“We are Cavaliers,” novelist William Caruthers boasted, “that generous, fox-hunting, winedrinking, dueling and reckless race of men which gives so distinct a character to Virginians wherever they may be found.”

If we look closely at the Cavalier, will we find the quintessential Virginian? “Cavalier” was originally an English term signifying political affiliation, not social status. The migration to colonial Virginia was largely a middle- and even lower-class affair; most of the early landholders were small farmers. The relatively few settlers of wealth gave manners a warmer tone and emphasized the ideal of country life. “They gave Virginians their passion for handsome houses and fast horses, and brought to public life something more than it had before of the English notion that offices should be held for the benefit of the gentry.” Time embroidered the truth and made the rough places smooth; more and more Virginians became Cavaliers. It is simple enough to explain why. They wanted to be Cavaliers.

To sanctify the Cavalier legend in literature became a primary task for Virginia writers—and it was by no means easy. Rich in social virtues, the rural aristocracy was poor in intellectual cross-stimulation; to write was to go it alone. The most articulate members of society entered law, politics, or the ministry. In these three fields of endeavor, there developed an intellectual rigidity and a tendency to evaluate any idea against the background of its origin. Thought was often rated according to notions of social prestige—a habit extremely detrimental to creative thinking, as many otherwise loyal sons bitterly complained.

Hence the literary output of Virginia’s early writers consisted mainly of travel accounts (like those of John Smith and Henry Norwood) and histories (of which those by Hugh Jones, William Stith, and Robert Beverley are best known). In the 18th century poetry and fiction with some relationship of style and subject began to appear. One hardy theme was aristocracy and privilege, reflecting the general antidemocratic strain in Southern thought. Stereotypes and symbols epitomizing the plantation economy, class-consciousness, and sectional pride were nurtured tenderly. Lacking originality, most Virginia writers of the period built on foundations laid by a Scotsman and a Yankee. The Scotsman was Sir Walter Scott, and the Yankee James Fenimore Cooper. In a sense, Virginia literature begins with them.

Scott’s Waverly Novels were America’s first best-sellers. Over five million copies came off American presses between 1813 and 1823; no one knows how many more were imported. In these novels the self-made Virginia Cavalier and his lady found a mirror of their life and ideals. From them sprang the obsession with geneology that still grips the state. “It was good form,” William E. Dodd tells us, “for Southern gentlemen to place Sir Walter Scott’s novels on their library shelves and for all Southern boys and girls to read these books as the great models of life and good breeding.” Men would saddle their horses and ride to town when a new Scott novel was expected. The whole region became infected by the Sir Walter disease.

The other pattern-maker, James Fenimore Cooper, wrote The Spy, his first successful novel, on a bet. He won. So did America. For the North and the West he was important because he romanticized the great struggle for empire going on in the American forest; for the South he was important because he perpetuated its legends. Half the leading characters of The Spy are Virginians. Captain Jack Lawton personifies the dashing Cavalier; William Harper, patently George Washington, plays the role of fairy godfather. Southerners learned quickly from Cooper. Within a few years after his books appeared, he rivaled Scott in popularity.

Only three years after The Spy was published, George Tucker (1775-1861) came forth with Valley of the Shenandoah. A member of one of Virginia’s most distinguished colonial families, Tucker studied law at the College of William and Mary, practiced in Richmond, then moved to Woodbridge Plantation. While serving on various county courts he studied Scott and Cooper, then did a novel of his own “to supply to youth the wisdom and experience of age, and to mingle instruction with pure and rational pleasure.” This didactic note is strong in early Virginia literature, almost becoming its raison d’être. Like the Puritans to the north, Virginians both described and justified their “way of life.” To this very day, students at the University of Virginia call themselves “Cavaliers.”

In addition to self-justification, most writers go in for the literary conventions of their day. For 19th-century Americans, that meant melodrama, set in the rural life of antebellum Virginia with patriarchal planters, faithful slaves, and sweet-talking ladies. All flourished in William Caruthers’ classic, The Cavaliers of Virginia (1835). His goal was to do for Virginia what Sir Walter Scott had done for Scotland. Even Virginians can’t claim that he succeeded; but he certainly tried hard and won wide acclaim in his day.

