Wheatley is the first black woman known to have published a book in the United States. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was used as an example of the power of education by proponents of egalitarian and abolitionist aims, who emphasized Wheatley's command of Western literature and classical mythology as well as the religious expression strongly evident in her poetry. Wheatley's talent came to the attention of political and cultural leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, and she once corresponded with George Washington. Although her reputation as a poet has sometimes been disparaged and her literary skills challenged, most modern assessments recognize Wheatley's accomplishments as typical of the best poetry of her age.
Believed to have been born in West Africa circa 1753 (possibly in present-day Senegal or Gambia), Wheatley was purchased when she was about seven years old at a slave auction in 1761 by the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant, Susannah Wheatley. Bought to be a personal maid for her mistress, she was renamed by her owner and given the family's surname. She displayed a curiosity and aptitude for learning that led the Wheatleys to educate her, primarily through Bible study. Wheatley was taught to read and write English and studied classical and contemporary poetry as well as French, Latin, and Greek literature. She began writing poetry around the age of thirteen. She was given the unusual privilege of a private room with a lamp and writing materials in order to encourage her writing, but she was forbidden to associate with other slaves. Wheatley's first published poem, an elegy commemorating the death of the well-known abolitionist minister George Whitefield, was printed locally in 1770; however, she soon gained national and international attention when this poem was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies and in England. As a palliative for her asthma, she traveled to England in 1773 with the Wheatleys' son and was treated as a celebrity, especially among English abolitionists. Among them was the antislavery activist Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, who secured publication in London of Wheatley's collection Poems on Various Subjects. The work was first published with the signed testimonies of John Hancock and Reverend Samuel Mather affirming its authenticity as the work of a slave girl. Wheatley was granted an audience with King George III but missed the meeting in order to return to Boston to attend Mrs. Wheatley on her deathbed. Wheatley was freed in 1774, about four months before Mrs. Wheatley's death. Wheatley married John Peters in 1778, a free black man who worked as a lawyer and a grocer, and they had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Her attempts to publish another volume of poetry were unsuccessful; she could not find enough subscribers to make publication financially possible, despite the praise of men including Voltaire, George Washington, and John Paul Jones. The family eventually fell into financial difficulties, and Peters was jailed in a debtor's prison. Wheatley spent her last years in poverty, working as a maid in boardinghouses until her death on December 5, 1784.
Wheatley was primarily an occasional poet, writing elegies and honorific works to commemorate the lives of friends and famous contemporaries and poems to celebrate important events, such as Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces ("To His Excellency George Washington"). Her poems follow the then-widely imitated diction, meter, and rhyme patterns established by Alexander Pope and his school of neoclassical poetry, but Wheatley's technical skill sets her work apart from that of many of her contemporaries. Poems on Various Subjects contains thirty-nine poems which form the majority of her extant work and range in subject matter from very personal and philosophical musings, such as "An Hymn to Morning" and "An Hymn to Evening," to more conventional neoclassical subjects, as in "On Recollection." Many of the poems combine Christian imagery or scriptural interpretation with classical influences, particularly Homeric allusions. Her poems reflect an attention to the major political events of her day as well as more mundane occurrences among her acquaintances. Of the extant poems not contained in Poems on Various Subjects, many are variants of earlier poems, but these also include the poems in praise of George Washington and General Lee.
