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).
Clemens, Aldrich, Curtis, and Howells were among the speakers at the "Authors' Reading" done by the friends of Longfellow for the Longfellow Memorial Fund (256). At this event, Curtis read from the "Potiphar Papers" (258).[pages:256,258]
Allen reprints a September 30, 1865, letter from Curtis to Willaim O'Connor that responds to O'Connor's request for "advice and aid" in seeking a publisher for a draft of his essay The Good Gray Poet. Curtis was the editor of Harper's and wrote to O'Connor:
"The task you undertake is not easy, as you know. The public sympathy will be the Secretary for removing a man who will be considered an obscene author and a free lover. But your hearty vindication of free letters will not be less welcome to all liberal men.
"Personally I do not know Whitman and while his Leaves of Grass impressed me less than it impressed many better men than I, I have never heard anything of him but what was noble nor believed anything byt what was honorable.
"That a man should be expelled from office and held up to public contumely, because of an honest book which no candid mind can truly regard as hurtful to public morality, is an offense which demands exposure and censure."
According to Allen, "Curtis offered to do what he could 'to redress the wrong' that O'Connor had undertaken to right" (361-362).[pages:361-362]
Clare discusses G.W. Curtis' Trumps and discusses how it has increasingly interested the reading audience and claims that it is on par with English serial stories (2).[pages:2]
Derby recalls that Curtis returned from his "Eastern travels" thirty-five years before his writing, and, that upon his return, he brought a manuscript that discussed his travels to Harper & Brothers for publication. Col. John Harper looked over his manuscript briefly and told Curtis' "We will publish your book, and you may bring us all the manuscripts on Syria you choose, if written as well as this" (683). The books that followed were: "Nile Notes on the Howadji," "Howadji in Syria," and Lotus-Eating," illustrated by John F. Kensett. The last book appears to have been well received by the London press (683-684).
Derby and Curtis met "when he was connected with a publishing house whose disastrous failure soon terminated his career as a book publisher;" the firm accrued great debts, which Curtis was not obligated to pay, "but he considered himself morally responsible for the debts, and did pay every dollar from the proceeds of the earnings of his pen and eloquent lectures which became so popular throughout the whole country" (684).
In 1854, Curtis was a contributor to Putnam's Monthly and was also on the magazine's editorial staff. His contributions were "a series of satirical sketches on fashionable society, which obtained great popularity and were afterwards published in a volume under their title, 'The Potiphar Papers'" (684).
Derby writes that "In 1856, Mr. Curtis entered the political arena, not as an office-seeker or an office-holder, for he has never been either, but a steady friend of all that is pure in politics" (684).
According to Derby, at the time of his writing, "Mr. Curtis has been, for more than a quarter of a century, the editor of Harper's Weekly, which under his guidance has become not only an influential factor in politics, but emphatically what it claims to be -- a journal of civilization" (685). Derby also notes that aside from being an "author, journalist, and statesman" he is also a "lecturer and orator, and in my opinion, the most eloquent and graceful since the voices of Phillips and Sumner have been forever silenced" (685).
Curtis was one of the writers gathered at the complimentary fruit and flower festival held for distinguished authors by New York publishers at the Crystal Palace in 1855 (35).
Derby quotes Curtis in the "Editor's Easy Chair" of Harper's about James Harper's fatal accident (96). Curtis is also quoted discussing Fletcher Harper after his death (101). Derby quotes Curtis's "Easy Chair" column about Fletcher Harper on p.105. He is also quoted discussing the division of labor among the Harper brothers on p.107.
During the early days of the Civil War, Curtis was appointed the political editor of Harper's Weekly, a position he "continues to hold with commanding ability" at the time of Derby's writing (104-105).
Derby quotes some lines written by Curtis that are incsribed over the fireplace of the Harper's private office in Franklin Square, which he feels "express, in the most felicitous manner, the traditional spirit of the [Harper publishing] house:
"My flame expires; but let true hands pass on
An unextinguished torch from sire to son" (109).
Derby describes Curtis as a "graceful orator" in his discussion of the memory of William Cullen Bryant. Part of Curtis's "commemorative address" at the Academy of Music, for the New York Historical Society, December 30, 1883 is quoted on p.171-172.
Derby notes that Curtis's "celebrated" "Potiphar Papers" were first submissions to Putnam's Monthly Magazine (314).
Curtis's recollections of James Fields and his bookstore are reprinted by Derby p.627-629.
