Constance Mayfield Rourke (1885–1941) wrote to her mother in 1921:
I think even for you, certain elements of my character must be difficult to understand, at least their intensity. I am appealed to so strongly by the mystical, the inexpressible. There are times when I could have become a nun, I can understand that now. I could spend hours without speaking, days alone out of doors. I am a mystic. And added to that there is something wild in me. That is the reason I shall never marry.
This letter would likely shock any mother, particularly a mother who grew up in the 19th century. Rourke’s letter to her mother hardly fazed the woman. Constance Davis Rourke displayed similar independence as a young woman, and lived her life, too, decidedly against the grain. Despite her parents’ wishes, the young Elizabeth Davis managed to educate herself furtively, to become a “career woman,” to teach kindergarten, to champion and adopt educational reform movements, to divorce her first husband and to rename herself “Constance.” She gave birth to a girl on November 14, 1885. In some ways, Mrs. Rourke expected that her daughter Constance would not demurely obey society’s rules; she had other plans for her.
Mrs. Rourke alone made the choices about her daughter’s future. Her Irish husband, Henry Button Rourke, suffered from tuberculosis and retreated to a sanitarium in 1887, where he died a year later. He barely knew his daughter, and she remembered nothing of him. Mrs. Rourke brought the toddler to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1888, seeking a teaching position in the local primary school. In 1904, she became the principal, and, inspired by the work of John Dewey and other education reformers, Rourke implemented progressive changes in the school.
Her daughter came of age in a decidedly forward-thinking and unorthodox environment. Mrs. Rourke encouraged Constance in her academic work and insisted she learn how to express herself through music and art, even before she could read or write. And to enter the Rourke household was to enter an entirely secular space; Constance grew up without any religion influence, a rarity for her time.
Constance gained admittance to Vassar College, where she began in 1903. As a schoolteacher and single mother, Mrs. Rourke could still afford the college’s tuition. It is possible that she drew down her own inheritance to pay for her daughter’s education. Whatever the case, Mrs. Rourke insisted on the best education for young Constance.
And Vassar was of great importance to Constance. A blossoming progressive, she joined several political clubs, including one dedicated to improving the working conditions and compensation of campus maids. But she found the real spur for her reformist passions in the English Department. Under the tutelage of Professors Gertrude Buck and Laura Wylie ‘77, Rourke gained a deep understanding of “social criticism,” the method of analyzing texts that most Vassar students learned at the turn of the century. Social criticism asks a simple question: is the text meaningful to the individual reader who stumbles upon it?
The theory allowed for much more diversity in criticism. No longer did only the views of a few academics matter; any reader could react to a work. Social criticism upended the classical standards of literary excellence that scholars had clung to for centuries, and implemented instead a more democratic criticism, one that could hold popular fiction and Shakespeare in equal regard. Rourke recalled how she gained “a greatly heightened sense of social values in literature,”; that “sense” colored much of her writing at Vassar and beyond.
Upon her graduation in 1907, she returned to Grand Rapids as a primary school teacher, her first step toward her own life as a “career woman.” She had been, however, selected by her class to be the first recipient of a new fellowship, the William Borden Fund, established by her classmate Mary Borden ’07. The $1,500 fellowship was to be awarded annually to a graduating senior, elected by her class from “a list of approved applicants,” to enable her to “spend a year abroad in travel and study with a view to some form of social usefulness.”
After a year of teaching, Constance sailed to Europe with the intent of investigating literary criticism in Great Britain and France. She intended to pursue “three types of activity…investigation of foreign educational method and curricula, travel, and an intensive study in literary criticism, which though not limited to an educational aspect, should tend to amplify suggestions for teaching.” In England, she observed meetings of the British National Teachers’ Association, visited many schools and attended lectures by the Fabian socialist Sydney Webb and the anti-imperialist economist J. A. Hobson. She toured England and northern France in the summer of 1908, wintered in Paris and—extending her stay in 1909—toured Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria in the summer of 1909.
Rourke eagerly accepted the chance to return to Vassar first as Professor Gertrude Buck’s assistant, and then as an English instructor, a position she held from 1910–1915. Additionally, she helped arrange Vassar’s 50th Anniversary Intercollegiate Student Conference. Two students from 25 colleges were invited to the conference, regardless of their gender. Rourke’s colleague, Amy Reed ’92, recalled, “This was at that time so radical an idea that it was opposed by some members of our faculty, and Harvard College was with difficulty persuaded to accept our invitation—which they were sure was intended for Radcliffe.”
But the collegiate life suited Rourke less well than she had hoped; she decided to leave Vassar in 1915. “To many of us her mind seemed analytic rather than creative and in personal relations she was cool and detached, sometimes arousing antagonism by a certain ruthlessness in carrying out her purposes,” wrote Reed. “She had resigned the previous spring, asserting her determination either to make her living by writing or quietly starve.”
On Rourke’s departure, Reed gave her colleague a piece of advice about becoming a writer: “Put yourself through as much sensuous—and if possible sensual—experience as you can.” If stark poverty and uncertainty qualify as “sensuous,” Rourke did exactly as she was told during the years immediately after leaving Poughkeepsie.
Rejecting both salaried positions and marriage proposals from young gentlemen, she began her career as a professional writer, as she had planned. Her first published article, “The Rationale of Punctuation” appeared in the Education Review in October 1915. The piece argued for a less dogmatic approach to instructing students in grammar. Rourke found the conventional curriculum “definitely apart from the natural creative expression which training in writing might be expected to cultivate.” Sterling Andrus Leonard, a professor of English and education and, in 1917, the author of English Composition as a Social Problem, dismissed Rourke’s thesis and wrote an article in response, trumpeting the importance of grammar in sustaining clarity—in his words, “to obviate so far as possible any misreading of the sentence.”
In 1918, she began writing book reviews and, gradually, original essays for The New Republic. Her first essay in that magazine, “Vaudeville,” marked the beginning of a shift in interest for Rourke. She had always considered herself a natural educator, like her mother, and her activities before 1920 suggest a trajectory as a teacher: studying education reform in Europe, teaching classes at Vassar, writing about inspiring creativity in young writing students.
‘…success is difficult, especially if one aspires to belong to the very first rank as I do.’
But, with “Vaudeville” she ventured away from academia and into the landscape of popular culture.
She would never turn back. For financial reasons she moved back home to Grand Rapids to live with her mother; there she churned out dozens of essays on popular culture for The New Republic and other publications, but to little notoriety. Rourke, frustrated, bemoaned to her mother, “From all I can hear and see, success is difficult, especially if one aspires to belong to the very first rank as I do.”
But a 1920 meeting with Van Wyck Brooks, literary editor of the political and cultural journal, The Freeman (1920-24), and a prominent literary critic, changed all that. In their rendezvous, arranged through a former student of Rourke’s, Brooks suggested that the young writer compose a study of popular figures in American culture. The writing of her first book, Trumpets of Jubilee (1927) involved mostly refining Rourke’s already insightful ideas about the roots of a uniquely American culture and humor. In her 1920 article about the mythology surrounding Paul Bunyan, she wrote,
The fertility and ingenuity of the [Bunyan] stories seem indigenous, as is the zest with which situations are pushed to their furthest and their absurdity explored with a tireless patient logic; and the whole basic method of solemn preposterous exaggeration touches the very core of American humor.
From 1920 to 1927, a more confident Rourke continued writing magazine pieces, while drafting her book on the side. Finally, in 1927 Trumpets of Jubilee debuted; her novel was published and also serialized in Woman’s Home Companion. The book deal with Harcourt, Brace & Company earned her $10,000, assuring her that her struggles as a writer had at last vanished. Constance Rourke had arrived. In Trumpets of Jubilee, Rourke studied several 18th century American literary stalwarts: the famed Beecher clan (Lyman, Henry Ward, and Harriet Beecher), the reformer Horace Greeley, and the self-proclaimed “showman,” P.T. Barnum. The critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, writing in 1947, still showered praise on Rourke’s work, particularly her “shrewd analysis” and contextualizing of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1933, the New York Herald Tribune columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) remarked that Trumpets of Jubilee was one of “the best short biographies [he] ever did read.”
Following the success of her first book, Rourke’s second attempt was a disappointment. Troupers of the Gold Coast; or, the Rise of Lotta Crabtree, published in 1928, depicted the California theatre scene in the height of the Gold Rush. Rourke focused primarily on the famous actress Lotta Crabtree, who performed for the Western settlers in the 1870s and 1880s. Later commentators have observed that Rourke romanticized and probably related to Crabtree, whose inner life may have resembled Rourke’s; Crabtree had “wild orbits contained within,” wrote Rourke, which was a nature many contemporaries ascribed to the otherwise reserved Constance. In any event, while the book did not entirely fail commercially, it garnered scant critical acclaim and was largely forgotten.
