Rickert, Edith (1871–1938)

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Rickert, Edith (1871–1938)

American educator and writer. Born Martha Edith Rickert in Dover, Ohio, on July 11, 1871; died in Chicago, Illinois, on May 23, 1938; daughter of Francis Rickert and Josephine (Newburg) Rickert; Vassar College, A.B., 1891; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1899.

Selected writings:

(novels) Out of Cypress Swamp (1902), The Reaper (1904), Folly (1906), The Golden Hawk (1907), The Beggar in the Heart (1909), Severn Woods (1930); (poetry collection) American Lyrics (ed. with Jessie Paton, 1912); (scholarly works) The Writing of English (with John M. Manly, 1919), Contemporary British Literature (with Manly, 1921), Contemporary American Literature (with Manly, 1922), New Methods for the Study of Literature (1927), The Text of the Canterbury Tales, Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts (with Manly, 8 vols., 1940); (children's story collections) The Bojabi Tree (1923), The Blacksmith and the Blackbirds (1928), The Greedy Goroo (1929).

Edith Rickert was born on July 11, 1871, in Dover, Ohio, the oldest of four daughters of Francis and Josephine Rickert . Raised in La Grange, Illinois, she attended public school in Chicago and went on to Vassar where her interest in creative writing blossomed. While at Vassar, she won recognition for the best short story written by an American undergraduate. She graduated in 1891.

By 1894, Rickert had begun work on her graduate degree at the University of Chicago, studying English literature and philology. During the next two years, she supported herself by teaching in high schools in the Chicago area and then went to Europe for a year of study. Upon her return to the States, she went back to Vassar, where she taught English while working on her dissertation on the Middle English romance Emaré. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1899, and continued teaching at Vassar for another year.

In 1900, Rickert left Vassar and America for England, where she remained for a satisfying and productive nine years. While researching and editing medieval texts, she published five novels: Out of Cypress Swamp (1902), The Reaper (1904), Folly (1906), The Golden Hawk (1907), and The Beggar in the Heart (1909). In addition, she published over 50 short stories and produced numerous translations of medieval literature.

Forced by economic need, Rickert returned in 1909 to America, where she found editorial work with D.C. Heath & Co. and the Ladies' Home Journal. However, she never strayed far from her educational background and also wrote and edited textbooks. In 1912, she collaborated with Jessie Paton on the collection American Lyrics.

When World War I broke out, Rickert aided the war effort in the employ of the War Department's codes and ciphers division. Here she worked for the first time with John M. Manly, a medieval scholar with the University of Chicago. After the war, Rickert and Manly collaborated on The Writing of English (1919), Contemporary British Literature (1921), and Contemporary American Literature (1922). Many credit their accomplishments in this area as being largely responsible for bringing an air of respectability to and acceptance of the study of contemporary literature in the academic world. In 1924, she accepted an associate professorship at the University of Chicago, and in 1930 she became a full professor there.

Writing in all forms remained an integral part of Rickert's life. In an attempt to establish and define acceptable guidelines for the analysis of writing style, she wrote New Methods for the Study of Literature (1927). A ponderous tome, it was used at the University of Chicago on dissertation works, but seldom cited outside of this environment. While her scholarly activities were at the forefront of her work, during these years at the university she also produced three volumes of children's tales, The Bojabi Tree (1923), The Blacksmith and the Blackbirds (1928) and The Greedy Goroo (1929), as well as her last novel, Severn Woods (1930).

For all her prolific writing, Rickert is best remembered for her scholarly work, in particular her research on Chaucer. She and Manly embarked in 1930 on this, their most ambitious project. Spending time between England and America, they began preparing The Text of the Canterbury Tales, Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts (1940). The stress of producing such a mammoth work took its toll on Rickert's health. She was seriously ill by 1935, and on May 23, 1938, she died of a coronary thrombosis. Edith Rickert was cremated and her ashes were buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Her work with Manly on Chaucer, in eight volumes, was published two years after her death.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland