Bancroft Prizes Go to 2 Books

Photograph: David S. Reynolds.
Photograph: Alan Taylor.

A new biography of Walt Whitman and a study of William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown, N.Y, receive Columbia's 1996 Bancroft Prizes in American history this week.

The winners are:

Both books were published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Taylor is professor of history at U.C.-Davis. Each will receive $4,000.

President Rupp will present the 49th annual awards at a black-tie dinner in Low Rotunda on Wed., Mar. 27. Presiding will be George Ames, chairman of the Friends of the Columbia Libraries.

The Bancroft Prizes were established at Columbia in 1948 with a bequest from Frederic Bancroft, a historian, author and librarian of the Department of State, to recognize books of exceptional merit in American history, biography or diplomacy. They are equal in rank and are awarded annually by the University Trustees. Books eligible for the 1996 prize were published in 1995.

Reynold's 672-page study of Whitman "is the story of how he absorbed his country and how he tried to make his country absorb him," the author writes. Through a survey of the politics, arts, science and philosophy of Whitman's times, writes Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times, Reynolds "opens many windows on Whitman's makeup." Alfred Kazin in The New York Times Book Review calls the book "remarkably informative" and says, "David S. Reynolds is quite a historical excavator . . . He shows in striking detail how ordinary and orthodox Whitman could be, how responsive to every cultural current of his time." And Lance Morrow, in an essay in Time magazine tracing many social issues of today's America to their historical roots, says the work "splendidly examines the culture that formed the greatest American poem, Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1855. Although Reynolds does not dwell on them, the similarities between the 1850s and the 1990s are spooky sometimes, the preoccupations of the two periods almost interchangeable."

The 47-year-old scholar is a 1970 graduate of Amherst and received the Ph.D. in English in 1979 from U.C.-Berkeley. He was appointed professor of English and American Studies at Baruch and the CUNY Graduate Center in 1989 and Distinguished Professor this year. His other books include Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Knopf, 1988; paperback edition Harvard, 1989), Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America (Harvard, 1981), and George Lippard (G.K. Hall, 1982). He edited George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical, 1822-1854 (Peter Lang, 1986).

Taylor's William Cooper's Town chronicles the life of the founder of Cooperstown, N.Y., and the father of the 19th-century American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. William Cooper advanced his fortunes after the Revolutionary War by gaining control of large tracts of land and subdividing them and improved his prospects in life through a program of self-education and political aspiration. Fenimore Cooper based his third novel, The Pioneers, on his family's life in frontier Cooperstown. In The Times Book Review Pauline Maier praises the way Taylor "moves from the story of William Cooper to The Pioneers, showing who was who, how the stories were alike and how different, uncovering not only the novel's meaning but a fascinating story of generational relationships." In The Boston Globe Michael Kenney calls the book "an absorbing study of the politics and economics of land development in the years after the American Revolution." A review in The New Yorker notes, "Taylor portrays such durable American personalities as the pious populist and the upper-crust reformer, and his intellectual grasp never fails to connect events in western New York to national and international affairs." And Richard L. Bushman, professor of history and a Bancroft Prize winner (1968), says: "It is a marvelous creation, a melding of biography, community development, and literary analysis. No other book tells the story of American frontier development after the Revolution nearly so well."

Taylor, 40, was educated at Colby, where he received the B.A. in 1977, and Brandeis, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in American history in 1986. He has been professor of history at U.C.-Davis, specializing in Early American history and the history of the American West, since 1994. He is also the author of Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (University of North Carolina, 1990).

Columbia University Record -- March 29, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 21