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Phillis Wheatley was the first black person known to have published a volume of writings in North America. Historically significant in American letters, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), was used as an exemplar of the power of education by activists against slavery, who hailed the collection as a product of genius. Composed largely of poetry that displays the controlled rhythms and rhyme patterns popularized by Alexander Pope, Poems on Various Subjects, has been regarded as both brilliant and artistically inconsequential. Most modern assessments, however, recognize Wheatley’s accomplishments as typical of the best poetry of her age.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wheatley was born sometime around 1753 or 1754—perhaps in Senegal—kidnapped, and brought to New England in 1761. She was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston as a gift for his wife, Susanna, who, according to Margaretta Matilda Odell’s Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1834), ”visited the slave market” in order ”to make a personal selection from the group of unfortunates offered for sale.” Though all sources indicate that the child was frail, Benjamin Brawley, in his Negro Builders and Heroes (1937), maintains that ”her bright eyes attracted the attention of Susanna Wheatley. . . she was purchased, taken home, and given the name of Phillis.”
In those early days, there was nothing in the delicate child to indicate that she would become a well-known poet, but she learned to read and write quickly. She also became competent in Latin. The legend of her precocity has been aided by her biographers’ emphasis on her mastery of English, selected classics, and the Bible within sixteen months. It is clear that the Wheatleys took a great interest in the bright youngster, although Odell notes that Phillis ”had no brilliant exhibition of feminine genius before her, to excite her emulations,” and found the only plausible explanation for her intellectual attainments and poetic gift ”in the inspiration of that genius which is the gift of God.” Her proficiency in grammar and understanding of style probably resulted initially from her intense interest in Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer.
Along with a handful of male university graduates, she reached a level of education that was extremely rare in colonial society, especially for women. Undoubtedly one of the community’s best-educated young women, she profited intellectually from her association with the elite of Boston, which placed her in a cultural atmosphere denied to most young people growing up in colonial America. The Wheatleys took great delight in showing her off, but inherent in this display was evidence of the ambiguous role she had to play.
A Christian Poet
Wheatley became a devout Christian during the waning days of New England Puritanism, the movement of reformist Protestants who sought to create a more spare and rigorous Christianity. Her commitment to religion, as she understood its principles, cannot be minimized. She became a member of the historic Old South Meeting House in 1771, and accepted the interpretation of Christianity preached there. While she was extremely familiar with biblical literature and took delight in the poetry of Pope, the Puritan, John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, became her favorite. Slavery was not as restrictive for her as for others. She was free to visit the Wheatleys’ friends; Odell, however, observes that when Wheatley visited these homes, she requested ”that a side-table …be laid for her [and] dined modestly apart from the rest of the company,” in a position ”where she could certainly expect neither to give or receive offense.” Various dates have been given for the beginning of her interest in writing. In a 1772 letter to Phillis’s English publishers, John Wheatley indicated that she started writing in 1765. In 1770, her elegy for a famous evangelist, the Reverend George Whitefeld, brought her public recognition. First published in the October 11 issue of the Massachusetts Spy, it was published as a broadside and a pamphlet in Boston and was also printed in New York, Newport, and Philadelphia before the end of the year. It first appeared in London the following year. In these publications, she was generally identified as ”a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, Belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley of Boston:—And has been but 9 years in this Country from Africa.”
A Respected Public Figure
That she had elected to write of George Whitefield also brought Wheaton to the attention of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, an avid supporter of humanitarian causes and an important figure in the eighteenth-century revival movement who had helped Whitefield with his American campaign. Her philanthropic activities were well known, as was her aid in the establishment of both Dartmouth College and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). That Wheatley’s elegy enjoyed widespread circulation is perhaps a testimony, not only to the greatness of the evangelist and the interest in Phillis Wheatley, but also to the influence of the Countess of Huntingdon.
The elegy for Whitefield was followed by two broadsides that appeared in the March 1772 issue of the London Magazine. In an October 10, 1772, letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, whom she considered a friend for his opposition to the Stamp Act, Wheatley enclosed a poem praising his appointment as Secretary of State for the Colonies. During 1773, two more elegies appeared, but by far the most important of her 1773 publications was her collection of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London and dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon.
The journey to England that preceded the book’s appearance was to provide the high point of her life. The Wheatleys’ physician—concerned about her delicate health—had suggested a sea voyage for her, and since one of the Wheatleys was scheduled to go to England on business, it was decided that Phillis would accompany him. Her status at the time of the trip is not clear, although it is known for certain that she had been freed by 1778. In some respects, her status was inconsequential in London, where her African background was considered exotic and contributed to her popularity as well as to her reputation as a poet. She was lionized and showered with presents. Brooke Watson, who became Lord Mayor of London, gave her a copy of Paradise Lost. The Earl of Dartmouth reportedly gave her money that she spent buying books. Among her visitors was Benjamin Franklin.
