Behind the Curtin

By Cheryl L. Collins. It stands like a monolith on the UW-Milwaukee campus, dour and imposing, a poured-concrete building nine stories tall. Pocked and striated from the top down, its windows recessed, its entryways vague, Curtin Hall is notable only for its spare and homely design. Despite its physical prominence on Downer Avenue, it fails to reveal anything about what’s inside. And maybe that’s as it should be. For all its opaqueness, Curtin Hall is in many ways the perfect monument to its namesake, Jeremiah Curtin. Raised in what was once Greenfield Township, Curtin rose from humble beginnings. A Wisconsin…

By Cheryl L. Collins.

It stands like a monolith on the UW-Milwaukee campus, dour and imposing, a poured-concrete building nine stories tall. Pocked and striated from the top down, its windows recessed, its entryways vague, Curtin Hall is notable only for its spare and homely design. Despite its physical prominence on Downer Avenue, it fails to reveal anything about what’s inside.

And maybe that’s as it should be. For all its opaqueness, Curtin Hall is in many ways the perfect monument to its namesake, Jeremiah Curtin.

Raised in what was once Greenfield Township, Curtin rose from humble beginnings. A Wisconsin farm boy turned multilingual master, renowned folklorist, famed translator, prolific author and freelance diplomat, Curtin was lauded by Theodore Roosevelt himself as one of the “two or three foremost scholars” in America. His work on Irish folklore was admired by no less an authority than poet William Butler Yeats.

Yet, 100 years after his death, Curtin’s story remains a fractured narrative, one that shifts with each telling, ultimately revealing very little.

According to his biography, Curtin was a friend of presidents and European nobility, a polyglot who spoke 70 languages, an ethnologist whose linguistic investigations spanned the globe and produced 20 books, many of which remain in print today. As Curtin told it, it was his compelling translation of the author Henryk Sienkiewicz that catapulted Sienkiewicz to fame in the late 1800s and paved the way for the Polish writer’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

But an alternate version tells another story, a story of manipulation and deceit. According to one UWM scholar,
Curtin was a self-aggrandizing entrepreneur and failed businessman, a man who knew only two languages, a boor and a braggart who stalked Sienkiewicz across Europe, swindling the author out of royalties for the English version of his works.

“He was not a nice man, not a noble man,” but he was a “brilliant literary entrepreneur,” says Michael Mikoœ, a professor in UWM’s department of foreign languages and linguistics, housed on the eighth floor of Curtin Hall.

Like the tales and myths that Curtin collected from around the world, his own past is largely a myth. It was woven first by Curtin himself, Mikoœ says, but more completely by the woman who labored by his side for years without mention. Even following Curtin’s death, Alma Curtin remained the invisible hand behind her husband’s works, writing eight books with his name attached to them, including the Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin, Mikoœ says.

Mikoœ’ research altered the view of this complicated literary figure among the small number of people who know of him. Still, Jeremiah Curtin’s interests span such a wide swath of academic specialties that apparently no one has pieced together a full account of his life and work.


* * *


Jeremiah Curtin was born in Detroit in 1835, moving with his Irish immigrant family the next year to a farm in Greenfield (now Greendale), at that time a half-day journey to Milwaukee. The young Curtin loved to read, and, with his family’s support, he attended school.

When Curtin was 21, his father died. Suddenly, he was forced to decide his life’s direction: whether, as the oldest son of eight children, to take over the family farm or to strive for something different.

He decided to reach for the unknown. Selling his share of the farm to his mother, he briefly attended classes at Carroll College in Waukesha, then went to Harvard University, no mean feat for a Wisconsin farmer at the advanced age of 23. He rarely visited Greenfield again.

Curtin spent five years at Harvard, drawn to the study of languages, especially Russian. It was there that he developed a keen interest in the traditions and customs of world cultures, known generally at the time as “folklore.” After finishing Harvard in 1863, he moved to New York City to study law.

