William II Byrd Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Byrd, II 1674-1744

American travel writer, historian, and diarist.

Although he published little during his lifetime, Byrd is now regarded as one of the most important American authors of the colonial period. His History of the Dividing Line (published 1841) and Secret History of the Line (published 1929), describing his travels through Virginia and North Carolina, are seen as important historical records and classic portraits of backwoods life in the mid-eighteenth century. Byrd's diaries, written between 1728 and 1741 but not published until the 1940s and 1950s, reveal a complex Virginia gentleman and provide details about daily life during the period. His satirical look at life in colonial Virginia depicts those times in a way that is not found in other, more staid, writings. Because Byrd wrote prolifically but rarely published his works, his writings have also been studied for what they reveal about writing for personal satisfaction rather than for an audience and to explore how the act of writing is used by the writer to forge his own identity.

Biographical Information

Byrd was born in Westover, Virginia, in March, 1674, the son of William Byrd and Mary Filmer. Byrd's father had emigrated from England in the late 1660s to inherit a fur trade and 3,000 acres of land on the Virginia frontier, and his mother was a member of the Cavalier elite who had fled Cromwell's England. At age seven Byrd was sent to England for his education. He attended the prestigious Felsted School in Essex, traveled extensively through Europe studying commerce, and then studied law at the Middle Temple in London. In 1697 he was accepted into the Royal Society of Great Britain, a group whose mission it was to advance English society. He traveled around England visiting libraries, read voraciously and acquired his own vast law library, attended the theater, and made daily rounds of the coffee houses. After his father's death in 1705, Byrd was forced to return to Westover. He received his inheritance, managed the family estate, and took over his father's lucrative post as Receiver General. He settled into a quiet life, marrying Lucy Parke in 1706. He continued his passionate interest in reading and acquiring books, adding a separate structure to his house for what would become one of the largest colonial libraries, which included titles on law, medicine, art, architecture, gardening, history, travel, literature, and theology. Shortly after he returned to Virginia, Byrd began keeping a diary, in which he would write almost every day for the next thirty-five years. He recorded his daily regimen of rising early, reading Greek or Hebrew texts, dancing, praying, eating, walking in his garden with his wife, and managing his servants and slaves. He also wrote about his emotions, nightmares, sexual feelings and encounters, acts of corporal punishment, and the death of his infant son.

In 1716, while the family was in England, Byrd's wife died, leaving behind two young daughters. For the next nine years Byrd lived in England, where he unsuccessfully sought economic and political help for Virginia from the British government, wrote some light verse, and continued reading and writing in his diary. In 1724, after a series of romantic failures, he married Maria Taylor. He returned to Virginia and accepted his situation as a colonial estate owner and Southern gentleman. He acquired thousands of acres of land to the west of his estate and tried to encourage a colony of Swiss immigrants to settle there, rebuilt his father's estate, entertained and wrote to important naturalists, and founded the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. In 1728 Byrd was appointed one of the commissioners to survey the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. To encourage individuals to buy property and thus expand both colonies westward, it was necessary to ascertain which colony should govern and tax the disputed land along the border. The official journal that Byrd kept throughout the trip served as the factual basis for The Secret History of the Line and The History of the Dividing Line. For the last fifteen years of his life Byrd enjoyed his position as a Southern gentleman, although he was forced to sell off parts of his estate to settle his former father-in-law's debts. His financial situation prevented him from returning to England, where he had hoped to spend his last years among old friends. He died on his Westover estate in 1744 and was buried in the garden there.

Major Works

Although he wrote almost daily, Byrd published very little during his lifetime. He published a scientific paper while in his early twenties, some light verse, and an anonymous pamphlet entitled A Discourse Concerning the Plague in 1721. He left an enormous body of work, however, including four complete travel narratives, character sketches, satiric essays, translations, love poetry and occasional verse, and letters. Byrd's literary work remained unknown until nearly a hundred years after his death, when the 1841 publication of the The Westover Manuscripts: Containing The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina; A Journey to the Land of Eden, A.D. 1733; and A Progress to the Mines established Byrd as an important historical figure.

