- Historic Sites
Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
“Of late the American character has received marked and not altogether flattering attention from American critics.” The comment, from the opening page of Constance Rourke’s great, unjustly ignored book American Humor , bears one of her trademarks, a gently ironic understatement. “Not altogether flattering”—a muted characterization, indeed, of the jeremiads hurled against their homeland by the members of Rourke’s generation, the American writers who came of age just before World War I.
“Of late the American character has received marked and not altogether flattering attention from American critics.” The comment, from the opening page of Constance Rourke’s great, unjustly ignored book American Humor , bears one of her trademarks, a gently ironic understatement. “Not altogether flattering”—a muted characterization, indeed, of the jeremiads hurled against their homeland by the members of Rourke’s generation, the American writers who came of age just before World War I. To Pound and Eliot, Dreiser and Lewis, Lardner, Anderson and Mencken, America was barren soil for the spirit, a plutocracy whose only native values were greed and expediency. The post-Civil War years, when the nation’s prosperity had skyrocketed, were damned by Van Wyck Brooks, the new generation’s leading literary critic, as “a horde life, a herd life, an epoch without sun and stars, the twilight of a human spirit that had nothing on which to feed.” American intellectuals, it seemed, had but two choices: despair or exile.
Constance Rourke’s 1931 book pointed out surprisingly early the racial cross-fertilization that lies at the heart of American culture
Brooks suggested a third. In a famous 1918 essay he issued a call for American artists to find “a usable past.” But he had dynamited that route himself with his scathing appraisals of “a past without living value.” Given the corner he’d painted himself into, Brooks’s nervous breakdown in the late twenties was hardly surprising. How is it that he came to rhapsodize, a dozen years after his collapse, over “the rich stores of tradition that lie behind us, the many streams of native character and feeling from which the Americans of the future will be able to draw”?
The answer lies, in part, in Brooks’s own discoveries. But it also lies in the impact on him of his onetime disciple Constance Rourke. To a small group of writers and artists, Rourke’s ideas offered promise beyond Brooks’s sterile antinomies. “She seems on the way to becoming our Moses,” wrote William Carlos Williams in 1938.
Three years later Rourke was gone. Our intellectual life would be richer today if she hadn’t died, only fifty-five, at the peak of her powers. When she died (perhaps avoidably, of complications that followed a not very serious accident), she left unfinished her magnum opus, a projected three-volume history of American culture. But we do have American Humor , and to our discredit we continue to overlook it. Published in 1931, the book not only anticipated an entire field, American studies, and not only contained perhaps the first real theory of American culture—a powerful, nuanced argument whose leisurely unfolding is a pleasure to experience—but was shaped by an artist. Next to American Humor , most of today’s literary scholarship reads like the technical exercise it is. All seven of Rourke’s books, published between 1927 and 1942— Trumpets of Jubilee, Troupers of the Gold Coast, American Humor, Davy Crockett, Audubon, Charles Sheeler, and The Roots of American Culture —ring with a burnished, hard-won authority, her best writing as resonant as the myths she probed.
A freelance writer by trade (she gave up a teaching career at Vassar, her alma mater, to concentrate on writing), she had a scholar’s discipline and a novelist’s vision. She was a literary expert whose curiosity carried her beyond literature, into visual art, music, architecture, and handicrafts. A hybrid of criticism, history, and folklore, her work straddles disciplines. Rourke’s ideas are too rich for most academics to grasp in their tweezers, and her language arouses their suspicion. Her images and phrases have a poetic oscillation that draws the attentive reader back, again and again, to ponder her implications. She was, as the show-biz saying goes, too hip for the room. Ignored by the dons, she has nonetheless had a subterranean influence, which seems to be growing today. So it should. Aside from the pleasure her writing brings us, Rourke’s ideas cut as sharply as ever.