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Merle Curti (1897-1997) was a leading American historian. He taught a large number of PhD students at the University of Wisconsin, and was a leader in social and intellectual history. 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 History as a tool in historical research.


Curti was born in Papillion, a village near Omaha, Nebraska. His father was a physician who had immigrated from Switzerland; his mother was a Yankee from Vermont. He attended high school in Omaha, obtained a bachelor's degree in 1920 at Harvard College (where he was enrolled in an officer's training program), followed by a year of study in France. There he met and married Margaret Wooster, 1898-1963, a PhD from the University of Chicago who was a pioneer in research on child psychology.[1]

He took his Ph.D. in 1927 from Harvard, where he was one of the last students of Frederick Jackson Turner. Curti started writing on American cultural nationalism in the nineteenth century; it was never published but its theme reemerged in several books. His 1927 Ph.D. dissertation, nominally directed by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. comprised essays on the history of the American peace movement. Curti taught at Smith College (1925-31), where he introduced the first course on the history of American thought. He taught at Teachers College, Columbia University (1931-1942), where he was influenced by John Dewey and in turn influenced numerous promising graduate students, including Richard Hofstadter. He taught in Japan, Australia and India for two years. About this time 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.

Academic career

In the pacifistic 1930s Curti 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 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. In 1942 Curti was called to the Frederick Jackson Turner professorship at the University of Wisconsin, one of the nation's three or four most influential centers of historical scholarship, where he remained until his retirement in 1968. The department 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. They include among many famous scholars Hofstadter on Social Darwinism; John Higham on ethnicity; Paul 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. (Curti wrote hundreds of letters a month to friends and ex-students across the globe.)

He continued to write after retirement, keeping up-to-date an influential textbook, Rise of the American Nation for the schools coauthored with Lewis Todd.

Intellectual history

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 encyclopedia 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, who strongly influenced a new generation of intellectual historians at Harvard, 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.


  1. . A Variety of Peoples Bequeath Legacies to the New Nation
  2. . Colonial Conditions Modify the Old World Heritage
  3. . The Christian Heritage
  4. . The Transmission of Polite Learning and of Scientific Interests
  5. . The Rise of the Enlightenment
  6. . The Revolutionary Shift in Emphasis
  7. . The Expanding Enlightenment
  8. . The Conservative Reaction
  9. . Patrician Direction of Thought
  10. . Nationalism Challenges Cosmopolitanism and Regionalism
  11. . The West Challenges Patrician Leadership
  12. . New Currents of Equalitarian Thought and Practice
  13. . The Advance of Science and Technology
  14. . The Popularization of Knowledge
  15. . New Goals for Democracy
  16. . The Rising Tide of Patriotism and Nationalism
  17. . Cultural Regionalism in the Old South
  18. . The Thrust of the Civil War into Intellectual Life
  19. . The Nature of the New Nationalism
  20. . Business and the Life of the Mind
  21. . The Delimitation of Supernaturalism
  22. . Evolutionary Thought in a Utilitarian Society
  23. . Professionalization and Popularization of Learning
  24. . Formulas of Protest and Reform
  25. . The Conservative Defense
  26. . America Recrosses the Oceans
  27. . Prosperity, Disillusionment, Criticism
  28. . Crisis and New Searches
  29. . American Assertions in a World of Upheaval

New Social History

In 1959, Curti published a collaborative social history of rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin using 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," immediately became a pioneer work in 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 census records and city directories. The difference was urban and rural--urban history was robust and expanding rapidly and rural history was seen as a backwater; in addition the Thernstrom model was easier to replicate by a graduate student writing a PhD thesis alone (Curti had numerous research assistants and coauthors). The "old" social history comprised descriptions of everyday lifestyles, perhaps with a coverage of grass roots political movements (like the Populists), while Curti's "new social history" was a systematic examination of the entire population using statistics and social science methodologies.

Memberships, awards and honors

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 an elected member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

In 1977, the Organization of American Historians established the Merle Curti Award. The prize is given annually for the best book in social, intellectual, and/or cultural history.

The Merle Curti Papers are open for research at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Further reading

see the detailed guide at the Bibliography subpage

  • Cronon, E. David. "Merle Curti: An Appraisal and Bibliography of His Writings," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 1970-1971 54(2): 119-135 online edition
  • Pettegrew, John. "The Present-Minded Professor: Merle Curti's Work as an Intellectual Historian" The History Teacher, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Nov., 1998), pp. 67-76 in JSTOR