine Arts. “It was as patroness of these two organizations that she acquired the flattering name of Mrs. Maecenas” (62).
After five years of attempting to “mother a renaissance” she was getting weary. “Out here in the wilderness… the engineering and agricultural schools grew steadily more vigorous. Everywhere, everywhere, typical young Americans were springing up, sturdy tough daisy-minds that were cheerful, healthy, and banal. How could art thrive here, she asked herself, in a land so unfavorable to artist’s temper” (63). What could she do to stem this tide of pervasive capitalism and banality?
“And then it was that her genius came. …”a rather gawkily
formed young man was reading a yellow paper-covered volume which Mrs. Maecenas
recognized to be a French novel.
There was a slight smell of whiskey in the room. Mrs. Maecenas knew she had found her genius. Yet at this time Siegfried was barely seventeen” (64).
From this first meeting, Siegried spends considerable time at the home of Mrs. Maecenas where the two of them shared many exhilarating moments immersed in books by such authors such as Flaubert, Huysman and de Gourmont. After coming across a five-part volume of the Vulgate Siegfried exclaimed. “The de Gourmont gives you away. And that, down in the corner, the Petronius! Madam. You are a pagan, for who but a pagan would own such lovely tomes? Nay, you are worse than a pagan; you are a lover of art. I am scandalized. I shall expose you before the world” (66).
The two continue their strange, artistic affair, as the last two aesthetic acolytes remaining in the wilderness. Mrs. Maecenas tells Siegfried “…you must come here often and we shall kneel together before the clandestine altar.”
After this, they knelt together no less than twice a week (66).
This mixture of artistic, religious, and sexual connotations continues and there is an occasion where Siegfried reads to Mrs. Maecenas from his ‘Bible’. His readings from the Second Epistle of Josephat and the Psalms of Obad send Mrs. Maecenas into a semi-ecstasy and she tells Siegfried “I am afraid of you, with your eager sadisme litteraire. Your mind is so gloriously unhealthy, so a la Baulelaire” (70).
She continues to praise the young Siegfried and this leads to another exchange where Mrs. Maecenas asks him about his love life. She tells him how much he has to learn yet and she felt it was her duty to aid him. “Faugh! How young you can be at times! Not to know more about oneself than that! You will begin by loving an older woman” (71).
The story concludes with the symbolism and ambiguities continuing. “The dim red drop-light burning in the window, which might have told the world that this was one of Siegfried’s nights” (72). Mrs. Maecenas seems to be resigned to the fact that Siegfried has his life ahead of him and he must go out and magnify his artistic talents to save the world from banality. “For your art’s sake, for America’s sake, you must get up and move…The Muse is a woman, Siegfried, and the formula is that the worse you treat a woman the more she loves you. You may find that if you forget art long enough to live, your art may be all the stronger for it afterwards” (74).
With this admonition, Siegfried reads to her from his most recent play. She then comments about his pallor and pimples. “A few more sentences were offered. She seemed very tired. Siegfried decided tentatively to remember an engagement. “Oh, I am awfully sorry, Siegfried.’ She would let him go so easily, then?…” (75)
THE SOUL OF KAJN TAFHA
Burke, again, touches upon the ideas of life and wisdom. “Nobody knew when Kajn Tafha had been young. Old Kajn was like the great trees, which in their turn are like the great angry rocks. Nobody knew anything about Kajn save that he was as wise as the little animals and that he ate no meat” (79).
But Kajn despises his wisdom since it seems to have robbed him of the life he sees in the children in the village. “O ye miserable gods, you have made me wise, until I can foretell the darkening of the moon… I have walked upright with the awareness of my wisdom, and now that I am wise, what has it gotten me? The ignorant children about me pull back their lips from their teeth, and I know that is a sign of laughter, which is a sign of happiness. I would give my soul to be one of them” (79-80).
So Kajn heads out into the world to sell his soul for happiness. He comes upon a rich merchant, riding on the howdah of a white elephant. The merchant gives Kajn advice on how to obtain youth but Kajn discerns that he is being toyed with and moves on. He next comes upon Beautiful Woman and offers to sell her his soul for youth. She informs Kajn that she doesn’t buy souls and Kajn moves on.
In the mean time Adab-Teegal, an apparently prosperous individual who doubles everything he has ever owned, pursues Kajn. He finally overtakes Kajn where the “old man who was standing on his head in the middle of the road” had recently had an encounter with Kajn. “And when he asked the old man about Kajn, the old man told him to hurry and he would catch him, for Kajn had only just passed. Adab plunged into the squirming darkness” (83).
Adab calls out in the dark for Kajn and offers to lead him home but Kajn replies. “Onward I go, Adab Teegal, for I would sell my soul.” Adab questions Kajn. “Maybe we can’t sell our souls, and maybe we don’t even have souls to sell.” “Then Adab Teegal heard such a horrible shriek in the darkness that he ran all the way home, and nothing was ever heard again of Kajn Tafha” (83).
In this story we witness another unusual relationship involving Mr. J. J. Beck, an instructor in music and, Dorothy, the Howardells’ eldest daughter who was fifteen. Mr. Beck was a man of “…pathetic modesty. Although he knew so much, he seemed to be continually apologizing for his presence. One might almost say that he was timid. He was tall and thin, which with his ailment, the cardiac rheumatism, gave him a very fragile appearance.” This fragile constitution resulted in people treating Mr. Beck with a kind of tenderness that seemed to produce an “air of peace and mildness, and anyone who talked to him for any length of time was left with an impression of how lovely life can be if we but choose to make it so” (88).
“Dorothy was his favorite pupil. Dorothy his favorite pupil, and it was spring!” Were they going to sing together? “That urge, then, was to awaken in them? Mr. Beck’s heart, already weakened as it was by rheumatism, fluttered irregularly with affirmation. The Olympian was rising within him, along with the sap in the trees outside. Apollo was stirring” (90).
But, alas, it was not to be. Dorothy had to leave. At the next lesson Mr. Beck, experiencing “ a sudden fling of insolence,” played a piece for Dorothy. After listening she “broke in with a dutiful, ‘How fine it was, Mr. Beck,’ and that was all gone, too. Without spirit, he gave her her lesson” (91).
After Dorothy had left, Mr. Beck experienced an “unaccountable disgust and reached a determination. He must annihilate Dorothy from his head. For at best he could only awake here out of a dead sleep, at best prepare her for some coarse, brutal youth” (91).
We then find, after an unspecified period of time, Mr. Beck taking Dorothy home from an opera. We are given insight to their thoughts. Dorothy is just glad to be getting home whereas Mr. Beck is remembering the opera. “The duet is so bold: the voices of a man and woman harmonizing, adapting themselves to each other, intertwining” (91).
They pass through deserted streets with “dark houses, shutting away all manner of things, houses that stood out frankly and openly, but within their walls, what slinking possibilities; houses with black corridors, with furniture and people in the shadows. These were sleeping houses, and as secret as caves” (91).
This story begins with a man reading a poem, A Catalogue of Women, to a very moth-eaten person who seems to be enjoying it. The poem was detestable. “Why must men be hog-minded like that, I say. Great heavens! Have we exhausted the play of fresh morning on a lake? Have all the possible documents been written of a star near the horizon?” These musings continue for a brief space and reflect upon things of beauty and contentment in contrast to the detestable thoughts in the previous poems. He than reverts back to the present and concludes. “ I remembered all this, while there spread about me the cool, dank mold from the cellar of his brain” (96).
The author’s final thoughts seem to focus on a strange, dramatic vision of his reality with the image of building a superior hippopotamus to the glorification of the century. “A steam heart will beat against the brazen ribs of the brute, and the ooze of the kidneys will have been studied accurately. And when we have finished, we shall have constructed a vast hippopotamus, which will cast its shadows across the plain, and disfigure the sky to the glorification of our century” (97).
PORTRAIT OF AN ARRIVED CRITIC
Just what are we to make of artists? They seem to be such a strange breed. Alfred is trying to determine how to send the proper message to Adelheid. Should he “say it with flowers?” He doesn’t want to be too “department store.”
This seems to bring the thought of Flannagan and the artists to mind. “Precocious crybabies, Let us, rather, be kindly disposed towards the artist. Let us realize just how pathetic are his bronzes built against time and the universe” (101).
“It is astonishing, but true that there are men who fill their stomachs and burn their oxygen for the sole purpose of perfecting a work of art, although even while they are doing it they are aware that a generation is mewling in the cradle which will have a new idea of perfection” (102).
Alfred continues to consider Adelheid and Flannagan, for there seems to be some connection between the three of them. Alfred thinks back to his adolescence and how he was forced to “get a grip on life” (103).
“Couldn’t we, in the last analysis, divide the intellectuals into two significant categories, the artist and the compleat gentleman” (103)? Alfred seems to envy the artist who is “disorbited, unoriented, reeling with the mental tipple of his talk about unattainable beauty… The artist, however clever he was in the use of his medium, lacked a certain astuteness, a kind of cultured shrewdness, in looking at life and relating it with himself. The disappointing thing was that people admired this lacuna, although no lacuna should be admired. “ (103).
“But we must have artists so long as there are walls to be covered, and Pullmans to travel in; as we must also have ditch diggers.”
“L. to A. He must not forget the lily” (104).
Ita fornicator anima.
“You have it all,” Wright had said. “To begin with, you are a neurasthenic, or at least, you have just recovered from neurasthenia. You are a Jew. You have the memory of sex, although at present you are continent; you are also in love” (107). So we are introduced to David Wassermann, son of a Jewish businessman, torn by thoughts of sex and war and dividing his time between Cynthia and Wright, who is friend and seemingly psychoanalyst.
