Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/85

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67
John Esten Cooke

six hundred,—they were exciting, innocent enough, and scrupulously devoted to the doctrines of poetic justice, but they lacked all distinction, and Frank Norris could justly grieve that the epic days of Western settlement found only such tawdry Homers. In the fourth quarter of the century the detective story rivalled the frontier tale; after 1900, both, though reduced to the price of five cents apiece, gave way before the still more exciting and easily comprehended moving picture.

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[1] 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[2] 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

  1. See Book II, Chap. VII.
  2. Ibid.