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LP Curtis Jnr: 1932-2019

RM Douglas writes: Lewis Perry Curtis Jr, one of the leading twentieth century historians of modern Ireland, has died at the age of eighty-six. During his long and distinguished professional career, he taught at Princeton, Berkeley and Brown universities, from the last of which he retired as professor of history in 2001. He continued, however, to produce and publish scholarship of the first rank until the very end of his life.

Perry Curtis was born on June 7th, 1932 in London, the second son of Lewis Perry and Jeanet Ellinwood Curtis, née Sullivan. As he later wryly noted, the fact qualified him for British citizenship, if he had chosen to take advantage of it. His father was a professor of English literature at Yale and was later appointed to a named chair in the history department, becoming one of the arts and sciences faculty’s most renowned teachers. Curtis’s mother was a Bryn Mawr graduate and daughter of an insurance company executive. Although the son’s scholarly achievements would surpass those of the father, Perry Curtis often described himself as feeling overshadowed by the strong-minded and extroverted Lewis Curtis’s intellectual brilliance. Yet father and son shared many traits: a commitment to interdisciplinarity, a love of linguistic elegance and wordplay, an affinity with and affection for the British people and their history, and an irreverent, occasionally subversive, sensibility. Both would have found themselves wholly at ease in the eighteenth century London literary milieu that was the subject of the elder Curtis’s lifelong study.

After attending the Foote School in New Haven, Perry Curtis was sent as a boarder to Brooks School in Andover, Massachusetts, a recently established institution modelled on the English public school, where one of his classmates was the actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho). His chief distinction at Brooks, he recalled, was having been the tallest, thinnest and most angular lineman on the football team in the school’s history. Summers were spent as a copy-boy for The New York Times, a paper on which both his maternal grandfather and uncle had been employed.

As a member of New Haven’s academic porphyrogeniti, it was perhaps inevitable that he should have gone on to Yale as an undergraduate, completing his studies in 1953. Although the Korean War was still under way at the time of his graduation, Curtis turned down the deferment from compulsory military service that would have been open to him had he proceeded directly to postgraduate study. Instead he accepted induction into the infantry for the twenty-one-month stint that was then required of young men by the Selective Service Act. After basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he had the good fortune to be assigned as an instructor to the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command at Fort Carson, Colorado. The remainder of his time in uniform was an idyllic period of skiing and climbing the Rockies at the government’s expense, an experience that left him with a lifelong love of the mountains. The most unmilitary of men, the former Corporal Curtis nonetheless looked back to his two years in the army with unalloyed pleasure.

His infantry career conferred another valuable benefit, enabling him to go to graduate school on the GI Bill. As a concession to his father’s pronounced Anglophilia as well as a desire to spread his wings beyond the United States, Curtis registered for a DPhil in history at Christ Church, Oxford. He found many kindred souls there, including the psychologist-in-training Edward de Bono and Lord Cherwell, former scientific adviser to Winston Churchill, with whom he struck up an improbable friendship after Cherwell’s cat deposited on Curtis’s bed an unwelcome token of its presence. After two years at Christ Church, he transferred to the all-postgraduate Nuffield College, Oxford’s newest constituent college, whose buildings at the time had not yet been constructed. While the Welsh don HG Nicholas served as Curtis’s formal supervisor, almost as great an influence on him was the college’s dean and senior tutor, the psephologist David Butler, who was close to him in age. Both men offered guidance, companionship, but above all freedom for Curtis, who had arrived in Oxford with no notion of any kind about a possible thesis topic, to find his own scholarly way.

Curtis’s time at Oxford was marked by two turning points in his personal life: the first tragic, the second with a far happier outcome. In August 1957 his brother Michael, two years his senior and a recently qualified lawyer with a glittering career ahead of him, fell to his death from the Italian side of Mont Blanc, along with a local guide. Their bodies were never recovered. The loss was a shattering blow to the entire family and to Perry Curtis in particular. Every summer thereafter, including in the last year of his life when joint ailments had left him a virtual cripple, he returned to the Courmayeur area where Michael Curtis had disappeared ‑ often in later years accompanied by his son, who bore his deceased brother’s name. But Oxford also brought him great joy when he met and, a month after the completion of his doctorate in 1959, married, Alison MacCarthy-Wills-Bund, a private secretary at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and daughter of the dean of Balliol. Alison Curtis’s support was a vital element in his subsequent life and career; his death occurred just three months before they would have celebrated their diamond anniversary.

