- “The Bounty of Providence”:Food and Identity in William Byrd’s The History of the Dividing Line
William Byrd II’s writings have provided useful insights into the complicated realities of transatlantic life for one wealthy eighteenth-century American. Byrd, born in Virginia to a newly wealthy emigrant father, typified the transatlantic gentleman; he enjoyed the benefits of an American and English upbringing and was equally comfortable in richly appointed London parlors, working on his plantation, and roaming the American wilderness (Manning 173). During Byrd’s lifetime, Atlantic travel underwent significant technological and practical improvements, transforming the earlier Puritan conception of the ocean as a barely crossable wasteland into a permeable boundary across which people and goods moved with ever-increasing regularity. The improving reliability of transatlantic mobility emphasized “continuity rather than dislocation” between the New and Old Worlds and engendered insecurities among many colonists about their emerging Anglo-American identity (Manning 175). Byrd offers a valuable example of this complex transatlantic identity because he, perhaps more than many of his contemporaries, was “quite literally a man split [End Page 35] between two worlds”—a dual existence that “fuel[ed] struggles with self-conception” (Kaeuper 121).1
By the time Byrd was chosen to lead the Virginian delegation to clarify the disputed border between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728, his days of crossing the Atlantic were over. Despite the earlier internal conflicts of reconciling his provincial birthplace with his desire for the social mirrors of London, by the late 1720s Byrd had come to terms with his Virginian heritage and fostered not only acceptance of but also a sense of pride in his American home (Lockridge 122). The border survey was the major event from this period of his life and inspired two of Byrd’s major literary works, the privately circulated The Secret History of the Line and its later public revision The History of the Dividing Line.2 Taken together, these texts portray two halves of the Virginian Byrd: in The Secret History, Byrd emphasizes his Virginian identity while in The History, he focuses on maintaining a transatlantic British identity in America. This essay, more concerned with the latter’s textual representation, maintains that Byrd sought to reassure potential settlers that life along the Virginia-North Carolina border posed no threat to the continuation of their English cultural identity, often using discussions of native American foodstuffs to do so.3
Convincing a British audience that living in America would not negatively affect their physical and psychological selves was perhaps the most important and difficult task for early Anglo-American promotional literature. The weight of this concern made it nearly universal: Jim Egan notes that “with near-flawless consistency, colonial writers sought to allay [fears of losing an English identity] by suggesting how colonists could remain a part of the English community even though they no longer lived at home” (125). Egan’s analysis of A Character of the Province of Mary-Land (1666) focuses on the philosophical dilemma of an English identity scattered throughout the growing empire, but by the end of the century, those philosophical questions became more and more physical, particularly in regard to the American colonies. By the 1690s, argues Trudy Eden in The Early American Table (2008), native-born English began to emphasize a physical distinction between themselves and their American counterparts “because they believed the air of North America and the consumption of foods grown in that air caused biological differences between them” (116). Americans, particularly those in the emerging colonial aristocracy with the where-withal to maintain personal relationships on both sides of the Atlantic, acutely [End Page 36] felt the sting of being othered by insinuations of their Americanized identity. In fact, one of the major contributing factors to the “metaphysical angst” of Byrd’s early adult life was, according to Eden, the “humoral belief that living in North America would cause him to degenerate” (122).
For William Byrd, controlling the effects of food on his physical and psychological identity became something of an obsession. The mid-Atlantic Chesapeake region where Byrd lived occupied an interstitial place in America’s food landscape—a fact that had direct...