Early reviews of the Poems on Various Subjects focus on the novelty of an educated, literate female slave more than the work itself, which was dismissed as merely average or simply imitative, though a few of Wheatley's defenders maintained that her poetry could hold its own with that of contemporary white poets. Twentieth-century African American critics scrutinized Wheatley's verse for evidence of racial pride or defiance of bondage, and some faulted her for what they perceived as a lack of either sentiment. More recent critics of the late twentieth century have argued that in using neoclassical and traditionally white modes of discourse, Wheatley subverted the language of her oppressors and used it for her own purposes. Some critics have contended that Wheatley's subjects must be judged within the context of the poetic models and social influences in her restricted surroundings, noting the irony of her position as a pampered favorite of Boston's privileged class and of her enforced isolation from other slaves. Despite much supposition concerning her poetic gifts and potential under different circumstances, Wheatley's poetry is considered a point of departure for the study of African American literature. Many commentators assess her poetry superior to that typical of her era, and cite instances of individuality that acquit her of the common charge of being a mere imitator. James Weldon Johnson has explained that when Wheatley's work is judged by the standards of her time, rather than those of a "later day," Wheatley "stands out as one of the important characters in the making of American literature, without any allowances for her sex or her antecedents."
An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield (poetry) 1770
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. By Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston (poetry) 1773
An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of that Great Divine, The Reverend and Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper (poetry) 1784
Liberty and Peace, A Poem (poetry) 1784
Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave (memoir and poetry) 1838
Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro-Slave Poet of Boston (letters) 1864
Phillis Wheatley (Phillis Peters), Poems and Letters (poetry and letters) 1915
Life and Works of Phillis Wheatley. Containing Her Complete Poetical Works, Numerous Letters and a Complete Biography of This Famous Poet of a Century and a Half Ago (poetry and letters) 1916
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (poetry) 1966
The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (poetry, letters) 1988
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SOURCE: Wheatley, Phillis. "Letter to John Thornton." In Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings, edited by William H. Robinson, pp. 327-28. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.
In the following letter written in 1773, Wheatley informs John Thornton, a merchant she met with in London, that she has returned safely to her mistress in America.
It is with great satisfaction, I acquaint you with my experience of the / goodness of God in safely conducting my passage over the mighty waters, and returning / me in safety to my American Friends. I presume you will join with them and me / in praise to God for so distinguishing a favour, it was amazing Mercy, altogether / unmerited by me: and if possible it is augmented by the consideration of the bitter re- / verse, which is the deserved wages of my evil doings. The Apostle Paul, tells us / that the wages of sin is death. I don't imagine he excepted any sin whatsoever, / being equally hateful in its nature in the sight of God, who is essential Purity.
Should we not sink hon'd sir, under this sentence of Death, pronounced / on every sin, from the comparatively least to the greatest, were not this blessed Con- / trast annexed to it, "But the Gift of God is eternal Life, through Jesus Christ / our Lord?["] It is his Gift. O let us be thankful for it! What a load is taken from / the...
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SOURCE: Wheatley, Phillis. "Letter to Samson Occom." In Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings, edited by William H. Robinson, p. 332. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.
In the following letter written in 1774, Wheatley directly addresses the injustice of slavery in a way that she does not in her poetry. This letter was written shortly after the death of her mistress, when she had been freed for four months. Her recipient, Samson Occom, was a Native American preacher who, like Wheatley, was introduced in England as a Christian prodigy.
Reverend and honoured Sir,
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is insensibly chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reigned so long is converting into beautiful Order, and reveals more and more clearly the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one without the other: Otherwise, perhaps the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every...
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SOURCE: Richmond, M. A. "The Critics." In Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) and George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-1883), pp. 53-66. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.
In the following essay, Richmond surveys the critical response to Wheatley's work, including questions about her authenticity as a black author.
Most illustrious of Phillis Wheatley's contemporary critics was Thomas Jefferson, part revolutionary and part Virginia patrician, offering his judgment of the poet in his latter guise.
"Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet," Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82). "The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." (Note the gratuitous skepticism even about the authenticity of her authorship in the phrase "published under her name.")
One reply to Jefferson came from Samuel Stanhope Smith, president of the College of New Jersey and a member of the American Philosophical Society. In "An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species" (1810), Dr. Smith wrote: "The poems of Phillis Whately, a poor African slave, taught to read by the indulgent piety of her master are spoken of with infinite contempt....
