Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

New Dominance in the Old Dominion: Steadying William Byrd in the Secret History of the Line

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

New Dominance in the Old Dominion: Steadying William Byrd in the Secret History of the Line

Article excerpt

William Byrd II was quite literally a man split between two worlds. Born into the Virginian aristocracy of the later seventeenth century, he nevertheless spent almost half his time in England; and throughout his life he maintained connections in both spheres, in Pierre Maramband's words being, "a Virginian in London and a Londoner in Virginia" (58). Such a dual existence might naturally be expected to fuel struggles with self-conception, and Byrd certainly did struggle. His formidable body of surviving writings reveals a man constantly preoccupied with self-image. His was not, however, a struggle of internal nature such as can be found in Puritan self-examiners, but one fixated on positioning himself within the world(s) around him. The question for Byrd was, not how to be in the world but not of it, but rather of what world to be and in what capacity. For approximately the first fifty years of his life Byrd attempted to deal with that question by pursuing English nobility. In his later life, however, when forced to acknowledge his inability to achieve his desired status within that sphere, Byrd began to look more pointedly to Virginia as the forum for his ambitions; and in so doing he underwent a distinct alteration in self-conception.

In 1728 Byrd led the Virginian contingent assigned to settle the boundary dispute between Virginia and North Carolina, and over the course of several months split across two separate outings, the group surveyed more than two hundred forty miles of the Dividing Line between the two colonies. This mission provided Byrd with an ideal literary vehicle, and he utilized it twice, both for The Secret History of the Line and for The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728. Although sharing the same subject matter, these remain distinctly different works: whereas The Secret History presents an autobiographical portrait, the later History was designed primarily as a promotional tract to draw European settlers to Virginia, as were Byrd's two subsequent histories, A Progress to the Mines in the Year 1732 and A Journey to the Land of Eden Anno 1733. Both in style and substance these later three histories position Byrd as a Virginian author addressing the Old World, a stance quite different from that taken in his earlier writings. My contention in this essay is that The Secret History facilitated this change through its embodiment of Byrd's emerging New World self.

As the surveying party of The Secret History begins to draw its line from Coratuck Inlet, Byrd comments, "I often cast a longing eye towards England and sighed" (Prose Works 55). Such sighs were no doubt heartfelt for Byrd, who for a half century had focused his considerable ambition on obtaining English aristocratic status. As Kenneth A. Lockridge has demonstrated, "[i]n Byrd's mind the aim had always been, manifestly from his texts, to become an English gentleman. In Virginia this had become the obsessive pursuit of a colonial governorship, the only way in which a colonial gentleman could establish beyond doubt his status as an English gentleman" (74). As rare and difficult to obtain as such an appointment was for one of colonial birth, it did not lie altogether beyond the reach of ambition, as Byrd well knew: his first father-in-law, Colonel Daniel Parke, was granted the governorship of the Leeward Islands for his service as an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Marlborough (Marambaud 26). Indeed, Parke's special status was undoubtedly one of the primary attractions of the marriage, and may also have played a role in Byrd's disastrous decision to assume Parke's debts upon his death so as to inherit his land and slaves (Lockridge 76). (1) In any case, Byrd certainly made every effort to obtain directly for himself the favor bestowed on Parke. He even went so far as to attempt to buy the Virginia governorship in 1710 at a price of 1000 [pounds sterling] (Secret Diary 159). Furthermore, in September of the previous year, he had twice in four days written to England "to make interest for the government of Maryland" (Secret Diary 84-85). …

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