A Conversation with Historian Alan Taylor

Winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in History

by Daniel J. Philippon, University of Virginia

In 1996, Alan Taylor's William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1995) won both the Pulitzer Prize in History and the Bancroft Prize. The riveting story of James Fenimore Cooper's father and the town he carved out of the postrevolutionary frontier, William Cooper's Town explores the founding of Cooperstown, New York, by William Cooper and its representation in his son's third novel, The Pioneers (1823). Combining extensive archival research with vivid narration, Taylor charts the rise and fall of one of early America's most intriguing characters, revealing the economic and environmental consequences of land development in the Mohawk Valley and exploring the social and political changes that followed the Revolutionary War. In January of 1997, Taylor and I spoke for nearly an hour during the Bicentennial celebrations at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, where the papers of William Cooper are housed. The following are selected portions of that interview, in which Taylor discusses the genesis and success of William Cooper's Town, reflects on the character of his principal subject, and discusses his methods of researching and writing history.

Jacob Taylor
DP: Let's begin with the enormous success of your latest book. Were you expecting such a positive reaction to your work?

AT: No, I couldn't have predicted this much success for the book, both in terms of winning prizes and also selling copies. It seems to have been successful at those two levels: people who ordinarily don't read much in the way of academic history have enjoyed the book and say they've gotten quite a bit out of it, and then my peers have given me these prizes, which no one could have predicted. I did make an effort to make the book accessible to a broader public. I tried to explain what I was doing as I went along, and I was attentive to the key characters and to developing their personalities and to developing a sense of place and also a sense of plot moving through the book. It does attempt to be a narrative, and I think all of that lowers the threshold for nonacademic readers to get in.

DP: What led you to examine the life and legacy of William Cooper?

AT: Well, I began with James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Pioneers (1823). In the mid-80s, I was teaching for a couple of years at the College of William and Mary, and I taught a course on narrative history and historical fiction. All of the texts I used somehow bore upon the era of the American Revolution. I decided to use The Pioneers, and I just was entranced with the novel, especially with its concerns about environmental history, about the intersection of social structure and political power with how the environment is used and abused. So I wanted to understand the context: where was James Fenimore Cooper in the 1820s? Where was this coming from? The novel is set in the 1790s in upstate New York--frontier America, a place I'm quite dedicated to trying to understand in that particular time. Further reading of literary critics indicated that Cooper was drawing very much on memories of his own childhood in Cooperstown, and especially memories of his father, Judge William Cooper. So this got me quite intrigued, because I had read a little bit about William Cooper, especially a vivid capsule description of him in David Hackett Fisher's The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), and I thought he would be quite an interesting man to know more about.

DP: Did your opinion of William Cooper change during the course of your research?

AT: Well, I suppose I came into it thinking that William Cooper was going to be quite similar to the great landed proprietors I had studied in my first book, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990). They had been quite powerful and mostly unscrupulous men who had taken advantage of their power. When I started reading about William Cooper, I found two very different ../images in the scholarship. More antiquarian scholarship would celebrate him as the great settlers' friend. He sold them freehold title at cheap prices on good credit, nurtured the settlement, was beloved, founded Cooperstown, and everybody lived happily ever after. The other take, which tends to come more from literary criticism/biography of James Fenimore Cooper, but also from some historians who focus on politics in the 1790s, presented a somewhat different William Cooper. Their Cooper was very hard-driving, tyrannical, and manipulative. He was a great power broker, domineering over his settlers, and therefore some literary scholars would say domineering over his family, in that his domineering presence shaped James Fenimore Cooper, or misshaped James Fenimore Cooper in certain ways. So these were two ../images, and then there was the third image of what I thought a land speculator was about from my previous experience. So does William Cooper come out of door number one, door number two, or door number three?

DP: Which door did you choose?

