Virginia History Series
Historical Hall of Fame: John Esten Cooke (1831 -1886) was a 19th century writer of romance/historical novels and
biographies (e.g., of Jefferson, R.E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson)
John Esten Cooke, like his brother Philip Pendleton Cooke, became a lawyer but also pursued writing as a hobby. Eventually, and shortly
after his father's death, he abandoned his law practice entirely to focus on writing. His literary work paused during the Civil War,
however. "I can't compose," he admitted, "I can't think of anything but Virginia's degradation." He served as a militia man and, soon,
an officer, working with major Confederate names like J. E. B. Stuart and others. He didn't stop writing entirely, however, and occasionally
offered dispatches from the war front.
After the war, Cooke resumed his fiction writing, often focused on detailing the Southern
experience. Before the war, many of his writings were set in colonial times; after the war, they were almost exclusively set in war
time. Perhaps more importantly, he had been somewhat liberal and reform-minded before the war. After, he conformed to certain standards
for Southern writers in the hopes of achieving significant commercial success. As he admitted, his intention was "to become the writer
of the South yet!" To that end, his version of the Southern experience was bucolic, full of myth, and sometimes antagonistic to the
By the end of his life, he had published more than 30 books. Among those books are historical romances, biographies (including
one of Robert E. Lee and another of "Stonewall" Jackson), and collections of short stories.
In recent years, an organization
has named a fiction prize in Cooke's honor; it is granted to books on the Civil War or Southern heritage (e.g., like Cooke's
1867 novel "Wearing the Gray ...").
Cooke was a successful novelist and prolific short story writer, eventually authoring 31 books and almost 200 published articles
He illustrated Virginia life and history in the novels, The Virginia Comedians (1854), and later The Wearing
of the Gray (1867) , a tale of the American Civil War, and more formally in a respected Virginia history. His style was somewhat
high-flown. He was the author of The Youth of Jefferson.
In 1863, Cooke wrote the first of several popular biographies, that of Stonewall
Jackson: A Military Biography, published in 1876. He also later published a novel on Jackson, Surry of Eagle's Nest (1866)
and a biography of Robert E. Lee