David is in love with Cynthia, or at least that is what he seems to try to make himself believe since the real intent is to have sex with her. He calls her his “Yiddish vampire” and then adds, “She stinks like a horse. How is it possible to love such a woman? For I can’t like out of it, she stinks. But I want her to stink. It is my way of having my guts ooze out. That ought to cure me of her, but it doesn’t” (108).
This strange relationship remains far too cerebral, for David. Cynthia tells David they do think a lot alike. David replies. “Yes, we think very much alike. Our minds are in perfect copulation. Damn it, I have more important things in this world to do than niggle around with sex” (109).
Later, we find Wright telling David it is the way he words his intentions when he is with Cynthia that get him nowhere.
Part 2 brings us to a discussion about clarity and women as Wright and David get soused. This discussion concerning “clarity” (and the previous part also) is one of the most confusing dialogues I have ever read. Maybe it was just my fatigue as I reread this or it was a Burkean strategy to make a point.
“Thus we see how orderly and social things are without clarity. But with clarity, you must be either a recluse starving on God, or a cur with his nose under a tail.” (115).
Continuing to dwell on Cynthia, David reflects on how “booze, dope, sweating, socialism – they’re the only four escapes, and I’ve tried them all’ (116). He continues to narrate how he once joined the “Red Flag” but when it came down to pledging his word he couldn’t do it since “I am anxious to ally myself with the principles your organization stands for. But I cannot forswear the freedom of disposing of myself as I may see fit at any time. And to me my life is more important than the life of a community however great and oppressed” (116).
As they continue drinking, David takes it upon himself to address the people at the next table about the realities of capitalism and war. He says the greatest hope for revolution is the passing of prohibition since Americans “must have something trivial to revolutionize about” (117).
His next brief speech is an address to Debs. “Debs, we don’t want you. Our constitutional liberties came too easily to us for us to defend the. Regardless of a country’s constitution, it gets the sort of government it deserves; and we evidently deserve a government of hypocrisy, low-mindedness, under the species of eternity, the dollar” (118-119).
Next, tiring of lecturing to Debs, who obviously wasn’t even there, David headed out into the night. He tells Cynthia that his speech to Debs was a monster and this leads to the thought of other monsters in his life. “I quarreled with my father today. He wanted me to learn that dirty Jew business of his. Why must all Jews be either pawnbrokers or in the clothing business! I left the house…That was another monster” (120).
They continue to walk. They were already on the Manhattan Bridge. I could take you now, and hurl you away down there into that black water. Couldn’t I?” David cackled. Cynthia shuddered. “I give it up. Cynthia, will you marry me!” After this unusual proposal “Wassermann brooded wearily on the realization that he had proposed marriage, and was no doubt accepted” (120).
We next find Cynthia and Wright in a room together with candles, discussing the fact that this was to be their “last night together, and their first.” A strange platonic evening ensues and Cynthia eventually falls asleep. Wright contemplates the evenings’ happenings. “And poor little Cynthia would unconsciously take advantage of this. Yes, she was safe. Ferociously, then sentimentally, and then wearily he admitted it, she was safe. She would go to Wassermann with all the technical requirements fulfilled” (122).
The story concludes with Wassermann confiding to Wright. “You dog, you can sit there and smirk me on my way into matrimony. I confess. I have failed. It was marriage or nothing, and my nature abhors a vacuum. I’m done for. Wright, this is my epilogue, these words I am saying to you now” (122).
In an ironic twist, Wassermann’s final words to Wright inform him that he has patched things up with his father and he will become the junior partner in the Wassermann Clothing Company. “Wish me luck, and hope never to see me again” (123).
Howard is on his way home after work. He witnesses a pregnant Italian woman, a Jew peddler, three shopgirls, and a fat woman as he enters the cross-town car (125).
He continues on, goes by his stop and ends up eating in chop house as he continues to the Village. “Finally he got to the house he wanted, went up the stairs slowly, entered” (129).
We find Howard meeting Ramsay, Charlie, and Edna. Shortly, Englander arrives with the booze, and the evening was saved” (129). They play poker and Howard wins the first pot. The drinking continues. Howard tells Edna and Pearl how it almost was and is now between them.
By this time “Howard collapsed into glazedness… Then he got up, consciously put his hat on crooked, consciously let his coat drag, and started home. When he finally got home, he woke his wife while crawling into bed; she cried a little, then they both went to sleep” (133).
MY DEAR MRS. WURTELBACH
“Charles did not cringe at sending the letter, any more than he had cringed at eating breakfast. If it had been Charles who had died, Wurtlbach would have sent a similar letter to his mother; indeed, somewhere in the letter he might even have situated Charles comfortably in heaven and hinted that it is selfish of us to grieve the loss of one who has been called Home” (138).
