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...
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Wheatley’s poems record, celebrate, or mourn the public events and figures of her day. They do so in language that is formal and draws on familiar classical images and themes; emotion is restrained except for the religious fervor which permeates her work. Her poetry reveals a race consciousness that grows out of her status as a slave.
The known details of Phillis Wheatley’s life are few. According to her master, John Wheatley of Boston, she “was brought from Africa to America in the Year 1761, between Seven and Eight Years of Age [sic].” Her parents were apparently sun-worshipers, for she is supposed to have recalled to her white captors that she remembered seeing her mother pouring out water to the sun every morning. If such be the case, it would help to explain why the sun is predominant as an image in her poetry.
Her life with the Wheatleys, John and Susanna and their two children, the twins Mary and Nathaniel, was probably not too demanding for one whose disposition toward asthma (brought on or no doubt exacerbated by the horrible “middle passage”) greatly weakened her. The Wheatleys’ son attended Harvard, so it is likely that Nathaniel served as the eager young girl’s Latin tutor. At any rate, it is certain that Wheatley knew Latin well; her translation of the Niobe episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), book 6, displays a learned knowledge and appreciation of the Latin original. Wheatley’s classical learning is evident throughout her poetry, which is thick with allusions to ancient historical and mythological figures.
The turning point of Wheatley’s career, not only as an author but also as a human being, came when her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral...
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