Cooke was born on November 3, 1830, in Winchester and was the son of Maria W. Pendleton Cooke and John Rogers Cooke, an attorney and member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830. His twelve siblings included the poet, and he was also a cousin of the writer and Maryland congressman John Pendleton Kennedy. Cooke spent his early childhood at Glengary, his family’s Frederick County farm. After the house burned late in the 1830s, the family moved to Charles Town, in Jefferson County (now ), and shortly thereafter to , where Cooke lived until the Civil War. He hoped to attend the University of Virginia, but he repeatedly had to defer his plans because his father—perpetually in debt—could not afford the tuition. Although Cooke studied law with his father and began to practice in 1851, he was, in his own words, “dragged by literature,” and he read voraciously works by Thomas Carlyle, Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Washington Irving, among other British and American writers.
Cooke became friends with John Reuben Thompson, who in November 1848 published Cooke’s poem “Avalon” in the. Thereafter Cooke’s stories and essays regularly appeared in southern as well as northern periodicals, including Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly magazine. In 1854 Harper and Brothers published anonymously the first of his many historical romances, Leather Stocking and Silk; or, Hunter John Myers and His Times, a novel with title and characters inspired by James Fenimore Cooper and set in the Shenandoah Valley early in the nineteenth century. Cooke also anonymously wrote The Youth of Jefferson; or A Chronicle of College Scrapes at Williamsburg, in Virginia, A.D. 1764 (1854). A few months later the New York publishers D. Appleton and Company brought out The Virginia Comedians: or, Old Days in the Old Dominion, a historical romance set in pre-Revolutionary Virginia and chronicling the romantic pursuits of Champ Effingham, an aristocrat and sometime cad. The widely praised novel went through several printings during Cooke’s lifetime and continues to be considered his best work.
Cooke’s literary successes allowed him to abandon his moderately successful law practice in the mid-1850s. He published three more novels, Ellie: or, The Human Comedy (1855), an experiment with the contemporary social-problem novel; The Last of the Foresters: or, Humors on the Border; A Story of the Old Virginia Frontier (1856); and Henry St. John, Gentleman, of “Flower of Hundreds,” in the County of Prince George, Virginia (1859), a sequel to The Virginia Comedians. Even though modern critics view his 1850s fiction as romanticizing colonial gentry and perpetuating the myth of the Virginia cavalier, Cooke saw himself as a critic of aristocracy. As at least one literary historian has pointed out, however, Cooke’s view of the aristocracy was conflicted. Champ Effingham, who at the novel’s beginning stalks the actress Beatrice Hallam and acts dishonorably, has been rehabilitated by the end.
Cooke joined the, an artillery unit raised at the time of ‘s raid on in 1859. He became a sergeant after the unit mustered into Confederate service as Captain R. M. Anderson’s Company, Virginia Light Artillery (1st Company Richmond Howitzers), but he was discharged on January 31, 1862. That spring Cooke served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart, who had married Cooke’s first cousin. Cooke received a commission as first lieutenant of artillery on May 19, 1862, joined Stuart on his celebrated ride around the Union army on June 12–16, and won promotion to captain on August 8, to rank from July 25. He became chief of ordnance for Stuart’s cavalry later that year. Stuart may have recommended Cooke for promotion to major, but Cooke remained a captain until the end of the war. In October 1863 he was temporarily assigned to duty in the adjutant general’s department of Stuart’s command, and beginning in May 1864 he served as assistant inspector general of the ‘s artillery corps. Cooke was paroled at Appomattox Court House following Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.
While fighting in the major eastern campaigns from the(1861) to , Cooke continued to write prolifically. His Civil War diaries fill four notebooks, and his war dispatches appeared under the pseudonym Tristan Joyeuse, Gent., in Richmond’s Southern Illustrated News, among other periodicals. Later he collected and edited these accounts for Wearing of the Gray (1867). In 1863 Cooke published The Life of Stonewall Jackson, which he later revised and issued as Stonewall Jackson: A Military Biography (1866).
After the Civil War, Cooke moved to Clarke County. The war had temporarily shifted his literary focus from colonial Virginia to the recent past and to the northern literary market. Cooke’s three Civil War novels—Surry of Eagle’s-Nest; or The Memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia (1866), Mohun; or, the Last Days of Lee and His Paladins (1869), and Hilt to Hilt; or, Days and Nights on the Banks of the Shenandoah in the Autumn of 1864 (1869)—mixed imaginative scenes with historical military figures. A compilation of his articles on Virginia battles appeared as Hammer and Rapier (1870). Cooke’s war experience also inspired his biography A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1871).
Although he is recognized as one of the first writers to treat the Civil War in fiction, critics lament that he did not exploit his war experiences to explore the subject in more depth and with more forthrightness. This is especially true because Cooke’s war diaries and various statements suggest that he understood war to be quite different from the romantic adventures of his books. “I never liked the business of war,” he told an interviewer after the Civil War.
