The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

William 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 . . .

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