Collection inventory

Special Collections home page

George William Curtis Letters

An inventory of his letters at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: Feb 1989

Biographical History

George William Curtis (1824-1892) was an American critic, social commentator, and essayist.

Select Works

1851 Nile Notes of a Howadji
1852 The Howadji in Syria
Lotus-Eating: A Summer Book
1853 The Potiphar Papers
1856 Prue and I
Our Best Society
1861 Trumps. A Novel
1891 Washington Irving: A Sketch
1891-1894 From the Easy Chair, 3 volumes
1893 Other Essays from the Easy Chair
1894 Orations and Addresses of George William Curtis
Literary and Social Essays
1896 Emerson

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The George William Curtis Letters are a collection of chiefly outgoing Correspondence which illuminate the journalism career, political activities, and personal life of this 19th century American social commentator and orator. As editor of "The Easy Chair," a feature which appeared in Harper's Monthly, Curtis's widely-read opinions generated interest in him as a speaker, and a number of letters concern invitations to address various political organizations and educational institutions (Bond, Lee, Partington, Prince). Also among the letters are several responses to social invitations (Croffut, Graham, Hart, Tenney, Wharton), and a number of more personal letters (Dwight, Downing, Fields, Robbins, Taylor) which concern social engagements, typical among them is this to Eastman: "I cannot tell you how fresh and beautiful the little excursion was - nor how much I owe you - euchre included."

While the personal letters (Lossing, Putnam, Stoddard) reveal much of the wit and warmth of Curtis the journalist and literary critic, there are also a number of letters which reflect on beliefs and opinions of this political activist (Moffat, Pruyn, Ranney, Pierrepont). Responding to his nomination by acclamation for Secretary of State of New York at the Republican convention, Curtis wrote to Judge Edwards Pierrepont ( 1 Oct 1869):

Certainly one of the most agreeable events in a man's life must be his summons to an honorable public position by the spontaneous and unanimous voice of a multitude of his fellow citizens personally unknown to him; and certainly he must feel very grateful to the friend who was the immediate cause of that expression of preference. You must know, therefore, before I say it, how sincerely I thank you for naming me in the Convention and how truly sorry I am that I could not, with an honorable regard for my present duties and engagements, even permit myself to think of accepting.
I hope meanwhile, to be of more actual service both to the state and to the country in an unofficial post.

Although active in Republican Party politics, Curtis rejected the choice of James G. Blaine for the American presidency and urged the election of Grover Cleveland, becoming the most influential of the Independents in national affairs. In a letter of 14 Nov 1884, Curtis explains:

If support of a candidate who is believed to be dishonest or of a measure which is thought to be injurious to the public welfare, be compatible with Republicanism, no self respecting man can be a Republican.

And in a letter addressed to Henry S. Ranney and others, Curtis outlines his personal view of the role of political parties ( 30 Oct 1829):

You hold that the first duty of an American citizen is to his country; and while we all agree that under our political system the country is to be served through party organization, you assert the great conservative truth that organization can be kept faithful to its purpose only by the individual independence of its members. Undoubtedly the party majority must rule but the only way to compel it to rule rightly is to refuse obedience to its recommendations when they cannot be obeyed without sacrifice of principle.

Offering some advice to an aspiring social activist; Curtis advises C. W. Stickney ( 15 Feb 1870):

I should beg you to think a little of the manner of your action, whether speaking or writing or advocating this or that special measure - but everything of great result, and of the carefulness, the conscience, the training, the knowledge, which are essential to success in every form. If you fit your heart upon the pen as your weapon, - it may deceive you. If upon the tongue, - it may disappoint you. But everywhere and everyhow as opportunity offers, to speak or to write or to do, for whatever is best and generous & manly, that is really to live, and not to do it is to die.

The Subject Files series contains a single photograph.

Arrangement of the Collection

The collection is divided into two series: Subject Files and Correspondence. The correspondence is arranged chronologically; there is a Selected Index to Correspondence located at the end of the finding aid.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Bond, William.
Bourne, Wm. Oland (William Oland), 1819-1901.
Cotting, Benjamin Eddy, 1812-1897.
Croffut, William Augustus.
Curtis, George William, 1824-1892.
Dwight, John Sullivan, 1813-1893.
Fields, James Thomas, 1817-1881.
Lanman, Charles, 1819-1895.
Lossing, Helen (Mrs. Benson)
Moffat, Reuben Burnham, 1861-
Pierrepont, Edwards, 1817-1892.
Pruyn, John VanSchaick Lansing, 1811-1877.
Putnam, George Palmer, 1814-1872.
Ranney, Henry S.
Stickney, C. W.
Stoddard, Richard Henry, 1825-1903.
Taylor, Bayard, 1825-1878.
Tenney, William Jewett.
Ward, William Hayes.
White, Francis Wayland.
Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-1892.

Corporate Bodies

Republican Party (N.Y.)


American literature -- 19th century.
Authors, American.
Journalists -- Political activity.
Journalists -- United States.


New England -- Intellectual life.
New England -- Social life and customs.
New York (State) -- Politics and government.

Genres and Forms

Letters (correspondence)



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

George William Curtis Letters,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Table of Contents

Subject Files


Selected Index to Correspondence


Selected Index to Correspondence