William Byrd II (1674-1744)

    Contributing Editor:
    Kenneth Alan Hovey

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    William Byrd will come as a delightful surprise to students who come to colonial literature with an expectation of unrelieved Puritanism. As a Cavalier author, he picks up where Morton left off, only in Virginia one hundred years later. Much of his charm as a writer derives from the high polish he gives to even his most minor pieces, chiefly by the use of irony. This irony makes his writing constantly entertaining, but its real import is often elusive. Amid all the understatements and overstatements, the sarcasm and the wry humor, it is difficult to find a passage where Byrd does not have his tongue in his cheek or where he simply conveys his views in a straightforward manner.

    In his letters he compares colonial America to early biblical times, both those of Eden before the fall and those of the promised land of Canaan under the patriarchs. The comparison is clearly overstated and leaves one doubting whether Byrd doesn't really prefer the fleshpots of Egypt and the fallen world of England. Furthermore, while America lacks the refined vices of England, its national blessings of ease and fertility lead to the crude sins of idleness and overindulgence, further encouraged by the importation of slaves and rum. Yet Byrd clearly glories in his own truly biblical mastership over bondmen and his moderate appreciation of alcohol, and he boasts of his own sexual potency under the guise of blaming American women for breeding like rabbits.

    The entertainment provided by the contrasting highs and lows of the very personal Secret History is joined to a serious purpose in the contrasting panegyric and satire provided in the impersonal public History of the Dividing Line. But as in Byrd's letters, irony undermines virtually all moments of pure praise or blame. The New England Puritans are placed above the Virginians for their industry, but blamed for their fanatical religion. The North Carolinians are placed below the Virginians for their religious indifference and the idleness of their men, yet admired for their fertility and freedom. Indian males are lazier and female Indians dirtier than North Carolinians, but Indian natural religion is better than Carolinian indifference and Indian wives more innocent and faithful than white. Thus each group is ultimately viewed in a remarkably balanced though highly judgmental way, with neither civilized nor natural man monopolizing all good. Even nature itself, largely epitomized in both histories in the bear, is portrayed equivocally as the source of both good and evil to man, as reproduction and potential death. Byrd's confrontation with the bear, at least in his imagination, is the last of a whole series of events in both letters and histories in which British civilization is forced to confront American nature. By remaining at an always ironic critical distance, Byrd remarkably judges and accommodates both.