The American novelist John Esten Cooke was the younger brother of Philip Pendleton Cooke, the noted poet and story writer of the antebellum South. John Esten Cooke spent his early boyhood on a farm near Winchester, Virginia, but his family moved to Richmond when he was nine years old. In 1846, although he had wanted to attend the University of Virginia, he began to read law in his father’s office. By 1848, he had published some poetry and prose, including pieces in Harper’s Monthly and The Southern Literary Messenger; he also edited The Southern Literary Messenger for short periods in 1851 and 1854. His first real success came with the publication of The Virginia Comedians, the first of the thirty-one books to be published before his death.
During the 1850’s, Cooke was an ardent proponent of secession, and he served in the Confederate army throughout the Civil War, rising from the rank of private to that of captain. During the war years, he found time to write The Life of Stonewall Jackson, the pioneer study of the Confederate tactician and general.
Following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Cooke returned to civilian life in Virginia and turned again to fiction. He wove his war experience into Surry of Eagle’s-Nest and Mohun, which belong to the earliest novels about the Civil War. In 1867, he married Mary Francis Page and settled at The Briers, in Clarke County, Virginia, where he divided his time between writing and farming. During this later period in his career, his work was varied. The Heir of Gaymount carries the theme that the best answer to the South’s postwar problems is agriculture. My Lady Pokahontas is a novel about the early days of Virginia as a British colony. Virginia is a history of colonial times. During the 1870’s, Cooke also wrote A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee and a volume of essays on the Civil War and related military topics, Hammer and Rapier. At the time of his untimely death in 1886 of typhoid fever, Cooke was recognized as the Romantic novelist of Virginia.