George William Curtis

Staten Island had been privileged to have a number of residents over the years with such great talents. This resident, in particular, was an American Author, journalist, public speaker, and statesmen. He is also the person Curtis High School was named after.

George William Curtis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, February 24th, 1824.  Most of his family was of Massachusetts’s descent. His father, George, was born in Worchester, Rhode Island, and had an ancestor who was the amongst the first settler. George’s mother, Mary Elizabeth, was the daughter of James Burill, Jr., a chief justice of Rhode Island and, later on, served as a United States Senator representing Rhode Island in 1817 to 1820.

In 1830, Curtis, age 6, attended boarding school in Jamaica Plain, near Boston, where he stayed for four years. He wrote about his school days in early chapters of his novel "Trumps".

When his mother passed away in 1839, his father moved the family to New York. Curtis' father hoped his son would focus and pursue the mercantile career. Curtis attended private tutoring for a year and became a clerk in a German importing House in Exchange Place.  However, he was not fond of this career. He loved literary and reading.

After a year of working at the importing house, he moved to Massachusetts and joined his older brother to work on Brook Farm. His brother and he stayed with the Brook Farm company until 1844, then went to Concord, Massachusetts for studying and farming.

During this time, Curtis met and became lifelong friends with Ralph Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Henry Thoreau. In his novel "Homes of American Authors", he includes notes of his friendship with them, referring to them as "the philosopher, the romancer, and the hermit".

In 1846, Curtis began traveling the world, taking the transatlantic crossing (the Atlantic Ferry) from America to Europe, where he spent four years traveling through Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Egypt.

He returned back from Europe in 1850 ready to drive into his literacy craving. He resident on Staten Island and adopted to the New York Lifestyle. His writing was posted in "Courier and Enquirer", "The Tribune", and "Harper's Monthly". He wrote his "Niles Notes" and it was published by Harpers in 1851, then "Howadji in Syria" was published in 1852. In 1853, he helped his friend George Palmer Putnam start a magazine, "Putnam's Monthly", in which he wrote for and became an associate editor. During his first year at "Putnam's Monthly", he wrote "Homes of American Authors", "The Potiphar Papers" about New York society, and "Prue and I". However, by 1857, the magazine publishing closed down.  

He went back the "Harper's Weekly", continuing to publish pieces, such as "Easy Chair" and "The Lounger", all while doing lecturers at the universities and committees. His first important speech was in 1856 at Wesleyan University, he engaged actively in John C. Fremont's presidential campaign of that year (the Republican campaign's headquarters were located not far from his Staten Island home), and was soon recognized not only as an effective public speaker, but also as one of the ablest, most high-minded, and most trustworthy leaders of public opinion.

During this time, the question of slavery was becoming absorbed by the public eye and a theme in the press. Curtis effectively noted on the northern society by the slave power and called attention to the "evil influence".  In 1862, Curtis delivered his "Doctrine of Liberty" address to the Phi beta Kappa Society at Harvard, on behalf of President Lincoln. In 1863, he became the political editor of "Harper's Weekly".

In 1871, he was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to chair the commission on the reform of the civil service. He served on the Republican Party until 1884. In April of 1892,  he delivered his eleventh annual address as president of the National Civil Service Reform League at Baltimore. He made his last public appearance in May 1892.

Curtis was one of the original members of the Board of Education for New York City; he advocated educational reforms. He was also a member and frequent speaker at the Unitarian Church on Staten Island. A high school founded in 1904, located on Hamilton Avenue in St. George was named after George William Curtis. Curtis High School sits not too far away from Curtis' home.

Curtis was married to a daughter of Mr. Robert G. Shaw.  For many years he had lived in West New Brighton, Staten Island, and spent the Summers vacationing  in Massachusetts. On August 31st, 1892, George William Curtis had passed away.

Return to Famous Staten Islanders