Rourke’s third book triumphed in every way. In 1929, she sailed with her mother to Great Britain, remaining in Europe for half a year. There, she wrote the majority of her greatest work, American Humor. Her biographer Joan Shelley Rubin identifies the overarching “humor” in it all: that “Rourke was engaged in writing a book intended to refute the idea that Americans needed to go to Europe to produce great art.” She also drafted her book at the MacDowell artists’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a place she firmly disliked for its rowdiness and, in her opinion, a lack of morals in the eccentric residents. Nevertheless, American Humor hit shelves in March 1931 and has enjoyed the status of a classic ever since.
In American Humor, Rourke examines several American folk archetypes and traces their history and meaning. She wrote about the Yankee, the backwoodsman, the minstrel show, the Mississippi River boatman, the religious cultist, and the Western storyteller, arguing that each of these “types” proved uniquely American. Rourke, above all, pondered—perhaps even introduced—the notion of American myth-making.
And, for her, everything, including elite literature, could trace its origins to preexisting folk culture. Authors like Hawthorne, or orators like Lincoln, represented a mere “outgrowth” of folk culture. On the distinctive quality of American culture, she opined, “…the American had cut himself off from the older traditions; the natural heritage of England and the continent had been cast away so far…” Rourke believed Americans developed more cultural inspirations from Native Americans than some would like to admit. She astutely observed,
Perhaps the romanticism of the pioneer in relation to the Indian was part of that instinct by which new peoples attempt to enrich themselves from old; the Indian possessed established tribal unities which the American lacked.
Rourke detected the origins of an American theatre, too, in the colonists’ relations with Native Americans, specifically in the drama of the “Indian Treaties”: “These treaties,” she writes, “were essentially plays—chronicle plays—recording what was said in the parleys, including bits of actions, the exchange of gifts…” She combined this “chronicling” habit with the rhetorical gusto of passionate Calvinists sermons to sketch a compelling portrait of the foundation of American theatre.
What Stanley Edgar Hyman called “Miss Rourke’s only thorough failure,” followed in 1934, on the heels of American Humor’s success. Davy Crockett, written in a style aimed more at young adults than serious academics, predictably failed to impress the critics. This “unscholarly” effort preceded another, albeit better-received, “young adult” narrative, this time about the life of John James Audubon, America’s best-loved ornithologist. Rourke published Audubon in 1936, and two years later released a work centering on a contemporary folk hero, the modernist artist Charles Sheeler. Rourke considered Sheeler’s art quintessentially American and rooted in the centuries-old American folk traditions she had dedicated her life to unraveling, although Sheeler’s training in Europe with the Cubists throws a wrench into Rourke’s view of Sheeler’s art as wholly “American.” Sheeler, despite his dabbles in Europe, went on to paint and photograph familiar images, like Ford automobiles and industrial factories, which undeniably shout “America!” but indeed in a simpler, less cosmopolitan tone. It seems Rourke, with Charles Sheeler (1938), understood his work intimately.
“When Constance Rourke died in 1941 at the age of fifty-five, she had only begun to find her direction,” wrote Stanley Edgar Hyman; the phrase reverberates with sadness and truth. Rourke died on May 29, 1941 in Grand Rapids, after falling on slippery ice. She was survived by her beloved, 89-year old mother, the only family she had ever known.
At the time of her death, Constance left behind an unfinished three-volume project entitled The Roots of American Culture. In 1942, Harcourt, Brace & Company posthumously published excerpts from the manuscript. Despite the book’s choppiness, its commentary on American entertainment, particularly the minstrel show, reveal a forward-thinking woman who was determined not to settle for the conventional history of the minstrel show, that somehow African Americans had “stolen” the art form from white people. Rourke always maintained that the African American community, like any population, invented and fostered its own culture.
In the 1930s and 40s, to begin a sentence with “Miss Rourke says…” implied that what followed was the absolute truth. As a further testament to her influence in the literary world, look no further than a 1938 anecdote: when Carl Van Doren autographed a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Benjamin Franklin, he scribbled to the white-haired wordsmith: “To Constance Rourke, who tops us all.”
Joan Shelley Rubin. Constance Rourke and American Culture. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1980.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, “Constance Rourke and Folk Criticism.” The Antioch Review 7,no. 3 (Autumn 1947): 418-34
Sterling A. Leonard, “The Rationale of Punctuation: A Criticism.” Educational Review 51 (January 1916): 89-92
Constance Mayfield Rourke, “Report Submitted to the William Borden Memorial Fund Committee,” Vassar Miscellany, April 1, 1910, 438
Amy L. Reed, “Homage to Constance Rourke,” Vassar Alumnae Magazine, Oct 1941
“Constance Rourke, Author, Educator.” New York Times. March 25, 1941
Constance Rourke. Biographical File. Vassar College Special Collections Library