Reviews of The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II Of Westover,

Edited by Kevin Joel Berland

Published by the University of North Carolina Press
for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, 2013

After his 1728 Virginia-North Carolina boundary expedition, Virginia planter and politician William Byrd II composed two very different accounts of his adventures. The Secret History of the Line was written for private circulation, offering tales of scandalous behavior and political misconduct, peppered with rakish humor and personal satire. The History of the Dividing Line, continually revised by Byrd for decades after the expedition, was intended for the London literary market, though not published in his lifetime. Collating all extant manuscripts, Kevin Joel Berland's landmark scholarly edition of these two histories provides wide-ranging historical and cultural contexts for both, helping to recreate the social and intellectual ethos of Byrd and his time.

Byrd enriched his narratives with material appropriated from earlier authors, many of whose works were in his library--the most extensive in the American colonies. Berland identifies for the first time many of Byrd's sources and raises the question: how reliable are histories that build silently upon antecedent texts and present borrowed material as firsthand testimony? In his analysis, Berland demonstrates the need for a new category to assess early modern history writing: the hybrid, accretional narrative.

528 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, 1 map, 1 chart, appends., bibl., index
Published by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia
ISBN 978-1-4696-0693-4
Published: November 2013


 "Byrd’s expedition in 1728 aimed to settle a border dispute. His two accounts have been recognized as crucial documents in colonial history, as well as early classics of American literature. Berland’s superbly documented edition crosses many disciplinary boundaries to establish the best text of each narrative and the fullest analysis of their cultural import."

--Pat Rogers, University of South Florida

 "Berland's edition offers useful contextual material, extensive scholarly annotation, and theoretical sophistication. His characterization of Byrd's texts as a hybrid, accretional narrative is genuinely groundbreaking and will transform scholarship on early American historiography."

--Susan Castillo, King's College London

 "Meticulously transcribed and graced with a deeply insightful introduction that smoothly integrates the perspectives and concerns of historians and literary scholars, this is by far the best edition yet of Byrd’s twin classics of early American literature."

--James Rice, State University of New York at Plattsburgh

 "A landmark edition . . . a model of editorial innovation and integrity. [Berland]. . . documents in amazing detail the way in which colonial authors participated in a transatlantic culture of letters that was as rich as it was dynamic."

--Martin Brückner, University of Delaware


  "Editor Kevin J. Berland . . . does a remarkably thorough job of dealing with all the textual complications for the informative and somewhat amusing text known as "The History of the Dividing Line" and the shorter, quite different, and funnier satirical text known as the "The Secret History of the Line." . . . Berland prefaces his completely new edition of the two texts with a long and learned account of Byrd's life and of the literary conventions of his time that he clearly understood and mastered. The editor also provides a full and clear description of each of the surviving texts or fragments and of his rationale for using the Virginia Historical Society's manuscript of the History as one copy text and the American Philosophical Society's manuscript of the Secret History for the other. Berland's analysis of the composition of the two manuscripts is masterful."
    "His annotation is extraordinarily detailed and erudite, noting the literary sources for Byrd's allusions and other material that he incorporated into his writing as if it were his own. . . The editor also thoroughly discusses the state of common knowledge about such animals as rattlesnakes, passenger pigeons, and opossums that intrigued Byrd and his contemporary English readers. Byrd wrote about them from his own observations but also from what other people had written and from what he had learned from Indians or other colonists."

Brent Tarter, untitled review of the Omohundro Institute's new editions of Robert Beverly's History and Present State of Virginia and The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, in Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing, 36 (2015), pp. 1-5, available here.

 " Byrd’s observations on the excursions to set the line between Virginia and North Carolina bolstered the studies of scientists working in British America. Yet he laments, 'Our Country has now been inhabited more than 130 years by the English and still we hardly know any thing of the Appallachian Mountains, that are no where above 250 Miles from the Sea.' The NEH-funded The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, edited by Kevin Joel Berland, can read at times like a romp through rhetorical artifices used by writers from antiquity up to the times of Smollett, Fielding, and Addison. “Byrd,” writes Berland, “clearly meant to create a stimulating book for London readers, and to this end he combined a chronicle of the events of 1728 with a complex, digressive account of Virginia and North Carolina, a hybrid admixture of historical, topographic, economic, scientific, and personal presentation."

Steve Moyer, "William Byrd Was a Colonial-era Surveyor and Satirist," Humanities [the Magazine of the NEH], (January-February, 2015): 4. Available here.

