Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Literary Legacy of C. Michael Curtis

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A couple of years in the past, the novelist and short-story author Lauren Groff mirrored on what had launched one of many extra glowing literary careers of latest years:

When C. Michael Curtis pulled my brief story “L. DeBard and Aliette” from the slush pile in 2005, I used to be in my first semester in graduate faculty at Madison. Within the years since I’d graduated from faculty, I’d been a bartender and administrative assistant and had labored my mind and fingers uncooked, attempting and largely failing to write down effectively alone. In that point, I completed three and a half apprentice novels and numerous brief tales, none of which was superb. Lastly, with the story that The Atlantic took, I had finally written a narrative that was not solely adequate however adequate for Curtis’s sharp eye and exacting requirements.

Groff went on: “My whole life as a author unfolded from that second of acceptance from C. Michael Curtis and The Atlantic, and the sheer luck of that snip in time feels holy to me.”

Mike Curtis, who died final week on the age of 88, was a member of The Atlantic’s employees for 57 years. The American literary empyrean is thickly populated with writers Mike found or nurtured. For good motive: Over his lengthy profession as an Atlantic editor—and as a trainer of writing at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Tufts, Boston College, Bennington Faculty, and, most just lately, Wofford Faculty, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the place he co-occupied the John C. Cobb Chair within the Humanities along with his spouse, the novelist Betsy Cox—Mike was a tireless champion of brief fiction who liked nothing greater than discovering new expertise. “The very best a part of my job,” he as soon as stated, “is popping over all these rocks and discovering a silver greenback at times.”


Throughout his lengthy tenure at The Atlantic, Mike turned over lots of rocks, and located lots of silver {dollars}. Among the many writers whose work that Mike was the primary, or among the many first, to find and publish in a nationwide journal have been Charles Baxter, Ann Beattie, Ethan Canin, Louise Erdrich, Rebecca Lee, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jay McInerny, James Alan McPherson, Tim O’Brien, John Sayles, Akhil Sharma, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Tobias Wolff. Mike additionally labored with loads of established masters: A. S. Byatt and Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver and Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and Richard Ford, John Updike and Philip Roth, Richard Yates and Paul Theroux and Walter Mosley, Barth and Barthelme and Borges, and plenty of, many others.

In 2002, Nic Pizzolatto, then a scholar within the M.F.A. program on the College of Arkansas, submitted two tales to The Atlantic. He got here dwelling sooner or later to discover a message on his voicemail—it was Mike Curtis saying that he appreciated the tales and was accepting them for publication. “I believe at first I assumed it was one among my pals, being an asshole,” Pizzolatto recalled. However the journal printed “Ghost-Birds” within the October 2003 concern and “Between Right here and the Yellow Sea” in November 2004, and Pizzolatto launched into a profitable profession as a novelist and tv author, ultimately creating and writing the acclaimed True Detective sequence for HBO.

Ann Beattie just lately described the position Mike performed in her profession:

Once I first began to write down fiction within the early 70s, the title C. Michael Curtis was interchangeable with Shining Star. He was one: somebody to look as much as due to his potential to identify rising expertise; an esteemed editor amongst editors; a person who formed style and adopted by with writers, encouraging them in important (and in addition considerate) methods. He actually liked brief tales, and he was answerable for serving to alongside—actually, for figuring out—the early careers of many younger writers, in a style that, pre-mass-MFA, had been faltering. I knew him as an individual decided to re-energize the up to date American brief story—a dedication that was indispensable to its resurgence. He was such an astute reader, and, in his interactions with writers, a listener. Watchful. Useful and sort. He simply assumed that studying and writing have been necessary, important pursuits, and that it was his position to encourage issues alongside, spreading the nice phrase. In lots of senses, he was a real believer.

One of many first folks Mike introduced into The Atlantic after arriving on the journal was a writing scholar at Syracuse College who, within the early Nineteen Sixties, was contributing violent, bloody, sex-and-booze-saturated tales to quite a lot of university-affiliated publications. Mike pictured the author, who glided by “J. C. Oates,” as “a scruffy storage mechanic with a bitter view of humanity, somebody I wouldn’t wish to meet on a darkish evening.” However he admired the writing and accepted one among Oates’s submissions, contingent on the creator permitting Mike to chop the story by one-third. “Within the Area of Ice,” whose creator had dropped the initials and was now going by Joyce Carol Oates, was printed in The Atlantic in August 1966, and was deemed one of the best story of the 12 months by the O’Henry Assortment, then essentially the most prestigious garland briefly fiction. Within the ensuing a long time, Mike printed many tales by Oates, now probably the most influential voices in American fiction and herself a devoted trainer.