But Curtin soon abandoned the law and, through his Harvard connections, landed a job in the Foreign Service. The post seemed to mesh his skills and inclinations. Appointed as secretary to the U.S. legation in St. Petersburg, Russia, he spent his spare time translating stories from Russian to English (although he didn’t have much luck in selling them) and traveling throughout the vast country. On his journeys, he began to collect stories, myths and folktales, material that would serve as the basis for many of his books.

After serving five years, Curtin was fired under murky circumstances, having raised the ire of the head of legation, who whispered of shady dealings and financial impropriety. Casting about, Curtin then tried to turn his Russian contacts to his advantage in a series of business ventures – a timber operation, a railway line, grain elevators – all of which failed.

Curtin had a problem: How could he translate his interests and experience into a steady livelihood? Today, a respectful job at a university would be an option. However, Curtin had not engaged in any serious scholarship, and further, Slavic language study was not yet part of the standard academic curriculum. And unlike so many Harvard graduates, he could not fall back on a comfortable family-owned business.

Curtin was forced to prowl for opportunities. With ceaseless flattery, he parlayed his Harvard connections into letters of introduction that opened doors wherever he went. He was forced to live by his wits, and in this light, his habit of self-promotion seems thoroughly modern.

Curtin patched together a living by lecturing, writing articles for newspapers, doing a bit of translation, and eventually assembling books of folklore. Earning a steady income was a constant struggle, though. His translations were often not accepted by publishers, and it was difficult to interest anyone in his books on folklore.

Much of the Curtin myth was concocted in the press releases that Curtin wrote detailing his career, says Mikoœ, which ultimately ended up in his obituaries and in the few reference works that describe his career. Separating fact from fiction now is a challenge. For example, Mikoœ believes that Curtin knew exactly two languages – Russian and Polish – not the 70 that he claimed.

“Curtin’s stories were half-untrue, half-exaggerations,” says Mikoœ.


* * *

Raised in Bristol, Vt., Alma Cardell was a young schoolteacher at Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, a school for Civil War orphans in Madison, when she met Curtin. He was visiting Wisconsin with the delegation of the Grand Duke Alexis, the son of the Russian czar. Jeremiah must have cut a dashing, even exotic, figure. And, according to Alma, it was love at first sight. Alma and Jeremiah married six months later, in July 1872. Jeremiah was 37; Alma was 25. Within months, they were on their way to Russia.

Stepping into his peculiar life, Alma was swept away, as if by a rushing torrent. For the next 34 years, Jeremiah and Alma Curtin lived, worked and traveled side by side. She became a full partner in his never-ending efforts to gain respect and renown. Jeremiah Curtin’s seemingly compulsive need to travel meant that for virtually all of their lives together, they had no fixed home or income. Never having children, they lived forever out of suitcases, moving from hotel to hotel in often-primitive circumstances. It was as if Alma was “always walking behind him,” Mikoœ says, held hostage by Jeremiah’s almost pathological restlessness.

If Curtin was the consultant and salesman who arranged and organized their freelance projects, Alma served as his administrative assistant, doing much of the real work. She was his stenographer, his editor and his occasional writer. She took photographs for which he claimed credit. She kept a diary and wrote letters that later were the basis of the Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin, which she wrote.

It would have been nearly impossible for Curtin to produce the voluminous supply of material without her. Yet, Jeremiah never thanked Alma or even recognized her for her efforts, says Mikoœ. “And I do not think he would even think of doing it.”

In 1883, Curtin landed what would be the only conventional job he was to hold after his termination from the Foreign Service, again gained through his Harvard connections. He took a post at the Bureau of American Ethnology, which would later become the Smithsonian Institution. Created in 1879, the bureau was led by famed ethnologist John Wesley Powell, who was collecting data on Native American languages and culture. Powell instructed field workers to find the Indian-language equivalents of hundreds of words. Curtin worked very fast, faster than most workers, impressing his supervisors.

After posts in upstate New York and Oklahoma – where he and Alma lived among several Native American tribes – Curtin was sent to California in 1888. With him, he brought a copy of a novel by a Polish writer named Henryk Sienkiewicz.