The Revolutionary War
While her productivity may not have lessened after 1773, Wheatley’s work was published infrequently. In a way, she was a casualty of the Revolutionary War: her book was published at a time when people were more concerned with the political events of the day than with the poetry of a Boston slave. October 1775 found her in Providence, Rhode Island, where John Wheatley had moved his household in order to avoid the military confusion then existing in Boston. Life in war-torn New England was far from stable or pleasant. Mr. Wheatley took the family back to Boston after the British had evacuated the city in March 1776. His death on March 12, 1778, however, effectively broke up the household—his wife had died four years earlier— and on April 1, 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a free black Bostonian. Biographers have often said that Peters was “worthless,” maintaining that he caused an estrangement between his wife and her white friends, behaved in a superior manner, and lacked the ability to support her and their three children. It is difficult to determine the validity of the charges made against him, for he undoubtedly suffered from the negative attitude toward assertive free blacks in northern cities. Whatever the truth may be, the marriage failed, and Wheatley— abandoned, lonely, and destitute—was forced to spend her last days as a scullery maid in a rooming house.
She continued to write after her marriage, although few of her poems were published. The poems that she did write do not allude to her misery—as is to be expected from a poet raised in the tough-minded Puritan tradition. She died in Boston on December 5, 1784.
Works in Literary Context
Scholarly understanding of Wheatley is evolving all the time; coming to understand her better has partly been a matter of simply unearthing more of her work. Recently, scholars have uncovered poems, letters, and more facts about her life and her association with eighteenth-century black abolitionists. They have also charted her notable use of classicism and have weighed in on the sociological intent of her biblical allusions. All this research and interpretation has proven Wheatley’s disdain for the institution of slavery and her use of art to undermine its practice.
Early twentieth-century critics of black American literature were not very kind to Wheatley because of her supposed lack of concern about slavery. Wheatley, however, did have a statement to make about the institution of slavery, and she made it to the most influential segment of eighteenth-century society—the institutional church. Two of the greatest influences on her thought and poetry were the Bible and eighteenth-century evangelical Christianity, but until fairly recently, Wheatley’s critics did not consider her use of biblical allusion, nor its symbolic application, as a statement against slavery. She often spoke in explicit biblical language designed to move church members to decisive action. For instance, in an outspoken letter to the Reverend Samson Occom, written after Wheatley was free and published repeatedly in Boston newspapers, she equates American slaveholding to that of pagan Egypt in ancient times. Freedom is a necessity, she explains:
Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian Slavery: I don’t say they would have been contented without it, by no Means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.
At one level, appreciating Wheatley’s work is a matter of understanding her mastery of the forms and themes of neoclassicism, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literary tradition of ten associated with Alexander Pope. One element commonly found in neoclassical poetry— especially in the work of Pope—is the heroic couplet, rhyming pairs of lines in which each line has ten syllables of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The fact that Wheatley’s work shows so little emotion must be considered as a further characteristic of a neoclassical aesthetic, which did not permit the poet the luxury of displaying great personal feeling. Like most poems in the genre, her many funeral elegies are stilted, sophisticated, and detached. She seldom explored her own thoughts on death, even when she knew the deceased well. Her letters demonstrate that she was capable of expressing emotion, but even in these instances, it is restraint that seems the paramount characteristic of her writing.
Works in Critical Context
In black American literary history, one of the central questions is the place of the author in the wider community. Should the work of black writers function as propaganda for community causes, or are they free to write about any subject they wish—even subjects that may make the community look bad? Wheatley’s reputation has suffered because of this controversy. Even though it arose long after her lifetime, critics have focused on her work as ammunition in this continuing debate, in ways that have been hard on Wheatley.
Wheatley and Race
Wheatley has, in fact, been dealt an extraordinary amount of abuse for her apparent failure to be an advocate for her race. Angelene Jamison, for instance, argues that that author had become ”so engulfed in the education, religion, values, and the freedom of Whites that she expressed no strong sentiments for those who had been cast into the wretchedness of slavery by those she so often praised with her pen.” J. Saunders Redding gives a classic statement of this attitude, writing that it is the ”negative, bloodless, unracial quality in Phillis Wheatley that makes her seem superficial, especially to members of her own race.” More recently, however, Margaret Perry has argued that Wheatley’s poetry was largely constrained by her environment and the style in which she wrote: ”Her efforts to project herself away from the individual to the universal was part of the artistic detachment imposed by the form of poetry she loved, and the Puritan world in which she lived and believed.” Positive assessments like this one have recently become more common.
- Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
- Richmond, Merle A. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (ca.1753-1784) and George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-1883). Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.
- Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York: Garland, 1984.
- Black, Daniel P. ”Literary Subterfuge: Early African American Writing and the Trope of the Mask.” CLA Journal48 (June 2005): 387-403.
- Chiles, Katy L. ”Becoming Colored in Occom and Wheatley’s Early America.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123 (October 2008): 1398-1417.
- Franke, Astrid. ”Phillis Wheatley, Melancholy Muse.” New England Quarterly 77 (June 2004): 224-251.
- Slauter, Eric. ”Neoclassical Culture in a Society with Slaves: Race and Rights in the Age of Wheatley.” Early American Studies 2 (Spring 2004): 81-122.
- Thompson, Gordon E. ”Methodism and the Consolation of Heavenly Bliss in Phillis Wheatley’s Funeral Elegies.” CLA Journal 48 (September 2004): 34-50.
- Thorn, Jennifer. ”’All Beautiful in Woe:’ Gender, Nation, and Phillis Wheatley’s Niobe.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 37 (2008): 233-258.
- Perspectives in American Literature. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784). Retrieved December 1, 2008, from http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/ chap2/wheatley.html. Last updated November 13, 2008.
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