Book: William Cooper's Town

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William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic

Author: Alan Taylor
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Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

In this story of a frontier village in the early American Republic, Alan Taylor explores the lives of Judge William Cooper and the novelist James Fenimore Cooper—father and son. As frontier speculator, landlord, and politician, the father played a leading role in the conquest, resettlement, and environmental transformation of the early nation. Drawing upon his childhood memories of the New York frontier, the son created the historical fictions that made him the most popular, influential, and controversial American novelist of the early nineteenth century.

Taylor makes it clear that in a rapidly changing nation William Cooper’s development of Cooperstown and his son’s creation of the village of Templeton in The Pioneers were different stages of a common effort, over two generations, to create, sustain, and justify a wealthy and powerful estate. Both sought that unity of social, economic, political, and cultural authority idealized in colonial America but at odds with the legacy of the American Revolution. William Cooper’s Town combines biography, social history, and literary analysis. By breaching the barriers that separate political, social, and literary history, Taylor reveals the interplay of frontier settlement and narrative-making in the early American Republic. He examines how Americans resolved their revolution through the creation of new property, new power, and new stories along their extensive frontier.

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Amazon.com

In 1786 William Cooper, determined to become a self-made gentleman of substance in post-revolutionary America, founded Cooperstown, N.Y., through a dodgy land deal. His town rose to become county seat, and Cooper became a judge and then a congressman. He lost most of the prestige he earned later, when he overstretched himself, and his local patronage weakened when he backed the Federalists against the victorious Republicans. Nonetheless, his son, James Fenimore Cooper, the early 19th century’s best-selling novelist, wrote essentially a justification of his father in his third novel, The Pioneers (1823). Taylor’s book—a combination of biography, personal history, social history, literary exegesis and analysis of father-son dynamics—charts the interplay between the fact and the fiction of the days when upstate New York was the frontier. William Cooper’s Town won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for history.

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