Throughout six a long time, Mike and his workforce of interns and editorial assistants sifted by 1000’s of tales every month. His correspondence was immense and endless, scrawled within the white area of the letters he obtained in a good, almost indecipherable hand. As Jane Rosenzweig, now the director of the writing middle at Harvard, remembered:

Once I began working as Mike’s assistant, in 1994, his first praise was about how briskly I may kind (on the electrical typewriter in my workplace)—not as a result of he didn’t worth my studying and critiquing expertise, however as a result of my typing pace allowed me to maintain up with the large variety of letters he wrote to authors who submitted their brief tales to the journal. Mike learn every part with the identical consideration and curiosity—tales submitted by literary brokers, tales despatched on to him by authors, tales pulled from the “slush” pile by interns. His private replies to authors have been legendary; I nonetheless meet writers who can quote verbatim what he stated to them 25 years in the past, each the reward and the criticism. He could have thought the story was “too lengthy for what it accomplishes,” or “small,” or “participating, however not for us,” however he inspired these writers to strive once more, and plenty of did—for many years. The letters have been normally transient—only a sentence or two—however sufficient to remind an aspiring author that somebody was on the market, ready for his or her subsequent story.

Tobias Wolff recalled Mike’s shrewd relentlessness in a process that required each judgment and endurance:

What number of manuscripts got here pouring by Mike’s mail slot day by day? In the middle of every week? A month? A whole lot, for positive. But at any time when I spoke to Mike about writing, nearly all the time on the cellphone, throughout enhancing periods (we met solely twice, and briefly), he warmed to the topic with the freshness of youth. And he introduced that very same freshness to our enhancing periods. In fact, I couldn’t put on the person down, onerous as I usually tried, in my protection of a phrase or phrase or passage that I assumed indispensable to my story, and that Mike didn’t. He wasn’t all the time proper, however he was proper more often than not.


Mike’s path to changing into an influential determine in American fiction was removed from foreordained. He was certainly onerous to put on down. Born in 1934, he skilled a Dickensian early childhood—a tumultuous and disrupted household life; stints in foster properties; boarding faculty beginning at age 4; and high-school classmates who beat him up, at an Arkansas faculty from which just about nobody went on to varsity and the place he performed on a basketball workforce that by no means received. Ralph Lombreglia, one of many writers Mike labored with for many years, recalled getting a uncommon glimpse into Mike’s previous:

I first met Mike within the mid-Seventies after I wrote to ask his recommendation about changing into a fiction author. He invited me to the Atlantic workplaces the place I arrived in a go well with, tie, and London Fog raincoat with epaulets on the shoulders. I’ll all the time be grateful to him for not remembering that assembly. Later, at any time when he purchased one among my brief tales, we had lunch collectively on Newbury Road, concluding along with his favourite dessert, chocolate-covered ice cream bonbons. A type of lunches was notably memorable. The story he was publishing involved a lady raised in an orphanage regardless of having had two residing dad and mom. “,” he stated, “your story is remarkably just like my very own life,” and went on to inform me that he was the illegitimate son of the outstanding architect Ely Kahn. Mike’s mom had had a passing affair with him within the Thirties, however she “didn’t need a son round,” as he put it, and so he was deserted to varied boarding faculties and foster properties. For years he’d recognized his father’s id however by no means revealed it, even when he first met members of the person’s household. I instructed Mike that my very own mom’s life was the premise of that story, and that I supposed to broaden it right into a novel sometime. My final letter from Mike, in 2018, started, “Completed your novel, all 576 pages of it.” His unsurprising recommendation was to chop it by half and ship it again to him. I’m nonetheless in the midst of that rewrite. I assumed that Mike could be round eternally.