Charles continues to consider the fact the dear old Wurtelbach was really dead.
Charles thinks of the earlier days and Wurtelbach, Miss Anderson, Anne, the log, Esther, Myrlte, and the bull. This apparently was some type of camp or adventure they had shared together.
“When they reached the Flats, Wurtelbach sneaked away to observe the ridges. Thirty-seven could be seen on a clear day. Wurtlebach counted twelve before he thought to close his eyes. When he opened them again, he picked one little white roof five miles down the valley. Then he sailed from here to there in a beeline, and among the ridges. The thin, dead air made him feel the pulse-beat in his ears. Two months after this Wurtlebach was dead” (140).
We witness a business luncheon of the All-American Corporation. Five hundred crabmeat salads were removed simultaneously, five hundred roasted second joints of capon were brought in their place. The band stopped to change score, and there would have been dead silence if everyone were not hearing his own jaws” (141).
Table 36 was in a pleasant frame of mind and the president of the All-American Corporation gave a speech. He talked of how the company had grown in nine short years and how “little did we think at the time that civilization would develop such an insatiable hunger for our commodity” (142).
How Burke arrived here from the death of Wurtlebach I haven’t figured out yet, though I suspect a deeper symbolism than is apparent at first reading. It ends with the president finishing his speech. “There is the epigram, and there is the epic…and I have squeezed big theoretical tears. If there is one pure joy left with us, it is to pass a tight jobby.”
David, my little man, sling your pebble at the universe (143).
THE DEATH OF TRAGEDY
Argument: From our eagle’s nest above the century, we observe details scattered beneath, finally pouncing upon Clarence Turner as a likely bit of carrion.
Note the excellent facilities of the Standard Oil Company for purveying gasoline at exorbitant prices…and on the return, fill you pipe with the aid of the tobacco trust, for you can smoke on the after-deck of the railway combine’s ferries…(147).
But now the country is going to the dogs, and it is all candy laxatives. Surely the archeologists would conclude that the rites of visceral purgation had something to do with our religion (148).
We continue to receive this synopsis of the capitalist America and “the great lump of the country rolls on… while as for Clarence Turner, his book - thank God – had already reached it eighth edition, and there was the reasonable possibility of his play appearing on Broadway” (150).
So, “if climbing upon the ruins of America, we have reached Clarence Turner…” (150).
Argument: Or rather, having cast about for a theme, we came upon that of Clarence Turner. It is, perhaps, worth further development.
We find successful author, Clarence Turner, in the arms of Florence, who reads Clarence’s books. “See what I was reading? Your book…again and again, one chapter! You cannot tell me that that chapter was not written to me… oh, you know the one! Not being quite sure of the one, Clarence bowed his head in mute acknowledgment that he knew it” (151)
Florence “slid as gracefully into other arms as into his own… which explains after a fashion why he suddenly broke off the affair marrying someone of a less accomplished quality in her voice” (152). This did not prevent Clarence from having tea one more time with Florence (and who knows what else). “Reaching home, Turner hurried straight to his room, where for some hours he wrote feverishly” (154).
Argument: Becoming impatient, the author finally wanders elsewhere, and seems in the direction of a positive beauty, when the old subject returns like gastric juice in the throat.
We come to part three and see that the author is thriving financially because his book has made him lots of money by striking a vital chord in the book-buying publics’ psyche. His inspiration for writing seems to spring from his affair with Florence and he is torn by his indifference towards his wife, who he compares to a drayhorse (156).
He realizes he has come to the end of his love, which one I am not sure, since his wife has left him and he seemingly has decided to give up Florence. “He accepted it more or less consciously that he had given time enough time to the burial of his love…” (155). “The phrase ‘burial of his love’ would not be dismissed as banal, but rather accepted as the accurate dictionary equivalent for the thing itself, and sanctioned by the consensus of the leading minds of the nation” (155).
Turner returns home, throws himself on his bed and sobs. “Lying there sobbing, and the stars do go around the earth. He has read any number of volumes on the play of the mucous membranes. Let us erect a dirty little monument to these intellectuals. There is even the possibility that we shall be driven into the Church by the scurviness of our free-thinkers” (156).
Turner’s convalescence was hastened considerably by the intelligence that his play was really to appear on Broadway; he also became wrapped up in the consequences of a note which had said among other things, “Je te desire” (157).
THE BOOK OF YUL
Burke relates this dreamlike episode, beginning with the third man who sits in the Morris chair. He, along with two other men, is waiting in the cold outside the gates of heaven. After discussing the cold and the idea of frozen crows he gets up and goes to the park and where his mind wanders to the eleventh city.
