The Lives and Times of Peter Cooper Essay - Critical Essays

Miriam Gurko


Young readers may enter into this biography with initial skepticism, for Gurko’s Cooper is not only portrayed as a paragon of virtue but also as an individual who rose almost literally from rags to riches, from what might have been a life of obscurity to one of regional fame and national notoriety. Moreover, to a remarkable degree, Cooper retained his lofty moral demeanor and democratic habits throughout life. Yet Gurko’s depiction of him is not hagiography; her story is anchored firmly in facts.

Although he was not born into poverty, Cooper’s origins in New York City were nevertheless humble. His father, John, was a hardworking, itinerant Methodist who was variously occupied as a hatter, a storekeeper, a farmer, a brewer, and a brick-maker. With his amazingly tolerant wife and six children, the improvident John Cooper moved almost as often as he changed occupations: from New York City, to Peekskill, to Catskill, to Newburgh, to Brooklyn, and then back again to the Hudson River towns. If Peter learned adaptability, then he formally learned little else and came of age with less than two months of schooling—a deficit that he spent a lifetime trying to overcome, for himself as well as for others.

Gurko explains how work came early in Cooper’s life, along with rigid Methodist principles. As a child, he assisted at his father’s small brewery and, for years, in all of his father’s sundry ventures. By his teenage years, he had moved on to an informal apprenticeship with a New York City coach maker. Everyone was impressed with him; he was tireless, alert, genial, dexterous, and quick to master his trade. Better yet, he...

(The entire section is 675 words.)