From his inauspicious Arkansas highschool, Mike ultimately escaped to Cornell’s Faculty of Resort Administration, in 1952. Looking within the college library, he found the works of Franz Kafka. No extra lodge administration—he needed to switch to the liberal-arts faculty and change into a literature main. He needed to apply a number of instances earlier than directors realized he was severe sufficient to confess. Quickly, he was enhancing the literary journal and dealing for the newspaper and rooming with an engineering main and aspiring author named Thomas Pynchon. His different roommate was the people singer and novelist Richard Fariña, who would go on to write down the 1966 cult traditional Been Down So Lengthy It Appears to be like As much as Me. (Fariña would later marry Joan Baez’s sister Mimi; Pynchon served as greatest man.)

After commencement, in 1956, Mike briefly labored on the Ithaca Journal and at Newsweek earlier than returning to Cornell for a doctorate in political science. He was uncertain whether or not he ought to pursue a profession on the CIA or as a journalist. However he stored his hand in literature, writing fiction for campus literary magazines and composing poems, one among which received an American Academy of Poets Prize. In 1961, when Peter Davison, The Atlantic’s longtime poetry editor, got here to Cornell with Anne Sexton to do a studying, Mike pressed some poems into his arms. Davison ended up accepting three of them for publication. He additionally provided Mike a summer time job studying the fiction slush pile. This led to a cellphone name within the spring of 1963 from the journal’s high editor, Edward Weeks, asking if Mike would come to Boston and take a job as a junior editor. Mike was about to take his complete exams en path to securing his Ph.D. However, as he recalled in a 1984 interview with The Missouri Evaluation, “I had been in grad faculty for 4 years and my spouse was about to have a child and I’d been in Ithaca for twelve years and it was time to depart. So I stated sure, took a go away of absence from grad faculty, and got here to The Atlantic.” That go away of absence by no means ended. “In these days The Atlantic had no masthead and we actually didn’t have titles in any formal method. I got here as an assistant to the editor. I used to be there for 5 weeks earlier than I ever noticed Mr. Weeks. In reality, I feared he won’t even know I used to be there.” An older editor, Charles Morton, took Mike beneath his wing, and he quickly developed a portfolio enhancing each fiction and nonfiction, particularly items on sports activities, faith, and the social sciences.

In 1966, Weeks was succeeded as editor in chief by Robert Manning. In his memoir, The Swamp Root Chronicle, Manning recorded that among the many editors he inherited was “a younger Cornellian named C. Michael Curtis [who] had a pointy ear and a transparent eye for promising new brief story writers in addition to a superb grip on the various social points with which the journal involved itself. Mike was a shy and complex fellow whom the vicissitudes of childhood had troubled with a stutter that magically disappeared when he taught artistic writing at close by faculties … or when he held a superb hand on the poker desk.”

In time left over after enhancing, educating, and household, Mike utilized himself to pickup basketball. He performed at YMCAs and writers’ conferences everywhere in the nation. He wasn’t tall, and after age 50 he wore rec specs and a cumbersome knee brace that he used as a weapon when posting up within the paint. However he was an ardent competitor—nickname: “Bear”—who may rating layups over taller defenders utilizing artful spin and whose passing was crisp and artistic; unalert teammates have been liable to take a tough no-look go to the nostril or the again of the cranium. He refused to let advancing infirmity maintain him off the courtroom, taking part in usually deep into his 80s. The author Ethan Canin remembered these video games:

He just about gave me my begin as a author, choosing me out of a slush pile that solely an individual like him would have bothered to learn, not to mention rigorously. After which for the following thirty years preventing the nice combat, all the time pushing literary fiction, all the time pushing younger writers. However what I bear in mind most about Mike was the way in which he performed basketball. Rumor had it that in his prime he’d been a Golden Gloves boxer, and he definitely performed that method. He confirmed up on the courtroom with a chunk of {hardware} round his knee that seemed just like the spurs from a Roman chariot. And it seems he was in basketball as he was in life—all the time pushing, all the time pushing.

Mike possessed each stoicism and a sly wit. The wit emerged from what appeared, deceptively, to be a placid and dry demeanor, and it made itself recognized like an ambush in his letters and lectures. A mischievous tone typically took on an edge. For years, a letter Mike wrote in 1989 held on the partitions of The Atlantic’s workplaces. A pissed off aspiring contributor who had had his submissions rejected many instances had written in to say that he’d heard rumors that the journal used 5 completely different types of rejection letters for various conditions. Mike responded:

The persistent rumors are fairly true, although modest of their evaluation of our protocols. We now have, in reality, many greater than 5 completely different sorts of rejection slips. One slip, for instance, is distributed in response to all tales about family pets. One other is used to reject tales about troubled educational {couples} touring in Europe (nonetheless additional distinction is made between tales through which the warring couple is restored of their affection for one another by the spectacle of alien hearts at play and tales through which the extra justifiably aggrieved of the pair comes finally to his/her senses and cuts brief what guarantees to change into a dangerous drift into self-degradation).

