Curti, Merle Eugene

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Curti, Merle Eugene

(b. 15 September 1897 in Papillion, Nebraska; d. 9 March 1996 in Madison, Wisconsin), one of the most influential and prolific of U.S. intellectual and social historians, who passionately espoused liberal causes and social justice as a public intellectual.

Curti was the son of a Swiss American, John Eugene Curti, and a New Englander, Alice Hunt. Moving with his family to Omaha, Nebraska, as a boy, his understanding of how the frontier shaped life was enriched by his exposure to how small cities had been influenced by immigration. After graduating from South High School in 1916, he served briefly during World War I in the Student Army Training Corps. He received his B.A. degree summa cum laude in 1920 from Harvard, where he was influenced by the distinguished historians Frederick Jackson Turner, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Edward Channing. He went on to received his M.A. degree in 1921, also from Harvard. From 1924 to 1925 he studied under the cultural historian Charles Cestre at the Sorbonne as part of a fellowship. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1927.

In 1925 he married the prominent child psychologist, pacifist, and socialist Margaret Wooster. She edited many of his written works and influenced his sense that race, ethnicity, and gender had less to do with intelligence and accomplishment than with the socioeconomic environment of peoples. This sharpened his passion for improving the economic and educational circumstances of America’s poor through liberal government programs.

Curti taught at Smith College (1925–1937), Columbia University Teachers College (1937–1942), and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1942–1968). During Curti’s long teaching career, he directed more than eighty doctoral dissertations, including those of the distinguished historians Richard Hofstadter, John Higham, and Warren Susman. Curti also lectured frequently in Europe, Japan, Australia, and India. He served as president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Society from 1951 to 1952 and the American Historical Association from 1953 to 1954. Early in his professional career Curti was strongly influenced by the educator John Dewey’s instrumentalism, the dominant American philosophy of the interwar years. Although his own interests were wide-ranging and diverse, Curti is loosely grouped with the progressive school of American historiography, which included the like-minded Turner, Carl Becker, and Charles Beard, all of whom were influenced by Dewey’s methods and assumptions about truth.

For the progressive interwar historians, history was not regarded as a static subject that through careful empirical enquiry and the compiling of facts could yield objective and absolute Truth. They opposed the nineteenth-century view of the historian, who in pursuing truth could be impartial and disinterested, much as a natural scientist. Progressives challenged the faith that the same historical truths were obtainable regardless of the historian’s cultural or temporal environment. Curti and his fellow progressive historians emphasized the historian’s problematic and tentative access to truth. From the theories historians adopt to the facts they select and the questions they ask of the data, historical understanding was partial and reflected socioeconomic interests.

If historical understanding was partial and relative to deeply embedded cultural values and interests for the progressives, it nonetheless provided provisional answers to important questions. For Curti and progressives such as Merrill Jensen, William Hesseltine, Fred Shannon, Becker, and Beard, the historian might use historiography to raise useful questions and provide partial answers that could be employed to improve society. Progressives, particularly in the 1930s, saw historians as properly engaged in social, political, and economic issues of the day. Although Curti was dubious that historians alone could build a more equitable society, he felt that historians served to either sustain or undermine extant social arrangements by the questions they raised.

In Growth of American Thought (1943), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, and much of his other writing, Curti viewed ideas in their economic and social context. In this classic historical survey of the United States, Curti helped establish American intellectual history as a distinct field. Viewing ideas as functional, reflective of the social and economic environment, and pragmatic in effecting real change, the book surveys the social history of leading American ideas and the relations of those ideas to today’s intellectual environment. The book remains a standard reference book in American studies and intellectual history.

Curti is also remembered for his several books on antiwar movements in the United States. These sympathetic books included Bryan and World Peace (1931), Peace or War: The American Struggle (1936), and The American Peace Crusade (1929), based on his dissertation. His efforts helped to establish peace studies as a viable subfield of American history.

Curti’s other efforts tie ideas to social, economic, and political environments found expression in his classic history of education, The Social Ideas of American Educators (1935). His book The University of Wisconsin: A History (1949), written with Vernon Carstensen, set a new standard for institutional histories by placing the university’s history in a socioeconomic and cultural context. His interest in philanthropy as a force in U.S. intellectual life found expression in American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (1963), one of the first studies of its kind. A late effort was his book Human Nature in American Thought: A History (1980), which reveals the changing relationship between politics and economics to assumptions about human nature.

Curti was also a leader in applying social science methods to the study of history. Chairing the influential Committee on Historiography of the Social Science Research Council, he was a primary author (with Beard) of the famous “Bulletin 54,” Theory and Practice in Historical Studies (1946). A paradigmatic methodological work, it called for a wedding of sophisticated social scientific methods with historiography. It boldly argued that history had general social significance, adequate objective validity, and substantial diagnostic and prognostic value. Its varied essays emphasized that the selection of facts reflected social and cultural influences as well as the historian’s interests.

In the 1950s, which ushered in a new era of more conservative, consensus historiography, Curti was attacked in some circles for being too liberal and too wedded to the social sciences. The famous Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller found Curti’s style of intellectual history to be shallow and neglectful of the autonomy of ideas themselves. A few others, inside and outside academia, decried his “radical” high school textbook The Rise of the American Nation, coauthored with Lewis Paul Todd (1950), and his relativism, denunciation of McCarthyism and loyalty oaths, and sympathy for transformative social justice causes. In 1961 his first wife died.

Curti married Frances B. Becker in 1968, the same year that he retired from teaching. He continued to write books. He died from a stroke at the Methodist Retirement Center and is buried in Madison. He left a legacy of historiographical innovation, a host of devoted former students, and a bold legacy of advocacy for liberal social change. Few historians have had a greater impact on intellectual history and American studies in the twentieth century. His memory is honored by an annual book prize awarded by the Organization of American Historians for the best new book on American intellectual or social history. He is also honored by the annual Curti Lectures and Curti professorship at the University of Wisconsin.

Curti’s papers are located at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. They are rich in his correspondence, lectures, newspaper and journal articles, manuscripts, and books. The papers are particularly insightful about the changing nature of the historical profession during Curti’s lifetime. Although there is no full-length biography of Curti, an assessment and bibliography of his writing can be found in “Merle Curti: An Appraisal and Bibliography of His Writings,” Wisconsin Magazine of History (winter 1970–1971). For Curti’s relationship to the progressive school of history and his positions in historical objectivity, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (1988); David W. Levy, “Merle Curti’s Place in American Scholarship: A Consideration of the Controversy,” Journal of Thought 6 (1971); and John Higham, “The Schism in American Scholarship,” American Historical Review 72 (1966). A memorial is Allen F. Davis, “Memorial to Merle E. Curti,” American Studies Association Newsletter (June 1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Mar. 1996).

Alfred L. Castle