In This Article William Byrd

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Books
  • Cultural Studies
  • Influence

American Literature William Byrd
by
Kevin J. Hayes
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0163

Introduction

In recent years, classroom anthologies have favored the secret diaries of William Byrd (b. 1674–d. 1744) over what are considered his two finest works, the History of the Dividing Line and the Secret History of the Line. The shift is understandable. The secret diaries offer greater opportunities to explore issues that appeal to current trends in critical study: gender, domesticity, and the literary construction of the self. But the current preference for the secret diaries is problematic, for it suggests that cultural issues have taken precedence over aesthetic qualities in the interpretation of Byrd’s writings. The secret diaries may reveal much about the autobiographical depiction of the self, but great literature they are not. Byrd’s two histories of the dividing line, however, each written for a different audience and a different purpose, can lay claim to being great literature and deserve further study. Beyond their inherent merits as literature, Byrd’s writings also have considerable documentary value, not only helping us to understand his life, but also helping to reconstruct the cultural, economic, intellectual, and social life of early-18th-century America.

Primary Texts

Byrd’s writings fall into two major categories. His travel writings, which include the History of the Dividing Line and the Secret History of the Line, form the first category. His personal writings—diaries, letters, miscellaneous writings—form the second.

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