Constance Rourke was a valiant, vocal, and highly visible intellectual at a time when women intellectuals were rare, mostly quiet and invisible. Turning her back on the East Coast and academic settings, Constance Rourke led a rich intellectual life from her modest home in Grand Rapids, where she wrote eight books and over 100 articles. She countered the early twentieth-century’s bleak charge that American culture was barren by documenting then little-known, but rich, folk materials, with which she reappraised America’s past. Rourke shaped what today we call “cultural studies.”
Rourke’s work underwrote the first flowering of the American Studies movement. Her best-known book, it has been quipped, is “always being rediscovered.” American Humor: A Study of the National Character was first published in 1931 and has been reissued again and again.
Deliberately written for a popular audience, Rourke’s books bring to life an American identity based on comedy and uniquely illustrate in intimacy between the humorous and the serious.
Rourke’s seven other books range from Trumpets of Jubilee (1927), a study of nineteeth-century popular public figures like Harriet Beecher Stowe and P.T. Barnum, to Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition (1938). Discovering and diffusing cultural materials for use by artists and making perceptive comparisons between popular humor and literary art, Rourke acquainted Americans with themselves and their cultural resources.
So heroic was Rourke’s engagement in nation-building that poet William Carlos Williams dubbed her “Our Moses”shortly before her accidental death in 1941. The national publications for which she wrote widely eulogized Rourke, and her picture graced the cover of the famous Saturday Review of Literature. In reference to the looming world war, prominent critic Lewis Mumford described Rourke as a model for the “toughness and courage and self-confidence that will enable us to live through the menacing days that lie ahead.”
Rourke’s leadership in the young America’s search for a “usable past” opened paths for us once. They reopens once again as we consider among her fertile thoughts ways to help us negotiate a complicated and consciously multicultural world.
This biography can also be found in the January 2019 Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle Magazine.
Another biography of Constant Rourke can be found in the September 1999 and Fall 2004 issues of the GGRWHC Newsletter.
Constance Rourke Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame Biography