Constance Rourke was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by her mother, a teacher and principal who implemented progressive educational reforms and encouraged Constance to become independent-minded. In 1903, she went to Vassar College, where she learned social criticism as a method of analyzing texts. After graduation, she taught for a year, then won a scholarship to go to England and Europe to travel and engage in further study. She returned to become an English instructor at Vassar from 1910 to 1915. She left Vassar to become a professional writer, and began contributing books reviews and literary criticism to national magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic. Her first published book was Trumpets of Jubilee (1927), a study of popular figures in American culture. She went on to write individual biographies of notable Americans such as John James Audubon, P.T. Barnum, Lotta Crabtree, and Davy Crockett, and books exploring different aspects of American culture, history, and literature. Her most famous and influential book was American Humor: A Study of the National Character, first published in 1931. It is now considered essential to the creation of the scholarly field of American studies, including American popular culture and folk culture. Many of her works are regularly anthologized.
She was writing a five-volume book, The Roots of American Culture, but had completed only three unpublished volumes when she died at age 55 in 1941.