Jeremiah Curtin
1838 - 1906

Linguist, translator, author, diplomat, world traveler, ethnologist, folklorist, friend of the great - Jeremiah Curtin's career spread out broadly.

Jeremiah Curtin was born at Detroit, Mich. on Sept. 6, 1835.  His parents, David Curtin and Ellen Furlong, were Irish immigrants who were married at Detroit while their families tarried in their westward migration.

"My first glimmer of remembrance," he records in his "Memoirs," "is of lying on a bed in a room which was only partly roofed - my father had moved into the house before it was finished - mother was talking to me. I looked up over my head and saw stars for the first time to remember them. I was two and a half years of age. The house was in Greenfield, Wisconsin, on a farm.

Like many another lad on the frontier, young Curtin attended school irregularly.  His father encouraged him to hope for a college education but in 1856 his father died of pneumonia and the dream seemed more remote. He was now the major support of his mother's large family.

"It was a clear, dark, moonless night.  There was the sweetness of the hay around me, and, overhead the majesty of the night. I lay there looking up into the heavens, and somehow, all at once, the decision came, 'I will find out all that is possible for me to find out about the world and this vast universe of ours.  I will have, not the second best, but the best of all the knowledge there is.'  And from that wonderful night when I lay on the hay thinking of this world and that infinite world up there, I have been a seeker after know1edge."

During his college years - he graduated from Harvard class of 1863 - Jeremiah cultivated languages and peoples. In addition to the tongues regularly available in the curriculum, he studied Hebrew, Sanskrit, Icelandic, Finnish, Gaelic and others on his own.

After graduation he went to New York to study law, but was soon teaching English and German and mastering Russian as well.

In 1864 he succeeded in obtaining from President Lincoln the appointment as secretary of the American legation, Russia.

Curtin began 30 years of travel, study, translating and writing.  Accompanied by his wife, Alma Cardell of Bristol, Vt., who he had married in 1872, he journeyed throughout some of the most remote and seldom visited regions of eastern Europe and Asia, to the British Isles and especially his ancestral home in Ireland, and among the American Indians.  His study of the language and customs of the Iroquois, Modoc, Yuchi, Shawnee and other tribes from 1883 to 1891 was conducted as an employee of the American bureau of ethnology. Wherever he went he carried out his own intensive pursuit of languages until he was reputed to have mastered more than 70 and to have achieved first rank in that field the world over.

Curtin's linguistic and ethnologic interests started his search for folklore and myths of primitive peoples with his findings resulting in the publication of 12 volumes dealing broadly with the field of primitive tales and oral traditions.

Curtin's most spectacular contribution to our literature lay in translations from the Slavic.  Although he prepared for American publication novels by Gogel, Zagoskin, Leo Tolstoy, Orzeszkowa and Glowacki his reputation rests on his translations of 16 volumes of novels, short stories and poetry by Poland's Henry Sienkiewics.
 

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