“Papers and books were scattered everywhere…”: A Day at The Briars

Posted on December 26, 2014 by


In speaking with someone just the other day, I mentioned how I’ve had an incredibly enjoyable time working through the nineteenth century literature of the Shenandoah Valley… meaning, the literature generated by those who lived here, and by those from without who wrote about the Valley and its people. In fact, I’m still working through it all.

About a month ago, I came across this unusual piece, written for the April, 1897 issue of The Ishmaelite. By the time of the piece, John Esten Cooke had been dead 11 years.

I’ll have a few additional thoughts to share at the end of the piece…


When one reads that the home of John Esten Cooke was called The Briars and that it was situated in Clarke county, Virginia, which in itself is a synonym for pastoral beauty and stately country residences, he sees in his mind’s eye, broad sweeping verandas, deep and cool, supported by massive pillars, and shaded by giant oaks and climbing vines. He pictures to himself Audley Court, the childhood home of Nellie Custis, and the present home of the Lewis family, or the Tuleyries, where Colonel and Mrs. Tuley entertained Dolly Madison and her distinguished husband in such an old-world fashion, and surrounded them with the youth and grace of that home of beauty, the South He sees Harewood House, the original home of the Washingtons, where relatives of the Father of his Country, still sow and reap; or Monticello, where Jefferson’s lavish hospitality made him poor and penniless, or The Glen, or Saratoga, or Shannon park, or Clermont Court, or indeed any of fifty other splendid homes within as many miles of the spot where John Esten Cooke lived and gave the world so true and graphic a picture of life below Mason and Dixon’s line.

John Esten Cooke

John Esten Cooke

But the late home of the great writer is not in the same class, to use an appropriate slang phrase, with those of his neighbors. One would pass The Briars by without a second glance. Its plainness borders on the commonplace. It is not a fitting climax to the ride from the hard by village of Millwood. The road from that place is beautiful in the extreme. It winds in and out through great forests of oak, and is bordered on either side by the familiar snake fence, without the presence of which, Virginia would not be Virginia. This fence is shrouded by wild honeysuckle and wild roses in full bloom, and fairly alive with the nimble little chirping wren and the sweet-throated thrush.

We were just completing a five hundred mile ride on horseback through Maryland and the Virginias in the interest of a syndicate of newspapers, and had seen all sorts and conditions of country homes. We were, therefore, not very favorably impressed with The Briars, when an old woolly-headed negro, leaning on a much used dogwood stick, told us “Dat Marse John ustah don libe ober yondah in de house wid de busted gate”; and our emotions were only stirred when we remembered that here lived a man, who, of all others, whether Northern or Southern, gave the world the truest and most graphic picture of the joy and sorrow, success and failure of life in the Confederate infantry and cavalry.

Possibly we saw The Briars at an inopportune time. The season was midsummer, and the hour was meridian. There were no spreading oaks and no sloughing pines about the house, and even the briars themselves, which gave the place its picturesque name, were no longer in evidence, having given way to the more practical potato. The grass on the lawn was parched and yellow. Every living thing looked thirsty. Even the chickens, which made themselves at home on the front stoop, held their mouths open and seemed tired of life. They did not hurry themselves to get out of the way when, after tying our horses at the gate, we ascended the steps and rapped on the door. We rapped a number of times and finally started on a journey of exploration towards the home of the weary chickens. There in the summer-kitchen we found the mistress of the house in the midst of her housewifely duties.

In true Virginia fashion she invited us to be seated and offered us a glass of cool water from the well-bucket. In response to a query she told us that the Cooke family had scattered and that her husband had rented the place. She was a woman of more than average intelligence and had known Mr. Cooke for many years. She told us of his great and undying love for the South, how he had never been reconciled to the Union, even after the echoes of war had long since died away, what a gallant staff officer he was, how brave and true, always in the front rank in battle, how the The Briars had entertained all the bright minds of Southern literature, of Paul Hayne’s many visits, his poverty, but liberality, and of his declining years and subsequent death. She told us of the visit of the Comte de Paris and his Lordship of Underwood – how the former had tipped all the house and farm servants, and how the latter left “without as much as a goodbye or a shake of the hand.” Would we like to go through the house and see Mr. Cooke’s study?

A photo of The Briars... taken just last week, by yours truly...

A photo of The Briars… taken just last week, by yours truly…

The house is not a large one, nor is it small. The rooms are roomy and with plenty of light, and the walls are thick. When we entered the late writer’s study, a scene of utter confusion presented itself. Papers and books were scattered everywhere, many of both being ruined by the sun and rain which came of their own sweet will through the broken lights. Our hostess explained that these old books and letters had been in the room for a number of years, having been left there by the family when their furniture was removed, and that she had been intending to clean out the room and use it for a sleeping apartment. She gave us permission to look over the letters and said we could take what we wanted, as for herself, she had to go back to her pies.

What a literary feast we enjoyed! There were letters from nearly every prominent literary man or woman of the South, scores of them from Paul Hamilton Hayne, and treating of all sorts of subjects; one, I remember especially, bemoaning the sad lot of a Southern literary man and complaining that the South did not properly support her writers. There were letters from William Gilmore Simms, from William Gordon McCabe, from J.E.B. Stuart when a cadet at West Point, and from many Southern generals concerning Cooke’s stories based on Confederate feats of daring.

It would fill every page of this magazine to give a complete account of the most important letters which were strewn in hopeless confusion in the upper room at The Briars. What eventually became of them we never learned.

As we rode away in the gathering twilight and glanced back at the good housewife framed in silhouette in the doorway, we wondered that a man like John Esten Cooke who, during his life, was so universally beloved by all the Southern people, should so soon be forgotten by his own blood. Hanson Hiss

While I’ve made several fascinating discoveries, “reading between the lines”, I think that this might possibly be the most profound, soul-touching piece that I’ve come across… ever. It’s not because of the “writing”, however, but rather, what is revealed by the piece regarding what was left behind, in “the writing space”, of the Valley’s writers.

Some of the prewar works from Cooke that are in my collection.

Some of the prewar works from Cooke that are in my collection.

As I’ve come to better know the authors’ lives and the stories they told, I’ve also come to better understand their efforts at establishing a place for themselves among the “literati” of their time. It’s a strange and intimate journey, as a writer and historian… looking at other writers, not only for their works but at what “greased the gears” and put their pens to paper. As I’ve become a collector of many of these works (and appreciate them more than ever), I felt my heart drop when the visitors from The Ishmaelite made their way into Cooke’s study. Sure, his works had left their place in history, but the space in which he created so many, in the years after the Civil War, had become a sad void… perhaps even a testimony to the position in which Cooke, as a writer, had been placed in the years after his death.

Cooke’s works are varied in quality and significance and I’m sure that, if there was an opportunity to ask him, he would say so himself. Yet, what would he think of his works and his efforts, if he had the chance to see what the folks from The Ishmaelite on that midsummer day?

I think there’s much to consider, and not just from the historical angle…

It brings to mind this quote, from The Fault in Our Stars

…that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust…