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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Constance Mayfield Rourke

Pioneer cultural historian Constance Mayfield Rourke (1885-1941) managed to lead an intellectual life generally closed to women and often closed to those outside New York before our era of enhanced communications. She forged one of the richest careers in the early-twentieth-century search for an American "usable past." From her modest Grand Rapids home between 1915 and 1941, Rourke authored seven books and over one hundred articles, forging the idiosyncractic thinking about the roots of American culture that hastened the flowering of the mid-century American Studies movement.

Rourke's best-known book, it has been quipped, is "always being rediscovered."  American Humor: A Study of the National Character  was first published in 1931, has never been out of print, and describes an American identity which has explanatory power still. Rourke identified the cultural matter filling our evolving literature (one can even find tall tales in Emerson) and noted the significant function of comedy as a nineteenth-century way of blunting criticism from European "high" culture. In an extended history only partially published after her death, Rourke's original research helped her find a way toward a new set of cultural heroes and configurations--among them the Shaker religious sect practicing its own version of gender equality and women educators training young women to enter the "great world." During the 1920s and 1930s Constance Rourke herself had managed to overcome overwhelming odds and carve a place among the intellectuals of her day. Today we recognize her as a model--perhaps of a cultural type she would next have added to her list, the twentieth-century New Woman. But Rourke didn't live to write her up.

Today we choose from among her fertile thoughts ways to help us negotiate a complicated and consciously multicultural world. As we rediscover the study of regions and oral traditions, we remember that at the turn of the twentieth century Rourke documented the rich cultural contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Moravian peasants, Puritans, Shakers, farmers, merchants, miners, women, and cowboys. Rourke opened paths for us once and reopens them once again. She spent her life showing us how rich we are.

(Adapted from "A Woman of Letters," Grand River Valley History, XII (1995) by Jo Ellyn Clarey.

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