Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

John Esten Cooke was one of the last of the historical romanticists who followed the footsteps of James Fenimore Cooper. He was also the first of a long line of authors who continued to idealize the pre-Civil War South. Unlike some of the imitators of Cooper, Cooke wrote books which are well grounded in the history of Virginia, especially that of the James River section, in which most of them are laid.

By his own account, Cooke conceived and wrote THE VIRGINIA COMEDIANS in a few weeks during the winter of 1853-1854. Its publication by D. Appleton and Company in two volumes in 1854 brought immediate recognition to the twenty-four-year-old author. In the opinion of John O. Beaty, his biographer, the novel was “by far the finest” of his more than thirty published volumes.

The enduring value of the novel lies beyond its maze of intricate subplots, melodramatic intrigues, multiple love affairs, and diffusive colloquies—the conventional trappings of popular nineteenth century historical romances. Cooke’s avowed intention was to present “some view, however slight, of the various classes of individuals who formed that Virginia of 1765.” Critics agree that the novel remains important for its realistic portrayal of the various elements in Virginia society on the eve of the American Revolution. The lifestyle, and the manners and morals of the aristocratic Effinghams, the middle-class Waters, and the itinerant Hallams are particularly...

(The entire section is 405 words.)