In 1900, photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) made a decision that changed his life and, in a sense, made him immortal. He largely abandoned his lucrative portrait studio work and began a thirty-year project to record images of Native Americans who, he believed, were doomed to extinction, destroyed his marriage and left him destitute. This new biography by National Book Award winner Timothy Egan (The Worst Hard Times; The Big Burn) recaptures the story of a man both entrapped by his time and ahead of it. Editor's recommendation.
Egan's account of Curtis's life is not so much a traditional biography as a vivid exploration of one man's lifelong obsession with an idea…Curtis, who died in poverty and obscurity in 1952, qualifies as a Western desperado of a type we don't often hear about. Egan's spirited biography might just bring him the recognition that eluded him in life.
Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Egan (The Worst Hard Time) turns his attention to one of Seattle’s most remarkable—yet all but forgotten—residents. In the late 19th century, Edward Curtis was the era’s reigning portrait photographer, so well respected that President Theodore Roosevelt chose him to photograph his daughter’s wedding. Yet in 1900, at the height of his fame, Curtis gave it up to pursue what would become his life’s work—“a plan to photograph all the intact Native American tribes left in North America” before their ways of life disappeared. This idea received the backing of J.P. Morgan and culminated in a critically acclaimed 20-volume set, The North American Indian, which took Curtis 30 years to complete and left him divorced and destitute. Unfailingly sympathetic to his subject, Egan shadows Curtis as he travels from Roosevelt’s summer home at Sagamore Hill to the mesas and canyons of the Southwest tribes and to the rain forests of the Coastal Indians and the isolated tundra on Nunivak Island. Egan portrays the dwindling tribes, their sacred rites (such as the Hopi snake dance), customs, and daily lives, and captures a larger-than-life cast. With a reporter’s eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency. (Oct.)
"David Drummond offers an able reading that carries the material well, with no false emotion or histrionics. He doesn't let his tone vary too widely, yet he imparts clear emotion on the subjects dear to Curtis himself, especially the treatment of the Nez Perce tribe of the Northwest. An accompanying PDF includes samples of Curtis's striking works, and his entire multivolume work on American Indians is available online." - AudioFile MagazineStarred Review. A Best Nonfiction Book of 2012. "With a reporter's eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story." - Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. "Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history's shadows." - Kirkus Reviews
Starred review. "Ace popular historian Egan makes Curtis' story frequently suspenseful, always gripping, and monumentally historic." - Booklist
One of the "100 Notable Books of 2012." "Timothy Egan offers a stirring and affectionate portrait of an underknown figure..." - The New York Times
A Best Book of 2012 choice. - Amazon.com
"...Egan writes this fascinating biography with a compelling and occasionally creative narrative that challenges the age-old ratio of a picture's worth a thousand words. Egan somehow makes both more valuable." - USA Today
Part of the Holiday Books Roundup. "...[Timothy Egan] gracefully transforms the past into vivid scenes that employ all five senses. The result is an honest portrayal of a man obsessed with capturing the final days of this nation's first people." - Star Tribune
"Egan calls Curtis' book a work of "lasting merit." The same can also easily be said for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher." - Seattle Times
"...a sweeping tale about two vanishing ways of life. The traditional lives of Native Americans were in eclipse, of course, but there was also the world in which Curtis made his way, amid Gilded Age tycoons and Edwardian adventurers, in the company of hale fellows setting off on long trips by rail and boat, when simple mistakes of navigation had far-ranging consequences." - The Wall Street Journal
"Egan is particularly good at fleshing out lesser-known aspects of Curtis's life... This is a riveting biography of an American original." - The Boston Globe
Edward Curtis's photographs have been controversial since their rediscovery in the 1970s. Although his work documented Native American cultures, he was also guilty of framing his subjects in ways that emphasized his belief that they were a dying people. Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a National Book Award recipient for The Worst Hard Time, examines Curtis's life (1868–1952) from 1896 until his death, the years he worked on his 20-volume The North American Indian. Although his supporters included such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt and J. Pierpont Morgan, Curtis struggled throughout his life to maintain the project. His cause was hindered by his efforts to help the Native Americans he encountered as he alienated Indian agents and other government officials by demanding that they respect the basic human rights of the local populace. Most damaging to his reputation and his financing efforts was his claim, based on eyewitness accounts, that Gen. George Armstrong Custer's actions at the Battle of the Little Big Horn were not heroic, but in fact cowardly. Egan seeks to restore Curtis to a deserved high reputation. VERDICT This fascinating biography is recommended to readers interested in the American West from the late 19th through early 20th century.—John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY
New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Egan (The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, 2009, etc.) returns with the story of the astonishing life of Edward Curtis (1868–1952), whose photographs of American Indians now command impressive prices at auction. This is an era of excessive subtitles--but not this one: "Epic" and "immortal" are words most fitting for Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian, a project that consumed most of his productive adult life, is a work of astonishing beauty and almost incomprehensible devotion. Egan begins with the story of Angelina, Chief Seattle's daughter, who in 1896 was living in abject poverty in the city named for her father. Curtis--who'd begun a Seattle photography shop--photographed her, became intrigued with the vanishing lives of America's Indians and devoted the ensuing decades both to the photography of indigenous people all over North America and to the writing of texts that described their culture, languages, songs and religion. Curtis scrambled all his life for funding--J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt were both supporters, though the former eventually took over the copyrights and sold everything to a collector during the Depression for $1,000--and spent most of his time away from home, a decision that cost him his marriage. His children, however, remained loyal, some later helping him with his project. As Egan shows, Curtis traveled nearly everywhere, living with the people he was studying, taking thousands of photographs. He nearly died on several occasions. Egan is careful to credit Curtis' team, several of whom endured all that he did, though, gradually, he became the last man standing, and he reproduces a number of the gorgeous photographs. Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history's shadows.