This city is in the bottom of the sea, he thought, “but no, it is not at the bottom of the sea, or that it is not even near the sea. But it stands, bulky and dead, in the middle of a plain, silhouetted against the sky, and cold” (163).
It is a mausoleum city, and “people that live in this eleventh city; quiet, gray-eyed people, who slip about the stone streets, and in and out of oblong holes which serves as doors. But the under cities are filled with corpses, lying in rows, perfectly preserved, and without smell” (164).
And there is a traveler in this city, by the name of Yul (164).
We now follow Yul through this strange city. It had “a system of transit that had been evolved of great ingenuity (165). He eventually comes to a room with a warm floor. He lay down and takes all his clothes off. Shortly a woman walks in and has him put his clothes back on. She takes him to an alter where she jumps down to the lower city. Yul follows her and after viewing this buried city she takes her garment off to reveal a third eye in what I shall just refer to as very strategic location (168).
When Yul wakes up the woman was gone but “a peculiar sickness was upon him; he longed for his own country, and dropping where he stood, he fell asleep on the first of the granite stairs” (169).
“Later, Yul returned to the stone church” (170). Here Yul witnesses the multitudes singing and the priest giving a sermon and taking the multitudes through a ceremony. The words went out to the multitudes but not with clarity. The multitude, far from being disturbed that the words of it all did not reach them with clarity, rested comfortable on the dips and fluxes of the priest’s voice’ (171).
The rest of the ceremony consisted of the nine being bound on their crosses, nails driven into their hands and the priest reciting a liturgy as this all unfolded. The nine were dropped into the pit and as they reached the bottom of the lowest city faint thumps came up out of the pit (173).
“So all these people are adding their mite to the fortune of Mr. Dougherty.” So begins this surreal account by describing the activity in the office of wealthy capitalist, Mr. Dougherty, who is leaving work early in order to beat rush the hour (177). It progresses through the abduction of Mr. Dougherty from his subway car by airplanes filled with Indians who eventually fly to “one of the deserted islands in the South Seas, where they killed Mr. Dougherty and ate him, which recalls the somewhat similar case of Ellery Smith” (179).
“But there is a difference: that Ellery Smith suffered mishaps of an obviously superhuman or metaphysical import, whereas the loss of Mr. Dougherty bears heavily upon one of the most deplorable paradoxes in all the length and breadth of modern society” (179). With this idea of paradox being introduced the reader is then given a brief synopsis of the “invention of mechanisms and the increase in man’s scope of mechanical effectiveness” (179).
Following, is a segment applying satire and irony, that compares this inventive ability and accomplishment with the divine which then somehow leads to discussion of ghosts, ghouls, demons, and whether the devil’s tongue is rounded, like human tongues, or whether it is “dart-like as a flame” (182). It seems that this discussion intends to introduce the question of what, or who, we can blame for this questionable use of invention and progress.
The import of this paradox, the ability of humans to invent and then not knowing how to use these inventions wisely, allows the thread of the story to progress to thoughts of God. “Yet, almost without knowing it, I find that we are naturally prone to overstress the darker phases of a subject: …giving too much to the devil and his hordes, and not enough to God” (182).
We are next introduced to the child, Argubot, who “never told the truth at all” and “whose father and mother always told the truth” (183). Because they always told the truth the King had his father killed and his mother’s ears cut off. His poor mother is confronted with the dilemma of how to prove that he (Argubot) is not telling the truth, since his father’s ghost told Argubot that he would be king some day and his mother didn’t want him to become another untrue king.
“She puzzled for many days how that she could prove that her son was not true, so that she could whip him. Then a plan came to her; but she would have to lie” (183). By using three kittens she was able to catch her son in a lie but he ran off and became king before she could whip him.
As king, Argubot took a princes for his queen, had a son which resulted in the Queen’s death, mourned five years, had all the money lenders put to death, and taught the young prince to love and protect his subjects (186).
As a wise king, his kingdom flourished, and when he died “his soul rose out of the window, the voice of his Angel-Wife was heard calling him to her couch in Heaven. O glory of their reunion in that gentle land above of the sky” (187).
IN QUEST OF OLYMPUS
Burke again delves into the realm of the divine and God-existence in this five- part story that is told through the first person perspective of “I”. Though it contains some verse, and is larger than life it would probable not qualify as an epic though maybe it is a semi-epic.
The story begins with I on a boat that runs aground on a strange shore. He becomes stranded there and eventually comes to the house where Treep used to live. I seems that I know something of the story of Treep and he relates the following tale.
Treep’s master orders him to cut down the oak tree that Treep loved so much. As he attempted to cut it down the tree defended itself and Treep suffered insult and injury that caused him to become vengeful and attack the tree with venom and hate. Treep does chop it down but wouldn’t you know it. The tree falls on him and kills him (194).