Probably written before the longer History of the Dividing Line, Byrd's Secret History of the Line (published in William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina in 1929) was written for a small circle of his friends in Virginia. Developed from the notes of his surveying trips to North Carolina, the narrative includes unflattering descriptions and details of the sexual escapades of the commissioners who were in the surveying party. The History of the Dividing Line is a fuller version which did not refer to participants by their true names. Obviously intended for public consumption, it offers a humorous look at backwoods life in the mid-eighteenth century and includes references to classical sources, other travel narratives, and natural histories. Two other surveying trips that Byrd took also resulted in narratives. The Progress to the Mines is the story of Byrd's investigation into iron smelting at Fredericksburg, and A Journey to the Land of Eden describes an inspection tour of his landholdings on the Dan River. Both these works, like the History of the Dividing Line, present humorously entertaining lore and facts about frontier life.

Although they were not discovered until 1939 and published only in the 1940s and 1950s, Byrd's diaries are today probably his best-known works. Considered essential documents of private life in colonial America, they offer readers an unparalleled glimpse into the world of a Virginia gentleman. In 1939 the first of the three known Byrd diaries was discovered at the Huntington Library in California. The journals were written in a cryptic shorthand, and after they were deciphered revealed a fascinating record of the details of Byrd's early years as a planter. They were edited and published by Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling in 1941 as The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709-1712. A second journal together with some of Byrd's correspondence and literary exercises was discovered and published in 1942 by the same editors. An earlier journal, covering the years 1717-1721, was published in 1958 as The London Diary. All Byrd's journals offer insights into his social and political attitudes, covering issues ranging from his ideas about the role of women, the British government's responsibility to the colonies, the American wilderness, slavery, and relations with Native Americans. They also present a portrait of a complex human being who describes his feelings about his wife and children, his attitude toward his writing, and his sexual appetite. Although he sometimes writes about serious issues, the diaries are generally written in a cheerful and entertaining manner, and their documentation of the period from 1709 to 1741 in colonial America has been described as “one of the most complete, entertaining and informative cultural documents about eighteenth-century life in the Old and New Worlds that we have in the English language.”

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Byrd was well known in London for his interest in literary matters and books, but he was no literary personage. As a member of the Royal Society, he was acquainted with such notable writers and thinkers as Isaac Newton, Robert Southwell, William Congreve, and Nicholas Rowe. He maintained a lifelong interest in drama and natural science, but he wrote very little in those areas. Most of what Byrd did write, apart from his diaries, was circulated in manuscript form among his friends—a fairly common practice among the aristocracy—but very little was published during his lifetime. One of his letters reveals that he did not feel his works were sufficiently “complete” to be printed. It was only after the publication of his Westover Manuscripts in 1841 that Byrd was regarded as an important historical figure. He was seen as one of the first writers to offer a complex description of the American wilderness and to write about its importance to the American identity. It was noted too that, unlike much other early American literature, Byrd's narratives do not focus on religion but use a witty, urbane style to talk about secular matters. With the publication of his diaries in the twentieth century, Byrd's reputation as one of the most significant figures in colonial Virginia grew, and his works came to be regarded as important cultural documents about life in the early 1700s. His London Diary has even been compared with Samuel Pepys's famous journal.

Critics have focused on what Byrd's works reveal about the author's interests, attitudes, character, misogyny, and “Southernness.” They have explored differences between his private and public personas and have analyzed his use of satire and ironic critical distance in his writing. Some commentators have been particularly interested in the differences between The History of The Dividing Line and The Secret History, observing that they present two versions of American reality: one a panegyric devoted to civilization's westward progress and the other a satire of its wilderness degeneration. Byrd's diaries have been commended for their intimate self-expression as well as their historical value. Critics generally admire Byrd's style, and his satirical wit and valuable record of Southern life have won him a reputation as one of the foremost colonial authors.