AT: Well, he comes out of door number four, which is usually what happens when you get into detailed research of a figure that others have only been able to deal with in a more cursory fashion. He ends up being a somewhat different character. He had a very powerful and sincere vision that he wanted to be a father of the people. Now, to want to be a father of the people cuts in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it means that he had to be benevolent and give much to the people. And he did invest a lot of the money he made in cultural and public institutions, building an academy, financing the freemasons in town. For any charitable organization, he was the great contributor; he was an organizer of community life; he did provide his first set of settlers with very attractive terms for land. He did all that stuff. But to be a father also means that at the end of the day you want people to defer to you, to honor you, to obey you, to do what you want. And when settlers over time increasingly became more independent and no longer needed his largesse, or needed his indulgence so much, and increasingly struck out on their own in their political decisions or social decisions, that was powerfully frustrating, because he thought that he should have their undying gratitude.

DP: How does he deal with that frustration?

AT: Well, it frustrated him that there was a high population turnover in the new settlements. As the settlements grew larger, they were increasingly formed of people who had not been there in the hard, early days when William Cooper had really been critical to the settlers' well-being. And the newcomers were impatient with having to defer to him and to pretend that he was their political father. And Cooper was frustrated with them that they did not understand his vision. So he did then try to exercise power, and did try to dictate to people, but it didn't work. It was an abject failure. During his political career he was much attacked and criticized, often by people who had enjoyed his good favor for a long time and then turned on him. So I see him more as an afflicted rather than an afflicting person, as never having as much power as he dreams he might have, and being powerfully frustrated by this gap between his very limited, real power and his very grandiose vision of what he would like to be. His tragedy comes out of that gap. So I end up with a fellow who's much less in control of himself, of his community, of his own family, than the versions that previously were out there. He's somebody struggling to live up to an ideal that he's not capable of achieving, that perhaps no one is capable of living up to. His own humble origins, lack of education, and rough manners all inhibit his exercising the aristocratic power he can imagine enjoying.

DP: What do you most want general readers to take away from William Cooper's Town?

AT: Well, because it's 427 pages long I could never settle on one message. But I'll take two stabs at this, and these are still quite broad. One is the connection between the aspects of life that ordinarily historians study--for very good reasons--in isolation from one another, the connections of environmental to political to social to cultural history. I tried to weave back and forth between these and to show that they're not separate categories, but that the actual, lived experience of people in the early republic involved all of this, and certain developments in one realm had ramifications for all of the realms. The second thing is to demystify the early republic, for which I think the public has a certain bored reverence. There are these stock, boring, perfectly noble "Founding Fathers," who had everything all worked out, and if we could only understand what they were about, and followed their will here in our own troubled, chaotic, divided times, we'd have everything just right. And that's nonsense. The people who lived in that generation that we're talking about even said so. John Adams was appalled by reading the histories that were already coming out at that time making demigods out of the Founding Fathers. But John Adams more than most understood how divided, how fractured, how flawed they were as human beings. They were fascinating, powerful, important, compelling people, but they had their full range of foibles and flaws as well. They had violent disagreements with each other, and they were not able to impose their will, or their vision, on society. They were very much of their society, of their context, which was a divided, conflicted society with its own problems.

DP: Certainly as much as, if not more than, our own.

AT: Exactly. We have a quite different set of problems, but much of what we've inherited in terms of problems, as well as institutions that work well for us, come from them--from decisions they made, or neglected to make, or could not make in their own time. So to understand this place in our political history in its fuller complexity is I hope something that people will get out of the book.

DP: In the introduction to William Cooper's Town, you say you have written a hybrid of three usually distinct genres: biography, social history, and literary analysis. Did you encounter any trouble balancing these perspectives?

AT: Well, pretty early on I knew I wanted to do all three, but truth be told I'm coming at it from a historian's perspective. I read a whole lot more history than literary criticism, although I tried to read quite a bit, especially everything I knew of that bore upon James Fenimore Cooper and The Pioneers. At the end of the day, it's a historian's book rather than primarily a literary critic's book, but it's certainly got more of an engagement with literature than is common for a history. It has more than just an additional set of information that a historian can draw upon. I do try to engage in what a literary critic does as best I can, which has made the book different, and I think that is one of the reasons that many historians consider this to be a book that stretches in ways that are new.

