William Byrd II (1674-1744) was an important figure in the history of colonial Virginia: a founder of Richmond, an active participant in Virginia politics, and the proprietor of one of the colony's greatest plantations. But Byrd is best known today for his diaries. Considered essential documents of private life in colonial America, they offer readers an unparalleled glimpse into the world of a Virginia gentleman. This book joins Byrd's Diary, Secret Diary, and other writings in securing his reputation as one of the most interesting men in colonial America. Edited and presented here for the first time, Byrd's commonplace book is a collection of moral wit and wisdom gleaned from reading and conversation. The nearly six hundred entries range in tone from hope to despair, trust to dissimulation, and reflect on issues as varied as science, religion, women, Alexander the Great, and the perils of love. A ten-part introduction presents an overview of Byrd's life and addresses such topics as his education and habits of reading and his endeavors to understand himself sexually, temperamentally, and religiously, as well as the history and cultural function of commonplacing. Extensive annotations discuss the sources, background, and significance of the entries.
|Publisher:||Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press|
|Series:||Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Kevin Berland is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Penn State University, Shenango.
Jan Kirsten Gilliam is associate curator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Kenneth A. Lockridge is professor of history at the University of Montana.
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The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2001 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionWilliam Byrd II (1674-1744) was an important figure in the history of colonial Virginia. Inheriting extensive lands from his father, Byrd expanded his holdings and founded new settlements, including Richmond. He was active in the political life of Virginia, serving as a member of the House of Burgesses and the Council of Virginia and as the Virginia representative to the commission charged with establishing the border between Virginia and the Carolinas.
But Byrd is best known today for his diaries, records that have offered modern readers an unparalleled glimpse into the private life of a Virginia gentleman. Half a century ago Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling decoded and published three manuscript diaries. These diaries reveal a powerful tension between Byrd's private sense of self and his sense of the appearance of the self in the public sphere. Private diaries may appear to be a more promising source for revelations of character than commonplace books, which record notions gleaned from reading and conversation. However, we are convinced that this manuscript does indeed contain material that contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of Byrd's public and private life, and therefore we have transcribed it and furnished both annotation (identifying and discussing topics and sources) and interpretation (linking ideas found in the manuscript to what is already known about Byrd).
Unless a reader were to search the secret diaries of William Byrd II for just such a thing, it might be easy to overlook what is written there about the way he used his commonplace book:
I rose about 7 o'clock and wrote a little in my commonplace. I said my prayers and ate milk and potato for breakfast. I rose about 7 o'clock and read a little in my commonplace. I ate some boiled milk for breakfast and said a short prayer.
His statements are characteristically terse, and, while they do not specify his purpose in writing and reading, they do indicate that the activity was usual for him. These entries appear in the diaries Byrd kept during a period nearly a decade before he started to make entries in the commonplace book here published, the only one known to survive. Since Byrd regularly maintained a number of similar private activities all through his life - daily readings in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, diary writing, nightly prayer - it is reasonable to conclude that recording interesting thoughts in a commonplace book was a literary activity he exercised habitually.
What is a commonplace book? Dr. Johnson described it simply as "A book in which things to be remembered are ranged under general heads." In its simplest form it serves as an aid to memory, a book of blank pages on which an individual could record passages from readings and snippets of conversation, to which he could refer when he felt a need to refresh his memory or to kindle his imagination about specific topics. In effect, this commonplace book appears to be a collection of moral wit and wisdom, ancient and modern, transcribed and rephrased by its owner, together with a miscellaneous jumble of anecdotes, jokes, and recipes.
The small, pocket-sized volume was important enough to Byrd that he wrote in it and referred to it often and even carried it with him when he traveled. On a dozen occasions in the early diary Byrd mentions using his commonplace book; in May 1710, Byrd recorded reading in his commonplace book between his turns in a game of billiards with friends at Westover, and he occasionally records reading parts of it aloud. Byrd selected the material in this commonplace book for several discernible reasons. Some of the entries pertain to serious matters that concerned him throughout his entire life, some reflect issues that were of paramount importance to him at a specific time in his life, and still others provide insight into what kinds of things he found entertaining.
Byrd's commonplace book contains evidence of an intellectual process at work, a process that reveals a stage in the development of his mind. The nearly six hundred entries document Byrd's course of reading over a period of several years in which he had to make some momentous decisions about his future. By looking at the books he chose to read at this time and the material he considered important enough to reproduce in his commonplace book, therefore, it may be possible to learn more about his ideas on several important issues at a crucial time in his life, as we will endeavor to demonstrate in the following sections of the Prologue.
The extrapolation of Byrd's ideas from the record of his reading is not a simple task. To begin with, firm details are hard to come by. The commonplace book itself provides no sources for its entries, and, while his diaries frequently mention reading, they say little about exactly what he was reading, with a few exceptions. He hardly ever records in the diaries anything concerning what he thought or felt about what he had read. Still, the diaries establish that reading was important enough to him that he made it a point to read something - and sometimes a great deal - nearly every day.
This dedication to reading is borne out by the importance of books in his life. Byrd's remarkable library at Westover eventually held at least three thousand titles, a good number of which he had in London with him in the 1720s. Of course, there are inherent difficulties in any attempt to draw conclusions about the exact nature of the way book owners used their libraries. Collectors do not always read the books they assemble; in fact, there is not enough physical evidence in those of Byrd's books that have been found to reveal much about the way he read them (that is, most of them are free of marks such as underscoring, marginalia, and interlineations). Indeed, there is usually no physical evidence to confirm whether he read them at all. Then, too, library catalogs are not always accurate; some of a private collector's books may be dispersed (loaned, given away, or misplaced) during their owner's lifetime and hence may not appear in the library catalog. Moreover, not all the books important to readers are to be found in their personal libraries; for Byrd, access to college libraries and the private collections of several gentlemen was an important part of the cultural life of London. This means that the range of Byrd's reading certainly extends beyond his own books - already a large field of inquiry.
Nevertheless, it is clear that selectivity in reading is important, and thus it is safe to say that the commonplace book - edited and sourced - discloses what Byrd chose to read in the early 1720s. The entries themselves, the transcriptions, distillations, and comments he recorded in his notebook, also involve a selectivity that invites speculative analysis.
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What People are Saying About This
An excellent foundation for further scholarly studies. This is a marvelous contribution to the understanding of an important man, an important document, an important era of human history.Virginia Quarterly Review
This edition of Byrd's commonplace book is a precious gift. . . . Much more than a record of a gentleman's response to his reading, it registers his struggles with the competing demands of public and private life, metropolitan and colonial identity, politeness and passion, self-mastery and sexual abandon. . . . An extraordinary entry to the interior life of eighteenth-century culture.Lawrence E. Klein, Emmanuel College, Cambridge University