John Esten Cooke… but, not the Cooke most would recognize.

Posted on August 31, 2013 by


When reading about the early nineteenth century’s top authors (I’m defining them as such, for their ability demonstrated in their works… in that they were able to make their way into popular literature circles of the time) from the Shenandoah Valley, I find that I’m interested first in what influenced them, and next on how they embedded their own thinking (subtly or not) about the political and social movements of the time, in their works.

For example, in the Encyclopedia Virginia (contemporary online version), there is a piece about John Esten Cooke. The author (John O. Beaty) states that Cooke,

…in his own works, [was] “dragged by literature”, and  read voraciously works by Thomas Carlyle, Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Washington Irving, among other British and American writers.

Headstone of John Esten Cooke, at the Old Chapel Cemetery, Millwood, Va. Note the relatively recent placement of the Stars and Bars.

Headstone of John Esten Cooke, at the Old Chapel Cemetery, Millwood, Va.

I’m drawn to those five authors that Beaty singles out as being read by Cooke. It’s an interesting combination, actually, and not all are authors that I would think would attract the mind of someone who later was better remembered for demonstrating (in his writings) such a strong affinity for the Lost Cause… which, in turn, helped to redefine (perhaps) the overall image of the South.

Consider Carlyle, for example. What did Cooke read, exactly? Was it Sartor Resartus (The Traitor Retailored”)? The following is a summary of Sartor Resartus which I found in (please, don’t cringe, because it’s a good summary, actually) Wikipedia… (the emphasis is mine):

His first major work, Sartor Resartus… was intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical. It ironically commented on its own formal structure, while forcing the reader to confront the problem of where ‘truth’ is to be found.

The text presents itself as an unnamed editor’s attempt to introduce the British public to Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, a German philosopher of clothes, who is in fact a fictional creation of Carlyle’s. The Editor is struck with admiration, but for the most part is confounded by Teufelsdröckh’s outlandish philosophy, of which the Editor translates choice selections. To try to make sense of Teufelsdröckh’s philosophy, the Editor tries to piece together a biography, but with limited success. Underneath the German philosopher’s seemingly ridiculous statements, there are mordant attacks on Utilitarianism and the commercialization of British society. The fragmentary biography of Teufelsdröckh that the Editor recovers from a chaotic mass of documents reveals the philosopher’s spiritual journey. He develops a contempt for the corrupt condition of modern life. He contemplates the “Everlasting No” [a spirit of unbelief in God] of refusal, comes to the “Centre of Indifference” [a position of agnosticism and detachment], and eventually embraces the “Everlasting Yea” [the spirit of faith in God]. This voyage from denial to disengagement to volition would later be described as part of the existentialist awakening.

To read this particular work by Carlyle… well, this isn’t light stuff. Not only that, but… as we can see, Cooke read Emerson as well… and, of course, with that… we see that Cooke was, at least while reading, immersing himself in the discussion on New England Transcendentalism. Once again, not something that might (as demonstrated by “historical memory” when people reflect on Cooke) typify the readings of a Southerner of that time.

This, I feel demonstrates that, as a Southerner, Cooke was engaged in some of the critical thinking of his time, and not simply lost in the Romantic movement that, it seems, so regularly defines the reach of an early 19th century Southern author.

Popular memory reflects on Cooke, specifically for his works on the Lost Cause... but as demonstrated by what appears on the back of his stone, Cooke also wanted to be remembered for this.

Popular memory reflects on Cooke, specifically for his works on the Lost Cause… but as demonstrated by what appears on the back of his stone, Cooke also wanted to be remembered for this.

On the other hand, Carlyle also wrote Heroes and Hero Worship. Some might think… “Ah, now that makes sense when we see how the Lost Cause was built-up in years after the Civil War.” Yet, understand that Carlyle’s work was more than a title… especially when we consider its influence on Socialism and Fascism (I don’t wish to elaborate on the particulars as I don’t want to stray from the central person at hand… John Esten Cooke… but your welcome to look them up, on your own). This is also a reflection of the transition of Carlyle’s thinking, after he had broken from a circle of friends and associates of the 1830s.

Perhaps Cooke read Carlyle, but did he like (agree with) what he read… and did he read more of Carlyle’s works?

As for Cooke reading Sir Walter Scott… that makes sense. As I suggested above with Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship, I invite readers, if they are so inclined, to Google “Sir Walter Scott” and “The American South”, and, I think, it’s clear just how much influence Scott had. There are lots of folks with opinions on Sir Walter Scott’s influence on Southerners… and even how it influenced thinking that projected forward to a war.

Finally, there is Washington Irving… the man probably best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle… but he was also a biographer, and this also meshed with the tendency of Southern authors to reflect on the past. Irving, for example, wrote a biography on George Washington… something which, it would seem, Southerners would be very interested in reading. Then too, Irving wrote biographies on Christopher Columbus and… Muhammad (and, in this, Irving and Carlyle shared subject matter).

Again, where did John Esten Cooke agree and disagree with the authors which he read; how many works of these authors did he read… and how often?

There is more to John Esten Cooke than meets the eye… and in reflecting upon which he read demonstrates that he was a more complex man than given credit by “popular historical memory”.

Postwar image of John Esten Cooke.

Postwar image of John Esten Cooke.