He began with the premise that “the Cavaliers were the first founders of the aristocracy which prevails in Virginia to this day.” To know his hero, Gideon Fairfax, is to know the whole breed: “he was one of that remarkable race of men which has not powerfully influenced the destinies of the Ancient Dominion from that day to the present. . . . There was a sparkling of boyish vivacity in his eyes, and a cheerful expression always hovering about his mouth, which instantly dispelled anything like formality in his intercourse with others. Yet withal there was a bold, reckless daring in his look, together with an open-hearted sincerity which served to give a manly dignity to the lighter expressions.” Could anyone wish for a nobler ancestor?

“We of the South,” said Robert Toombs in his famous 1860 boast, “are a race of gentlemen.” He was expressing one aspect of the famous Cavalier myth of the antebellum South, a myth fostered by so many writers and factors that it is thriving, even growing, in the 20th century. More than any one man, John Esten Cooke, novelist, soldier, and adventurer, established by pen and deed the Cavalier prototype in Southern letters.

When we speak of the Cavalier “myth,” we do not mean that there were no Cavaliers, or Cavalier spirit, in actuality. We simply mean that the truth has been so exaggerated, or at least romanticized, that there is little connection between the historical facts and the often-repeated stories about Southern life. Even such a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee as the abolitionist William Ellery Channing paid homage to the gentlemanly qualities he observed in Richmond while he was a tutor there:

I blush for my own people when I compare the selfish prudence of a Yankee with the generous confidence of a Virginian. . . . There is one single trait which attaches me to the people here more than all the virtues of New England. They love money less than we do. Their patriotism is not tied to their purse strings.

Such was the confidence and patriotism of John Esten Cooke (1830-1886), whose novels left an indelible mark on the Virginia mind. Born in Winchester and educated in Richmond, he was the son of John Rogers Cooke and Maria Pendleton. Much of his youth was spent in the Valley, in and around the family place, Glengary. Later he studied law in his father’s office, and was admitted to the bar in 1851. But bolstered up by acceptance from the Southern Literary Messenger and Harper’s, he decided to become a writer. One has only to note Poe’s tragic career to perceive how difficult a profession it was in 19th-century America. That Cooke was so successful, and at the same time so faithful to the historical material he dealt with, is a tribute to his great talent.

Always prolific, he produced two of his best novels in 1854, his first full writing year: Leather Stocking and Silk and The Virginia Comedians. These two influential books are connecting links between the early Virginian novelists (such as Caruthers, Kennedy, and Tucker) and later figures like Page, Cabell, and Glasgow. “My aim,” Cooke recorded for posterity, “has been to paint the Virginia phase of American society, to do for the Old Dominion what Cooper has done for the Indians, Simms for the Revolutionary drama in South Carolina, Irving for the Dutch Knickerbockers, and Hawthorne for the Puritan life of New England.” His work over the next decade attests to his success. Ellie; or the Human Comedy (1855), The Last of the Foresters (1856), and Henry St. John, Gentleman (1859) showed America what the Cavalier was like, and how the gentleman lived. And the War Between the States, which cut into Cooke’s promising literary career, gave him the chance to show how the Cavalier behaved in battle.

An ardent secessionist and admirer of J.E.B. Stuart, Cooke served with brilliance throughout the war, and buried his spurs at Appomattox. Somehow, during all the campaigning, the young novelist was able to write and publish The Life of Stonewall Jackson (1863). As dashing and colorful as the famous General Stuart with whom he rode, Cooke read by firelight books captured from the Yankee armies. He never allowed enemy forces to interfere with his meals, continuing to eat from a plate near his horse until the Yankees were within two hundred yards. Then he would gulp down his coffee and gallop away. No wonder his friends associated him with the Cavaliers he invented with his pen!

Fortunately, we have a passage in John Esten Cooke’s own handwriting that describes his efforts at wartime writing:

I tried to write in a tent, on the outpost; the enemy yonder, almost in view—but with Jackson, alas, no longer in front. Oh to write in a quiet study, with no enemies anywhere in view!

His wartime experiences formed the basis of Cooke’s postwar novels, which are still read and loved in the South today. Surry of Eagle’s Nest (1866) and its sequel, Mohun (1869), were thrilling adventure stories of Virginia under fire. Wearing of the Gray (1867) and Hammer and Rapier (1871) are collections of military essays. A Life of General Robert E. Lee (1871) saw him reach the peak of his power. Cooke had written Lee about the project before the general’s death, and the long, sympathetic work he produced gave the most coherent picture and summary of Lee’s military career-that was to be done in Cooke’s generation.

