Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 4. George William Curtis

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 4. George William Curtis

The most remarkable blending of the man of letters and the devoted public servant among American authors is manifested in the life and writings of George William Curtis (1824–92). In all the literary essays and addresses of Curtis, and in even the briefest of his papers for “The Easy Chair,” is apparent his incomparably suave diction; but here, too, is that firmness of thought clothing his civic aspirations in the impregnable armour of dauntless and logical convictions. And how graciously the two great streams in our essay literature—the Puritan stream softened by the elemental thought of the brotherhood of man, with Channing as its fountainhead, and the genial flow of benign art, with Irving as its fountainhead—have their confluence in Curtis! “Honor,” he writes,

  • “is conscious and willing loyalty to the highest inward leading. It is the quality which cannot be insulted”; thus expressing the thought which underlay the memorable phrase of a later essayist, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States. One recalls in this connection another of Curtis’s sentences: “Reputation is favorable notoriety as distinguished from fame, which is permanent approval of great deeds and noble thoughts by the best intelligence of mankind.”
  • The literary career of Curtis falls into two parts. Born in Providence, he went, as a boy, to New York, where, for a short while, he held a clerkship. His first direct connection with other men of letters came with his sojourn in 1842 at Brook Farm; and this was followed by travels in Europe and in Egypt and Syria. The result was a series of delightful books, based on letters that he had sent to the New York Tribune; and in them we find Curtis giving full and original vent to his nimble fancy and his graceful descriptive powers. The Nile Notes of a Howadji (1856), The Howadji in Syria (1852), and Lotus Eaters (1852) are thus delectable resting places for the literary student who seeks to cover the territory of our travel literature. In Potiphar Papers (1853), Curtis resorted to our chief city, continuing the Salmagundi tradition of local satire, not without immediate evidence of the influence of Thackeray; chastizing with somewhat gentle blows of the moralist’s whip the more obvious faults of a community too much given to ostentation; and pointing with no very stern finger at the social excrescences of his (and other) times.