After his graduation, Curtis spent four years as an instructor in history at Princeton while revising his dissertation for publication. Coercion and Conciliation in Ireland(1963) placed under the microscope the Salisbury government’s attempt between 1886 and 1892 to suppress, by all available means, the Home Rule movement and the land agitation in Ireland that in combination represented the most serious challenge to date to British. The book made an immediate impact, earning laudatory reviews from specialists on both sides of the Atlantic and resulting in the offer of a tenure-track job at the University of California at Berkeley.

Curtis’s decade-long stay in the Bay Area was to be the most productive period of his career. Possessing as he did the two most important attributes of the first-rate scholar ‑ a limitless curiosity and a willingness to subject his own ideas to ruthless and continuous critical scrutiny ‑ he soon became dissatisfied with the thesis he had advanced in Coercion and Conciliation. Landowning British Tories, he had argued in that book, opposed Irish reforms for fear that these might prove the thin end of the wedge for similar measures of social and economic amelioration in Great Britain. While evidence of such concerns undoubtedly existed, Curtis came to realise that this could not satisfactorily account for the fervent opposition to Home Rule among Britons who were neither sympathetic to Conservatism nor had material interests to defend. Nor did it explain why the Salisbury administration’s policy of “killing Home Rule by kindness” failed to deflect Irish citizens’ aspirations to self-government once their principal economic grievances had been addressed.

The answer, Curtis concluded, must lie elsewhere. At a time when Marxist explanations for the behaviour of historical actors were in vogue in the academy in general and at Berkeley in particular, he swam against the tide in focusing upon non-material motivations. Setting out to educate himself deeply in social psychology, sociology and cultural studies, he began to analyse the preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices shared by nineteenth century British policymakers, media figures, scientists and public intellectuals that had steered them toward certain courses of action while rendering others literally unthinkable.

The result of these labours was a short but explosive book composed while on sabbatical at Oxford in 1966 and published two years later. Anglo-Saxons and Celtsshowed that for British elites, policy affecting Ireland in the nineteenth century was formed within an overarching framework of racial discourse that located the differences between the two peoples in immutable biological characteristics. While skin colour might not always prove a reliable marker of innate Irish inferiority, British anthropologists and racial investigators were certain that other no less definitive physical indications could be found. Confronted with these stigmatising narratives, Irish nationalists responded by generating a no less factitious Celticist genealogy for themselves, with the pure-bred peasant of Iar-Chonnacht serving as the anachronistic avatar of an Ireland then in the process of modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation.

If Anglo-Saxons and Celts was the theoretical panel of a dyptich, its empirical counterpart was Apes and Angels, which followed in 1971. Lavishly illustrated, the book was one of the first in any field to take cartoons and caricatures seriously as historical sources. Extending his analysis to the United States as well as Britain, Curtis showed that considerable overlaps existed between anti-Irish and anti-black rhetoric and representations, even as Irish immigrants to the US themselves adopted racist attitudes as an assimilation strategy. “Simianised” depictions of the Irish, of various non-white peoples, and of other “Others” (including, after the outbreak of the Great War, Germans) not only offered a social-Darwinian justification for imperial agendas on both sides of the Atlantic but revealed deep-seated anxieties on the part of Anglo-Saxon Protestants in Britain and the United States about their own perceived racial vulnerability.

