Phillis Wheatley American Literature Analysis
No one could deny Wheatley’s remarkable achievement in being the first African American of either sex to publish a book in colonial America, a time and place where slaves’ very humanity was questioned. The publication of a slave girl’s poems attested to the spiritual and intellectual capacities of Africans kept in bondage. However, while the accomplishment is noteworthy, the poetry itself has always received an ambivalent response, from both her contemporaries and from some modern readers.
Some of the early criticisms can be attributed to a lack of ease with the poetry’s source; for example, Jefferson’s dismissal of Wheatley’s work suggests his unwillingness to credit the idea of art from the hand of a slave. Nonetheless, even her supporters have observed that her poetry was good but not exceptional. Although the quality of her work has long been debated, it is an unfair judgment to suggest that her interest lies primarily in her unusual circumstances and historical significance.
European culture was a heavy presence in early American writing, and the neoclassical influence is clearly seen in Wheatley’s poetry in its polished poetic diction, conventional figures of speech, classical allusions, decorum, and emotional restraint. The works of Alexander Pope, one of the great neoclassical poets, were an important part of Wheatley’s early education, and his translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 725
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