DP: You credit the philosopher David Carr and the environmental historian William Cronon as helping you to recognize that "narratives have power because they are woven into life, not simply imposed upon a chaotic experience after the fact." Could you expand on this statement, which you say is your fundamental premise for the book?

AT: Well, I'm reacting against a certain element that's found especially in literary criticism, but also in cultural criticism more broadly, which has taken as one of its missions essentially to take apart history, to say that history is an ideological construct imposed upon a chaotic, so-called "reality," which doesn't have any coherence. And so any attempt to put coherence on it is freighted with the ideological baggage of the historian, and the historian is ordinarily in the service of power, the current arrangement of power in the society. Now I have absolutely no argument that that has happened, and people who are engaged in this sort of literary or cultural criticism have done a very good job of identifying particular examples of this. But I have a bit of a problem with the jump that is then made to say that this is the way history always is, always will be. So William Cooper's Town was very much an attempt to say "no." Perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps I'm deluded and naive, but I don't think that my particular book is meant to perpetuate the existing power structure. At least overtly what I think I'm doing is being like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, who unveils the curtains and shows who's operating the devices. I'm showing what's going on in the society of the early republic in order to demystify some of it. And I think it's possible for history to do that. So I'm a bit impatient with people who are willing, in my view, just to concede history to those people who want to maintain the power structure. History, I think, is much more neutral than that. It can be used to reaffirm the power structure, but it can also be used to expose it, and people ought not to deny that possibility. I found helpful David Carr's book, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986), which said that human existence is not perfectly chaotic. It has patterns to it, although those patterns cannot be fixed. They are fluid and change, but it's sort of like the current in a river. It's eddying, but there's a certain pattern to it. This is the same sort of observation people make in chaos theory. There is pattern to chaos.

DP: Barbara Tuchman talks about a similar concept in Practicing History (New York: Knopf, 1981).

AT: Right. And N. Catherine Hayles has a very wonderful book, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), about chaos theory and its applications in literature and also in science. So I think that in our culture there is an emerging alternative to this notion that narration is a false coherence imposed on a chaotic reality. Yes, human existence has not had the patterns we've often assumed that it did, often because the power structure wanted us to see only certain patterns that were self-serving. But it nonetheless has a pattern, and there is a new opportunity to see what those patterns are. And those patterns, I think, are produced primarily by the capacity people have to narrate to themselves and to others who they are and what they're doing. They're getting these stories in part from what they hear around them, but they're also working with these stories. Everyone has a story to tell of their own life and their own experience. But most people, in order to be taken as normal, will shape their stories in terms of what they think another wants to hear, just as I'm doing right now. I'm shaping this in ways which I'm hoping are going to communicate to you and to others who are going to end up reading this. I'm not just speaking randomly and chaotically. I'm speaking in patterned ways which I think are going to serve the interests of the reader and also my own interests in describing my work.

DP: We thank you for doing that.

AT: And there's a certain pattern to the questions you're asking. There are certain assumptions embedded in them that you and I are sharing here. We're understanding--I think we're understanding--each other. And so I think this understanding gives shape to how people behave. They anticipate where they going, who they are, who these other people are they're dealing with, and then they pursue patterns in their lives that come out of these stories that are both inherited and which they're creating--or I should say recreating as they live them, and as they live them always in new circumstances intersecting with other people who are trying to live out their own stories that they're telling themselves.

DP: One of the few criticisms of the stories you tell in your books has been their overabundance of detail. How would you characterize the role of detail in your work?

