Mr. Curtin in his Study at Bristol, Vermont
Jeremiah Curtin and Vermont
By LEONARD TWYNHAMThis outstanding figure in American letters has significant connection with the State of Vermont which ought to be red-lettered in regional annals. He was born in 1840 in Detroit, Michigan. Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1863 he went to Russia and resided at St. Petersburg where he held the position of Secretary of Legation for the United States. He was especially qualified as an expert linguist. While there he studied the various languages of the Slavic world whereby he was enabled to work on his translations of Tolstoy, Sienkiewicz and Zagoskin. Before his death he was reputed to he conversant in about sixty tongues. He served for the period of 1883 to 1891 on the staff of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington in the Department of the Bureau of Ethnology and did a great deal of original research work relevant to the American Indians. In addition to his translations, the most familiar of which to the reading public is "Quo Vadis," from the Polish of Sienkiewicz; he wrote several volumes pertaining to Ireland and Russia, and some material regarding primitive tribes in America. Any standard encyclopedia will give the outstanding titles. The following volumes should be especially noted: Myths and Folktales of the Russian Western Slavs and Magyars; Hero-Tales of Ireland; Creation Myths of Primitive America; Myths and Folklore of Ireland; The Mongols; and Myths of the Modocs. The specific and exclusive purpose of this article is to emphasize his association with the State of Vermont.In Greenwood Cemetery at Bristol, Vermont, is an imposing mausoleum composed of huge granite blocks and faced with Doric columns above which is inscribed the name "Curtin." This is the vault of the Cardell and Norton families, well known in that vicinity. In the shelves on one side lie the bodies of Anson M. Norton, M. D., 1863-1921 and Annice Tucker, wife of Wm. H. Cardell, 1874-1921. Opposite to this tier is a marble slab bearing the inscription, Jeremiah Curtin, 1839-19O6. In the rear wall is an exquisite Tiffany window, representing an angel releasing a dove, a symbol of the departure of the human soul from the body. This fine specimen of stained glass was copied from the design of a window in Washington, D. C., by special order of the widow. It is strange that until the writer urged attention to the matter, no picture of this significant monument was obtainable in the local village.
The inquirer learns that Jeremiah Curtain was once a striking figure on the streets of this mountain hamlet; that his resemblance to a bearded Russian was so remarkable that the curious watched him intently. Natives remember how he always strode along at high speed with his inseparable walking stick; how his hurry was so vigorous that he often found himself many feet in advance of his wife; how often through the deep snow he walked over the Old Plank Road to the Butlers in the direction of Vergennes in order to talk Gaelic, for he had frequently said, "it is a waste of time to talk English."
Provincial minds could not understand why lights should burn almost all night in the house, or why a man should linger around his own premises in a dressing robe during hours of sunlight.
While in Bristol Mr. Curtin stayed in "The Homestead" of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Norton. But let us turn back the clock to the time when his Vermont association started. After eight years in Russia as Secretary of the American Legation, he visited Madison, Wisconsin, and there met Miss Alma Cardell, a native of Warren, Vermont, who had gone west to teach school. This charming lady still lives in Bristol with her sister, and is a remarkable woman of rare physical and mental vitality. Now, beyond the allotted span of years, she tells with pride how she met Mr. Curtin in January and married him on July 17, 1873 at Warren, Vermont. They spent their honeymoon partly at Pittsburgh. In October they returned to her home in Warren to say farewell before sailing for Europe. She accompanied him on all his journeys as an inveterate globe trotter. She enjoyed the adventure.
The third anniversary of their marriage was celebrated in a peculiar way. After the Odessa steamer which they planned to take had left port Mr. and Mrs. Curtin put out to sea in a row boat. As she attempted to reach the ladder of the big ship from the little vessel she fell fully clothed into the sea, but she came up where she went down. Only the equilibrium of a Vermonter could accomplish that feat. During extensive travels she acted as her husband's only secretary. She took his dictation in long-hand, both for translations and original works, and wrote thousands of pages of manuscript, a task of which, she says, she never tired.
Since her husband’s death she has lived chiefly in California, but in 1923 settled permanently in Bristol. Previous to 1896 Mr. Curtin and his wife occasionally visited in Warren. Then the mother-in-law, Mrs. Cardell, moved to Bristol; and thereafter the visits of this illustrious couple were made at the home of the younger daughter, Mrs. Norton. It is probable that Mr. Curtin labored chiefly on the Myths during the several visits to Warren. We should note that as a rule the Curtins traveled to Vermont in the winter season. It was then that they particularly enjoyed the invigorating climate. With contempt Mr. Curtin spoke of the remark made by Judge Tyler (Mormon elder) of the notorious Sharon case, to the effect that he would not live in Vermont "if he had a deed for the whole state."
