Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
Born in western Africa, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped by slave traders in 1761 when she was about seven years old. Named for the Phillis, the slave ship on which she was transported, the child was taken to Boston and put up for sale. Susannah Wheatley, wife of prosperous Boston tailor John Wheatley, picked out the child, and her husband bought her as a servant for his wife. As customary, the slave girl took the surname of her new owners.
The African girl spoke no English, but her intelligence was obvious to the Wheatleys, and they educated her, finding her to be a quick learner. The family became very fond of her, and when they observed her trying to form letters, the Wheatleys’ adolescent children, twins Mary and Nathaniel (Nat), taught Phillis to read and write, remarkable in a time when literacy was forbidden for slaves. Phillis was soon reading the Bible, classical mythology, ancient history, geography, astronomy, and literature. The Wheatley twins also tutored her in Latin.
Introduced to Christianity soon after her arrival, she embraced it fervently; salvation and Christian duty loomed large in the poetry she would write later. Charmed by her intelligence and sweet disposition, Susannah Wheatley doted on the child, keeping her always at her side. Although still in bondage, Phillis lived apart from the other slaves and was not required to share their labor. When she began to compose poetry around the age of twelve, Susannah Wheatley encouraged her and made sure that Phillis was well supplied with writing materials and all the time she desired for her compositions. On December 21, 1767, The Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury published Phillis’s first poem.
The unusual circumstances of the young poet—her gender, age, race, and unexpected literacy—-drew the attention of many notables of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, John Adams, and George Washington. Wheatley continued to write and publish poems for the next couple of years, most of them for special occasions and about public events, and she was often asked by the Wheatleys and others to read her poetry at social gatherings.
One of her most famous poems was an elegy for the popular British evangelical minister George Whitefield, who frequently preached in the colonies. Whitefield was chaplain to the countess of Huntingdon in England, so Wheatley sent a copy of the elegy to the countess, which proved fortunate. Although the Wheatleys promoted Phillis’s work in every way, they were unable to find a publisher in Boston. At Susannah Wheatley’s request, a friend found an English printer who was interested, providing it could be proved that such an unlikely person was indeed the author. Thus, in a preface to Wheatley’s collected poems is a statement affirming that she is the true author, signed by prominent men of Boston, including some who were later to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Because the countess of Huntingdon was a woman of influence whose patronage could be important to the book’s success, Wheatley wisely dedicated the book to her; the countess suggested that Wheatley’s portrait be placed in the book. The picture shows a contemplative young woman seated at her writing table. The artist is believed to have been Scipio Moorhead, also an African slave, to whom Wheatley wrote a poem included in the collection. The book aroused significant interest both in Massachusetts and in England.
However, Wheatley’s health, which had always been delicate, seemed to decline. Susannah Wheatley thought a trip to England would restore Phillis’s health, so in May, 1773, Phillis accompanied Nat Wheatley on a business trip to England. London society was quite taken...
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with the young poet and entertained her with respect and honor. There was even talk of her meeting King George III. This was not to occur, however, because Phillis received news that her mistress, Susannah Wheatley, had become ill. Phillis set sail for America immediately without seeing her book,Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published on September 1, 1773. The book, a collection of thirty-nine poems, was enthusiastically received in England but less positively reviewed in America. Thomas Jefferson was one of its most outspoken critics.
More good fortune was to befall Wheatley; shortly after her return to America, the Wheatleys released her from slavery. She continued to live with the family, but for the first time she wrote openly about the injustice of slavery. In a letter to friend Sampson Occom, an American Indian Christian convert and missionary, Wheatley condemned slavery in strong terms. Her letter was published in newspapers throughout New England and was considered an important contribution to the abolitionist movement. Although Wheatley had much to be happy about, her fortunes were to turn and decline for the rest of her life.
Early in 1774, her former mistress and most ardent supporter, Susannah Wheatley, died. The world outside the Wheatley home paralleled the disruption within. War between England and the American colonies was brewing; British warships filled Boston harbor, and British soldiers filled the city. With America on the brink of war, Wheatley fled Boston to stay with Mary Wheatley, now married, in Rhode Island. While there, Phillis wrote a poem praising George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army. The poem resulted in an invitation for the poet to meet the general, an invitation Phillis happily accepted.
In 1776, after the British had left Boston, Wheatley returned to the shattered city and discovered that most of her friends had died or fled. Goods were hard to come by, and life was a struggle for everyone in Boston, especially a young, unmarried woman of limited finances. Wheatley’s circumstances worsened as the war continued, and then she suffered another blow; her friends John Wheatley and his daughter Mary died within close succession. The only surviving family member, Nat, had remained in England. The family she had been so close to most of her life was now lost to her. It was then, in 1778, whether out of necessity or genuine feeling, that Wheatley chose to marry John Peters.
Like her, Peters was a freed slave. After their marriage, Peters worked at a series of occupations ranging from grocer to lawyer, while Wheatley continued to write her poetry and attempted to have a second book published. However, in a country consumed by war and where money and goods were scarce, books of poetry generated little interest. A few of her patriotic poems and letters were published in newspapers and magazines, but she never published a second book. The Peters family suffered financial problems, and the two children to whom Wheatley gave birth perished. She was obliged to work as a seamstress and maid in a boardinghouse to support herself when her husband abandoned her or was sentenced to debtors’ prison. The final days of her life were marked by deprivation and hardship. She did not live to see her final poem, a celebration of American independence, published. She and her third child died, hours apart, on December 5, 1784; she was around thirty-one years old.