When Phillis Wheatley wrote Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book published by an African American, she began two traditions simultaneously: the African American literary tradition and the African American women’s literary tradition. This was a monumental accomplishment for a slave. Phillis belonged to the John Wheatley family in Boston. A letter from her owner to her publisher, also included in the book, provides the first account of her early years. It states that she was brought from Africa to America in 1761, being at that time seven or eight years old. Without formal schooling but with tutoring by the family, especially Mary Wheatley, the family’s daughter, Phillis learned the English language in sixteen months to the extent that she could read the most difficult parts of the Bible.
Wheatley started writing poetry at the age of twelve and quickly gained recognition as an occasional poet. Since the occasion usually was death, and the preponderance of her poems were elegies, she soon became Boston’s muse of comfort. Her elegy “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770” gained her instant recognition in England as well as in the colonies. Sending this elegy along with a cover letter to Selina Hastings, the countess of Huntingdon, an early promoter of English Methodism who had in 1748 appointed Whitefield her chaplain, Wheatley acquired the countess’s patronage. Published first as a broadside, this widely printed elegy was also included by the Reverend...
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