Vermont should be proud of the admiration elicited from this eminent linguist who surpassed in his accomplishments the other famous genius in languages, Elihu Burritt of New Britain, Connecticut.
It is worth while to note several visits made to the state, by Mr. Curtin and his wife, and relevant facts regarding the trips. They returned from five years' absence abroad in the spring of 1878 to Warren where he at once undertook an intensive study of the Hindu language. From 1883 onward his official position was in the Department of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. His residence was in the capitol city, from which he made many trips for intimate acquaintance with Indian life on the reservations, and from which he occasionally traveled to Vermont scenes.
The author notes in the Curtin autobiography, only in manuscript form, and kindly loaned by Mrs. Curtin, several instances worthy of record:
In 1884 the Curtins spent three weeks' holiday in the state. Again in 1887 on November 24th, Mr. Curtin makes the following comment with reference to a trip to Warren: "Unlike the proverbial son-in-law, I was very fond of my wife's father and mother." The visit on that occasion extended to January, 1888, when they crossed the Roxbury Mountain to Middlesex by sleigh in order to reach a Boston train. He tells how a witty driver provided diversion during the long trip through the snow.
In May, 1890, the Curtins attended the marriage of the sister at Warren and while there Mr. Curtin continued his study of Russian Myths.
Again in 1891 they arrived in Warren on May 26th and remained until December 12th. Mr. Curtin had gone there to recover from typhoid fever and later contracted pneumonia. He explains his recovery with the simple words, "I had pure air to breathe." His notes for December 5, 1898, relate his arrival in Bristol where he set to work industriously on the "Knights of the Cross," by Sienkiewicz, and also on the American Indian Myths. This descriptive passage in connection with that visit is in agreement with the sentiments of all true lovers of Vermont:January 8th I crossed Lincoln Mountain and enjoyed a magnificent winter scene on the mountains, the finest I have ever beheld; trees and undergrowth were loaded with snow, both near-by and distant. Clouds, the tops of far-off hills, and the snow made a wonderful picture.Then they proceeded to Washington.
Again in 1900 we find the Curtins back for the Christmas and New Year holidays in Bristol. They remained until March. Then, in the following year. occurred the death of John Fiske, one of Curtin's most intimate friends. In July of 1901 the Curtins joined the family in Bristol and remained until October. During this period occurred one of the most dramatic events in American history. Jeremiah Curtin sat at the speakers’ table at a banquet given by the Vermont Veterans to Vice-President Roosevelt. On the next day, September 14th, at the Isle La Motte, the Vermont Fish and Game League gave a dinner at which Theodore Roosevelt was the guest of honor. The members and guests who attended numbered 1200. I quote a report of Mr. Curtin's speech which appeared in the press and attach his own account of the following historic incident:This is a feast at which the host is a great state represented by its leading citizens; the guest of honor is the most widely known public man in America; the man most intimately known by the people, the heir-at-law of the White House, and millions of American citizens hope that in the future he will he the occupant of that mansion. ……etc. One more word, Vermont is famous for its scenery, for its beautiful mountains, for its historical lake and for a geographic position which is the gateway of the Great Northwest beyond our borders. But Vermont is still more famous and justly so, for her strong men. She has furnished great men for every walk in life, Senators, Admirals, Financiers. Western pioneers, and I may add Mormon Prophets, who are as widely known as is America….Jeremiah Curtin went again to Vermont for the Thanksgiving celebration in 1902. He remained until December 3rd. During this period a unique visitor came to the home in Bristol, the celebrated Russian artist, Vereshtchagin. Curtin speaks of "several sleigh rides" with him, but in later reflection, after the friendship had been broken, he alludes to him as a "dishonest man." At this time Mr. Curtin was engaged in his work on "The Mongols," the volume which contains an enthusiastic tribute of Theodore Roosevelt as a part of the preface. It was at this season that the mother-in-law died; and the son relates, "We spent that Christmas and New Year together as a family for the last time."
Several speeches followed. At the conclusion, and just as an informal reception was to he held, news came of the assassination of President McKinley. Astonishment, indignation. and sorrow seized everyone, and each man expressed it. I saw Roosevelt; his face was ashen gray, that gray that comes from blending all the colors of the spectrum. He seemed weighed down, tremendously affected, but he was undemonstrative, and almost speechless. Some days later he was occupying the White House.