 "Arguing that 'literary critics often overlook historical contexts and that historians often disregard the rhetorical effects of literary technique on the composition of historical texts,' Kevin Joel Berland offers a 'hybrid production, drawing on material from the historical archive, networks of social and cultural knowledge, the legacy of critical views, and close textual readings' (p. ix). He further aims to illuminate the 'cultural assumptions and language instrumental to Byrd's narrative but possibly obscure to modern readers' (p. ix). Berland explains these many connections through a detailed annotation of Byrd's two histories. . . . 118 pages of endnotes provide a comprehensive examination of the people, places, flora, and fauna referenced by Byrd in his histories. . . .
          To date, scholars have relied on several earlier editions of Byrd's histories, with most based on an incomplete version of the manuscript published by Edmund Ruffin in 1841. These early editions typicall lacked some of Byrd's original writings and often introduced editing errors. For this edition, Berland revisited the original manuscripts together with surviving fragments and copies. The result is an impressive, meticulously edited volume that reintroduces scholars to one of early America's most engaging authors. The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover is highly recommended to all scholars of colonial America.

L. Scott Phillyaw, untitled review, Journal of Southern History, 81, 1 (February, 2015101, 3 (December 2014): 163-164. Available here.

 "Byrd produced two manuscripts loosely based on his experiences as a [boundary] commissioner. Kevin Joel Berland presents a new edition of those well-known and often cited texts in this impressive volume. . . .
          "Without discounting the texts' usefulness as historical documents, Berland emphasizes their significance as literary creations, situating them in a much broader cultural context. His objective is twofold: to provide authoritative texts of Byrd's histories and to use an interdisciplinary approach that combines historical contexts and close textual readings to reveal 'cultural assumptions and language instrumental to Byrd's narrative.'
          To that end, Berland supplies footnotes that meticulously document discrepancies between various versions of the texts, along with extensive and exhaustively researched end-notes, for which he draws on Byrd's impressive library and other sources that would have been familiar to him and his contemporaries. By recreating Byrd's intellectual universe, Berland teases new meaning out of virtually every paragraph. . . .
          Besides footnotes and endnotes, Berland supplies incisive and readable introductions for each text and several useful appendices. Although he shrewdly notes that his work, like Byrd's, is culturally inflected--from a twenty-first-century perspective--Berland has clearly set the new standard for these classic texts."

Cynthia A. Kierner, untitled review, Journal of American History, 101, 3 (December 2014): 916-918. Available here.

 "Byrd constructed two artful narratives of the surveying process: The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and The Secret History of The Line. These texts (and the relationship between them) have long intrigued both historians and literary scholars, who have appreciated their historical information, their colonial perspective, their humour and wit, and their narrative elements. Kevin Berland’s extensively annotated new edition manages simultaneously to explain away many scholarly assumptions about the Histories and to open to further scrutiny their evocative layers of authorial creation, inter-textual possibility, colonial history-making, sociocultural commentary and storytelling. His edition promises both to enrich students' understandings of Byrd and to reinvigorate scholarly work on the Histories. . . . Berland has painstakingly traced Byrd's unacknowledged sources and given readers extensive endnotes, with relevant passages from a range of authors. . . Berland dexterously situates people, places, events and words in a historical, literary, epistemological and spatial 'deep map' of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Atlantic world. . . . Berland's Histories exemplify the rigorous reading and research practices necessary to such an endeavour and provide the crucial groundwork for further exploration."

Angela Calcaterra, untitled review, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37, 4 (December 2014): 569-570. Available here.

 “Editor Kevin Joel Berland emphasizes the 'accretional' quality in Byrd's writing, the layers of sourced and unsourced allusion, and through exhaustive documentation (with footnotes that vie with the text), shows how two seasons in the back-country were mediated through the growing library of America. . . . Experience abuts erudition [in Byrd's narration]. . . . His narrative falls between book and local knowledge."

Thomas Hallock, "Locating Early America," American Literary History, 26, 3 (September 2014): 1-10. Availablehere.

 “This scholarly apparatus locates the literary sources for some of Byrd’s anecdotes and language, traces minor characters through the neglected local records of these borderlands, and contextualizes many of the broader concerns of early eighteenth century colonial elites. Because of Berland’s comprehensive genealogy of Byrd’s textual influences, other scholars can now make full use of the dividing line histories to imagine the intellectual and literary world of learned colonists.”

Bradford J. Wood, untitled review, William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 71 2 (April 2014), pp. 304-306. Available here.

 "Berland has not only offered the finest and most detail contextualization of Byrd's travels and their narratives, but he has also helped recover their author as a complicated man of letters."

Philip Levy, untitled review, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 122 1 (2013), pp. 68-69. Available here.



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