The Story of Phillis Wheatley Critical Essays

Shirley Graham


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

The Story of Phillis Wheatley is written specifically for young people, and Graham’s accessible style makes her book appropriate for that audience. In her introduction, Graham states that she will offer no defense of the merits of Wheatley’s poetry, but there is no doubt in her mind that, for her day, Wheatley was an exceptionally talented person. It is her extraordinary life on which Graham focuses and which should interest young readers.

Graham seeks to portray the beauty of Wheatley’s life. Her story is not that of a struggle for individual freedom or equality, as that kind of social awareness simply could not be expected in a young slave girl in Colonial America. Rather, her story is more one of kindness and compassion. These were the qualities that led the Wheatleys to rescue and educate Phillis, and they were also the qualities that Wheatley returned to them in their times of need. She literally became one of the family.

This approach, however, does not mean that Graham overlooks the reality of the times. In her opening chapter, Graham vividly describes the way in which the little girl was treated as no better than a pig at market on the auction block. The horror of this scene, however, is balanced by the resulting indignation of Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley. Graham’s emphasis is on the Wheatleys’ compassion for the helpless girl, and although they were products of their time and owned three other slaves themselves, they recognized them as human beings with feelings and potential.

Also recognized by Graham are the restrictions and limitations put on women in...

(The entire section is 662 words.)