Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George William Curtis (1824–1892)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Cary (1840–1917)
GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS was born in Providence, Rhode Island, February 24th, 1824, of a New England family, his ancestry on the father’s side running back in unbroken line to the Massachusetts settlers of the first half of the seventeenth century. Though his home was in New York from early boyhood, he was through life a type—one of the best—of New England manhood. The firm, elastic, sometimes hard, fibre of a steadfast and intense moral sense was always found, occasion requiring, beneath the social grace and charm and the blithe and vivid fancy of the author. His schooling was brief—a few years only before the age of eleven. The rest of his education, which was varied and in some lines thorough, was gained by reading, with private tutors, with his accomplished and gifted stepmother, and—richest of all—alone. In 1842, while yet a lad of eighteen, he went for a couple of years as a boarder to Brook Farm. There, to quote his own words, “were the ripest scholars, men and women of the most æsthetic culture and accomplishment, young farmers, seamstresses, mechanics, preachers, the industrious, the lazy, the conceited, the sentimental. But they associated in such a spirit and under such conditions that, with some extravagance, the best of everybody appeared.” “Compared with other efforts upon which time and money and industry are lavished, measured by Colorado and Nevada speculations, by California gold-washings, by oil-boring and the Stock Exchange, Brook Farm was certainly a very reasonable and practical enterprise, worthy of the hope and aid of generous men and women. The friendships that were formed there were enduring. The devotion to noble endeavor, the sympathy with what is most useful to men, the kind patience and constant charity that were fostered there, have been no more lost than the grain dropped upon the field.”  1
  These two years, and one spent on a farm at Concord, Massachusetts, near the homes of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, were followed by four years in Europe,—in Germany, Italy, France, Egypt; and in 1851, at the age of twenty-seven, Curtis took up seriously the work of a writer. Within a year he published two small volumes, ‘The Nile Notes of a Howadji,’ and ‘The Howadji in Syria.’ For a couple of years he was a writer on the New York Tribune, where his Brook Farm friends, Ripley and Dana, were engaged; and ‘Lotus-Eating’ was made up of letters to that paper from the then famous “watering-places.” He dropped newspaper work to become an editor and writer with Putnam’s Magazine, and the ‘Potiphar Papers’ and ‘Prue and I’ were written for that periodical. For a time he formed a connection with the printer of Putnam’s in a publishing business; in which, and through the fault of others, he failed; assuming, quite beyond the requirements of the law, debts which it took a score of years to discharge. Finally he found his publishing home with the house of Harper and Brothers. At first a contributor to the Magazine and the Weekly, he became the editor of the Weekly and the writer of the “Easy Chair”; and from those two coignes of vantage, until his death on August 31st, 1892, he did what, apart from his lectures and addresses, was the work of his life. He made no more books, save the one not successful novel of ‘Trumps,’ written as a serial for the Weekly, and the volumes from the Addresses and the “Easy Chair” published after his death; yet he fulfilled the prophecy of Hawthorne on the appearance of the ‘Nile Notes’—“I see that you are forever an author.”  2
  It would not be easy, were it worth while, exactly to classify Curtis; and if in general phrase we say that he was an essayist, that only betrays how comprehensive a label is needed to cover his work. Essays, long or short, the greater number of his writings were; each practically embraced a single subject, and of this presented one phase, important perhaps and grave, or light, amusing, tender, and sometimes satiric to the verge of bitterness—though never beyond it.  3
  The Howadji books, which first gave him a name and fairly launched him as a writer, were a singular and original product, wholly different from what could have been expected of his training and associations; a venture in a field which, curiously enough, since the venture was in every sense more than ordinarily successful, he promptly and forever abandoned. “I aimed,” he says in one of his private letters, “to represent the essentially sensuous, luxurious, languid, and sense-satisfied spirit of Eastern life.” The style was adapted with courage, not to say audacity, to the aim. No American at that time had ever written English so riotously beyond the accepted conventions, so frankly, almost saucily, limited only by what the writer chose to say of what he felt or fancied under the inspiration of the East. Leigh Hunt compared the ‘Nile Notes’ to ‘Eothen’ and to ‘Hyperion,’ but the relation was extravagantly remote. The Howadji books were as individual as the lavish and brilliant bloom of a plant in the hot rays of the southern spring—and as passing. Once the shining and slightly gaudy flowers were shed, the normal growth proceeded to substantial fruitage.  4
  The ‘Potiphar Papers’ were like the Eastern books in this, that they were at the time a still more successful venture in a field which, if not wholly abandoned by Curtis, was not continuously cultivated, but was only entered occasionally and never quite in the same spirit. They were a series of satires, fanciful enough in conception, but serious and almost savage in spirit, on the most conspicuous society of the day: its vulgarity, vanity, shallowness, and stupidity, the qualities inherent in the prevalent rivalry in money-spending. They were of marked importance at the time, because they were the brilliant and stinging comment of a gentleman and a patriot on a portion of society whose wealth gave dangerous prominence to the false standards set up and followed. Happily the vices Curtis scourged were those of an over-vigorous and unchastened youth of society, and the chief value of the satire now is as a picture of the past.  5
