Curtin, Jeremiah (1835–1906), folklorist, writer, translator and linguist, was born 6 September 1835 in Detroit, Michigan, USA, eldest among seven children of David Curtin, an Irish-speaker who emigrated from Bruree, Co. Limerick, and his wife Ellen (née Furlong) who came from Buttevant, Co. Cork. In 1837 the Curtins settled on a farm in the Irish immigrant community of Greenfield, Milwaukee county, Wisconsin.
David Curtin planned to educate his son, but he died of pneumonia in 1856. Curtin farmed to support his family, but he yearned for a college degree. He later described in the manuscript of the Memoirs (creatively edited by his wife) that one night he lay in a haywagon looking up at the stars and vowed he would have the best of all of the knowledge that there was. He decided that night to go to Harvard University. To prepare himself in classics, Curtin studied at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, between February and June 1858. Through the spring and summer of 1858 he worked on the Curtin farm and studied.
According to his Memoirs, Curtin arrived late to Harvard for the fall 1858 term. He brought a ‘remarkably fine Indian skull’ found on the Curtin farm and a letter of introduction to Louis Agassiz, the professor of natural history. In fact, Curtin went first to Phillips Exeter Academy, where the register lists him as attending the Academy during the 1859–60 academic year.
Curtin enrolled at Harvard in 1862. He was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1863. He studied modern languages with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, and he learned other languages including Finnish, Icelandic, and Gaelic on his own. The English and Scottish ballad scholar Francis James Child shared his folklore interests with Curtin. Eager to take advantage of all that life in Cambridge offered, Curtin walked to Concord to spend an afternoon with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Though Curtin was pro-union, he did not consider enlisting in the union army during the civil war. Instead, he went to New York after Harvard to study law; however, he soon returned to his study of languages. The visit of the Russian fleet to New York gave him the opportunity to perfect his Russian. He applied unsuccessfully for the position of ‘consular pupil’ in Russia, but, undaunted, went to St Petersburg in 1864 and from there petitioned President Lincoln successfully for appointment as secretary to the American legation.
Curtin's immediate supervisor was the American minister to Russia, Cassius Clay of Kentucky. Curtin claimed that Clay grew to resent his popularity in the Russian court, a popularity based on his fluent Russian and personal charm. Clay, believing Curtin was conspiring with William Henry Seward, the secretary of state, to destroy him, attacked Curtin's character. Having left the American legation because of this discord, Curtin travelled in eastern Europe and involved himself in business interests, including an unsuccessful timber venture. He returned to Milwaukee in 1868 and from then on devoted himself to learning languages, to collecting the folklore of primitive and peasant cultures, and to translating their texts and transcribing their oral tradition. (According to the Memoirs, Curtin always began his study of a new language by reading the Bible in the new language.) His work took him to some of the most remote places in the world.
Curtin worked for the bureau of ethnology in Washington, D.C. between 1883 and 1891. He worked with Native American peoples: from the Senecas of New York, who gave him the name Hiwesas (‘seeker of knowledge’), to the Hoopas of California. He claimed to have mastered Seneca, Creek, Yuchi, Choctaw, Modoc, Sac and Fox, Wyandoll, Maidu, Yana, Norel-Putis, Wintu, Wascos, Klamaths, and the language of the Pitt River people.
Curtin left the bureau to make the first of his three collecting trips to Ireland: Kerry, Galway, and Donegal (4 June–21 September 1887). While he was eager to visit the country of his immigrant parents, the Curtin Memoirs indicates that he had a hypothesis to test. ‘I hope that there might still remain in the minds of the people of the remote districts of Ireland many idioms useful in explaining the language of the manuscripts preserved in the Irish Academy, and myths that would supplement and strengthen recorded mythology’ (Memoirs, 385). Curtin found his connection between the Irish language and folklore, but he also realised the urgent need to collect from Irish-speakers. His concern for the Irish language anticipated the founding of the Gaelic League in 1893. He also theorised about cross-cultural relationships between oral narratives of the different peoples from whom he collected. Curtin published his theories and his texts in Myths and folk-lore of Ireland (1889), a book he dedicated to a fellow Celt, Maj. J. W. Powell, director of the bureau of ethnology.
When Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun, read Myths and folk-lore of Ireland, he offered Curtin expenses for a second field trip to Ireland and $500 for every ten myths that Curtin could collect from Irish-speakers. Curtin returned to Ireland on 16 December 1891 and stayed till 30 September 1893. With the help of translators, he collected tales for Hero-tales of Ireland (1894) primarily in Dingle, Co. Kerry, but there are also texts from Connemara, Donegal, and west Limerick. His introduction draws parallels between Irish and the languages of North American native peoples. Since Curtin named his informants in Hero-tales, twentieth-century folklorists such as Séamus Ó Duilearga (qv) and Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (qv) (‘An Seabhac’) were able to collect the rest of the narratives of Curtin's gifted storytellers. Curtin's final trip (12 July 1899–early September 1899) produced Tales of the fairies and of the ghost world collected from oral tradition in south-west Munster (1895), a volume of Kerry legends, many of which were collected in Maurice Fitzgerald's house in Ventry. (A plaque unveiled at Arda Bhóthair in 1988 marks Fitzgerald's house.)
Irish folk-tales (1943), a fourth collection of Curtin's texts from the narratives that had appeared in the Sunday supplement of the New York Sun in 1892 and 1893, was edited with an introduction and notes by Séamus Ó Duilearga. Here again, Curtin's habit of recording texts verbatim from informants, a method W. B. Yeats (qv) praised in his essay ‘Irish national literature II’ (1895), influenced the following generation of Irish folklorists. Curtin's most financially successful translation project was prompted by a chance meeting on a Washington streetcar in 1887 with a man reading an instalment of a serialised novel by Henry Sienkiewicz published in a Polish magazine. Curtin's best-selling translation of Quo vadis? (first published 1895) is still in print. The Phillips Exeter Academy archives has a holograph letter from Sienkiewicz designating Curtin as his English translator.
The Curtins returned to Ireland once more in 1899 to visit their old informants. They returned to Russia for a last visit in 1900, where they met Count Leo Tolstoy and gathered material for his last two books, which were published posthumously: The Mongols in Russia (1908) and A journey in southern Siberia: the Mongols, their religion and their myths (1909). Curtin's Russian experience proved to be valuable to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 during the preparations for the Portsmouth peace conference at the conclusion of the Russo–Japanese war. Roosevelt provided the foreword to The Mongols in Russia.
Curtin became ill in the summer of 1906. He died on 14 December 1906 at the age of 71 in Bristol, Vermont. His death was reported on the front page of the New York Times the next day. President Theodore Roosevelt said of him: ‘He travelled over the whole world calling all men his brothers and learning to speak to them in seventy languages.’ The National union catalogue lists forty-two publications: translations, studies of folklore, travel accounts, and even the manuscript of a Choctaw dictionary.
The Curtin farmstead, a stone house built in the 1840s, was acquired by the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 1952. It has been restored and is a Wisconsin state landmark. There is a collection of the Curtins' papers in the Milwaukee County Historical Society. It includes his early drafts of his Memoirs, and a photograph of Curtin appears as frontispiece of The Mongols in Russia (1908).
Curtin married (1872) Alma Cardell of Bristol, Vermont, who worked with him as secretary and collaborator. Her role had its risks. According to the Memoirs, Alma Curtin nearly fell from a precipice in the Caucasus; in 1876, at Sukhum, she lost her balance stepping between the tender and the steamer and almost drowned, and she contracted malaria en route to Odessa. In all of their married years they travelled constantly with regular long holidays in Vermont with Alma's family.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).