William Cowper Prime

Journalist, Author

1825 – 1905

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Who was William Cowper Prime?

William Cowper Prime was an American journalist, art historian, numismatist, and travel writer, younger brother of S. I. Prime and E. D. G. Prime, born at Cambridge, New York. William Prime graduated Princeton in 1843 and delivered a poem at commencement. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1846 and began to practice law in New York City. In 1851 he married Mary Trumbull of Stonington, Connecticut. During 1855 and 1856, Prime traveled in Europe, North Africa, and the Holy Land. He published Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia and Tent Life in the Holy Land based on his experiences there, which include his accounts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dead Sea, and the port of Jaffa, among others. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain parodies Tent Life in the Holy Land as Grime's Nomadic Life in Palestine, taking aim at Prime's overly sentimental prose and his violent encounters with the local inhabitants. Twain makes the contemporary popularity of Tent Life evident in his parody: "Some of us will be shot before we finish this pilgrimage. The pilgrims read ‘Nomadic Life’ and keep themselves in a constant state of Quixotic heroism." Twain speculates that if a homicide did occur, Grimes should be prosecuted as an "accessory before the fact." Prime continued practicing law until 1861, when he became part owner and editor-in-chief of the New York Journal of Commerce. In 1869 he gave up his editorial work and revisited Egypt and the Holy Land. It was at his insistence that Princeton established a department of art history, to which he donated his extensive collection of ceramic art. In 1884, the Trustees of the College elected Prime as the department's first chair. His interest in art matters brought him into close connection with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, of which he was elected first vice-president in 1874. His published writings include:

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United States of America
  • United States of America
  • Princeton University
Lived in
  • New York City

on July 23, 2013


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