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George William Curtis to John S. Dwight, edited by G. W. Cooke, 1898.
Curtis died, after a long and painful illness, on August 31, 1892.
Of Curtis it may be said that his character is revealed in every line of his writing and in every act of his public and private life. He was gracious, winning, generous, quick to forgive, and slow to take offence. Goodness as exemplified in not a few good men is alike painful to those who possess it and to those on whom its influence is exerted. Virtue as exemplified in him never wore the austere garb or the gloomy countenance.
At the time of Curtis's defection from the Republican party incredible abuse was showered on him, not only in the press but through anonymous letters. He was much saddened by it, less from the personal point of view than because of the revelation it gave of the meanness and vindictiveness of human nature. Having thought too well of his fellows, he suffered under the disillusionment, all of which goes to show how optimistic at heart this disciple of Thackeray and writer of satires was. And when Senator Conkling made a savage personal attack on him in the New York State con
vention of 1877, Curtis seems to have had no feeling towards his enemy but that of pity: 'It was 'the saddest sight I ever knew, that man glaring 'at me in a fury of hate and storming out his fool'ish blackguardism.'
If Curtis's career illustrates one thing above another, it is his willingness to sacrifice mental ease and personal comfort for an ideal. But the sacrifice was made with such good nature, such grace in the acquiescence, that one forgets its extent, and even makes the mistake of thinking that possibly it cost him little. Undoubtedly it cost him much, this giving up of literature for politics, this putting aside of all public honors because there was a nearer duty which could not be neglected.
THE WRITER AND THE ORATOR
THE author of Nile Notes of a Howadji loved alliteration. In his early books he amused himself with pleasant arrangements of words such as 'camels with calm, contemptuous eyes,' or 'lustrous 'leaves languidly moving,' or 'slim minarets spir'ing silverly and strangely from the undefined mass 'of mud houses.' Note this description of the date-palm: Plumed as a prince and graceful as a 'gentleman, stands the date; and whoever travels
'among palms travels in good society;' or this of the sakias: 'Like huge summer insects they doze 'upon the bank, droning a melancholy, monoto'nous song. The slow, sad sound pervades the 'land-one calls to another, and he sighs to his 'neighbor, and the Nile is shored with sound no 'less than sand.'
Alliteration is a mark of youth. Employed to excess it has a cloying effect, like that of diminished sevenths in music. Of minor rhetorical arts it is the poorest, the most seductive, the most readily abused. But we should miss it sadly from the 'Howadji' books. Removed from the context these phrases quoted have an artificial sound, in their place they blend perfectly.
Curtis's style grew less florid and sensuous after the early writings. At all times it is singularly easy. One gets the impression that he was a spontaneous writer. Great productivity is not possible when there must be a constant retouching of phrases and paragraphs. The unlabored nature of his writing may explain the light estimate Curtis put on it. He is said to have been quite unwilling to reprint a volume of essays from the Easy Chair.' That anything which came with so little effort could be worth re-reading seemed not to occur to him.
He was the orator almost as soon as he was the man of letters. A rhetorician by taste and training, he knew the dangers of rhetoric and in his oratory avoided them. Clarity and grace are the most
obvious characteristics of every sentence. Curtis could no more have been awkward and heavy than he could have been obscure.
He can hardly be praised enough for the ease and naturalness of his allusions. We auditors grow restless when a speaker begins to cite classical names. We fear our old friends Cicero and Catiline, Cæsar and Brutus. We cannot away with Hannibal and Hamilcar. The ear has been dulled by constant repetition. Curtis knew how to make the oldest of these tiresome references seem new. All his allusions have an air of freshness and spontaneity. One would suppose the declaimers had long since exhausted the virtues of Spartacus. Curtis dared to make the old gladiator accessory to his argument in a passage like this:—
'Spartacus was a barbarian, a pagan, and a slave. Escaping he summoned other men whose liberty 'was denied. His call rang clear through Italy 'like an autumn storm through the forest, and 'men answered him like clustering leaves. . . . He 'had no rights that Romans were bound to respect, 'but he wrote out in blood upon the plains of Lom'bardy his equal humanity with Cato and Cæsar. 'The tale is terrible. History shudders with it 'still. But you and I, Plato and Shakespeare, the mightiest and the meanest men, were honored in Spartacus, for his wild revenge showed the brave 'scorn of oppression that beats immortal in the 'proud heart of man.'
Nature had bestowed on Curtis gifts which, if not indispensable to a speaker, are like free-will offerings as against tribute, and make the pathway smooth. His commanding presence, his winning smile and manner, his glorious voice, the air of high breeding, a self-possession which when accompanied by unaffected good nature is one of the most attractive traits all combined to place
him among the first of American orators. He was properly said (in a phrase which through vain repetition has almost lost its meaning) to 'grace' the platform.
NILE NOTES OF A HOWADJI, PRUE AND I, TRUMPS
'IN Shakespeare's day the nuisance was the Mon'sieur Travellers who had swum in a gundello,' wrote Fitzgerald in a half-petulant, half-humorous mood, but now the bores are those who have 'smoked tchibouques with a Peshaw!' He was speaking of Eothen. The fever for Eastern books was at its height when Curtis went abroad in 1846.
The Nile Notes of a Howadji describes the four weeks' flight of the Ibis' up the river to Aboo Simbel, and the 'course of temples' on the return voyage. It is a book of impressions and rhapsodies, a glowing record of travel in which realism