This doesn’t turn out as bad as expected since after having the life crushed out of him Treep begins to grow and is magnified. He becomes big enough to reach a new country that he is told is Heaven. Interestingly the only messengers that come to meet him in this new place “perch on his shoulders like doves. They explained to Treep that they were the former poets of the earth” (195).
In this Heaven, Wawl decreed that Treep should be magnified but they have run out of magnified names so Treep would have to fight another god for a name. He decides to fight either Arjk or the Blizzard god since they are the disliked gods in heaven. He defeats Arjk and throws him out of heaven and takes the name Arijk.
Arjk pledges to Wawl and visits the castle that is so large that it had its own internal weather (196). After leaving Wawl, Arjk went for a wild ride in his chariot, hurling bolts haphazard out of heaven (196) and comes across Blizzard God pursuing Hyelva. While in pursuit of Hyelva the Blizzard God “tore away everything which covered her body…and little bits, whirling about in the tempest, spilled finally out of heaven, and falling, covered whole states and provinces of the earth, so that some houses were sunk even up to their second stories in snow” (197).
This snow fell on West Sixteenth Street in New York City and cost some hundreds of thousands of dollars to haul away (197). On this street the snow blew in the partly open window where James Hobbes was lying on Esther MacIntyre. Hobbes is next seen with Horowitz who explains “The perfection of machinery, and the consequent large-quantity production, has made war an absolute necessity for the first time in the world’s history” (199).
While trying to determine whether Horowitz should have drank some of his whiskey earlier, Hobbes hears Horowitz explain to him again “how war was inevitable at this point in world’s history, and while he was talking Hobbes brought out the whiskey” (200). Hobbes than wrote a poem and went for a walk in the storm.
Some people were sitting in a prominent café in the theater district, when lo! Christ was discovered sitting among them. They want to take Him to a church but cannot decide which to take him to so they take him to a theater. “The play was by a very prominent American dramatist” (203).
During the play… the city administration decided to give Christ the freedom of the city regardless of what might happen to the Jewish vote (203).
After being interviewed, reading the tombstone of Johann Bauer, feeding crickets boos (boogers), he saw battalions of angels that flew towards Him and miracles were scattered upon the earth like seed. (205).
After all these occurrences a Sublime Vortex sucked up into heaven with squadrons of angels. “Christ too began to rise while God called out to Him, smiling AHROLOM AHRLOMMA MINNOR. And Christ answered, MAHN PAUNDA OLAMMETH. Then He entered heaven, the rear armies of angels following. Heaven’s Gate swung shut” (205).
Burke begins this story with the discussion of whether God is present or not. What part does man’s belief in God determine His presence. The interesting premise is presented that God could only be absent “for otherwise we should have an Infinite Being understood by a finite being, which is absurd” (209). A pyramid model of believers is than presented with “countless hordes of ignorant but faithful followers forming the broader, heavily weighted base. At the very top would cluster the body of martyrs, crowned by Jesus. The sands, swirling in the wind, would obviously be the pagans, the heretics, and the like” (210).
This discussion introduces the reader to Brother Angelik, who is having heretical thoughts regarding the church. He wanders far beyond the walls of the monastery, both in a spiritual and physical sense. Here he witnesses the shepherd John and the shepherdess Jocasta “interlocked upon the sod” (212).
With “The forces of sin silently multiplied, filling his brain with their progeny after the manner of vipers”(212) Angelik was obviously struggling for his faith (213). He prays that if it continues to storm he shall remain with his brothers but if the sun shines he will know that God has forsaken him. The sun shone ( 214).
Brother Angelik than wanders over the hills as the shepherd of John’s sheep and comes to where Jocasta’s sheep are grazing (214). A dialogue ensues (quite Freudian I think) concerning kisses, apples, Theodoce, Padua, Zeus, swans, happiness, pleasure, and sophism. Angelik now tries to convince Jocasta that since “they have been wrangling, and their flocks have intermingled” that he should be able “wander thus over Jocasta’s knolls and hillocks” (217).
Jocasta then runs into the thicket and would not appear even though Angelik threatened to kill himself. Of course Angelik has to take a dagger and plunge it into his breast and his blood runs over the ground mingling with the water. “Then in elation, this pure water of Angelik leapt steadily towards the sunlight, and Jocasta, who had come there to drink, drank of him and murmured, ‘How thirsty I had been” (217).
Progamme: In the beginning was the waters of Chaos, with their horizons lost in blackness. This was unbeautiful, and without history. Following the fiat, sprouts that long line of descent ending in Prince Llan.
Prince Llan doesn’t know where Gudruff, his intimate and advisor, has gone. The last time he saw him they were at a table, drinking grog, and talking about the future. So Prince Llan buys a couple women and starts out into life with them (222).
