The Lives and Times of Peter Cooper Essay - Critical Context

Miriam Gurko

Critical Context

Gurko’s The Lives and Times of Peter Cooper could have been an intrinsically dull biography, as he was such a fine, exemplary soul. Aside from having been lengthily and colossally duped by one of New York City’s earliest and biggest political crooks, William Marcy (“Boss”) Tweed, and aside from having lost his temper in attempts to sever connections with an insane brother who constantly embarrassed and berated him, his life appears to have been an unexceptional one. He was beloved and trusted by all who knew him, and he was a quintessential democrat. Wealthy and comfortable, he never sought money as an end in itself, and in fact by his lifelong generosities and philanthropies proved his belief that his money belonged to the com-munity. Moreover, his tolerance for people of all faiths, colors, creeds, and genders was generations ahead of his fellow Americans’. All of these traits are admirable, but they are also potentially boring to young adult readers.

Yet Gurko has managed splendidly to vitalize Cooper, to lend him humorous, and a few sad, dimensions. He was, for example, accident-prone from childhood, barely escaping damage or destruction innumerable times: falling off rooftops, nearly drowning, and suffering burns from his engines. Lethal falling objects pinned him to walls, knocked him flat, or pitched him overboard. In addition, many of his inventions—his flying and his tide machines, his endless chain for the propulsion of railway cars, among others—were simply foolish. Yet Cooper also bore sadness; devoted to family and children, he watched all but one die young. Thus, Gurko’s very human portrait renders for young readers a figure who is not only a fine individual but also an interesting one.