  ‘Prue and I’ was a series of papers written, as Curtis’s letters show, in odd moments and with great rapidity, to meet the exigencies of the magazine. But the papers survive as an example of the pure literary work of the author. The opulence and extravagance of the ‘Howadji’ books disappear; but the rich imagination, the sportive fancy, the warm and life-giving sentiment, the broad philosophy, are expressed in a style of singular beauty, flexibility, and strength.  6
  And it was in this line that the “Easy Chair” essays were continued, forming one of the most remarkable bodies of literary product of the time. They were written for Harper’s Magazine, four or five monthly, equivalent each year to an ordinary duodecimo volume, and the series closed with the death of the writer some thirty-five years from their beginning. Their variety was very great. Some of them touched the events and questions of the time, and the time embraced the political contest with slavery, the Civil War, and the marvelously rapid and complex development of the nation after the war. But when the events or questions of the day were touched, it was at at once lightly and broadly, to illuminate and fix some suggestion of philosophy; through all ran the current of wise and gracious and noble thought or sentiment. Many of the essays were woven of reminiscence and comment on persons. In the little volume selected by himself and published shortly before his death, a dozen of the twenty-seven were of this nature, embracing such varying personalities as Edward Everett, Browning, Wendell Phillips, Dickens, Thoreau, Jenny Lind, Emerson, Joseph Jefferson. Whoever was thus brought under the clear, soft, penetrating light of Curtis’s pen lived thereafter in the mind of the reader with a character more real and just. In many of the essays of the “Easy Chair” there was a tone of gentle satire, but always hopeful and helpful, not bitter or discouraging; as if in “Titbottom’s Spectacles,” that broke the heart of the wearer with their revelation of the evil in those who passed before them, new lenses had been set, revealing the everlasting beauty and power of the ideal which evil violates, and to whose gracious and blessing sway the writer, with a kindly smile at the incongruities of the actual, invited his friend the reader. The very title had a gleam of this subtle humor, it being well known to the profession, and established by the experience of successive generations, that in reality there is no such thing as an “editor’s easy-chair.” Even if we allow for the fact that Curtis’s seat was in his tranquil library on Staten Island, remote from the complications and vexations of the magazine’s office, we must still recognize that the ease was not in the chair, but in that firm high poise of the writer’s spirit which enabled him, with wisdom as unfailing as his gracious cheer, “to Report and Consider all Matters of What Kind Soever.”  7
  Curtis was, perhaps, in his lifetime even more widely known as a speaker than as a writer. At the very outset of his career he became one of the half-dozen lecturers under the curious and potent lyceum system, that in the third quarter of the century did so much to arouse and satisfy a deep interest in things of the mind in the widely scattered communities of the American republic. At the very outset, too, he entered with all his soul into the political agitation against slavery, and became one of the most stirring and most highly regarded popular orators of the Republican party. Later he was eagerly sought upon occasions of historical interest and for memorial addresses. Still later he delivered the remarkable series of addresses on the reform of the civil service, in what was in effect a second struggle for political emancipation, waged with as broad a human purpose, with as high courage, as was the struggle against slavery, and with even a riper knowledge of the conditions of safety for the republic. The great body of these addresses, many of the slightest as well as the more elaborate, were essentially literary. Most of them were written out and committed to memory, and many were marked by more of the polish and completeness of the scholar’s conscientious and deliberate work than most of the writing intended only for publication. But they were still the orator’s work, addressed to the ear, though fitted to bear the test of study, and intended through the ear to touch the conscience and the heart and sway the will. Apart from the unfailing and lofty moral purpose that pervades them, their lasting charm lies in their music. They were the emmelia, the “well-tuned speech,” of the Greeks. But the hidden monitor who kept the orator true to the carefully chosen “pitch” was not the freedman of Gracchus, it was the sensitive and faithful artistic sense of the speaker. A writer lives in the world’s literature, necessarily, by those of his writings that find a permanent form in books. Of these Curtis left few. But fairly to judge of his influence on the thought, and so on the life as well as the literature, of his country, we must remember that the unusual gifts and the rare spirit revealed in these few books pervaded also his work in the magazine and the journal; that the fruit of his work would fill a hundred volumes, and that it reached readers by the hundred thousand. Had Curtis sought only the fame of the writer, he could hardly have failed to gain it, and in notable measure. In pursuing the object he did, he might rightly believe at the close of his career—it is doubtful if he ever gave it a thought—that he had rendered to American literature a service unrecognized and untraceable, but singularly, perhaps uniquely, great.  8

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