The Prince, seemingly without Gudruff’s advice attempts to make sense out of his life. He finds himself and the two women lost in Siberia, cold destitute and rained on. He builds a fire, appeases his groin, and spews forth a lecture on love and his two women. He mentions poets, individualization, a specific object to adequately symbolize this general, and ends with the statement, “Though shat not commit adulteration” (223).
In this part, Burke discusses Euonymists and Pontificers, and various terms and phrases that I have no clue as to what he is referring to. By the end of the part he is fleeing with his two women again and is advancing into another world (226).
This scene takes place in a dense grove in the midst of a rolling barren plain, rather like the pubes on a white body (226). The Prince sleeps and the two women talk about their previous lives and we discover they have been named Alpha and Nomega. They decide their lives with the Prince haven’t been so bad and then the Prince awakens and sends them away. “Now go, little sealed things, little unplumbed possibilities, little fields unplowed. Ride off in a carriage tight shut, where no ray of sunlight can enter” (228).
In this part the Prince, now alone, turns philosopher. He speaks of the difference between experience and intellect that is probably the most Bukeian part of all the collection. “We must search, not for experience, but for symbols of experience; reason and art each aiming at a formula in accord with its particular properties, its own potentialities” (231). The Prince now is waiting to hear form Gudruff.
The Prince receives a letter from Gudruff, informing him that he is wealthy and had “enlarged his knowledge” (232). He is old and dying and will probably not see the Prince again. Yjr Prince attempts to go to Gudruff but apparently doesn’t make it.
Might Joseph be the marriage of Prince Llan and Gudruff? Might these two unstable types be somehow joined, producing in Joseph a dualism at one with itself, a dualism of systole and diastole, a synthesis?
Burke concludes this strange tale by seemingly implying that this cycle of experience and learning continue to go on. What Prince Llan and Gudruff experienced by being separated is the ongoing dialectic. “Joseph lies in wait for a better understanding. We are nearing the completion of the cycle; …the hero turns to his books, confining himself within the sharply restricted funnel of his lamp’s light. Ultimately laying aside the books, he goes to his woman, and cycle closes” (234).
This selection includes eleven episodes reflecting on unusual condition involving love/sex and an occasional allusion to capitalism.
Burke begins this series with a story of capitalism and sex. We are introduced to a culture that has “come together and voted to live in peace. They made pacts… and in time developed that pleasant convulsion of the muscles, that of baring of the teeth, which is know as laughter” (240).
They possessed a structure of rock and iron they call an edifice “and the flames overtopping this edifice we shall call love” (240).
This was “a rich country… and the people had learned to make all the living things diseased, that when eaten they might be daintier to the palette. These people died with abscesses in the heart… and this was the life of even the sturdier and grosser among them, the peasants”(241).
“There were more inventions, serving some of them to frustrate and others to point her desires” (241).
Next, we witness Paul rescuing Virginia, who has fallen into the sea. Paul drags her out with one hand on her hair and the other on the firm mound covering her heart. He gives her his hut and she makes it clear he is not to enter. Then, “these two hastened to erect barriers of dainties between them. They tried speaking but “language itself was a deflection of their purpose; even the simples words were circumlocutions. …they had placed a hard safe crust above the volcano of their desires”(241).
“Then, cutting across these complexities of evasion, came a storm. Paul and Virginia sat crouching in a cave. Paul’s eyes glistened, Virginia’s hair was tousled, …finally she became limber, and here on the rough ground they bedded’ (242). (Storms and sex seem to go together for Burke.)
1. The Warrior Returns
“Returning from the war (a bullet flattened against her picture worn over his heart) he sings his way back through France… She paled slightly at the sign of him, and her eyes faltered. …and with one stroke he dispatched the head from its body” (242-243).
2. The Homestead Among the Lilacs
In this episode Burke has an elderly couple living vicariously through the love letters of their college age daughter. “She is receiving letters. Then every night the old couple read them over together in secret” (243). One night she meets her lover at a motel for a tryst they had planned in their letters. She returns home the next day.
“That evening, after dinner, she retires to her room, and the old couple sit on the front porch, waiting for their daughter to post her letter, and for the night to fall” (243).
“Milton exclaimed with vigor that she was built like a peasant… Aline discovered that she could be happy with this man.”
“But one evening… when he was to meet her, he came two hours late, breathing heavily, with his eyes overly bright and unfocused. ‘I tried not to come,’ he sighed hopelessly.”
The idyll was over.
“She cried a bit, after which they “made up.” Hereafter Milton was seen notoriously with other women.”
From then on when Milton would see her he would ignore her or greet her with “and aimless familiarity. He assured her that for woman to pride herself on being desired by man was like a cabbage priding itself on being eaten” (244).
4.Death Us Do Part
Miriam had a lover. The lover and her husband become friends and the affair is agreeable to both. Each man respects the other. The wife dies. Then, “after her death a hostility arose between them. (245).
