George William Curtis was assigned Harper’s Magazine’s Easy Chair column in 1852, 1853, or 1854, while later also occupying Harper’s Weekly’s similarly minded Lounger column. He held this perch until his death in 1892—one of three to die while doing so.
Curtis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 24, 1824. A descendant of onetime enemy of the state John Curtis, he attended as a youth the newly formed Brook Farm, a utopian Transcendentalist community described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a perpetual picnic, a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.”
Curtis helped create Putnam’s Magazine, became a popular lecturer, wrote six popular books, and by the time of his death would become the nation’s foremost force in civil service reform. “Nothing could be more fatal to sound service,” he wrote of the spoils system in 1871, and twelve years later—after President James A. Garfield was assassinated by a supporter who felt scorned upon not receiving the ambassadorship he believed to be his due—many of Curtis’s reforms were adopted by an uneasy President Chester A. Arthur. A vocal abolitionist, Curtis lent his support to William H. Seward at the 1860 Republican National Convention, but soon became a convert to Abraham Lincoln. “His message is the most truly American message ever delivered,” he wrote after hearing the sixteenth president’s Fourth of July message to Congress. “Wonderfully acute, simple, sagacious, and of antique honesty! I can forgive the jokes and the big hands, and the inability to make bows. Some of us who doubted were wrong.” He would meet the president once; “he shook my hand paternally at parting,” Curtis wrote, “and said, ‘Don’t be troubled. I guess we shall get through.’”