It is no overstatement to say that after the publication of these books the historical profession’s approach to questions of Irish nationalism and identity would never be the same. Curtis’s arguments did not command universal agreement then or later: from the 1990s in particular, scholars would increasingly draw attention to the extent to which some Irish citizens sought to improve their own status by identifying and collaborating with the British (and even the Confederate) mission civilisatrice. He himself would readily concede the validity of some of these criticisms and, in a 1997 revised edition of Apes and Angels, address them directly. Yet the two books can fairly be said to have shifted the paradigm not just of modern Irish history but of many aspects of imperial and post-colonial studies more generally. It is especially noteworthy how frequently they were, and continue to be, cited by specialists outside the field of history: anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists and even archaeologists. Curtis’s aspiration not merely to draw from but to produce insights relevant to a wide variety of disciplines was triumphantly achieved.

Professional distinctions followed: tenure and promotion to the rank of full professor at Berkeley; Guggenheim and American Council of Learned Societies fellowships; fellowship of the Royal Historical Society; and innumerable speaking engagements. Curtis’s name was mentioned as a possible successor to TW Moody, the leading Irish historian of his time, as holder of Erasmus Smith’s Chair of History at Trinity College, Dublin, an appointment that Moody himself favoured. In 1973, however, he would instead return to his New England roots as professor of British and Irish history at Brown University. Having recently adopted an experimental “New Curriculum” (self-designed majors, the abolition of grades), Brown seemed to offer the freewheeling, radical atmosphere Curtis had valued at Berkeley while being nearer to both his family and his sources.

It was, then, consistent with his commitment to interdisciplinarity that Curtis and his closest friend on the Brown faculty, Roger Henkle of the English department, should have launched a new undergraduate programme in Modern Literature and Society at the end of the 1970s. Over the course of the next decade this developed into the Centre for Modern Culture and Media (MCM), which encompassed the university’s existing programme in semiotic studies. Under Henkle and Curtis, MCM aimed to break free of the self-referentiality and self-absorption into which many practitioners of post-structuralist theory had lapsed by the mid-1980s, instead seeking to “study literature, history, and cultural expression in their mutual contexts” and to determine “what assumptions historians and literary critics make about their disciplines”.

His involvement in MCM prompted Curtis once again to expand his intellectual horizons. Up to this point in his career, he had operated within an almost entirely homosocial scholarly environment. The history department at Brown did not hire its first woman assistant professor until three years after his arrival there; when he himself had published an edited collection on the process of historical writing (The Historian’s Workshop, 1970), all sixteen of the contributors had been men. Leadership in MCM, as well as the social and legal changes occurring on campus and across the United States, now led him to engage deeply for the first time with contemporary and historical feminist thought. Though his own sexual politics were, and largely remained, conventional, he recognised in second-wave feminism a coherent body of ideas that challenged him to embark once again upon a process that he always found congenial: the rethinking of his own fundamental propositions.

The book that emerged out of this period of reflection was the longest in the making of any of his works, taking more than ten years between conception and completion. Curtis was indebted above all to Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight (1992), a groundbreaking fusion of social, cultural, urban and gender history focused on London at the end of the nineteenth century. The book’s perceptive discussion of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 was particularly important in suggesting to Curtis an original line of inquiry. Precisely because so little was known about Jack the Ripper, he realised, the many gaps in the story became a blank screen upon which Britons proceeded to project their own fears, prejudices, fantasies and prurient obsessions. Jack the Ripper and the London Press (2001) contended that the late-Victorian media used the episode as a “floating signifier” which, depending on the concerns of the individual writer, could be deployed to justify everything from social reform to xenophobic populism. The near-pornographic detail in which the injuries inflicted upon the killer’s victims were reported in the “respectable” as well as the mass-circulation papers was also a turning-point in popular constructions, and deconstructions, of the female body. Once again, the book was well-received by reviewers and enjoyed a wide general readership, especially in Great Britain.

Curtis’s final decade at Brown was a bittersweet period in his life. Though he remained as much in demand as ever as an author, speaker and reviewer, the untimely death in 1991 of the energetic and ebullient Roger Henkle deprived him of one of his dearest friends and the MCM department, in which he had invested much effort, of its vital spark. The slow eclipse of the Irish Cultural Association of Rhode Island ‑ of which he was the primum mobile and most enthusiastic member ‑ as its regulars retired, graduated or died, was also a source of sadness to him. He saw his last doctoral student (the present writer) through the programme and onto the tenure track, and made preparations for his retirement, a month before his seventieth birthday. After twenty-eight years at Brown, he moved in the summer of 2001 with his wife to the tiny hamlet of North Pomfret, Vermont, where he had a holiday home.

