Phillis Wheatley (Peters) 1753?-1784
Wheatley was 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 exemplar 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. Composed largely of neoclassical elegiac poetry, which displays the controlled rhythms and rhyme patterns popularized by Alexander Pope, Poems on Various Subjects has sparked a number of critical debates regarding the extent to which Wheatley can be considered a primarily imitative minor poet or whether she employed such mimetic gestures to express in an oblique manner political and moral concerns.
Believed to have been born in West Africa, Wheatley was purchased at a slave auction in 1761 by the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant. She was renamed by her owner and given the family's surname, as was customary. 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 on her own studied classical and contemporary poetry as well as French, Latin, and Greek literature. She began writing poetry around the age of thirteen; her earliest surviving poem is generally agreed to be "On Being Brought from Africa to America."
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. She traveled to England in 1773 with the Wheatley's son and was treated as a celebrity, especially among English abolitionists, including the anti-slavery activist Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, who secured publication in London of her collection Poems on Various Subjects. Wheatley was granted an audience with King George III, but was required to miss the meeting and to turning to Boston to attend Mrs. Wheatley on her deathbed. When her owner died Wheatley was freed. There is no evidence that the Wheatley family or any of the Boston elite who had known her had any further contact with Wheatley. Her attempts to publish another volume of poetry were unsuccessful. In 1778 she married John Peters, a free black man, and had several children. The family fell into financial difficulties, Peters was jailed, and two of their children died. Wheatley worked as a maid in boarding houses until her death in December 1784, and was buried with her remaining child, who died shortly afterward, in an unmarked grave.
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. Although these poems follow the then-widely imitated diction, meter and rhyme patterns established by Pope and his school, her work stands apart from that of many of her contemporaries because of her technical skill. Julian Mason notes that "her favorite poetic form was the heroic couplet of English neoclassicism," from which she only rarely diverged.
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 the Morning" and "An Hymn to the 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 also include the poem in praise of George Washington and General Lee. Her letters, which were published posthumously, contain a proposal for a second volume of poetry, but this project was never realized.
Scholarship on Wheatley's poetry has tended to emphasize the unusual fact of the author's identity. The first edition of Poems on Various Subjects was prefaced with the signed testimony of prominent British citizens affirming its authenticity as the work of an African-born slave. Two early London reviews illustrate the concern that the novelty of the author's identity had overshadowed evaluation of the intrinsic merit of the poetry. This concern permeated early criticism of Wheatley's poetry: a favorable review concludes that while the works themselves "display no astonishing power of genius," they have special merit because of their creator. One negative appraisal asserts that "most of those people have a turn for imitation, though they have little or none for invention." Thomas Jefferson's frequently cited remark that "Religion … has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet," in Notes on Virginia (1784) was countered by defenders who citedher popular success and claimed that no Anglo-American poet of her time had produced "more beautiful lines." The abolition debates of the nineteenth century spurred renewed interest in Wheatley's work, which resulted in the publication of her letters in 1864. The argument over the literary status of her work—as simple imitations of neoclassical poetry or as innovative pieces in their own right—has continued to inform critical analyses of Wheatley.
Twentieth-century critics have scrutinized Wheatley's poetry for evidence of racial pride or abolitionist protest. During the revival of interest in black literature of pride and protest in the 1920s, Wheatley was dismissed by many critics as complacently silent on the social injustice that characterized both her early life and that of pre-revolutionary America. Some critics have argued that Wheatley's works must be judged by examining the poetic models and social influences within her restricted sphere, noting the irony of her position: within but not part of Boston's privileged upper class, and forbidden by her owners to have much contact other slaves or with free blacks. Yet more recent critics of her work have contended that her adoption of conventional styles, topics, and imagery allowed her to express a subtle critique of political and social conditions of her time. The social protest woven into her works, according to these interpretations, reveals a level of semantic complexity, evidenced by her "redeployment," in Sondra O'Neale's phrase, of neoclassical images and scriptural allusions, that has remained largely unrecognized, and establishes her as a significant and uniquely American poet.
Wheatley's reputation remains dominated by the conclusion that she was a relatively minor poet who followed the literary fashion of her age, despite much critical supposition about her poetic gifts and potential under different circumstances. Her poetry is still considered a point of departure for the study of black literature in America. Many critics find among her work poetry that excels that typical of her time, and instances of individuality and oblique resistance which acquit her of the common charge of being a mere imitator.