5. The Seduction
He has lived alone for twenty years and every evening he goes to the burlesque show and stands by the stage trying to muster up the courage to pinch a chorus girl as they pass by. One girl drops a package containing a slice of beefsteak. He grabs it, runs home, opens it and “plunges his finger into the tender flesh and pinches it unmercifully. The next morning his landlady finds him dead of apoplexy” (245)
6. Built for Speed
“Although it meant the loss of a fortune if she married him, Florence never hesitated.” Through hardship, hunger, offers of money from her parents if she would come back home, loss of a child, and sickness she did not leave him. “Finally her husband gets a steady job, their hardships are over. She deserts him” (245-246).
7. The Rabbit Skin
A professor and his wife wait five (of course) years for a child. Finally a daughter is born. He goes on long walks with her and often sings a song to her. “By o baby bunting, Papa’s gone a hunting; He’ll bring home a rabbit skin. To wrap his baby Bunting in.” Back at the college he is asked by a colleague to submit to an examination. Wouldn’t you know it? He is sterile. He struggles to maintain a good attitude and succeeds. On returning home his greets him with the good news he is going to be a father again (246).
8. The Tragedie of the Doctor Faustus, Done into Words of Rour Syllables for the Children of this country.
Faustus, an old man, learns that due his incessant desire for knowledge through his entire life, has missed most of what life had to offer. “Thus, at a time when he should have relaxed, looking upon the world with the twinkle of a well-fed mind and belly, Faust saw that the structure of his years should rest upon the foundation of a different youth” (247).
“With the help of artifice, Faust purchased his youth: Faust was now a monster. In purchasing Gretchen, in having to purchase Gretchen, Faust understood exactly the extent of his poverty, and was consumed in his own bafflement” (247).
9. The Tribe of the Maroans; Their Virgin-Worship
The Maroans have some pretty weird customs to dispose of the bodies of young virgin girls that die. Enough said about that.
Burke introduces another weird character with a symbol fetish. “I remember,” he wrote her smiling at the memory of “his own unconscious trick of making love to her by recalling an affection for another” (249).
“We had not known each other intimately at all, but I leaped up suddenly and embraced her. I kissed her, almost without knowing it—so had the act preceded the emotion.”
“After all, that memory, remembered here, was not a fact but a symbol” (249).
“And all that was involved here was the curve of emotions from the complexity to simplicity, a curve which had been materialized, or symbolized.”
“While this woman had been simply the gravitational element; that is, since he was writing her a letter, and a love letter, he had made the unconscious selection of this particular symbol rather than some other” (250).
After a bit more word wrangling we find that, “He requested that she return to her usual mode of hair-dress. And he hoped that she would go to the concert with him” (250).
Advice from an older man, Jim, to a younger man; “When undressing beneath the eyes of a mistress strip first to the waist, then remove shoes and socks, and last, drop the remaining garments at one stroke, so as to pass from attire to disattire without suffering the indignity of intermediate stages”(251).
“If he smiled upon her, her whole body smiled back- by his frown she was left hopeless-she looked at him silently, with the moist dog-eyes he spat”(252).
It appears that Burke had many friends and admirers reading and reviewing his early works. The following are positive reviews and I have not happened across any more critical reviews dealing with his early fiction.
Matthew Josephson, The New York Herald Tribune Books
“This collection of stories, executed in many manners and shifting through diverse moods and forms, composes this first book by Kenneth Burke (The White Oxen and Other Stories). The opening stories are patterned brilliantly after known and respected models. Because of the skill and maturity with which Mr. Burke treats of profoundly American characters, they will have a wide appeal.”
“For the book represents “a progression of method,” according to the brief Author’s Note, and it is really in his later experimental work that he excites me to unstinted admiration.”
“For his continual progression, however, from one form to another Mr. Burke pays a price: the loss to the reader of a sense of conviction, since each last story disproves the foregoing one.”
Malcolm Cowley, The Dial
“… good writing to-day is regarded more and more as an adventure. We seek those territories of the imagination which lie across the border of the last formula. We are driven forward by a quotidian fever which Kenneth Burke like to call ‘a perpetual grailism’; though perhaps a better comparison would be that of travelers, not like Columbus over the seas, but like Gulliver. A book like the The White a Oxen is a voyage of discovery, and its fifteen short stories mark the successive landings.”
John Bishop Peale
Mr. Burke knows exactly what he is doing, what effects he is aiming at, and now he means to go about achieving them. Each of the fifteen stories has been approached as a distinct aesthetic problem; the difficulties have been consciously faced, and an appropriate manner has been found. But for various reasons, the solution of the problem as often as not leaves us quite cold; we can approve the method and grant the correctness of applying it without in the least being excited over the skill with which it has been used.”
Rueckert, William H. Ed. (1969). Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press.
Outline # 1
October 18, 2006