We still find the Curtins visiting the Nortons on New Year's day in 1905, and later during the mild winter of 1905-6. They remained its Bristol until March 3rd. Mr. Curtin was concentrating at that time on the script of "On the Field of Glory." He presumably had many friends, but he states regarding the appearance of the book, "Only one person wrote me about it, President Roosevelt.'
His health was not of the best, and so in June, 1906, the Curtins went to Bristol, then onward to Canada where they spent the summer at St. Hyacinths.
In August he began "The Idiot." It was in this same month that the Portsmouth Conference occurred, dealing with the relation of Japan and Russia. Witte, the Senior Envoy, had taken Mr. Curtin to Oyster Bay previously for a long conference with President Roosevelt regarding the relation of America to these nations. After his return to Vermont "for a few days' quiet" he set out for Portsmouth in company with his wife. The descriptions of their return to Vermont after enjoying the luxuries of entertainment at that important event are quite unique and constitute a goodly piece of Vermontiana:Three o'clock a. m. August 26th found us at New Haven Junction, Vermont, sitting outside the little station. It was night yet, a moonlight, starlight night. I looked for our baggage and found it had not been put off. I had telegraphed for a carriage but as I discovered later, the telegram had not been received. I found a box for my wife to sit on, then I sat down on the stone step at the doorway and we watched the stars grow pale and daylight creep up from the east. I was glad that we were there, glad to welcome the coming morning as it crept swiftly over the landscape, the hills; farmhouses and roads. And I realized how much was daily lost from life by indulging sleep. It was a glorious joy-giving morning. When the sun rose above the hills we walked in the direction we thought New Haven Village must be. Our handbag was heavy so I fastened it to our umbrella and carried it on my shoulder, tramp fashion. We had walked about a mile when we came to the village. On an elevation was a large house which I thought might be an inn, but when in front of it the only sign I saw was "Mumps." I had just decided to go farther in search of shelter when a man with a milk pail in his hand came out. I asked if there was a hotel in the village. "Yes, right here" was the answer. We went in and when we had divested ourselves of a large amount of dust, for from the station to the village we had plodded thru dust at least six inches deep, we sat down and drank a refreshing cup of coffee and ate a breakfast hastily spread for unexpected guests. Then, hiring the only available horse in the village, and a wagon springless and dilapidated, with a boy to drive, we went slowly and painfully toward Bristol. The comparison between the swift and elegantly appointed automobile of the previous days and the farm wagon was fine. I enjoy such contrasts. It is life.
We see by this final comment why Jeremiah Curtin thrilled in the varieties of his experience as a wanderer on the face of the earth. To know the man we must read his prefaces and introductions to the translations and compilations, and his original compositions. We must not stress his peculiarities, but realize that those nearest to him loved him devotedly. He is remembered as a joyful playmate of his little nephew as well as a towering genius of phenomenal memory and tireless energy, in whose mind vocabularies found lodging as quickly as the tones of a symphony do in the sensitive ears of a musical prodigy, and who could burn the candle at both ends in the execution of his art, staying up late to write and again rising at 5 o'clock and continuing his program.
Yet now at last his powers were weakening, and slowly his vitality continued on the down grade until on December 14th the breath of life expired. His eminent friends were gone; Longfellow, Fiske and Lowell were dead. Roosevelt was busy in the affairs of Government. The season and the distance prevented the presence of many persons who loved him. At the final rites were only a few relatives. The officiant was an Anglican Minister from Canada from the staff of Montreal College who was called to read the burial office because of the special request of the deceased. Service was conducted at the Norton house. Mr. Curtin had been a Roman Catholic, but early became independent of all faiths; and after his study of primitive beliefs be made no religious profession. However, he was a man of profound reverence and high principles. In reflecting upon his theoretic skepticism we do well to remember one of his late intentions which was thwaned by weakness of body – "I was thinking strongly of writing a book entitled 'Who is Immortal.' My answer to my own question will be 'God.’ "
He himself was an example of the miraculous way in which God reveals the super-mind through the mortal mind. We cannot think that such a brilliant light could be extinguished. All true lovers of Vermont should stop at his tomb in Bristol and doff their hats in respect to the phenomenal soul of this adopted son of the Green Mountain State.
Back to Jeremiah Curtin