Merle Eugene Curti
September 15, 1897
|Died||March 9, 1996 (aged 98)|
|Alma mater||Harvard University|
|social history, intellectual history|
|peace studies, new social history|
Merle Eugene Curti (September 15, 1897 – March 9, 1996) was a leading American historian, who taught many graduate students at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin, and was a leader in developing the fields of social history and intellectual history. He directed 86 finished Ph.D. dissertations and had an unusually wide range of correspondents. As a Progressive historian he was deeply committed to democracy, and to the Turnerian thesis that social and economic forces shape American life, thought and character. He was a pioneer in peace studies, intellectual history, and social history, and helped develop quantitative methods based on census samples as a tool in historical research.
Curti was born in Papillion, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha, on September 15, 1897. His parents were John Eugene Curti, an immigrant from Switzerland, and Alice Hunt, a Yankee from Vermont. Curti attended high school in Omaha then obtained a bachelor's degree in 1920 from Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude. He then spent a year studying in France where he met Margaret Wooster, 1898–1963, who had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and was a pioneer in research on child psychology. They married in 1925 and had two daughters. Curti received his Ph.D. in 1927 from Harvard as one of the last students of Frederick Jackson Turner.
Curti taught at Beloit College, Smith College, and Columbia University, then in 1942 he joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where he taught for 25 years. He also taught in Japan, Australia, and India, and lectured throughout Europe.
While at Smith College, Curti published his first book, The American Peace Crusade, 1815–1860 (1929). The book, based on his dissertation, was written after Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (who had replaced Turner at Harvard) rejected his first dissertation proposal which was essentially an early version of The Growth of American Thought.
Moving to Teachers College at Columbia in 1931, he published a book on William Jennings Bryan and world peace (Bryan and World Peace). It was followed by Peace or War: The American Struggle in 1936. With these works, Curti helped found peace and conflict studies as a field of study. He criticized pacifists for ignoring major social changes—especially the repudiation of old-fashioned competitive capitalism by the New Deal, and the need to repudiate imperial greed if peace were to be achieved. In 1964 he helped found the Conference on Peace Research in History, now called the Peace History Society. The Roots of American Loyalty (1946) was a history of patriotism.
Curti developed his global vision through travels; he taught in Japan, Australia and India for two years. He left the Episcopal faith of his boyhood for Unitarianism. Although never a Marxist, he voted for Socialist presidential candidates in the name of world peace.
Curti turned his attention to intellectual history, and helped to establish that field as a distinct academic discipline. His first foray in the field was The Social Ideals of American Educators, published in 1935. In 1944, Curti won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his masterwork, The Growth of American Thought. Its chapters show an encyclopedic knowledge of thinkers great and small from the colonial period to the present, together with his commitment to democracy as a process springing from the ideas of the people. Curti adapted Turner's frontier thesis to intellectual history, arguing, "Because the American environment, physical and social, differed from that of Europe, Americans, confronted by different needs and problems, adapted the European intellectual heritage in their own way. And because American life came increasingly to differ from European life, American ideas, American agencies of intellectual life, and the use made of knowledge likewise came to differ in America from their European counterparts." (p vi) Unlike some of the other leaders of the American Studies program, he paid little attention to myths and symbols. Unlike Perry Miller at Harvard, who strongly influenced a new generation of intellectual historians, Curti never delved too deeply into the internal history of ideas, preferring to link them to multiple external social and economic factors. His book was not so much a history of American thought as a social history of American thought, with strong attention to the social and economic forces that shaped that thought from the bottom up.
In the 1950s Curti undertook a collaborative social history of rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin using avant-garde quantitative analysis of census records. The book which came out of the project, The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier County (1959) immediately became a pioneer work in what would soon be dubbed the "new social history." Curti's wife Margaret Wooster Curti, provided some of the quantitative methodology. Historians, however, did not emulate it, preferring instead to follow Stephan Thernstrom's model in Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century American City (1964), which used a similar methodology of tracking workers through their careers using censuses and city directories. The difference was urban and rural—urban history was exploding and rural history was a backwater; in addition the Thernstrom model was easier to replicate by a graduate student writing a Ph.D. thesis alone (Curti had numerous research assistants and coauthors). Whereas the "old" social history comprised descriptions of everyday lifestyles, perhaps with a coverage of grass roots political movements (like the Populists), Curti's "new" social history was a systematic examination of the entire population using statistics and social science methodologies.
In 1942, Curti was called to the Frederick Jackson Turner Professorship of History at the University of Wisconsin, one of the nation's most influential centers of historical scholarship; he retired from the department in 1968. Curti continued to write after retirement, keeping up-to-date his influential textbook Rise of the American Nation (1st ed. 1950), coauthored with Lewis Todd, which went through many editions after their deaths.
The Wisconsin department of history was notorious for the angry feuds among the senior professors, which Curti, mild-mannered and small of stature, completely ignored. Curti supervised 86 finished doctoral dissertations at Columbia and Wisconsin, including many who became well-known scholars: Richard Hofstadter on social Darwinism; John Higham on nativism; Bourke on community studies; Allen Davis on Progressivism and Jane Addams; and Roderick Nash on the environment. Curti allowed his students a free hand in content and methodology. He encouraged his students constantly, wrote highly detailed critiques of their chapters, protected them from intradepartmental feuds, helped them get funding, and found them jobs through the "old boys" network of which he was an accomplished maestro, writing hundreds of letters a month to friends and ex-students across the globe.
Curti won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1944 for The Growth of American Thought (1943).
He was president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now the Organization of American Historians) in 1952 and the American Historical Association in 1954.
He was a co-founder of the American Studies Association. He served as the organization's vice-president in 1954 and 1955, and was asked to serve as president in 1956, but he declined the honor because he was going to be out of the country.
Curti was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
In 1977 the Organization of American Historians established the Merle Curti Award, which is given annually for the best book in social, intellectual, and/or cultural history. (In some years, the organization has awarded two prizes, one in social and/or cultural history and one in intellectual and/or cultural history.)
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