User menu


Curtis, George William (1824-1892)

Editor, Essayist, Journalist, Lecturer, Novelist, Travel Writer

Curtis was born in Rhode Island and educated in Massachusetts along with his older brother James, an influential figure in his life. When Curtis was a teenager, the family moved to New York City where he began a clerkship. Due to his growing interest in the Transcendentalist Movement, Curtis, along with his brother, resided for two years in the utopian community at Brook Farm. William Winter claims that Curtis already had the "Brook Farm ideal" in mind when he arrived there: "the ideal of a social existence regulated by absolute justice and adorned by absolute beauty" (Old Friends 228-30). It was at Brook Farm that Curtis met, learned from, and was influenced by the notable residents and visitors of the place, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Anderson Dana, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was to become a strong influence on his thinking.

Curtis eventually left Brook Farm and began a period of travel that took him through Europe, Egypt, and Syria. Accounts of these trips were published in the New York Tribune . Curtis later reworked these impressions into travelogues Nile Notes of a Howadji (1851) and The Howadji in Syria (1852). He also went on to publish Lotus-Eating (1852) and the satirical Potiphar Papers (1853) which focuses on New York life and society inspired by Washington Irving’s Salmagundi . Again inspired by Irving, Curtis would later publish the anti-consumerist Prue and I (1857). He also published a novel Trumps in Harper’s , and wrote over 2500 articles in 38 years of work. His writings sold well and were critically recognized (Winter Old Friends 264-266).

During the 1850s, Curtis worked as a critic and travel writer for the Tribune , an editor for the critically acclaimed Putnam’s Magazine (after its bankruptcy in 1856 Curtis assumed and eventually paid the debt), and a columnist for Harper’s Monthly ("Easy Chair") and Harper’s Weekly ("Lounger"). Curtis was named editor of the latter magazine in 1863 (Haynes 57, 70, 78).

Perhaps inspired by Emerson or the lighter frivolity of the addresses of Artemus Ward and Mark Twain, Curtis became known as an orator. His speeches, such as “The Duty of the American Scholar to Politics and the Times” (1856), dealt with civic responsibility and abolitionism. His friend William Winter revealed that "while Curtis spoke, the hearts of that multitude were first lured and entranced by the golden tones of his delicious voice, and then were shaken, as with a whirlwind, by the righteous fervor of his magnificent enthusiasm" (Old Friends 241-243).

In addition to American literary giants like Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell, Curtis counted among his acquaintances several members of the crowd at Pfaff’s: Bayard Taylor, Richard and Elizabeth Stoddard, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Fitz-James O’Brien, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and Theodore Winthrop (Old Friends177). Curtis was a member of Taylor’s poetic group along with Richard Henry Stoddard, Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard, Edmund Clarence Stedman, George Henry Boker, Fitz-James O’Brien, Christopher P. Cranch, and Fitz Hugh Ludlow (177). Ferris Greenslet notes that Curtis also befriended Pfaff’s visitor Thomas Bailey Aldrich and that between the two men "there grew up a pleasant acquaintance which later ripened into friendship" (38). William Dean Howells also held Curtis in high esteem. He remembers visiting Pfaff’s but shying away from Curtis whose work “I knew so much by heart, and whom I adored, [...] I may not have had the courage, or I may have heard he was out of town" (Howells, “First Impressions” 65).

While delivering Curtis’s eulogy, William Winter described him as bearing “the manner of a natural aristocrat--a manner that is born, not made; a manner that is never found except in persons who are self-centered without being selfish; who are intrinsically noble, simple, and true" (Old Friends 224). In his memoirs, Winter devotes an entire chapter of Old Friends to Curtis and states that "It is not because he was a friend of mine that I try to assist in commemoration of him; it is because he was a great person. The career of Curtis was rounded and complete. The splendid structure of his character stands before the world like a monument of gold. Not to express homage for a public benefactor is to fail in self-respect" (225). Curtis’s story is that of “a man of genius whose pure life and splendid powers were devoted to the ministry of beauty and to the self- sacrificing service of mankind" (227).