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Virginia Gentleman

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

William Byrd of Westover. By Richard Croom Beatty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00.

It is doubtless the usual opinion that American culture, such as it is, has its origin in Puritanical sources. In considerable measure this belief is certainly correct. But the culture of the Southern colonies was a vital, if less assertive, force. It lived of itself and largely to itself, and its voice was not often heard abroad. Of this civilization William Byrd II has come to be, perhaps, the best-known representative. Yet his life was, on the whole, an uneventful one and his public service was not conspicuous. None of his writings was published until nearly a hundred years after his death, and not until the grass had grown green above his Westover grave for nearly two centuries did he find a biographer.

To write an adequate and interesting account of a life so lacking in adventure would require a high degree of skill even under the most favorable circumstances, for Byrd’s adventures were of the spirit. In writing “William Byrd of Westover,” Mr. Beatty had to aid him, of course, Byrd’s published works, which are now well known. He had a meagre number of public documents relating to Byrd’s political activities, and a very limited collection of published letters of a more private nature. No large body of personal correspondence was available, and in such circumstances the biographer works under a grievous handicap. Consequently he has been able to give barely more than an outline of the life of his subject.

Although he has not been able to capture Byrd’s inner self, he has fitted him charmingly into his background without giving any sense of desperate pursuit after local color. His timely pictures of the surroundings in which the Virginia gentleman lived and moved largely compensate for the lack of personal detail and lend a vivid reality to the whole. In order to accomplish this, an appreciative understanding of the society of early Eighteenth Century London and of contemporary Virginia was essential. In the infusion of the cultural pattern into the biographical narrative, the English atmosphere appears more distinct than does that of Virginia; but the whole is written in a literary style of which William Byrd himself would have approved. It is a pleasure in this generation to hark back to the days when a discriminating use of English was one of the accomplishments expected of a gentleman. Whether the author has caught the spirit from his subject, or whether he has acquired it otherwise, it renders his narrative a long way removed from the deadly dullness of the academic doctors. His documentation is adequate and his weighing of facts quite without personal bias. A combination of these qualities in an historical work is unusual, and the fact that it can be accomplished in an entirely pleasing manner is an argument for the broad culture for which Byrd stands. While the biographer considers his work disillusioning as to the glories of old Virginia, and is distinctly skeptical of Byrd’s prejudice in favor of his native province, one cannot read this book without being impressed with the merits of that generous Eighteenth Century civilization which the South once understood and maintained unsuccessfully against the niggardly and often benighted materialism of the North.


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