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The Literary Legacy of C. Michael Curtis


A number 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 current years:

When C. Michael Curtis pulled my quick 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 school, 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 quick tales, none of which was excellent. Lastly, with the story that The Atlantic took, I had ultimately written a narrative that was not solely ok however ok for Curtis’s sharp eye and exacting requirements.

Groff went on: “My complete 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 workers for 57 years. The American literary empyrean is thickly populated with writers Mike found or nurtured. For good cause: 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 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 quick fiction who liked nothing greater than discovering new expertise. “The most effective 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 loads of rocks, and located loads 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 had 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 pupil within the M.F.A. program on the College of Arkansas, submitted two tales to The Atlantic. He got here dwelling someday to discover a message on his voicemail—it was Mike Curtis saying that he appreciated the tales and was accepting them for publication. “I feel at first I assumed it was considered one of my associates, being an asshole,” Pizzolatto recalled. However the journal revealed “Ghost-Birds” within the October 2003 subject 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 lately described the position Mike performed in her profession:

After I first began to write down fiction within the early 70s, the identify C. Michael Curtis was interchangeable with Shining Star. He was one: somebody to look as much as due to his capability to identify rising expertise; an esteemed editor amongst editors; a person who formed style and adopted by means of with writers, encouraging them in vital (and likewise considerate) methods. He actually liked quick tales, and he was chargeable 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 modern American quick 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 had been necessary, important pursuits, and that it was his position to encourage issues alongside, spreading the great 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 pupil at Syracuse College who, within the early Nineteen Sixties, was contributing violent, bloody, sex-and-booze-saturated tales to a wide range 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 considered one of 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 revealed in The Atlantic in August 1966, and was deemed the very best story of the yr by the O’Henry Assortment, then essentially the most prestigious garland briefly fiction. Within the ensuing many years, Mike revealed many tales by Oates, now one of the crucial influential voices in American fiction and herself a devoted trainer.

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

After I began working as Mike’s assistant, in 1994, his first praise was about how briskly I might sort (on the electrical typewriter in my workplace)—not as a result of he didn’t worth my studying and critiquing abilities, 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 quick tales to the journal. Mike learn all the pieces 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 had 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 had been often 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 activity that required each judgment and endurance:

What number of manuscripts got here pouring by means of Mike’s mail slot day-after-day? In the middle of every week? A month? A whole bunch, for positive. But every time I spoke to Mike about writing, virtually all the time on the cellphone, throughout enhancing classes (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 classes. In fact, I couldn’t put on the person down, laborious 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 laborious 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 school and the place he performed on a basketball workforce that by no means gained. 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-Nineteen 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, every time he purchased considered one of my quick tales, we had lunch collectively on Newbury Avenue, concluding along with his favourite dessert, chocolate-covered ice cream bonbons. A kind of lunches was significantly memorable. The story he was publishing involved a girl raised in an orphanage regardless of having had two residing mother and father. “,” he stated, “your story is remarkably much 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 Nineteen Thirties, however she “didn’t need a son round,” as he put it, and so he was deserted to varied boarding colleges and foster properties. For years he’d identified his father’s id however by no means revealed it, even when he first met members of the person’s household. I advised Mike that my very own mom’s life was the idea of that story, and that I meant to increase 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 course of that rewrite. I assumed that Mike could be round perpetually.

From his inauspicious Arkansas highschool, Mike ultimately escaped to Cornell’s College of Lodge Administration, in 1952. Looking within the college library, he found the works of Franz Kafka. No extra resort administration—he needed to switch to the liberal-arts school and develop into a literature main. He needed to apply a number of instances earlier than directors realized he was critical 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 basic Been Down So Lengthy It Seems to be As much as Me. (Fariña would later marry Joan Baez’s sister Mimi; Pynchon served as finest 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 not sure 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, considered one of which gained 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 season job studying the fiction slush pile. This led to a cellphone name within the spring of 1963 from the journal’s prime 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 Overview, “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 approach. 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 actual fact, I feared he may not even know I used to be there.” An older editor, Charles Morton, took Mike underneath 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 quick story writers in addition to a great grip on the various social points with which the journal involved itself. Mike was a shy and sophisticated fellow whom the vicissitudes of childhood had troubled with a stutter that magically disappeared when he taught artistic writing at close by schools … or when he held a great 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 all around 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 might rating layups over taller defenders utilizing artful spin and whose passing was crisp and inventive; unalert teammates had been liable to take a tough no-look go to the nostril or the again of the cranium. He refused to let advancing infirmity hold him off the courtroom, enjoying frequently 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 carefully. After which for the subsequent thirty years combating the great battle, all the time pushing literary fiction, all the time pushing younger writers. However what I keep in mind most about Mike was the best way he performed basketball. Rumor had it that in his prime he’d been a Golden Gloves boxer, and he actually performed that approach. He confirmed up on the courtroom with a chunk of {hardware} round his knee that appeared 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 identified 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 annoyed 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 wherein the warring couple is restored of their affection for one another by the spectacle of alien hearts at play and tales wherein the extra justifiably aggrieved of the pair comes ultimately to his/her senses and cuts quick what guarantees to develop into a harmful drift into self-degradation).

Different slips are used for warfare tales, for tales about adolescents involving school (or highschool) friends who lastly understand the reality of their relationships, or any story wherein one character is a fish. We now have a particular inventory and ink for tales about youngsters who’ve been deserted or abused by one or each mother and father, and for whom the reminiscence has develop into significantly acute because the baby, now an grownup, displays upon the neediness of his/her personal baby/youngsters. Nonetheless different rejection slips are earmarked for tales which make use of anthropomorphism, ladies who instantly develop male sexual traits, or vehicles that discuss again.

We now have rejection slips for retired professionals, for youngsters underneath the age of 14, for writers who maintain political workplace, and for teachers who’ve been advised by associates 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 identify (often a vegetable or mineral), for fiction manuscripts despatched as proof that anybody can do higher than the creator of a current 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 probabilities 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 youngsters of workers would play alongside the sheep he stored in the summertime, in lieu of getting to mow the garden. Inevitably a basketball sport would additionally escape on the hoop on the storage or throughout the road. These had been household events, and youngsters had been by no means shy round Mike. Tobias Wolff remembers:

In the future 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 known as to debate a narrative, however was pleased to speak to my boy as a substitute. He was laughing after I took possession of the cellphone. Effectively, 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 quick tales a yr in the hunt for the dozen or in order that The Atlantic might truly publish that yr infused Mike with a deep perception within the significance of fiction to tradition, and a type of impish knowledge concerning 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 school. 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 quick 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 quick fiction, together with Up to date New England Tales (1992), Up to date 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 Quick Story E book Prize, which awards $5,000 and publication to a debut e-book of quick 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 lots of 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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