Derby reprints the following excerpt from an article contributed to the Century Magazine by S.S. Conant, executive editor of Harper's Weekly:
"His devotion to journalism and political affairs has prevented Mr. Curtis from pursuing authorship as a profession, if we are to regard authorship as the writing of books; but although he has put forth no new volume since the publication of 'Trumps,' the readres of the 'Easy Chair' in Harper's Magazine, and on 'Manners upon the Road,' in Harper's Bazaar, with recognize in him the most charming essayist of the day. The delicate, graceful humor of these papers, the purity of style, the wide range of culture and observation which they indicate, but which is never obtrusive, give them a distinctive character of their own. The 'Easy Chair' is the first part of the magazine to which the reader turns. The author of 'Trumps,' 'The Potiphar Papers,' and 'Prue and I,' could hardly have failed as a novelist, had he chosen to pursue the path of literature; but we will not regret his choice, for while we have many novelists, where shall we look for another name like his in the field of American journalism?" (685).[pages:35,96,101,104-105,107,109,163,171,314,627,683-685]
Greenslet describes Curtis's friendship with Thomas Bailey Aldrich (38).
Aldrich discusses Curtis' irreplacability in New York (in relation to his "Easy Chair" column) in a letter to Stedman, Oct. 8, 1891, from Boston (171).[pages:38,171]
This text identifies the following pseudonyms: Lounger (57), Old Bacheldor (70), Potiphar (78).[pages:57, 70, 78]
This biographical entry discusses Curtis' career as a journalist, travel writer, and orator.
During the war years, Curtis continued to write patriotic editorials and to give nationalist speeches. One of his most memorable talks was "Political Infidelity" in which he argued that "Any system, any policy, any institution, which may not be debated will overthrow us if we do not overthrow it."
Hemstreet mentions that the offices of Harper's Magazine, "where George W. Curtis established his Easy Chair in which he was enthroned so long," are located down Frankfort Street, in Franklin Square. Hemstreet also mentions that Howells has taken over Curtis' old position at the magazine (235).[pages:235]
Howells mentions his adoration of Curtis and muses over why he didn't see him when he visited New York (65).[pages:65]
Curtis edited Putnam's Magazine with Briggs and Parke Godwin in 1853.
A note reports that George W. Curtis, Esq. is rumored to be writing about the history of the Hudson River (2).[pages:2]
The section "The Magazines and Their Contents" lists Curtis's "The Millenial Club" as appearing in the November issue of the Knickerbocker Magazine. A note on Harper's Magazine lists George W. Curtis among the "principal contributors" (3).[pages:3]
Edward Wilkins' ability to combine "society gossip and theatrical chit-chat in an amusing style" was reminiscent of Curtis's contributions to Harper's (Miller 48).
In defense of Edwin Forrest's artistic abilities, Edwin G. P. Wilkins grouped together Curtis, William Stuart, Adam Badeau, and William Hurlburt as a "clique" of dramatic "'critics' who rarely have pluck enough to judge for themselves" (Miller 65).
Curtis was one of many writers who sought "refuge in the past" in order to escape the "chaos caused by the war and a rapidly changing American society" (Miller 82).[pages:48, 65, 82, 126]
Curtis spoke as part of the lecture series at the Reformed Dutch Church between 21st Street between 5th and 6th Ave. during 1865-66 season. His March 21, 1866 lecture was titled "The Good Fight" (92). Curtis gave same lecture for the Westbury Educational association two days later in Jamaica, Queens (126). Curtis also gave this lecture on Staten Island December 29, 1865; Odell states that Curtis is a "noted resident" of Staten Island (127).
Curtis was the Westbury Lecture Room lecturer March 18, 1867, "his talk enlarging on Conservatism." On Dec. 26, 1866, he lectured at the Old Dutch Church, Tompkinsville, Staten Island (266). Odell mentions that the "silvery eloquence" of Curtis was heard Dec. 18, 1868, at Cooper Institute on Political Morality (514).
Curtis also gave a lecture about Charles Dickens January 28, 1869, at Lyric Hall. Odell expresses a desire to have been at the event (515). Curtis Spoke at the Pavilion Hotel, New Brighton, Feb. 18, 1869, on Political Morality (557). He lectured October 26, 1869, at the Church of the Reformation in Brooklyn with a "silvery discourse" on American Literature (676).
Odell reports that "George William Curtis gave 1870 a dignified start" Jan. 7 with a lecture on Staten Island on American Literature given at the Unitarian Church in New Brighton (692). Odell again remarks that Curtis is "silver tongued." Curtis gave a lecture on "Our National Folly - the Civil Service" on February 17 (postponed from the 15th), 1870, at the Baptist Church, Port Richmond, Staten Island, which was attended by 80 people. His next lecture on April 18th in this venue brought an audience of 100 and was on Thackeray. Odell states that this lecture "was so fitting for his own style and taste that one might have expected a crowded hall" (693).[pages:92,126, 127,266,514, 515,557,676,692,693]
Odell mentions that the "then hihgly popular Potiphar Papers of George William Curtis" were dramatized and titled Our Best Society at Burton's (290).
