Esther Cloudman Dunn was born in Portland, Maine. She received her B.A. from Cornell University in 1913 and was said to be the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in literature at the University of London. She taught at Reading High School and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont before joining the faculty of Bryn Mawr College. In 1922, she became a professor of English at Smith College, where she eventually became chair of the English Department and remained until her retirement in 1959.
She was a well-known authority on Shakespeare and Elizabethan writers, as well as the Romantic era. Her books included The Literature of Shakespeare's England (1936), Shakespeare in America (1939) and Ben Jonson's Art: Elizabethan life and Literature as Reflected Therein (1963). She also published her autobiography in a series of essays collected as The Pursuit of Understanding: Autobiography of an Education in 1945.
After her official retirement, Prof. Dunn continued to teach graduate seminars in English at Smith and in Washington, D.C.