Phillis Wheatley’s cultivation of the letter as a literary form is attested by her inclusion of the titles of several letters in each of her proposals for future volumes subsequent to the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Regrettably, none of these proposals provoked enough response to secure publication of any new volumes. Scholars continue to discover both poems and letters that Wheatley names in these proposals. The letters mentioned in them are addressed to such noted persons as William Legge, second earl of Dartmouth; Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon; Benjamin Rush; and George Washington. They display a graceful style and articulate some of Wheatley’s strongest protestations in support of the cause of American independence and in condemnation of Christian hypocrisy regarding slavery.
From the time of Phillis Wheatley’s first published piece to the present day, controversy has surrounded the life and work of America’s first black poet and only its second published woman poet, after Anne Bradstreet. Few poets of any age have been so scornfully maligned, so passionately defended, so fervently celebrated, and so patronizingly tolerated. However, during the years of her young adulthood, Wheatley was the toast of England and the colonies. For years before she attempted to find a Boston publisher for her poems, she had published numerous elegies commemorating the deaths of many of the city’s most prominent citizens. In 1770, she wrote her most famous and most often-reprinted elegy, on the death of “the voice of the Great Awakening,” George Whitefield, chaplain to the countess of Huntingdon, who was one of the leading benefactors of the Methodist evangelical movement in England and the colonies.
Not finding Boston to be in sympathy with her 1772 proposal for a volume, Wheatley found substantial support the following year in the countess of Huntingdon, whose interest had been stirred by the young poet’s noble tribute to her chaplain. Subsequently, Wheatley was sent to London, ostensibly for her health; this trip curiously accords, however, with the very weeks that her book was being printed. It is likely that she proofread the galleys herself. At any rate, she was much sought after among the intellectual, literary set of London, and Sir Brook Watson, who was to become Lord Mayor of London within a year, presented...
Barker-Benfield, G. J., and Catherine Clinton, comps. Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A collection of essays that locate the histories of women and men together by period. Includes portraits of Phillis Wheatley and others designed to appeal to a wide range of readers. Includes bibliographical references.
Bassard, Katherine Clay. Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women’s Writing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. A historical analysis that includes a discussion of the works of Wheatley. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2003.
Jones, Jacqueline. “Anglo-American Racism and Phillis Wheatley’s ‘Sable Veil,’ ‘Length’ned Chain,’ and ‘Knitted Heart.’” In Women in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. This sometimes difficult study includes fascinating biographical information and offers a close reading of dozens of poems. Jones delineates the importance of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral as an early commentary on slavery and on American female...