Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

John Esten Cooke and His "Confederate Lies"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

John Esten Cooke and His "Confederate Lies"

Article excerpt

"Hope to become the writer of the South yet! Big Ambition." (1) These words appear in time-faded brown ink on the yellowing pages of a crudely made journal, held together with coarse black thread. They were penned on March 21, 1867, by John Esten Cooke, of Virginia. This declaration was no pipe dream product, but a true reflection of his life ambition; nor did it appear to express so visionary a goal at the time it was written as it might seem now, more than a century later, when Cooke's name is all but forgotten and his works, generally long out of print, are seldom read except by students of Southern literature or history.

But it was otherwise during his lifetime. By 1861, when he was in his thirty-first year, John Esten Cooke was established with an enviable reputation in the literary world, both North and South, as the author of popular romances of eighteenth-century Virginia. When his flourishing career was interrupted with the outbreak of the Civil War Cooke had published ten book-length novels and had contributed numerous historical sketches, informal essays, stories, and poems to various magazines.

During the war Cooke was the most notable novelist to serve in either army. He was engaged in every campaign of importance in the Virginia theater of the war, from First Manassas to Appomattox, serving the greater part of the time as an ordinance officer on the staff of General J.E.B. Stuart. With his enlistment Cooke did not exchange his pen for a gun; rather he wielded both throughout the conflict. In 1863 he published one of the earliest biographies of the lately fallen leader, General T.J. (Stonewall) Jackson, while a number of his romantic sketches of the battlefield and camp life, printed in Southern newspapers during the war, became the basis for his Confederate classic, Wearing of the Gray. As Cooke was the last significant writer of the Old South to employ colonial and pre-Revolutionary themes, so also was he the first important novelist to treat the Civil War in fiction. As a writer he naturally absorbed his wartime experiences and transformed them into his postwar romances; he also turned to history and biography as a means to memorialize the war years of the South.

After 1870, in turning from his requiem for the Lost Cause to celebrate the victorious Revolutionary Patriots, Cooke resumed his earlier absorption with the Cavalier culture of the Old Dominion. Later, struggling to keep abreast with modern trends, Cooke attempted to adapt his romantic style to contemporary realism. While his more successful efforts resulted in the blending of romance and realism in local color stories, his best work of this period is evident in his historical sketches and informal essays.

By the time of his death in 1886 John Esten Cooke had produced a total of thirty full length volumes while he had published an equal amount of material in sundry periodicals. Lamentably, he outlived both his fame and popularity; neither was he to gain a permanent position as a major American writer nor as the writer of the South. Toward the close of his life, recognizing that his was a frustrated ambition, the weary author was moved to evaluate his achievements. With a realistic perception, more characteristic of a cynic than a romantic, Cooke wrote to his friend and colleague, George William Bagby:

   I write for money. If ever you write my life put this in:--money and my own
   satisfaction. I have made some money, about $20,000 since the war, and I
   have poisoned the rising Southern generation with "Confederate lies" about
   the war--which is enough to retire on. (2)

For those fleetingly familiar with the Civil War writings of John Esten Cooke, or even for those who vaguely associate this nineteenth century Virginian with the Cult of the Lost Cause, this literary testament must appear remarkable. However, to one thoroughly conversant with Cooke's literary creations, this assertion is both credible and intriguing. …

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