A prolific writer, Sienkiewicz (pronounced Shen-KYE-vich) is considered one of Poland’s greatest novelists, a patriot who glorified Polish culture at a time when the nation had disappeared from the map, carved up largely between Russia and Prussia. “He was the most popular Polish writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says UWM’s Mikoœ, “a combination of Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.”

For Curtin, however, Sienkiewicz proved valuable for other, more tangible reasons, notes Mikoœ. Sienkiewicz wrote in Polish, one of the two languages that Curtin definitely knew. More importantly, Sienkiewicz was a Russian national, and thus his works were not covered by the copyright laws then in force. As a result, Curtin and anyone else could translate these works and claim the royalties without the permission or approval of the author or original publisher. Whoever translated and published first would reap the windfall if a book achieved any popularity.

Sienkiewicz would become Curtin’s claim to fame and fortune, a golden goose from which he never let go.

Working in the field and living in tents, conditions in California were difficult for Jeremiah and Alma. Constantly scrambling for more income, Jeremiah took upon himself the massive task of translating Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword. It was a shot in the dark. Without authorization by the author or a commission, Curtin banked on securing a publisher after the translation was finished.

With Fire and Sword is the first work of an epic trilogy that tells the story of the Polish nation’s heroic attempts to repel invading armies in the 17th century. After appearing in a Polish newspaper in serial form, the book had been published in Poland in 1884.

“We do not know for sure when and why Curtin began to translate the Trilogy,” says Mikoœ, who has traced the tangled relationship of Sienkiewicz and Curtin.

After long days, Alma and Jeremiah would spend their evenings poring over the text. Curtin dictated his translation to Alma, and she tirelessly penned the first draft in longhand by candlelight long into the night, every night. Her manuscript ran 1,400 pages, and once she had completed the first draft, the two made corrections and Alma copied the text yet again. This process took more than a year.

“107 degrees today. Have worked since 7 o’clock,” Alma wrote in her diary on July 7, 1889. “I have no great satisfaction in any work I do, something is always wrong with it and praise is a thing unknown.”

Following an initial rejection, With Fire and Sword was published by Little, Brown and Company. And from 1890 until 1893, the pair worked ceaselessly on the rest of the Trilogy, as well as on some of Sienkiewicz’s short stories.

Jeremiah left the Bureau of Ethnology in 1892. With the sponsorship of Charles Dana – publisher of the New York Sun and another friend from Harvard – Alma and Jeremiah departed for Ireland, where they completed the translation, supplementing their meager income with stories for Dana’s newspaper.

Curtin was enamored with his Irish heritage. He believed that his Irish blood rendered him noble and served as the font of his linguistic gifts. “The Curtins belong to the old kings of Ireland, and reckoned many scholars among the ancient stock,” he wrote in a manuscript (which later was edited and expanded by Alma in Curtin’s Memoirs).

While in Ireland, the couple also collected more folklore material, as they often did while traveling. Generally, when collecting this material, they would visit a town, often with an impressive letter of introduction, and the local dignitary would then summon elderly persons to relate any tales they might know. Alma would take down everything in longhand dictation. She recopied the material, smoothing out the stories, which were then collected, and Jeremiah would add an introduction. The material would serve as the basis for many of his books.

The Curtins churned out a series of books. But they earned little money. Jeremiah kept supplementing his income with newspaper articles. Meanwhile, royalties from the translation of Sienkiewicz’s enormous Trilogy trickled in (Mikoœ has calculated $1,364). The books were not popular, selling only about 2,000 copies each.

Yet Curtin plowed forward and spent the years 1894 to 1896 translating Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis and Rodzina Polanieckich (The Polaniecki Family). Again the couple worked while traveling – in Central America, among other places – slavishly toiling away with little time for much else. The pressure was intense: There were 44 translators working on translations of Sienkiewicz’s novels at the time, each hoping for a slice of the pie.

