The Virginia Comedians

"The heavens are dark, the ways we tread devious and full of hidden snares. England, our tender mother, might say, who planted them? For England, from whose loins we sprung, has cursed us!—like a stepmother; she has struck, with a bitter and remorseless hatred, those who would be her children! She cursed us with this race of Africans who are eating us up and ruining us, and some day, in the blind convulsions of her rage, she will taunt us bitterly for asking what we do not grant ourselves—for demanding freedom, when our arms are holding down a race human as ourselves! Let her gnash her teeth in impotent and irrational complaint!—let her complain, we will not; for God decreed that she herself, black with crime and injustice, should be the means of bringing hither this race, that in the future Christianity should dawn on that vast continent of Africa—that land where the very air seems tainted with paganism—where the very palms which wave their long plumes on the ocean breeze seem celebrating some horrible rite! No; this is not the head and front of the accusation which, in the name of justice and humanity, we bring against England."

That jaw-dropping, head-scratching quote comes from the character of the "stranger in the red cloak," who, later in that chapter, is indirectly revealed as Patrick Henry. I came across this work while browsing the Wright American Fiction site. While John Esten Cooke is better known for his later biographies and historical fiction, set during the Civil War, his first novel, The Virginia Comedians (1854) was quite popular when first published, and confirmed his literary career. Today, it languishes in obscurity. [The term "Comedians," in this case, refers to a troupe of actors.]

There is an eerie fascination for me in a story set in this time and place. I've always wanted to visit the Colonial Williamsburg theme park, but can't help wondering about calls for "Liberty" by slave-owners. The first volume of the novel is a romance lambasting the last vestiges of feudalism, depicting foppish gentry and idealistic commoners. And then comes the second volume, which brings to the foreground as comic foils: 1) Lanky Lugg, the slow-witted white country bumpkin, and 2) "Jeames" Crow, the rambunctious little black goblin. Oh, dear. What a strange mix this whole work is, of chivalry, rivalry, classism, racism, sexism, and sectism. And yet I must confess that, as an amalgam of pre-Revolutionary history and fantasy, I consider it well done—a guilty pleasure, but not to be taken too seriously.

For the text, I chose this scan for volume one, and this scan for volume two, backed by this and this. I corrected some inconsistencies in spelling, such as maître vs. maitre. However, despite inconsistencies in use of italics, such as for the names of characters in plays, I decided to leave them as is. I have a hard time catching them anyway.

So here it is: the master HTML version, the home-brew Kindle version, and the actual Amazon publication.

As Champ Effington says: "But come here, and drink some claret with me—I'm tired of it myself: bring me some rum!"

January 11, 2022

ffred's nearly-forgotten treasures