Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin

The fascinating world travels of a master linguist
Jeremiah Curtin
If you recognize the name Jeremiah Curtin, chances are you are a reader of Polish or Russian literature. Curtin was the foremost English translator of Polish literature in the 19th century, most notably the works of Henryk Sienkiewicz, and he also translated a few Russian novels. Curtin’s life, however, was much more adventurous than that of a typical bookworm, as evidenced by this fascinating autobiography. Published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1940, The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin covers the full extent of this remarkable man’s life, from his birth in 1835 to just a few months prior to his death in 1906.

Born in Detroit, Curtin was raised on a farm in Greendale, Wisconsin (now suburban Milwaukee). Rather than work the family farm, young Curtin decided to pursue a first-class education. In a very short time, he learned enough Greek and Latin to get into Harvard. From there, he began learning languages at an alarming rate. Over the course of the book, Curtin claims a facility in over 60 languages, including almost all the national languages of Europe, the major languages of Asia, and many off-the-beaten-path tongues such as Mingrelian, Abkhasian, Seneca, Wintu, Bengalese, Maya, Welsh, and Buriat. Even if Curtin only possessed a PhD-level mastery of three languages—English, Russian, and Polish—he seems to have studied the rest well enough to be able to read texts, translate stories, and/or converse with native speakers.

Curtin’s linguistic prowess led him to a multifaceted globetrotting career as a diplomat in Russia, a translator of literature, an ethnographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and an independent scholar who traveled the world gathering the myths and folklore of Indigenous cultures. Among his acquaintances he lists Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Theodore Roosevelt, Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, and Tsar Alexander II of Russia. On multiple transoceanic voyages, Curtin traveled through dozens of nations, including Ireland, Guatemala, Egypt, Japan, and the Balkans. At times he describes lavish banquets where he is hailed as a visiting dignitary. In more austere settings, however, he is forced to sleep with livestock in squalid, flea-infested hovels.

This book offers a fascinating look at a period in time when a Harvard education, some letters of introduction, and unbridled arrogance could open just about any door. Curtin did not have an ounce of humility in his body, which actually makes his memoirs more enjoyable. His self-aggrandizing storytelling calls to mind the legendary yarn-spinner Baron Munchausen or the 1960s cartoon character Commander McBragg. Curtin no doubt exaggerates his accomplishments, and there was a shadier side to the man that is not revealed in these pages. Reading between the lines one can tell, for example, that Curtin is essentially stalking Sienkiewicz, upon whose back he made his living. Still, Curtin did travel the world, met many interesting people, and studied the language and history of multiple world cultures. You may not end up liking the guy, but this lively and fascinating travelogue contains nary a dull moment in its entire 900 page length.

The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin were posthumously compiled by his widow Alma Cardell Curtin, who accompanied him on all his travels and served as his assistant and secretary. Some historians assert that these memoirs are based more on her own diaries than on his. Alma never published any writings under her own name, however, so Jeremiah is still the author of record. As she wished, this is ostensibly his autobiography, even if ghost-written. No doubt Mr. Curtin could not have accomplished all he did without the help of Mrs. Curtin, and she is to be commended for crafting such an engrossing narrative of his life.
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