Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book Review: "Briefe and True Report"

Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is one of the earliest and most important accounts of Indian life along the coast of what is now North Carolina and Virginia, as well as an interesting compilation of 'commodities' and natural resources of the region.

The University of Virginia Press has just issued a beautiful facsimile of the 1590 Theodor de Bry Latin edition, which includes a modernized English text. The copy used for the facsimile, that of the Mariners' Museum, is one of two known in which the engravings (from John White's famous drawings) were hand-colored at the time of publication. The high-quality facsimile, photographed and printed by the Stinehour Press, is remarkably clean and bright; not only the colors but also the shades of the paper come through sharply (even the small amount of off-setting is replicated).

Alone, the Hariot/de Bry facsimile would be a great book; combined as it is with excellent complementary essays, this is a work which is certain to hold a wide appeal. Karen Ordahl Kupperman's contextual introduction summarizes the expeditions during which Hariot and White did their work, while Peter Stallybrass examines the history of Hariot's manuscript, White's drawings, and de Bry's combination thereof into the 1590 folio editions (English, French and German editions were also printed). He comments on the rationale behind the printing of such an expensive volume (to appeal to the natural history-obsessed European elite), and also analyzes the interesting differences between the White drawings and the de Bry engravings (as well as the Hariot captions).

Of the huge crop of books appearing this spring related to the Jamestown anniversary, this is certainly the best designed and most lavishly illustrated. Kupperman's and Stallybrass' essays complement the facsimile nicely, and Hariot's text manages to remain interesting across the centuries. Highly recommended.