Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 2. John Esten Cooke

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 2. John Esten Cooke

One successor of Cooper, however, upheld for a time the dignity of old-fashioned romance. John Esten Cooke (1830–86), born in the Valley of Virginia and brought up in Richmond, cherished a passion as intense as Simms’s for his native state and deliberately set out to celebrate its past and its beauty. Leather Stocking and Silk (1854) and The Last of the Foresters (1856), both narratives of life in the Valley, recall Cooper by more than their titles; but in The Youth of Jefferson (1854), still more in The Virginia Comedians (1854) and its sequel Henry St. John, Gentleman (1859), Cooke seems as completely Virginian as Beverley Tucker before him, though less stately in his tread. All three of these novels have their scenes laid in Williamsburg, the old capital of the Dominion; they reproduce a society strangely made up of luxury, daintiness, elegance, penury, ugliness, brutality. At times the dialogue of Cooke’s impetuous cavaliers and merry girls nearly catches the flavour of the Forest of Arden, but there is generally something stilted in their speech or behaviour that spoils the gay illusion. Nevertheless, The Virginia Comedians may justly be called the best Virginia novel of the old régime, unless possibly Swallow Barn should be excepted, for reality as well as for colour and spirit. During the Civil War Cooke fought, as captain of cavalry, under Stuart, and had experiences which he afterwards turned to use in a series of Confederate romances, most notable of which is Surry of Eagle’s Nest (1866). But in this and in the related tales Hilt to Hilt (1869) and Mohun (1869), as well as in numerous later novels, he continued to practice an old manner which grew steadily more archaic as the realists gained ground. Towards the end of his life he participated, without changing his habits, in the revival of the historical romance which began in the eighties; but his pleasant, plaintive My Lady Pokahontas (1885) cannot really compare for charm with his Virginia A History of the People (1883), a high-minded and fascinating work. Cooke was the last of Cooper’s school; but he was also the first of those who contributed to the poetic idealization of the antebellum South which has been one of the most prominent aspects of American fiction since 1865.