Curtis lectured in Brooklyn during the 1854-1855 season at the Brooklyn Institute - the title and subject of his lecture is unknown(420). He also lectured at the Institute during the 1855-1856 season.[pages:290,420,507]
Gave a lecture as part of the lecture series at the Institute in Brooklyn in the 1857-1858 season. Curtis returned to this venue in the 1858-1859 season. His Nov. 30, 1859, lecture was entitled Democracy and Education. Curtis also lectured during 1859-1860 season.
Curtis is listed as one of the few critics who "did justice to the drama" in reviewing Augustin Daly's Deborah. Curtis' review appears in the March 7, 1863, issue of Harper's Weekly (Odell reprints the text). Odell also reprints Curtis' review of J.S. Clarke's acting.[pages:103,196,299, 485,638]
Starr writes that Curtis, editor of Harper's Weekly, suggested privately during the attacks on the Tribune by the Herald "that Gay issue 'an edict that the existance of the Herald shall never be recognized in or by the Tribune in any way.'" He also proposed that Gay "let the worthy old Scot [Hudson] lie and rave as much as he likes...There are some animals that...cannot be touched or fought, for even if you hit and kill them they make you smell dreadfully" (235).[pages:235]
The review of Dana's The Household Book of Poetry discusses Curtis's inclusion in the volume and cites one of his more "peculiar" contributions (2).[pages:2]
"It is a striking fact that the number of young men prominently connected with the New York press as writers is greater now than at any former period...the chief editorial work in these journals is done by men between the years of twenty-five and forty" (4).
"George William Curtis, the editorial writer of Harper's Weekly, is not the youngest of young men; but we trust the years will be many before he shall grow old" (4).[pages:4]
Curtis is mentioned in relation to the New York Historical Society.[pages:153]
Appleton lists Curtis as a chief contributor to his publication.
Appleton noted that Curtis served as New York's delegate to the National REpublican convetion betwene the years of 1860-1864.[pages:35(ill.)]
Curtis, "a man of letters" was born in Providence, RI ("Our American Venice"),in 1824. Winter notes that Curtis was born almost two months before the death of Byron and that he was eight when Goethe and Sir Walter Scott died. Winter mentions that Curtis's life and sensibilities have often been described by his early experiences at Brook Farm, in Roxbury, from 1840-1844, but Winter argues that Curtis already had the "Brook Farm ideal" in mind when he arrived there: "the ideal of a social existance regulated by absolute justice and adorned by absolute beauty." It was at Brook Farm that Curtis met, learned from, and was influenced by the notable residents and visitors of the place, including Hawthorne, Emerson, Charles Anderson Dana, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker. After his early experiences at Brook Farm, Curtis traveled to "the Orient," "and found inspiration and theme in subjects that were novel because their scene was both august and remote. Curtis appears to have made an exhaustive tour of the "Orient," and Winter notes that while Curtis was an "American humorist,"he did not endeavor to be comic...he was not the humorist who grins among the sculptures of Westminster Abbey"; Curtis's humor and appreciation of things appears to have been, according to Winter, more contemplative and respectful (228-230).
Winter quotes Curtis to best describe "the spirit in which he rambled": "Great persons and events that notch time in passing, do so because Nature gave them such an excessive and exaggerated impulse that wherever they touch they leave their mark; and that intense humanity secures human sympathy beyond the most beautiful balance, which, indeed, the angels love and we are beginning to appreciate" (231).
Winter applauds Curtis for his ability to incorporate and appreciate both the past and present in his work, as well as the sense of insight that comes through in Curtis's writing. While Curtis did write some poetry, Winter claims that "to the poetic laurel he made no pretension," and cites some of Curtis's patriotic poetry ("A Rhyme of Rhode Island and the Times"-1863) as an example of his verse. According to Winter, "Poetry..was not his natural vocation," but he "was a man of deep poetic sensiblity." Winter cites Curtis's "Prue and I" and "Lotus-Eating" as examples of Curtis's poetic nature being demonstrated in his writing (231-234). Winter also cites some of Curtis's verse as part of his discussion of the "poetical feeling that existed in New England about 1855" and the politics of the region and the time; responses to the Fugitive Slave Law, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and other events leading to the Civil War (236-240).
Winter mentions that early in his writing career, Washington Irving made the following remark to Curtis: "You young fellows are not so lucky as I was, for when I began to write there were only a few of us" (81).
Curtis was a member of Bayard Taylor's poetic group (177).
Winter met Curtis at Longfellow's home when Winter was a young poet. Longfellow also introduced the two men. Winter describes Curtis during their first meeting as "a young man, lithe, slender, faultlessly apparelled, very handsome, who rose at my approach, turning upon me a countenance that beamed with kindness, and a smile that was a welcome from the heart...He had the manner of a natural artistocrat--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." Winter remarks that the two men were friends from that moment until the end of Curtis' life (224).
Winter devotes an entire chapter 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). Of Curtis, Winter claims, "It is the story 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).