Finally, in the fall of 1896, their work paid off. A few months after Curtin’s translation of Quo Vadis was published, it became a best-seller. Set in ancient Rome, it remained a best-seller for almost a year and a half. In all, more than 60 editions were released by some 34 publishers. (In 1951, the story was made into a Hollywood movie starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr.)

Quo Vadis was Curtin’s breakout work, providing financial stability to Jeremiah and Alma after years of frugal living. Curtin earned more money than Sienkiewicz (who received almost nothing from the publisher) and, after a long and circuitous path, gained the fame at age 61 that he seemed to feel was his due.

One admiring reader was Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote to Curtin while campaigning for re-election as vice president. “Now that the campaign is over I must tell you that during its continuance I was obliged frequently to find solace in reading your wonderful translations of Sienkiewicz’s great novels,” he wrote to Curtin in 1900, praising the Trilogy in particular.

Sienkiewicz’s other novels began to receive attention. To secure his place at the top of the heap, the Curtins traveled to Europe to seek out the author and obtain the manuscripts of forthcoming novels before they appeared in serial form in the Polish press. As described by Mikoœ, the two, in effect, stalked Sienkiewicz as he traveled across Europe, eager to gain the precious manuscripts. (In the Memoirs, these meetings with Sienkiewicz are treated as chance occurrences.)

Sienkiewicz was bemused by Curtin’s boot-licking behavior. During one of these “chance” encounters, he wrote to a friend: “He is the most awful and biggest bore that the fantasy of the seven poets could imagine. … I cannot even give you the faintest idea of the monstrosity of his compliments. He sits next to me at the table so it goes on without interruption during breakfasts and dinners. He even keeps talking while he eats and drinks, and then he holds my knee for 40 minutes.”

After a futile attempt to obtain from Congress a copyright for translations of Sienkiewicz’s works, the Curtins returned repeatedly to Europe to wrest further rights to his works. Sienkiewicz was not particularly savvy about the publishing business and signed away many of his rights to Curtin. For his part, Curtin believed that his translations were improvements on the originals.

Despite his success, Jeremiah still could not stop traveling or working. Tensions only seemed to grow between he and Alma. In a diary entry at her family home in Vermont in 1902, Alma speaks of her fatigue: “Jeremiah will never buy a house or let me buy one, so where we shall live or how is a question that is continually on my mind. I am at peace nowhere but here, and I know that any day J. will say I am going here or there and he is so stubborn that not a word can be said unless one wishes to encounter a storm which tears one like a whirlwind and then leaves you where it found you.”


* * *


Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, commended for “his outstanding merits as an epic writer.” He was lionized in his homeland and lived in a castle among adoring Poles.

A year later, Jeremiah Curtin died at the age of 71. Alma made this entry in her diary: “For four days he lay on the sofa in the library where he died. I went often to him, kissed him, put my arms around him, and promised to finish his books if life were given me and to do everything I knew he wished to do that I could do.”

Curtin’s estate and continuing royalties left Alma comfortably well-off. And she could finally buy a house. But she was not idle. Perhaps she could not shake off the routine of work. Or perhaps she felt a sense of obligation to her husband and to the elders who had shared their stories in the countries that they visited.

The following year, Alma completed The Mongols: A History– for which Roosevelt wrote an energetic and laudatory forward – and later The Mongols in Russia, based on Curtin’s notes. She then went on to complete A Journey in Southern Siberia (describing their own travels), and four other books over the next several years. On each of the books, the cover bore the name of Jeremiah Curtin.

Alma soon went to work on her husband’s biography, drawing from her own diaries for much of it. (As Mikoœ discovered, she often simply replaced “J” with “I” in the text.) Yet, while she completed the work in 1918, she did not make any effort to have it published. Instead, she waited.

Alma Curtin died in 1938. But not long before her death, she gave the manuscript, which she called Memoirs of a Busy Life, to her sister, instructing her to inform any potential editor that the text was based on letters of Jeremiah’s that had been lost.

