1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Curtis, George William
CURTIS, GEORGE WILLIAM (1824-1892), American man of letters, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on the 24th of February 1824, of old New England stock. His mother died when he was two years old. At six he was sent with his elder brother to school in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where he remained for five years. Then, his father having again married happily, the boys were brought home to Providence, where they stayed till, in 1839, their father removed to New York. Three years later, Curtis, being allowed to determine for himself his course of life, and being in sympathy with the spirit of the so-called Transcendental movement, became a boarder at the community of Brook Farm. He was accompanied by his brother, James Burrill Curtis, whose influence upon him was strong and helpful. He remained there for two years, brought into stimulating and serviceable relations with many interesting men and women. Then came two years, passed partly in New York, partly in Concord in order mainly to be in the friendly neighbourhood of Emerson, and then followed four years spent in Europe, Egypt and Syria.
Curtis returned from Europe in 1850, handsome, attractive, accomplished, ambitious of literary distinction. He instantly plunged into the whirl of life in New York, obtained a place on the staff of the Tribune, entered the field as a popular lecturer, set himself to work on a volume published in the spring of 1851, under the title of Nile Notes of a Howadji, and became a favourite in society. He wrote much for Putnam's Magazine, of which he was associate editor; and a number of volumes, composed of essays written for that publication and for Harper's Monthly, came in rapid succession from his pen. The chief of these were the Potiphar Papers (1853), a satire on the fashionable society of the day; and Prue and I (1856), a pleasantly sentimental, fancifully tender and humorous study of life. In 1855 he married Miss Anna Shaw. Not long after his marriage he became, through no fault of his own, deeply involved in debt owing to the failure of Putnam's Magazine; and his high sense of honour compelled him to devote the greater part of his earnings for many years to the discharge of obligations for which he had become only by accident responsible, and from which he might have freed himself by legal process. In the period just preceding the Civil War other interests became subordinate to those of national concern. Curtis made his first important speech on the questions of the day at Wesleyan University in 1856; he engaged actively in the presidential campaign of that year, and was soon recognized not only as an effective public speaker, but also as one of the ablest, most high-minded, and most trustworthy leaders of public opinion. In 1863 he became the political editor of Harper's Weekly, and no other journal exercised during the war and after it a more important part in shaping public opinion. His writing was always clear, direct, forcible; his fairness of mind and sweetness of temper were invincible. He never became a mere partisan, and never failed to apply the test of moral principle to political measures. From month to month he contributed to Harper's Monthly, under the title of “The Easy Chair,” brief essays on topics of social and literary interest, charming in style, touched with delicate humour and instinct with generous spirit. His service to the Republican party was such, that more than once he was offered nominations to office of high distinction, and might have been sent as minister to England; but he refused all offers of the kind, feeling that he could render more essential service to the country as editor and public speaker.
In 1871 he was appointed by President Grant chairman of the commission to report on the reform of the civil service. The report which he wrote was the foundation of every effort since made for the purification and regulation of the service and for the destruction of political patronage. From that time till his death Curtis was the leader in this reform, and to his sound judgment, his vigorous presentation of the evils of the corrupt prevailing system, and his untiring efforts, the progress of the reform is mainly due. He was president of the National Civil Service Reform League and of the New York Civil Service Reform Association. In 1884 he refused to support the nomination of James G. Elaine as candidate for the presidency, and thus broke with the Republican party, of which he had been one of the founders and leaders. From that time he stood as the typical independent in politics. In April 1892 he delivered at Baltimore his eleventh annual address as president of the National Civil Service Reform League, and in May he appeared for the last time in public, to repeat in New York an admirable address on James Russell Lowell, which he had first delivered in Brooklyn on the 22nd of the preceding February, the anniversary of Lowell's birth. On the 31st of the following August he died. He was a man of consistent virtue, whose face and figure corresponded with the traits and stature of his soul. The grace and charm of his manner were the expression of his nature. Of the Americans of his time few were more widely beloved, and the respect in which he was held was universal.
Men of Letters” series (Boston, 1894), an excellent biography; “An Epistle to George William Curtis,” by James Russell Lowell (1874-1887), in Lowell's Poems; George William Curtis, a Commemorative Address delivered before The Century Association, 17th December 1892, by Parke Godwin (New York, 1893); Orations and Addresses by George William Curtis, edited by Charles Eliot Norton (3 vols.New York, 1894).
- (C. E. N.)