Meanwhile, in 1867, Cooke married Mary Francis, and settled at The Briars in Clarke County. Here, surrounded by his three children and friends, he divided his time between writing and farming. The Heir of Gaymount, an 1870 novel, suggested that modern farming was the long hope of the postwar South. Equally interesting is My Lady Pokahontas, which appeared in 1885. Cooke purports to be writing in the 17th century, using a diary of the time. The book is not only a landmark in the treatment of the Pocahontas story, but in the treatment of the American Indian as well.

Part of the great 20th-century vogue for historical novels must surely be attributed to Cooke. “He was,” A.A. Link observed, “at heart a chivalric Cavalier, who idealized the past and was unreservedly devoted to Virginia. His books are what he wished them to be—entertaining and pure.” Two historical studies, Stories of the Old Dominion (1879) and Virginia: A History of the People (1883) merely confirm Link’s view. A more recent scholar, Dr. Beaty, has gone even further in connecting present romantic notions of Virginia and the work of Cooke: “Partly through his own books but more particularly through his influence, Cooke is responsible for the idea of older Virginia held by the Virginians of today.”

While busily engaged with new novels Cooke was stricken by typhoid fever, and died in his fifty-sixth year. His had been a full and a good life, and the influence of his writing spread far beyond his own ken and age. He understood and believed in his native Virginia, its origins, motives, and actions. To him it was sacred soil—the home of a special breed of men:

Thus, Virginia, “the last country belonging to England that submitted to obedience to the Commonwealth,” was the place for the Cavalier people. It was a haven of refuge in the pitiless storm; and all through the homeland was so dreary, the “distressed” fugitives were stealing out of the country, and sailing with sad or glad hearts Virginia-ward.

Despite the fact that such prose sounds hopelessly romantic in this age of hardboiled realism, Virginians continue to read and to defend it. James Branch Cabell, who carried the Cavalier Tradition well into the 20th century, summed the matter up: “Our native writers are not perfect. Even so, they are ours, and we do not care to have them dispraised by outsiders.”

The War Between the States destroyed Virginia’s hope of political and social domination; but it only accentuated the nostalgia for former glory. People always want to go back to the Good Old Days. Probably the first cave man talked of the time when a fellow didn’t have to spend his life in a hole in the ground. All men pine for a lost Eden. But just as surely as the South lost the battles on the land, so did she win the battles in the mind. In the balmy atmosphere of that second victory, Virginia and her sister states bask today.

The first war was a military one. It was fought with blood and guts and shrapnel, and left us with the vision of Appomattox. The second war was a literary war. It was fought with metaphors and nostalgia and fiction, and left us with the vision of Scarlett O’Hara. Every best-seller list brings the same news from the front. The Yankees are everywhere in retreat. Rebels who could not win with Lee and Longstreet have renewed the struggle on another front and, like the Creeks of old, though conquered led captive their conqueror.

The publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind made 1936 a year of sweet revenge. Though less pure than the earlier Southern heroines, Scarlett O’Hara got a lot further in the long run. This fastest-selling hovel in our publishing history sold fifty thousand copies in one day, and over one and one-half million during the first year. After sweeping over the United States it crossed oceans and was translated into nearly thirty languages. To most of the world Twelve Oaks is the American Southland.

Twelve Oaks, you may ask, or Tobacco Road? Has not the moonlight and magnolia South given way, fictionally speaking, to decadence, violence, and ruin? Have not William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers damned the honeysuckle? Not exactly; actually they have transformed the sweet flowers into fleurs du mal. Romantic themes are equally compelling when inverted. We like Baudelaire as well as Wordsworth, Poe as well as Lanier; they are all romantics. For as William Gilbert put it,

There’s a fascination frantic

In a ruin that’s romantic

Do you think you are
sufficiently decayed?

More recent Southern novels are sufficiently decayed. Tom Lehrer, the Harvard pundit, finds the Sordid South no less luring than the Saccharine South:

I wanna go back to Alabammy,

Back to the arms of my dear ol’ Mammy,

Her cookin’s lousy and her hands are clammy

But what the hell, it’s home.

And so the new Southern army not only hangs on, but advances. The rallying cry is “tradition.” Unfortunately, not all who shout it know what it means, or where fact stops and fiction takes over. But they do know where the arrow points: back to the Golden Age. Eden is gone now, never to return. Oh well, one can at least remember.

In Virginia we’re very good at that.