William Cooper’s Town by Alan Taylor, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History, is that rarest of things: readable social history. Whether guided by academic theorizing about “narrative,” or (more likely) his own good instincts, Mr. Taylor realized that the voting records, tax rolls, Masonic lodge membership lists, and farm produce statistics that are the stuff of Ph.D. theses lie dead on the page unless they are attached to interesting lives. Call it the great-enough man theory of history. In laying out the history of Cooperstown, New York, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Mr. Taylor has two unusually interesting men to work with—William Cooper, land speculator and congressman, and James Fenimore Cooper, his youngest son, and America’s first successful novelist. William Cooper’s Town illuminates an era, as well as The Leatherstocking Tales, the cycle...


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