Different slips are used for struggle tales, for tales about adolescents involving faculty (or highschool) pals who lastly understand the reality of their relationships, or any story through which one character is a fish. We now have a particular inventory and ink for tales about kids who’ve been deserted or abused by one or each dad and mom, and for whom the reminiscence has change into notably acute because the youngster, now an grownup, displays upon the neediness of his/her personal youngster/kids. Nonetheless different rejection slips are earmarked for tales which make use of anthropomorphism, girls who immediately develop male sexual traits, or vehicles that speak again.

We now have rejection slips for retired professionals, for kids beneath the age of 14, for writers who maintain political workplace, and for lecturers who’ve been instructed by pals they must submit manuscripts to The Atlantic.

We now have rejection slips for tales despatched concurrently to multiple journal, for writers who use just one title (normally a vegetable or mineral), for fiction manuscripts despatched as proof that anybody can do higher than the creator of a latest Atlantic story, and for writers who say they are going to renew their subscriptions to this journal provided that we are going to publish their fiction.

We even have a particular rejection letter for writers who’re extra wedded to the chances of language than to the niceties of convincing narrative. That’s the letter you’re studying at this second.


When The Atlantic was primarily based in Boston, Mike and his household would host energetic annual softball video games and picnics at their dwelling in Harmony after which in Littleton, Massachusetts, the place kids of employees would play alongside the sheep he stored in the summertime, in lieu of getting to mow the garden. Inevitably a basketball recreation would additionally get away on the hoop on the storage or throughout the road. These have been household events, and youngsters have been by no means shy round Mike. Tobias Wolff remembers:

At some point my spouse heard my then-5-year-old son, Michael, speaking to somebody upstairs, but she knew he was alone up there. She discovered him with the phone in his hand, gabbing away. It was Mike on the opposite finish. He’d referred to as to debate a narrative, however was joyful to speak to my boy as a substitute. He was laughing after I took possession of the cellphone. Properly, why not? It was certainly extra enjoyable than listening to me plant my flag on some useless adjective.


Many years of studying greater than 10,000 brief tales a 12 months looking for the dozen or in order that The Atlantic may truly publish that 12 months infused Mike with a deep perception within the significance of fiction to tradition, and a form of impish knowledge in regards to the writing life.

On dealing with disappointing information from editors: “Take your rejection slips and canopy a wall with them. I did that after I was in faculty. I turned fascinated by the completely different paper colours and typefaces and doubtless despatched work to magazines I in any other case wouldn’t have, besides that I needed to get copies of their rejection slips.”

On what a brief story can accomplish: “The worth of brief fiction lies, maybe, in its capability to ignite uncertainty and mindfulness into our lives, in addition to to remind us of the perceptiveness and artfulness of the storytellers amongst us.”

Mike leaves behind six anthologies of brief fiction, together with Modern New England Tales (1992), Modern West Coast Tales (1993), God: Tales (1998), and Religion: Tales (2003); 5 Atlantic Nationwide Journal Awards for fiction, together with many extra finalist nominations; and the C. Michael Curtis Brief Story E-book Prize, which awards $5,000 and publication to a debut e book of brief fiction by writers residing within the South.

He’s survived by his spouse, the novelist and poet Betsy Cox; his brothers, Ben Curtis and Andrew Curtis; his son Hans Curtis; his daughter, Hilary Curtis Osmer; his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Morrow; his stepson, Michael Cox; and 5 grandchildren—D. J. Osmer, Jack Morrow, Nate Morrow, Caroline Cox, and Andrew Cox. His oldest son, Christopher Curtis, died in 2013. He’s additionally survived by a whole lot of writers whose careers he launched or nurtured; by the 1000’s extra whose work he gave the respect of significant consideration; and by a republic of letters enriched by his having contributed to it with such dedication for therefore lengthy.

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