Dear Kit, Love K.B.
Kenneth Burke at the typewriter. Photo courtesy of the Bennington College digital archive
Hidden in the Bennington College archive is a string of correspondence between longtime faculty members Kenneth Burke and Kit Foster, two very distinct thinkers and personalities who formed a symbiotic meeting of the minds.
Kenneth Burke was a well-known literary theorist and Literature faculty member at Bennington College for twenty years, between 1942 and 1962. His unorthodox approach to critical thought had a great impact on the development of 20th-century philosophy and rhetorical theory.
Catherine Osgood Foster, otherwise known as Kit, was a little-known writer and teacher of Literature at Bennington College for thirty years, from 1934 to 1965, and again in 1968. There is not much documentation to Foster’s life outside of a published guide to organic gardening, a mustard recipe in a New England cookbook, an obit in the New York Times, and these letters. Her obituary speaks little of her personal life; however, her husband’s obituary describes her marriage to Thomas Foster, a poultry farmer, as “front page news” in the town of Bennington, Vermont.
The correspondence in the archive consists of 17 digitized typewriter-written letters sent between Burke and Foster. Most of the letters, all except for one written by Kit, are from Burke to Kit. Two are addressed to Kit and Tom, her husband, and one was written by Burke’s wife Libbie. The one-sidedness of the Burke-Foster correspondence as presented in the archive poses a mystery: where have Foster’s letters of response gone? Are they hidden deeper in the archive? In some dusty basement? Or lost forever? Possibly destroyed?
The content of these letters ranges from playful chitchat to professional discussions of the academic year. The letters indicates that Burke and Foster were intimate friends and intellectual peers. Burke’s letters are whimsical and humorous, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. In a ‘thank you’ note to Foster from August 18th, 1958, Burke playfully writes, “And the fatter you all are, the leaner it’ll make my fat look. And what I need is some lean-looking fat. “ He also references Menenius in the last line of this letter, writing “This is Menenius speaking.” Menenius was a warrior and consul of the Roman Republic who is said to have convinced the plebs to abort their attempt at secession by reciting a fable about the human body. In the fable, the body thinks the stomach is essentially freeloading and so determines to stop nourishing it. Soon after, the rest of the body begins to fail, which makes it realize the stomach does in fact have an important function. Allegorically, the body represented the plebs and the stomach the patrician class. This would have been a typical casual reference from Burke, who was a master Classicist.
On April 9th, 1958, Burke wrote to Foster on letterhead from the Center for Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, where he had been invited to teach. In his letter he uses colorful imagery to illustrate his experience in the West, dryly joking that “you’ll be disappointed to hear that, despite the picturesque increase in radiation hereabouts, our vegetables even yet don’t glow in the dark.” The next paragraph reads oddly, like an erroneously placed passage out of a dramatic novel set in the Southwest. But Burke returns to the mundane, remarking, “If I survive the day, I’ll survive the week,” and signs off on a somber note, “gloomily, in an otherwise most cheerful situation.”
In a letter from September 18th, 1955, Burke brings up playing “hookie” and the stack of papers that will be waiting for him went he returns to work. He then invites Kit and Tom to dinner, and proceeds to describe drinking alcohol on his medication. “Last week I had one bottle of beer and the equivalent of about one good shot of whiskey; otherwise I was sans alky. I don’t know whether Serpasil has this effect upon others; but with me it reduces the interest in alky almost to zero.” This snippet is deeply personal: we learn Burke takes high blood pressure medication and that alcohol was a prominent part of his life until he became medicated. The use of the world “alky” is rather funny. Continuing on in typical meandering fashion, he mentions bringing his son to college and jokes about reading student papers. “Rest of the week, guess what. Reading students’ papers.” He continues, “Am going to see if it’s possible to keep them all tugging without having any of the ropes snap. I wonder…”
The sole letter written by Kit is dated August 13, 1955. It isn’t nearly as humorous as Burke’s musings, but it seems to be more business-related in nature. She talks about types of students and the manners of the class. The most fascinating section comes in brackets at the end of the first long paragraph:
(For all of them, whatever the temperament, it feels as though they were skirting along the precarious edge of the unknown, making salleys [sic] into it as best they can, darting, retreating, merging, dividing according to their temperature and temperament. Not to mention sexuality. One thing we ought to know, and by gorra how CAN we find out? is: how would it have gone if the white-haired man instead of the white-haired woman had led the discussion? In this period of their lives when they are really tussling with their homosexuality-heterosexuality, the URGE TO MERGE so often controls their responses to ideas spouted by female or male teachers, I do believe.) (Have you every done a trial run on anima and animus, and watched what happens?)
Foster comes across as an intelligent woman with a widely elastic mind. She mentions “anima and animus,” maybe in reference to certain pets or people in Burke’s life, but those names are based on physiological theory. In Carl Jung’s school of thought, anima and animus are two primary archetypes of the unconscious mind and are elements of the collective unconscious. The unconscious feminine personality in a man is the anima and the masculine personality in a woman is the animus. These personalities aren’t supposed to be primary aspects of one’s identity; rather, they manifest in dreams and our interactions with others.
Later in the letter, Foster is very upfront about her gratitude toward and admiration for Burke: “I mean, think of how your manna, the words in your helpful insights have enabled us to slay monsters and wake up out of sundry darknesses and come alive in a new way of seeing.” She then lists the names of students and “shapes” them up, essentially rating and gossiping about them. Some of these descriptions are plainly comical.
Comparing the two letters form 1955 and the two from 1958, there is an obvious growth in familiarity and trust. The earlier letters pertain to more professional matters, and those of later years are more humorous and associated with personal/home life. These letters give insight into the inner workings of the Bennington College faculty in the 1950’s, as well as insight into the mind of one of America’s great critics of literary theory and a brilliant and too-little-known female writer.