Lotus-Eating #6: Houghton Library

For my second archival research project, I ventured to the Houghton Library on Professor Boeckeler’s recommendation. In my (nearly) five years in Boston, I’ve actually never walked around Harvard’s campus before, and I’m glad that I got there before it really got cold outside.

During this visit, I requested another copy of Lotus-Eating, two of Curtis’s commonplace books, a handwritten book of his poetry, and a box of his papers. In my last archival post, I organized my observations by topic, but this time, I will organize them by item. These items were all so different that I can’t compare them in the same way.


The copies of Lotus-Eating that I’ve examined at Northeastern Special Collections and the Boston Public Library are both products of Harper & Brothers Publishers in New York City. The copy that the Houghton has was published by Richard Bentley, printed by Harrison and Son, and bound by Remnant & Edmonds, all in London. (Strangely, the printer and binder information is at the back of the book rather than the front.)

At the beginning of the semester, we looked at the US and UK versions of Cloud Atlas. As Martin Paul Eve explains, they differ greatly in textual content—and they differ by accident (Eve). I see the US and UK version of Lot(u/o)s-Eating to be more like the US and UK versions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone: similar textual content, different in style.

In order to examine the similarities and differences, I’ll walk you through the book.

The covers of both editions are very similar (aside from the different titles). The cover of Lotos-Eating is the same eye-catching shade of royal blue. The spine has more Corinthian-looking gold scrollwork, and says “London” and “Bentley” at the bottom.

Inside the cover, the left-hand side has a sticker that says this book is the gift of George W. Curtis. The right-hand side has a handwritten note that says, “To George William Curtis with the respects of Richard Bentley.” (Basically, Curtis’s publisher gave him this copy and Curtis regifted it to Harvard.) This copy of Lotos has a lot of personality.

The title page has quite a few differences. I’ve made a big deal out of the weird typeface used for the subtitle in Lotus, but Lotos just uses a regular gothic typeface in its place. Curtis is advertised as the author of “The Wanderer in Syria,” not “The Howadji in Syria” (emphasis mine). Perhaps “howadji” was too foreign of a word for the British market. Additionally, Lotos has two epigraphs instead of one. The first is the Hamlet quotation with different punctuation: “There’s rosemary—that’s for remembrance,” instead of “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” The second is two stanzas from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “The Apology.” He has one quotation from a British author, and one from an American.

The dedication says: “To Charles A. Dana, the following letters are affectionately inscribed by his friend, George William Curtis. May 1852.” The dedication page in Lotus says: “To Charles A. Dana, the letters originally addressed to the editor, are now affectionately inscribed to the friend. New York, June, 1852.” The use of the third person pronoun in Lotos compared to the lack of pronouns in Lotus makes Lotos seem less personal. Somewhere between May and June 1852, the page changed.

In the body of the book, the most obvious difference is that Lotos does not have any images, and the text seems much plainer without them.

I found one other handwritten note in the book. On page seven, Curtis writes, “This was the pith of my chat with willow as we sped along under the Palisades, and threaded the Highlands.” In pencil, someone has crossed out the “w” in “willow” and written “W” next to it in the margin.

Going by the appearance and the first few pages, Lotos comes off as a more serious book than Lotus. Although I do like the playfulness of Lotus, I don’t think it’s the only way to present the book. Showing sillier subject matter in a more serious design can heighten the silliness.

Commonplace Books


Quotation is a huge part of Curtis’s writing style (and, as I’ve learned, of many others’ writing styles during this time period), and the style of quotation in his published books is similar to that in his commonplace books.

Ellen Gruber Garvey notes that people used commonplace books “to create a record of their reading” and that “passages in [commonplace books] often recirculated back into the compiler’s own writing, with or without credit” (Garvey 15). Both ideas are true in Curtis’s case; his commonplace books represent the intersection between his reading and his writing.

I examined two books: the first, a notebook with a blue and purple marbled cover, written in with pencil; the second, a notebook with a black leather cover, written in with pencil and ink. Curtis’s ink handwriting is much better than his pencil handwriting; I had a lot of difficulty deciphering his notes.