Gold lace on my coat always made me feel as if I were a child tricked out in red and yellow calico with turkey-feathers in my headgear to add to the gorgeousness. There is nothing intellectual about fighting. It is fit work for brutes and brutish men. And in modern war, where men are organized in masses and converted into insensate machines, there is really nothing heroic or romantic in any way calculated to appeal to the imagination!
Cooke’s books, it seems, were an attempt to refashion modern war in the romantic, intellectual image of Cooke himself. This transformation served an important purpose. Cooke’s tales “resisted Reconstruction and glorified the Confederacy while at the same time slowly fueling the spirit of reunion,” the historian David W. Blight has written. “Cooke demonstrated how easily for some the horrible memory of combat and campaigning could be converted into purposeful nostalgia.”
On September 18, 1867 in Millwood, in Clarke County, Cooke married Mary Francis Page, who died on January 15, 1878. Their one daughter and two sons included Robert Powel Page Cooke, a physician who participated in Walter Reed‘s experiments to determine the cause of yellow fever. The family lived at the Briars, their Clarke County estate, where Cooke wrote, entertained, and farmed. His new agricultural knowledge informed the plot of one of his best novels from the postbellum years, The Heir of Gaymount (1870). The productive Cooke published more than a dozen other novels and novellas, and two historical works, as well as many essays for various periodicals. He was an early member of the American Historical Association.
Cooke’s work holds a significant place in Virginia’s literary history and in nineteenth-century American literary culture. He was arguably the most famous Virginia writer of his period, a skilled historical romancer in the tradition of Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Gilmore Simms who repeatedly turned to Virginia’s past as his inspiration for fiction. Although sometimes viewed as derivative and careless, and especially faulted for inadequate revision, Cooke’s writings embraced a breadth of subject matter, fromhistory to class in contemporary Richmond, in a wide variety of genres that gives his work enduring interest. In part because of his success in gaining recognition from northern editors and readers, his career illustrates connections between northern and southern publishing in the nineteenth century.
John Esten Cooke died, probably of typhoid fever, at the Briars on September 27, 1886. He was buried in the Old Chapel Cemetery, in Clarke County.
- Leather Stocking and Silk; or, Hunter John Myers and His Times: A Story of the Valley of Virginia (anonymous, 1854)
- The Virginia Comedians; or, Old Days in the Old Dominion (2 volumes, 1854)
- The Youth of Jefferson; or, A Chronicle of College Scrapes at Williamsburg, in Virginia, A.D. 1764 (anonymous, 1854)
- Ellie; or, The Human Comedy (1855)
- The Last of the Foresters; or, Humors on the Border. A Story of the Old Virginia Frontier (1856)
- Henry St. John, Gentleman, of “Flower of Hundreds,” in the County of Prince George, Virginia: A Tale of 1774–’75 (1859)
- The Life of Stonewall Jackson. From Official Papers, Contemporary Narratives, and Personal Acquaintance (1863); revised as Stonewall Jackson: A Military Biography (1866)
- Surry of Eagle’s-Nest; or, The Memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia. Edited, from the MSS. of Colonel Surry (1866)
- Wearing of the Gray: Being Personal Portraits, Scenes and Adventures of the War (1867); republished as Personal Portraits, Scenes, and Adventures of the War, with Thrilling Narratives of the Daring Deeds, Willing Sacrifices and Patient Sufferings Incident to “Wearing of the Gray” (1871)
- Fairfax: or, The Master of Greenway Court, A Chronicle of the Valley of the Shenandoah (1868)
- Mohun; or, The Last Days of Lee and His Paladins. Final Memoirs of a Staff Officer Serving in Virginia. From the MSS. of Colonel Surry of Eagle’s Nest (1869)
- Hilt to Hilt; or, Days and Nights on the Banks of the Shenandoah in the Autumn of 1864. From the MSS. of Colonel Surry of Eagle’s Nest (1869).
- Hammer and Rapier (1870)
- The Heir of Gaymount: A Novel (1870)
- Out of the Foam: A Novel (1871)
- A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1871)
- Doctor Vandyke: A Novel (1872)
- Her Majesty the Queen: A Novel (1873)
- Pretty Mrs. Gaston, and Other Stories (1874)
- Justin Harley: A Romance of Old Virginia (1875)
- Canolles: The Fortunes of a Partisan of ’81 (1877)
- Professor Pressensee, Materialist and Inventor (1878)
- Stories of the Old Dominion from the Settlement to the End of the Revolution (1879)
- Mr. Grantley’s Idea (1879)
- The Virginia Bohemians: A Novel (1880)
- Fanchette by One of Her Admirers (1883)
- Virginia: A History of the People (1883)
- My Lady Pokahontas: A True Relation of Virginia. Writ by Anas Todkill, Puritan and Pilgrim with Notes by John Esten Cooke (1885)
- The Maurice Mystery (1885)
- Poe as a Literary Critic (edited, with an introduction, by N. Bryllion Fagin; 1946)
- Stonewall Jackson and the Old Stonewall Brigade (edited by Richard Barksdale Harwell; 1954)
- Outlines from the Outpost (edited by Harwell; 1961)
- John Esten Cooke’s Autobiographical Memo (edited, with a preface, by John R. Welsh; 1969)