Winter discusses Curtis' oratorical career, particulary during "that conflict, of Right against Wrong, [into which] Curtis threw himself, with all his soul." Winter's reference is to "the poetcial feeling in New England around 1855" that he claims occured in response to the political and social events that led up to and included the Civil War (240-241).
Curtis' literary career began in 1846, at the age of twenty-two (264). Curtis "made his mark" on the growing American literary tradition with his "observations" from his "Oriental travels." His satirical "Potiphar Papers" the romantic "Prue and I" published in "Putnam's Magazine" in 1852 and 1854, respectively, helped to cement his reputation. "He assumed the Easy Chair of 'Harper's Magazine,' in 1854...and he occupied it until the last." Curtis also wrote his novel "Trumps" in "Harper's." With the exception of a short break in 1873, Curtis wrote steadily for the Easy Chair for thirty-eight years and produced twenty-five hundred of these articles, as well as other publications (264-266)
Winter states that Curtis' speaking career began in 1851, with a talk titled "Contemporary Artists of Europe" given for the New York National Academy of Design. Winter states that "in 1853 he had formally adopted the Platform as a vocation; and it continued to be a part of his vocation for the next twenty years. He was everywhere popular in the lyceum, and he now brought into the more turbulent field of politics the dignity of the scholar, the refinement and grace of a gentleman, and all the varied equipments of the zealous and accomplished advocate, the caustic satirist, and the impassioned champion of the rights of man" (241).
Winter remebers first seeing Curtis speak on politics, "making an appeal for Fremont," at a convention in Fritchburg. Curtis followed Greeley on the bill of speakers. Winter states that neither Curtis nor Greeley were "worldly-wise; neither was versed in political duplicty." Winter states 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." Winter claims that while Curtis may have lacked in style in his prose," "but in the felicty of speech Curtis was supreme above all other men of his generation. (Winter notes that he is specifically referring to Curtis' speaking career from 1860-1890)" (241-243).
Winter notes that Curtis stopped doing regular speaking engagements in 1873, but never completely gave up oratory (242). According to Winter, "Oratory as it existed in America in the previous epoch has no living representative. Curtis was the last orator of the school of Everett, Sumner, and Wendell Phillips." Winter continues wiht a discussion of Curtis' oratorical influences and the models on which he based his speeches (243-245). Winter then discusses how the oratorical schools of Curtis' time no longer exist. "The oratory of a later day is characterized by colloquialism, familiarity, and comic anecdote. Curtis maintained the dignity of the old order. Some of my readers, perhaps, may remember the charm of his manner,--how subtle it was, yet seemingly how simple; how completely it convinced and satisfied; how it clarified intelligence; how it enobled feeling. One secret of it, no doubt, was its perfect sincerity. Noble himself, and speaking only for right, and truth, and beauty, he addressed nobility in others. That consideration would maintain the moral and the genial authority of his eloquence. The total effect of it, however, was attributable to his exquisite, inexplicable art" (247-248).
Winter discusses Curtis' talent at oratory in depth, as well as his careers in business and writing. Business seems to have left Curtis in debt, but he was a prolific writer; "The shackle that business imposed upon him was the shackle of drudgery. He was compelled to write profusely and without pause." Winter refers to a break-down Curtis had in October, 1873, which left him unable to write and work. Aldrich filled in for Curtis at "Harper's" until Curtis recovered; Winter maintains, however, that Curtis worked non-stop for over forty years (254).
Winter claims that "Curtis was controlled less by his imagination than by his moral sense. He had ideals, but they were were based on reason" (260-261).
Winter reprints a "threnody" he wrote a few days after Curtis died (August 31, 1892) (270-274).
Winter also notes that while Taylor, Stoddard, Stedman, Boker, Curtis, Ludlow, and the names of have been "comingled wtih those of Clapp's Bohemian associates," they "were not only not affiliated with that coterie but were distinct from it, and, in some instances, were inimical to it" (295).
Winter reprints a letter Curtis wrote him dated March 29, 1882, from Staten Island, that discusses Longfellow's death. After describing the funeral and other matters, Curtis writes: "I do not forget that it was at Longfellow's we met, and our mutual regard has the benediction of his gracious memory. The fathers are departing. I saw Emerson stand by the coffin and look at the dead face. But, in his broken state, the dead looked happier than the living" (347-348).
Winter notes that Curtis is one of the young "wandering mistrels" mentioned in Wallack's "Memories of Fifty Years": "You come upon him very pleasantly, in the society of that brilliant actor, and you hear their youthful voices blended" (267).[pages:81,177,224-245, 242(.ill), 247-274,295,302,347-348,267,370]
Wolle mentions him as a clever young man in the New York group.[pages:34, 103, 143, 184]
George William Curtis.
SOURCE: Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske. Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume II. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888.
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