Rittenhouse, Jessie Belle (1869–1948)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Rittenhouse, Jessie Belle (1869–1948)

American poet and critic . Born Jessie Bell Rittenhouse in Mount Morris, New York, on December 8, 1869; died in Detroit, Michigan, on September 28, 1948; daughter of John E. Rittenhouse (a farmer) and Mary J. (MacArthur) Rittenhouse; graduated from Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, Lima, New York, 1890; married Clinton Scollard (a poet and professor), in 1924 (died 1932); no children.

Selected writings:

The Younger American Poets (1904); The Door of Dreams (1918); The Lifted Cup (1921); The Secret Bird (1930); My House of Life (memoir, 1934); Moving Tide: New and Selected Lyrics (1939).

Best known for such works as The Younger American Poets (1904) and The Little Book of Modern American Verse (1913), Jessie Belle Rittenhouse did much to advance the cause of modern American poetry in the early 20th century. She was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1869, the daughter of John E. Rittenhouse, a farmer, and Mary J. Rittenhouse . Jessie's paternal ancestor, William Rittenhouse, came to Philadelphia in 1688 from Germany, and one of his descendants, David Rittenhouse, became an eminent scientist and inventor. Her maternal ancestors had immigrated to upstate New York from Scotland in 1800.

The fifth of seven children, Jessie attended the village school in Conesus, New York, and later studied at the Nunda Academy. She went on to the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York, where she was noted for her abilities in literature and languages. After graduating in 1890, she returned to her family and worked briefly as a teacher. Soon, however, Rittenhouse embarked on a career in journalism, contributing feature articles to local newspapers. While she was researching a story in 1894, a cousin of the young poet and professor Clinton Scollard gave her a book of Scollard's poems. Rittenhouse, who admired the collection, offered to review it for the Buffalo Express. Pleased, Scollard's publisher began regularly sending Rittenhouse new poetry titles that she reviewed to increasing notice and which introduced her to a broad range of new work in poetry.

In 1899, Rittenhouse decided to concentrate exclusively on literary criticism. She moved to Boston, a city that was then a literary center, where she made the acquaintance of Louise Chandler Moulton , who presided over a salon of poets seeking to break with outdated Victorian and Romantic influences and develop more original poetic work. Rittenhouse focused her attention on several new poets and published The Younger American Poets to admiring reviews in 1904. The book, considered a groundbreaking study, was widely read and discussed. The next year, she moved to New York City, where she reviewed regularly for The New York Times Review of Books over the next decade. She also cofounded the Poetry Society of America in 1910, serving for ten years as the organization's first secretary. In 1913, Rittenhouse published The Little Book of Modern American Verse, an anthology that sold over 1,000 copies and was instrumental in creating a receptive audience for new poetry. She followed this work with The Little Book of American Poets (1915), The Second Book of Modern Verse (1919), The LittleBook of Modern British Verse (1924), and The Third Book of Modern Verse (1927), all of which were both commercially successful and influential. During these years, she lectured widely throughout the country. A close friend of poet Sara Teasdale , Rittenhouse also published several volumes of her own poems, including The Door of Dreams (1918), The Lifted Cup (1921), The Secret Bird (1930), and Moving Tide: New and Selected Lyrics (1939), which was awarded a gold medal from the National Poetry Center.

In 1924, Rittenhouse married Clinton Scollard, whose work she had first promoted 30 years earlier; this was his second marriage. The couple divided their time between Kent, Connecticut, and Winter Park, Florida, where Rittenhouse lectured on modern poetry at Rollins College. With Scollard, she co-edited The Bird-Lover's Anthology (1930) and Patrician Rhymes (1932), and, after his death in 1932, she edited Scollard's selected work in The Singing Heart (1934). Rittenhouse also wrote a memoir, My House of Life (1932). She received a medal for distinguished service from the Poetry Society of America in 1930, and died in Detroit, Michigan, on September 28, 1948.


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

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

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

Elizabeth Shostak , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts