Constance Rourke's Images of Her Own Frontierland
Samuel Irving Bellman
Among the more active terms at work in the mental language of Constance Mayfield Rourke, American cultural historian and specialist in folk criticism, was the principle of the American West. Born in 1885 in Cleveland, Ohio, which was once part of the Western Reserve, she was to spend most of her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and allow her fancy a free rein in imaging the rich potentialities of that glorious region invitingly below New England, beyond the Alleghenies, the Mississippi also, possibly as far from main-travelled roads as California itself, and maybe farther away even than that.
There is a telling line in Rourke's chapter on Horace Greeley in Trumpets of Jubilee ( 1927), describing Fourierism, the radical social-reorganization system of the Frenchman Charles Fourier, as it made its way across the country in the mid-nineteenth century. "Like a great pavanne, or a child's dream of a far country, or a perpetual circus, the Fourieristic scheme spread its sweetly assembled elements." 1 Embedded within the line are certain features prominent in the landscape of Rourke's mind, presented straightforwardly or in veiled fashion. These include: the charm and splendor of a slow, stately dance; the enchanted land of faery; the rich pleasure of continuous theatrical entertainment; children's delights; being on the go; a new life.
This constellation of themes has a bearing, in Rourke's thought, on an important concept which is treated in a chapter in her masterwork, American Humor: A Study of the National Character ( 1931). That chapter takes its title from Walt Whitman's 1860 poem, "Facing West from California's Shores," and Rourke quotes it entire, with its eternal-child's baffled wonderment. "Facing West from California's shores,/Inquiring, tireless,