William Byrd, Belletrist


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 6: William Byrd, Belletrist
Sept. 30-Oct. 4, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of William Byrd, Sarah Kemble Knight, and Phillis Wheatley.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Byrd’s narratives.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “William Byrd” (447-448) and the excerpts from The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover (448-453), and History of the Dividing Line (453-464).


Post Essay 1 on online portfolio by 8 a.m. Friday, October. 4.  This essay should be a response to the “Think Again” question on this lesson or any of the other lessons we have completed thus far in the course.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), rewrite one of the incidents involving Byrd from the perspective of someone else involved.  Consider the ways in which point of view affects humor, style, even meaning.

Presentation: William Byrd, Belletrist (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Culture: What does Byrd’s literary treatment of the North Carolinians reveal about his values.  How do such values reflect the culture of the time?  Did everyone share these values?  Explain your answer.

Humor: Identify two or three humorous passages in Byrd’s narratives.  What is the source of the humor?  How might a different description or a different point of view made the passage less humorous?

Form: Discuss the significance of some of the names Byrd uses.  What might these names suggest?  Note any allusions you find.

Audience: How are History of the Dividing Line and The Secret Diary different in terms of content or approach?  What do these differences suggest about the ways that consideration of audience helps to shape literature.

Presentations: Sarah Kemble Knight (Brandon McDougald); Phillis Wheatley (Carol Cintron)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Examine the attitudes of William Byrd and at least one other colonial writer toward nature and civilization.  How did these writers cope with the uncultivated state of America during this era?

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • William Byrd
  • point of view
  • audience


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:

Virginia’s James River Plantations features a picture of Westover, the home where William Byrd lived in Virginia.

PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – Research and Reference Guide: Chapter 2: Early American Literature – William Byrd (1674-1744) features a picture of Byrd and information about his work.

Updated September 27, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In this lesson, we complete our unit on the eighteenth century with a look at William Byrd.  We also will hear Brandon’s presentation on Sarah Kemble Knight and Carol’s presentation on Phillis Wheatley.



As we have seen in previous lessons, the eighteenth century was a period of transition in America.  When it began, America was no more than a group of British colonies whose culture largely reflected that of Mother England.  Religion, furthermore, was still a central force in American life, as suggested by the influence of the great Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather and the only recent end of the Salem witch trials (1692).  When the eighteenth century ended, America was an independent nation, and science and other secular considerations had challenged—if not replaced—religion as dominant forces.  Indeed, thanks in large part to the First Amendment, Americans even recognized a separation of church and state.

William Byrd, 1674-1744

Like Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, William Byrd nicely exemplifies the culture of his time.  The son of a wealthy Virginia landowner, Byrd had strong connections to England.  He traveled there for an education when he was seven and spent much of his early life there studying law and interacting with leading English intellectuals.  Even after he returned to Virginia for good in 1726, he retained an air of English sensibility.  His most famous works, A History of the Dividing Line and The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, exhibit a witty, urbane style characteristic of leading British writers.  In their secular quality, Byrd’s writings also demonstrate the movement away from religion that was taking place in America in the eighteenth century.  Like Franklin’s satires, Byrd’s major works belong to the tradition of belles-lettres, polished literature designed to evoke pleasure and not mere edification or moral improvement.


Having completed our tour of the eighteenth century, we turn in our next unit to the age of American Romanticism, when some of America’s most famous writers flourished.