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Colonial Realism

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709-1712, Edited by Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinllng. The Dietz Press. $5.00.

“THE Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover” introduces a man, whatever we may have thought we knew of him before; and he is worth knowing. As he emerges from these pages, a somewhat theatrical figure of the established tradition fades out; indeed, a whole rosy legend of curious persistence grows gray.

William Byrd of Westover has been termed “the quintessence of colonial aristocracy.” In him, perhaps more than in any other one person, centers the popular conception of the feudal splendor of the colonial cavaliers. Manorial lord of many pleasant acres, he has been pictured as an amiable gentleman, be-wigged and be-ruffled and be-powdered, with a veneer of polish and a dash of gallantry, overcharged with charm and undercharged with energy—in short, the “glamor boy” of an Arcadian society dedicated to “the pursuit of happiness and the realization thereof.” His “Diary” was written in shorthand for no other eyes than his own to see; hidden away for two centuries and more, it is now brought to light by the commendable assiduity of the editors. Byrd, it develops, was a full-blooded human being, full of many things, energy first and then resourcefulness, and kindness, and aches and pains, and frailty and repentance.

Historians of this period of American life will undoubtedly find the volume a source book of importance. One could, for example, develop from it a kind of gustatory catalogue, a checklist of provincial menus; or one might write at least a monograph on colonial medicines, for nearly always somebody in Byrd’s circle of family, friends, and servants was sick. Students of agricultural history will consult this work and learn new stories of the hazards of production, the inefficiency of untutored labor, the hagglings over freight rates (curiously modern note there), and the unreliability of foreign markets. Sidelights of the political situation are illuminating: the economic dependence upon the mother country, the squabbles for office, the policy—often pure opportunism—of the none too stable government. Researchers in race relations will find at least new footnotes, some of them not altogether pleasant. Chroniclers of domestic relations will find themes for wonder. It is a rich book.

Indubitably life in the colonial epoch was intensely real, even grim, with the struggle for livelihood, difficulties of labor, fears of foes without, calamitous whims of nature; the shadow of illness and the gloom of death fall frequently across these pages. Measurable visiting there was and much real neighborliness, but nowhere in the diary is there any account of the stately social pageantry that has so often been fancied as a principal occupation of the colonial gentry; the Christmas festival popular in song and story, for instance, is not mentioned. There was little drinking, as modern Americans would understand the term; and the gambling was done largely in connection with friendly games, and that on a moderate scale, though Byrd made an occasional resolution on this point, particularly if luck had gone against him. There is, by the way, far more religion indicated than one might suspect of the gay cavaliers, and it seems to be of a sincere type.

But Byrd himself dominates his diary. The projection of his inner life into these coded pages is successful. In only one essential respect does he approach the traditional pic-ture; he advantageously used his library, which was possibly the largest in the colonies. Normally he rose early, read in foreign language classics, perhaps a chapter of Hebrew and some verses in Greek—actually he refers to being at home in half a dozen languages—and then “I did my dance”; possibly he gave himself mental and physical setting-up exercises as a prelude to the day’s work. There seems to be no doubt that he enjoyed a kind of authentic personal culture which included making translations, even one of “Solomon’s Song” (unhappily not a part of the manuscript); and he must have been a prolific writer.

Above all, however, his life was crowded with toil, with responsibility, with anxiety. He had his hand in many administrative affairs of the colony; he sat in the governor’s council, he helped to try delinquents, and as a William and Mary trustee he debated whether an intoxicated professor should be fired; he lectured the Quakers, sought ways and means of setting Indian tribes one against the other, stiffened defense against a threatened French invasion, wrote numerous letters of recommendation. But first of all he was a farmer; and it was in this capacity that he proved himself versatile and tireless. He could direct personally the cultivation of an entire crop of tobacco or of wheat, could set out an orchard, could make suggestions for the building of outhouses or dams, could care for stock. Almost daily he was diagnosing and treating a sick Negro—this work took an immense part of his time. He could argue with ship captains about the rate for carrying tobacco abroad. In the three years and some months covered in this diary, 1700-1712, there were apparently few days of even approximate idleness. In spite of the vicissitudes of his economic life and the tempestuous quality of his domestic life (he seems to have quarreled with his wife several times a week), he achieved a certain serenity. The rains could damage his acres of tobacco or the floods wash out his dams; a ship went down, he was told, carrying with it seven hogsheads of skins and sixty hogsheads of tobacco; valuable servants sickened and died. He referred all these things to the inscrutable wisdom of God, and went about his business.

All this activity relates to William Byrd of the outer life. Possibly the list of those who would find stimulating material in this book might be widened to include the students of psychiatry. In the first place, there is the mysterious psychology of compulsion to keep this secret diary; unlike his agricultural journals, this running account has no data for carrying forward his farm operations; unlike certain of his other efforts, this work offered no solace as artistic self-expression. Even more remarkable is the frankness of the book; its candor equals, and sometimes surpasses, that of Pepys. Here are details that the ordinary man tells only to his family physician and other details that the ordinary man tells only to God. Byrd puts it all down with a kind of flagellant abandon.

This must be one of the most completely honest books ever published. It treats with honesty a subject significant for his time, and even more significant for his possession of the fundamental, universal human traits. If the other sections of the diary are edited and published, and if they are as revealing as the one for this little span of years, it may come to pass that we shall know William Byrd as we know few other characters in history. And he is certainly worth knowing,


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