“She deserves all the credit,” Mikoœ says. “She was hard-working, conscientious, and she effaced her contribution completely.” Her completion of the Memoirs was “one more act of conjugal love, which I’m not so sure he deserved.”

Clearly, Alma’s motivation was to burnish her husband’s reputation, Mikoœ points out, and so she often did not adhere to facts. For example, she makes no mention of their use of translators while traveling and collecting the folklore material. In Mikoœ’ view, she “must have seen the preparation of her diary in the form of Jeremiah’s Memoirs as a continuation of their joint work.”

The work was published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1940. It was titled Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin.

In yet another apparent act of artifice, Alma bought a large mausoleum in 1922 for her husband and her family. On it, Jeremiah’s birth date reads 1838. Some historians believe that Alma nudged Jeremiah’s birth date forward from 1835 to lessen the discrepancy between their ages. For eternity, Alma writes Jeremiah’s story.


* * *


Curtin’s books remain in print today as part of the “public domain.” Because so many years have passed since his death, they can be reproduced without payment or royalties to his estate – an irony that Curtin, the “literary entrepreneur,” would no doubt appreciate.

Less tangible is the legacy of Curtin’s work.

“The validity of his scholarship is very puzzling,” says Karl Kroeber, Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. Curtin liked to collect mythic material from elderly native women who did not speak English, says Kroeber, who wrote an introduction to a reissue of Curtin’s book Creation Myths of Primitive America.

But the material was not part of his assigned work, and with no supporting documentation, it is regarded merely as translations. Without the scholarly trail, the relationship of the translation to the actual spoken words is unknown. Also, as Kroeber notes, the creation stories seem “smoothed over,” possibly edited by Alma.

Curiously, says Kroeber, Curtin was disgusted by the horrendous treatment of the native people in California. The Wintu tribe of California asked him to plead their case in Washington, which he agreed to do.

Harry Anderson, the former director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, believes Curtin’s ethnographic studies have been unfairly neglected, especially the Native American material. For Anderson, Curtin’s interviews with tribal elders in the 1880s provide a direct link with beliefs that were extant in the early 19th century. “It’s a shame that no one has explored his work more fully.”

Fred Olson, professor emeritus of history at UWM, recalls visiting the Smithsonian years ago and finding Curtin’s dispatches, apparently unexamined, still in the brown paper they had been mailed in, collecting dust.

It was Curtin’s special interest in Irish folklore that drew the admiration of the poet Yeats. “His works have held up over time, and they are cited in the classic histories of Irish folklore,” says Maureen Murphy, a professor at Hofstra University and an expert on the subject. “He is still considered one of the very important early collectors of Irish folklore.”

But the Curtins’ work on the Mongols has not fared as well. “It’s a pastiche of secondary sources, little-consulted today,” says John Woods, professor of Iranian and Central Asian history, and of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Ambitious, talented, prickly, infuriating – what to make of this odd man?

“His primary talent, his genius, was his very unusual ability – which is a genetic fluke – to acquire languages rapidly,” says Victor Golla, professor of linguistics and anthropology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., who has examined Curtin’s texts of the Hupa people. Golla describes Curtin as one of his “favorite characters” and a true polyglot, one of a limited number born each generation. For a polyglot – “one step away from an idiot savant” – learning new words and languages is simply pleasurable.

Still, says Golla, “what Curtin did with this enormously complex, bizarre storehouse of knowledge is not much, considering the potential of his talent. He didn’t have the intellectual verve to be a scholar. … He was more interested in processing the literature than thinking about it.”


* * *


Through the doorway of UWM’s Curtin Hall, visitors are greeted by a larger-than-life photograph of Jeremiah Curtin. In it, he is sitting at a desk, pages of handwritten notes spread out in front of him, volumes of books at his back. In the background, set on a shelf, is a small picture of a woman, presumably Alma, his wife.

Curtin stares hard into the camera, his eyes penetrating, his brow creased. Yet his expression betrays no emotion – not happiness, not sadness. His visage is empty.

Students come and go on their way to class, and no one gives the man a second look.


Cheryl L. Collins is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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