Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover

Kevin Berland, Jan Kirsten Gilliam, and Kenneth A. Lockridge

Cloth: 978-0-8078-2612-6 ($79.00)

Copyright 2001
University of North Carolina Press

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.

About the Author

Kevin Berland is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Penn State University, Shenango.


This edition of Byrd’s commonplace book, with its illuminating introduction and erudite commentary, is a precious gift to students of eighteenth-century culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Much more than a record of a gentleman’s response to his scientific, literary, religious, and moralist reading, it registers his struggles with the competing demands of public and private life, metropolitan and colonial identity, politeness and passion, self-mastery and sexual abandon. It is an extraordinary entry to the interior life of eighteenth-century culture.

--Lawrence E. Klein

Here the rage William Byrd II expressed against women and enslaved Africans can be seen as a reflection of a deep hatred of himself projected onto others. This extraordinary publication allows us all to investigate the process by which he altered this self-view, and his world view.

--Mechal Sobel

If I were asked to rank Virginia Historical Society’s manuscript collection, William Byrd II’s commonplace book would end up near the top because of the insights it gives us into one of the most remarkable men in colonial Viriginia history. Colorful, irreverent, illuminating, never dull, this unique document should quickly take its place among the invaluable published primary sources on early American history.

--Charles F. Bryan, Jr.

Scholars and Byrd aficionados alike will welcome the chance to deepen their understanding of this prolific colonial planter, whose legendary efforts at self-fashioning have long fascinated students of gender and colonial identity.

--Kathleen M. Brown

In this beautifully edited commonplace book, we are given the record of what one intelligent, well-born, but otherwise common reader from three centuries ago thought worth keeping and thinking about.... Here we have the print culture of the past filtered through the mind of someone who confronted it daily.

--Thomas W. Laqueur

Byrd's commonplace book stands as a major example of [a] kind of reflective writing, another window into the mind of an extraordinary American. . . . A welcome addition to the list of William Byrd's published works.

--Journal of Southern History

Regardless of whether you have found Byrd fascinating or care about the discussions historians have had about how to interpret him, the commonplace book by itself is certainly interesting. It indicates clearly just how curious his mind was and how eclectic his reading.

--Richmond Times-Dispatch

The publication of [William Byrd's] commonplace book covering the period 1721 to 1726 is a major event. . . . The commonplace book allows scholars to penetrate the interior world of this complex and often contradictory figure, scion of a wealthy slaveholding family, dilettante, politician, businessman and man of letters.

--Times Literary Supplement

This splendid edition of [Byrd's] commonplace book…reveal[s] the fuller dimensions of a man immersed in the print culture of the early eighteenth-century English-speaking world. The thoughtful introduction by the editors and the careful scholarship contained in the commentary on individual entries provides us with an excellent passport into that world. This book and its scholarly presentation will be of importance to those interested in the cultural and intellectual life of both early eighteenth-century England and of colonial America.

--East-Central Intelligencer

[The editors] have done early American and early modern studies a great favor in producing this fine edition of [Byrd's] commonplace book.

--William and Mary Quarterly

A lively and at times fascinating commonplace book. . . . Now . . . we have a carefully edited text of this commonplace book together with a wealth of related scholarly materials designed to make The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover at once more accessible and useful to general readers as well as academics.

--Washington Times

An excellent foundation for further scholarly studies. This is a marvelous contribution to the understanding of an important man, an important document, an important era of human history.

--Virginia Quarterly Review