Yet this final chapter of his career was to prove a remarkable Indian summer of scholarly productivity. Liberated from the demands of teaching and administration, he reverted to a long-postponed project on Irish landlordism, a subject he had been deterred from pursuing earlier in his career by the magisterial work on the same theme by WE Vaughan. While the sins of Irish landlords, Curtis agreed, had been exaggerated by nineteenth century nationalist politicians, historians were in danger of forgetting the extent to which individual and collective memories of eviction, dispossession and exile loomed in the lives of Irish countrydwellers, before and even after the achievement of independence. If not as many tenants had been summarily deprived of their holdings as Land Leaguers and Fenian supporters insisted, that eviction notices could be held in terrorem over small farmers injected a powerful element of insecurity into Irish society and politics, during an era when relatively few forms of non-agricultural employment existed.

Methodologically as well as thematically, The Depiction of Eviction in Ireland (2011) revisited earlier approaches in Curtis’s work. Like his Ripper book, his chief sources of information were newspaper accounts, for what interested him was less what happened when bailiffs and police arrived to eject tenants than how these often violent events were represented. Like Apes and Angels, his analysis featured a close reading of the iconography of eviction as revealed not just in cartoons and early photographs, but in paintings and magic-lantern shows. Reviewers praised the book for its meticulous and wide-ranging research that breathed new life into an old subject. It was a fitting coda to the exceptional consistency and quality of his scholarly career that his final publication, Notice to Quit: The Great Irish Famine Evictions, an illustrated essay on topics explored in The Depiction of Eviction, should have been one of a quartet of short works to win first place in the American Alliance of Museums’ annual competition for museum publications in 2016.

The last years of Perry Curtis’s life were afflicted, but hardly disrupted, by declining health. He successfully overcame a bout of cancer in 2009, sustaining his morale during the rigours of radiation treatment by composing in the waiting rooms of various hospitals a series of unrepeatable Rabelaisian doggerels to which he gave the title of “Perry’s Perverses”. Joint troubles progressively reduced his mobility, compelling him to give up the long hikes in the Swiss and Italian Alps that had been one of the great joys of his life. In 2017, a previously undiagnosed heart condition required the implanting of a pacemaker that ameliorated, but could not overcome, his increasingly serious cardiac problems.

Nevertheless, to the very end his intellectual activity and curiosity remained undimmed, as did his concern for family and friends. His numerous correspondents continued to receive elegantly sulphurous analyses of the state of contemporary politics, which amused and appalled him in equal measure; impromptu reviews of new books and films; pun-laden commentaries on the latest academic scandals; and brief but mordant laments over his lengthening list of bodily infirmities.

A man of extraordinary conviviality, Curtis throughout his life maintained a circle of friends in high and low places that never seemed to diminish in number or effervescence even as contemporaries passed from the scene. His criteria for those he admitted to his society were simple: while he expected, encouraged and at times even demanded disagreement, he required only that he not be bored. Having so little deference to authority or reputation, he was cheerfully untroubled, and at times visibly gratified, when his own were treated in the same unceremonious fashion. He defended his corner tenaciously, and expected interlocutors to do likewise. Those who had the privilege of his friendship, and appreciated his rare combination of intellectual rigour and high frivolity, will cherish the memory of his exceptional intelligence and still more exceptional personality.

Perry Curtis died on April 9th, 2019, the day after the anniversary of his own father’s death. In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated and the ashes scattered near the Col de Peuterey on the Franco-Italian border, where his brother was lost in 1957. He is survived by his wife, Alison, his son, Michael, his daughter, Sarah, his younger sister, Nancy Padnos, and two grandchildren.

1/6/2019

RM Douglas teaches in the department of history at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York.