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

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 6. Public Career

Prior to 1860 Curtis was almost exclusively a man of letters; and had not civic duties spoken to him with peremptory voice, his early work bids us believe that he would have rounded out his career with many volumes of the most graciously conceived and gracefully expressed essays and fiction. But with his entrance, during Lincoln’s first candidacy, into the field of politics, his literary activities were made largely subservient to his civic endeavours and aspirations. First one of the pillars of the Republican party, and later chairman of the Independent Republicans who rebelled against the nomination of Blaine; the chief exponent and the most influential advocate of Civil Service reform; the kindly but firm leader in every forward moving social cause, Curtis, during the latter half of his life, gave up the chance that was his to achieve preponderant literary fame, winning, instead, his high title in the citizenship of his country. What he said of Lowell may even more cordially be said of him—that he had the “grace, charm, and courtesy of established social order, blending with the masculine force and the creative energy of the Puritan spirit.” The intimacy between Curtis, Lowell, and Norton, so fully revealed in the letters of the three, embodies one of the rarest and most fragrant episodes of friendship among American men of letters. Each influenced the others, strengthening that faith in one’s self which, among civilized men, is the elementary religion. Each of these three was true to the conviction that acts which primarily serve ambition are seldom in accordance with the ambition to serve. Yet Curtis, for all his unfearing rectitude, felt most keenly that only those who are virtuous have the right to judge severely; but a part of their virtue consists in the frequent kindly abnegation of this right.

In his essays and addresses on Burns, on Bryant, on Sumner, on Wendell Phillips, Curtis combines the qualities of the scholar, the lover of romance, and the radical reformer; while in his attitude towards nature, as apart from his interpretation and exposition of the deeds of individuals, he shows a kinship with Thoreau in his rarest moods. Lowell would have spurned the thought that Thoreau was our most nobly imaginative nature writer (to whom Emerson owed a debt that has not yet been fully appreciated); and indeed, one recalls how Lowell, as editor of The Atlantic Monthly, objected to a paragraph of Thoreau’s wherein the pines were made to tower into a higher heaven than might be reached by the souls of lesser men. Curtis we cannot imagine thus adopting the theologian’s views.

  • What man of you all [writes Curtis in his paper on Autumn Days] what man of you all is as true and noble for a man as the oak upon yon hill-top for an oak? The oak obeys every law, regularly increases and develops, stretches its shady arms of blessing, proudly wears its leafy coronel, and drops abundant acorns for future oaks as faithful; but who of you all does not violate the law of your life?
  • And a little further on: “A stately elm is the archbishop of my green diocese. In full canonicals he stands sublime. His flowing robes fill the blithe air with sacred grace.” It is in sentences like these that Curtis takes firm place beside Thoreau, both of them ambassadors bringing messages from the world of nature to the world of men—and beside John Muir (1838–1914), who, though born in Scotland, was thoroughly naturalized in America, as inventive as any Yankee, and a passionate foster-son of the western mountains.