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SOURCE: Erkkila, Betsy. “Revolutionary Women.“ Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6, no. 2 (fall 1987): 189-223.
In the following excerpt, Erkkila discusses Wheatley’s life and work along with the correspondence of Abigail Adams, wife of the early American leader John Adams. Erkkila suggests that the writings of these women, a white colonist and a black slave, reveal the full extent of the force of the revolution. In their challenges to men of power, Erkkila contends, they attempted to link the fight for American freedom to the liberation of women, white and black.
In a letter written to John Adams during the Revolutionary war, Abigail Adams described the appearance of a new phenomenon in America: the female mob. Angry at “an eminent, wealthy, stingy Merchant,” who was hoarding coffee and refusing to sell at a reasonable price, “a Number of Females some say a hundred, some say more assembled with a cart and trucks, marchd down to the Ware House and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver, upon which one of them seazd him by his Neck and tossd him into the cart. Upon his finding no Quarter he deliverd the keys, when they tipd up the cart and discharged him, then opend the Warehouse, Hoisted out the Coffe themselves, put it into the trucks and drove off.” The incident is remarkable both in its display of female physical force and violence and the seeming...
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SOURCE: Nott, Walt. "From 'uncultivated Barbarian' to 'Poetical Genius': The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley." MELUS 18, no. 3 (fall 1993): 21-32.
In the following essay, Nott surveys the public response to Wheatley's poetry.
The first edition of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) included an attestation that the volume was the work of its purported author. "To the PUBLICK" was signed by Massachusetts's royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver, and sixteen other Bay Colony notables, including John Hancock and John Wheatley, "her Master." The signatories assured the volume's readers that Poems on Various Subjects was indeed "written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town" (Wheatley 48). When Wheatley landed in Boston upon her return from England in September 1773, the Boston Gazette, the newspaper of revolutionary Massachusetts, hailed the young slave woman as "the extraordinary Poetical Genius" ("Boston" 2). The two poles of public identity represented by "To the PUBLICK" and the Gazette notice—"uncultivated Barbarian" and "Poetical Genius"—suggest the possibilities open to Wheatley in...
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KATHERINE CLAY BASSARD (ESSAY DATE 1999)
SOURCE: Bassard, Katherine Clay. "Diaspora Subjectivity and Transatlantic Crossings: Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Recovery." In Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing, pp. 28-57. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Bassard focuses on Wheatley's "On Being Brought From Africa to America" as an instance of Wheatley's African American poetics.
In Between Slavery and Freedom, Bill E. Lawson writes of the "functional lexical gap" evidenced by the lack of an appropriate collective nomenclature for descendants of Africans enslaved in the Americas. Noting that "the language we use to frame a group's political and social status can have an impact on the public policy regarding that group," Lawson concludes that "our moral/political vocabulary is morally unsatisfactory and inadequate for characterizing the plight of presentday black Americans" (McGary and Lawson 72). Lawson's important observation about collective designation has its beginnings in the ritual misnamings of African peoples that characterized the transatlantic slave trade. Further, this "conceptual" and "lexical" gap (77) has had a direct impact on the perception and reception of Phillis...
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Choucair, Mona M. "Phillis Wheatley." In African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source-book, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 463-68. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000.
Surveys Wheatley's major works and the most important pieces of criticism and biography on Wheatley from the eighteenth through the twentieth century.
Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981, 166 p.
Provides a bibliography of criticism and writing on Wheatley, with a short biography.
DuBois, Shirley Graham. The Story of Phillis Wheatley. New York: J. Messner, 1949, 176 p.
Offers a biography of Wheatley written by African-American playwright and wife of W. E. B. DuBois.
Brawley, Benjamin. "Phillis Wheatley." In The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, 3rd ed., pp. 15-37. New York: AMS Press, 1971.
Critiques Wheatley's poetry, noting the detrimental influence of neoclassical English poets, and asserts her importance to American literary history.
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