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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Cowper Prime (1825–1905)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE PRIME family in this country have always been prominent in scholarship and patriotism, distinguished in several professions for great intellectual virility and high character. William Cowper Prime was born in Cambridge, New York, October 31st, 1825. His father, Benjamin Young, was a physician in Huntington, Long Island, who had graduated at Princeton and finished his medical training at Leyden; was an unusual linguist, a finished classical scholar, and master of several modern languages which he spoke fluently. During the Revolutionary War he was distinguished by his patriotic zeal; and aided the cause by vigorous songs and ballads, which were widely circulated. His grandfather, Ebenezer, a Presbyterian clergyman at Huntington, Long Island,—a man of powerful mind and a preacher of renown,—suffered greatly during the early years of the war for his principles; at the age of seventy-eight he was driven from his home by British troops and Tories, who burned his church, occupied his house, and destroyed his library. He was pursued with hatred for his attachment to the cause of liberty even after his death: toward the close of the war a band of British under command of Colonel William Thompson (afterwards Count Rumford) heaped insults upon the grave of the “old rebel.”  1
  Mr. Prime inherited the aptness for scholarship and the linguistic ability of his ancestors. He was graduated at Princeton in 1843; studied law, was admitted to the bar, and practiced his profession in New York City with success and distinction, until he became one of the owners and the editor of the Journal of Commerce in 1861. His active editorship of the Journal continued till 1869, and his proprietorship till 1893. But even while he was a law student, and in active practice of his profession, he had obeyed the instincts of his family for literature. A series of country letters written to the Journal were afterwards collected in volumes,—‘The Owl Creek Letters’ (1848), ‘The Old House by the River’ (1853), and ‘Later Years’ (1854). These papers are among the first of American essays which mingled the zest of the true sportsman with love of nature and human sympathy with her moods. They had a wide popularity, and were the forerunner of those charming books which so truly interpret New England,—‘I Go A-Fishing’ (1893), ‘Along New England Roads’ (1892), and ‘Among the North Hills’ (1895). In these books are the refined sentiment and keen observation of a lifetime.  2
  In 1855–56 Mr. Prime made an extended tour in Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land, and another in 1869–70. The fruits of the first visit were ‘Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia,’ and ‘Tent Life in the Holy Land’ (1857); volumes which had great popularity, and were distinguished by fine descriptive quality, a philosophic temper, and profound sentiment. But foreign travel opened the door to still wider activities; namely, in the fields of art and archæology, both classic and mediæval. Mr. Prime’s career is typically American in the variety of its interests, though it is rare in the virility and success with which he has pursued so many branches of literature and art. Blessed with an exceptional memory to utilize his quick acquisitions, he speedily became an authority in several specialties. His library of wood engraving and illustration is, historically, the most valuable in the country. His interest in this began with the study of Albrecht Dürer, and his monograph on the ‘Little Passion’ (1868) is the earliest in English on this subject. Among the monographs showing his wide and exact scholarship are ‘O Mother Dear, Jerusalem’ (1865), and ‘Holy Cross; a Study’ (1877).  3
  Becoming interested in ceramics through the enthusiasm of his wife for this study, he laid aside his own specialty after her death, and devoted himself to the completion of her collection. It is deposited at Princeton in a museum erected for the purpose. It was by his influence that a department of Art History was established at this college, which had given him the degree of LL. D. in 1875, and now made him the first professor and lecturer in the new study. One of the most useful and successful books in any language on this topic was his ‘Pottery and Porcelain of all Times and Nations’ (1878).  4
  This sketch does not at all give the measure of Mr. Prime’s fertile literary activity during his professional life. No man has been more ready with his vigorous and lucid pen, and more adequate to all the demands on it. Besides his editorial work and his published volumes, there have been hundreds of sketches, essays, and short stories from time to time; and for years he was the legal and literary adviser of a great publishing house. In 1886, as literary executor of General George B. McClellan, he edited ‘McClellan’s Own Story.’  5
  Perhaps Mr. Prime’s greatest service to the public has been in connection with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a director, vice-president, and for many years acting president, he brought to the building-up of this institution, qualities indispensable to such an enterprise,—wide classic, art, and archæological knowledge, enthusiasm, the perfection of organizing and business methods, and sound common-sense. He gave to the work time without stint, and the experience of the scholar and the man of affairs. It is not too much to say that the great success of this splendid enterprise is largely due to the wise guidance of Dr. Prime.  6
  As a writer Mr. Prime is always interesting, vigorous, lucid, convincing, equally facile in condensation and amplification, with a style that is marked by simplicity, and often rises to the charm of melodious periods. His versatility is shown in the rare combination of sentiment with the most practical and clear view of affairs.  7
 
 
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