The marbled notebook has a lot of notes, short quotations, and lists. Many of the entries are about American historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton (he’s everywhere), and American writers. Sometimes the sources are abbreviated.

The black notebook has longer quotations with the sources noted after each one. It includes a lot of English subjects and authors, including Geoffrey Chaucer, the Duke of Wellington, and George Peele. Although none of Curtis’s three travel books focus on Europe, he often brings European countries, including the UK, into discussions.

Poetry Book

Looking at the poetry book alongside the commonplace books, I can tell that the commonplace book is for Curtis’s personal use, while the poetry book may be for others to read.

The book has a brown marbled cover with a brown leather spine. Inside, the pages are lined, and Curtis has handwritten numbers in the upper outside corners. All of the poems are written in ink and in very good handwriting, with a few corrections made in pencil when necessary. Curtis writes the month and year at the bottom of each poem, and sometimes includes the place; the years range from 1845 to 1850.

The titles of the poems hint at Curtis’s interests in nature, history, and other writers. A brief sampling: “Walden Pond,” “Autumn,” “Harvestmoon,” “To the Robin,” “Lady Jane Grey.” (He refers to Lady Jane Grey as a “sleek violet of history!”)

There are two extra pieces of paper in this book. About a third of the way through the book, a slightly different version of a poem is affixed to that poem’s page with a very small nail. After the last poem, a small folded newspaper clipping of Curtis’s poem “Columbus at the Gates of Genoa” is folded and stuck between the pages. The newspaper only refers to Curtis as “the author of ‘Nile Notes of a Howadji.’”

If Curtis did allow others to read this book, it seems as though he only wanted them to read it in this format. At the top of the first page of poetry, Curtis has written in pencil: “Please print nothing which I may leave behind me. George William Curtis. Brighton. Nov. 11 1889.”


I requested this item: “Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. [Notes, galley-proofs, clippings, etc., of lectures and orations] Ms. and printed; [v.p., v.d.] 1 box” (President). It covers a huge amount of time; I had no idea what I would actually get.

The box, a little larger than a shoebox, was a little difficult to sort through. Most of the papers were copies of speeches, folded up into small rectangles and labeled. Although I’m interested in the content of Curtis’s speeches, since he was a proponent of civil rights and women’s rights, the speeches aren’t especially relevant to Lotus-Eating.

But just when I thought that I had requested the box for nothing, I found a packet tied up with string at the bottom of box marked “Lotus-Eating.” Inside, I found newspaper clippings of the original Lotus-Eating letters! The New York Tribune, edited by Charles A. Dana, published the letters as a correspondence column under the heading “Summer Notes of a Howadji.” (I’m curious as to why Curtis didn’t specify a place in the title, as he did with the previous two volumes. I suppose “East Coast Notes of a Howadji” doesn’t sound as exotic.) The handwriting on the outside of the packet matches Curtis’s handwriting in his notebooks, so it seems as though this packet was his personal copy.

I was really curious about the articles surrounding Curtis’s letters. I found stock reports, descriptions of accidents (the best ones: “A Man Accidentally Killed—A Sad Affair,” and “Rescued from Drowning—An Italian…”) other correspondence columns, reports of murders, news conveyed by telegraph, and ship departures. The newspaper provides a different reading experience than a bound book does; although the articles don’t directly affect the letters, they situate them differently.

Final Thoughts

During my research this semester, I’ve found three distinct versions of this work. In publication order, they are: Summer Notes of a Howadji, Lotos-Eating, and Lotus-Eating. Published for different audiences, in different formats, with different designs, they provide three different reading experiences of the same textual content.

Works Cited

Eve, Martin Paul. “‘You have to keep track of your changes’: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.”  Open Library of Humanities, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, doi.org/10.16995/olh.82.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford UP, 2013.

The President and Fellows of Harvard College. “Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. George William Curtis papers, 1839-1930: Guide. (MS Am 1124.5 -1124.8).” OASIS at Harvard Library, 12 Aug. 2012, nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL.Hough:hou00968.

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