AT: Well, I would say it's essential. That's what I do. You know, the devil's in the details. But I also think getting some sort of visual take on the past fascinates me, trying to get a mind's-eye vision of these people and this place. And I work this out by writing it. And so for that reason there's a very high level of detail in there. When I read other historians' work, I often have a sense of disappointment that there is insufficient detail, that there's insufficient appeal to the mind's eye. Too much is taken for granted. I'm not saying that of all historians, but most histories do not have the level of detail that I would like to read, and so I'm writing very much the sort of books that I would like to read in the assumption that there are many people out there who would like to read this kind of history. But it's not to everybody's taste. People who like a strong central argument reiterated throughout the whole text--they're going to find that wanting in my work. It's a weakness, but it's a choice I've made. There are multiple arguments that I'm trying to weave together in the course of a book rather than one central argument, although I think I did a bit better job in this book than in the previous one of ultimately emphasizing one of the arguments that I'm working through in the book, so that it is there in every chapter.

DP: Managing this level of detail must have taxed your resources at times. What are your work habits? What advice would you have for someone attempting to handle a similar task?

AT: Oh, I think I'm sort of a negative example. Certainly I had to work very long hours at this. I'm not a night worker. I think most people in this business are much more night workers than I am. I'm more of a day worker. I have to get up fairly early in the morning, get going, then work just as long as I can. I actually enjoy doing that, but about seven o'clock or so I hit a wall, and that's it. I can't do any more. In the midst of it, it was pretty much a seven-day-a-week preoccupation, but it was a preoccupation I thoroughly enjoyed. It was such a detective hunt to try to find these bits and pieces of information and try to stitch them into a whole that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think in part it's because I was defining the project in ways that were meant to produce a book that would be interesting to read, and therefore it was a book that would be interesting for me to try to figure out as I went along.

DP: So that distant goal was what kept you going during the difficult days of writing?

AT: Well, when that's your goal, the actual travel, the actual journey is also pleasurable. Not just because I think, "Okay, I'm going to have fun once it's done; therefore, I'm going to suffer now." It's figuring out who William Cooper was, figuring out who Elizabeth Cooper was, figuring out what role Hannah Cooper's death had in the subsequent collapse of the family fortunes. Those sorts of questions were quite intriguing to me. I wanted to know the answers, and finding out the clues along the way became quite compelling. Now, somebody else who works in a different way, who thinks in a different way, might take on a more abstract topic, such as the transformation of Calvinism in eighteenth-century America. That's not something that would get me up every morning--reading an immense number of sermons from the late eighteenth century and figuring out how the nuances changed. There are people who can do that wonderfully well. I can't, because I just couldn't sustain the interest in doing that. Which is not to put that work down at all. I'm very impressed with people who can do that kind of work. But I can't. So I've tried to avoid taking on projects that would not sustain my interest day after day after day.

DP: What's your next project?

AT: Well, I have two next projects. One of them is to write a history of colonial America for a five-volume series to be put out by Penguin, and that will be--by definition--a synthetic work. I can't do the original research for that. The second project is more specialized. It's going to be with Knopf again. It will be about the emergence of distinct political societies in what had been British North America, but which became partitioned by the American Revolution into the American Republic and into the revived British Empire in Canada. And so it will be about people on both sides of this border, their relationships, and their notions about what the revolution should mean.

DP: How has your life changed since you won the Pulitzer Prize?

AT: Well, people ask to interview me, which they never did before. I get invited to give many more public addresses than before. I get invited to write two books, and people offer you better advances for your books than before. It's quite striking what the difference a prize or a couple of prizes--especially the Pulitzer--will do to people's perception of who you are and what your capabilities are. I don't think I'm any better or smarter a historian than I was the day before the Pulitzer, but it just puts you on a lot of other people's radar screens, puts a certain certification on you that you didn't have before.

DP: You've enjoyed it?

AT: Of course, I'm glad this has all happened to me. But there's no training school to deal with this increased attention, and it comes pretty fast. You're trying to figure out what you can and cannot do. So the danger is that you go from not being in much demand and therefore having the habit of saying "yes" to almost every request, because that is how you develop your career, to a point where too many things are coming your way at once, and you need to learn sometimes to say "no," which has been an adjustment that I have not fully made.

DP: Well, thank you for saying yes to this interview.

AT: It's been a pleasure.

  Alan Taylor is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis. Daniel J. Philippon is completing his Ph.D in English at the University of Virginia.