Wheatley, Phillis (1754-1784)
Phillis Wheatley (1754-1784)
Beginnings. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was seized in 1761 and brought to the colonies when she was seven years old. Too young for the grueling labor of the West Indies or the southern colonies, where slave traders stopped first after the Atlantic crossing, she was brought to Boston. Phillis was purchased by John Wheatley, a well-known tailor, and his wife Susanna, who were looking for a domestic servant. Unlike the vast majority of Africans held in bondage in the colonies, Phillis was taught to read and write by the Wheatley family. While continuing in her domestic duties, she studied geography, history, astronomy, and Alexander Pope and John Milton as well as Virgil, Homer, Ovid, and other Greek and Latin classics. In 1767, at the age of thirteen, Phillis published her first poem in the Newport Mercury, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” She achieved national and international attention when her elegy for the famed revival minister George Whitefield was published as a broadside and pamplet in Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia in 1770 and in London in 1771. With the help of Susanna Wheatley and the patronage of Selna Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, a wealthy supporter of abolitionist and evangelical causes, Phillis traveled to England, where she met major dignitaries, including Benjamin Franklin.
Importance. In her day Wheatley was famous because she demonstrated that blacks could achieve intellectual and artistic distinction. As a representative of her race this poet was a powerful symbol for the abolitionist movement. For modern critics she occupies an important place at the beginning of a distinctive African American literary tradition. When her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773, it revealed a writer of remarkable breadth and sophistication. The volume included Christian elegies, an original translation of Ovid from the Latin, Biblical paraphrases, and poems on nature, memory, and imagination, typically composed in iambic pentameter and heroic couplets. In her best-known poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley applied biblical imagery to the issue of slavery:
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
Maybe refin’d, and join th’angelic train.
Her kidnaping from Africa brought her a salvation she had not even sought, but Wheatley must remind her Christian audience that blacks “May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.” In this and other poems as well as in some of the thirty letters published after her death, Wheatley commented on her unique situation as an educated slave, but she understood her own identity less in terms of race than in religious and intellectual terms—she was a Christian and a civilized person of classical learning.
Later Life. In 1784 Wheatley published a sixty-four line poem in a pamphlet called Liberty and Peace in which she was the first writer to hail the new nation as Columbia, linking the colonies’ triumph in the War for Independence with a struggle for spiritual freedom. Her patriotism and faith in America’s future, however, was not justified by the response of colonial Americans to her work, who had difficulty seeing beyond Wheatley’s color. She advertised in Boston for subscribers to her first volume of poems but met with no success. While Poems on Various Subjects in its London edition sold twelve hundred copies in four printings, it could not sell most of the first printing of the American edition. In 1779 and 1784 Wheatley’s appeal for subscribers to another volume of poetry was rejected by Bostonians. The failure of Americans to support one of their most noted poets perhaps had much to do with the short and sad remainder of her life. As a domestic for the Wheatleys, Phillis had suffered few of the hardships of slavery and had been sheltered from the harsh realities faced by free blacks in the colonies. She was freed by the Wheatleys in 1774, a few months before Susanna’s death, and in 1778 she married John Peters, a free black man whose desire to be a gentleman and a merchant found no better success than Phillis’s artistic ambitions. The couple had three children, all of whom died in infancy, and then drifted into poverty. Phillis’s death in Boston in 1784 became, among nineteenth-century Americans who celebrated her work, a lesson in racial injustice. As Margaretta Odell described it: “The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good...was numbering the last hours of life in a state of the most abject misery, surrounded by all the emblems of a squalid poverty!”
Emory Elliot, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 31, American Colonial Writers, 1735–1781 (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark/Detroit: Gale Research, 1984);
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Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784), the first African American woman poet, was a celebrated literary figure in Boston during the Revolutionary era.
In 1761, a frail child of seven or eight years, Phillis Wheatley came to America by slaveship from Senegal and was auctioned to Mrs. John Wheatley, wife of a prosperous Boston tailor. The Wheatleys and their children, Mary and Nathaniel, found Phillis, as they named her, highly intelligent and responsive. Mary taught Phillis to read and write. She read the Bible, Alexander Pope's translations of Homer, the Latin classics, books on mythology, and the English poets. At 13 she wrote her first poem.
Menial tasks were not expected of Phillis. She accompanied the family on social occasions, although she asked to eat at a table separate from the other guests. She kept writing supplies by her bed so that she could write at all times. She was raised a strict Congregationalist and at 18 belonged to the Old South Meeting House, though ordinarily slaves were excluded from church membership. In 1773 she was formally freed.
Never very strong, Wheatley was sent with Nathaniel to England for her health in 1773. There her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published, dedicated to her hostess, the Countess of Huntington. Another volume was planned, but the Revolutionary War prevented its appearance. Her trip was cut short by the sudden illness of Mrs. Wheatley, who died in 1774.
Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man who had several trades but was unable to support her. After her husband deserted her and their two children, she worked for room and board in a boarding house. She died penniless in Boston on Dec. 5, 1784.
The poetry in Poems on Various Subjects is imitative and conventional. Wheatley's attitudes are deeply religious. The poetry is often elegaic. Her first poem, "On the Death of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield" (1770), commemorates the English evangelist so instrumental in the Great Awakening. Her poems often honor a person or an occasion: "His Excellency, General Washington" (1775) prompted a personal note from Washington. Some subjects are general—"On Recollection, " "On Imagination, " "On Virtue"; others retell stories from Ovid or the Bible.
Wheatley evidently did not preserve her African heritage. Saunders Redding said her work had a "negative, bloodless, unracial quality" and seemed "superficial, especially to members of her own race." Apparently, her only memory of Africa was of her mother at dawn pouring water in a ritual to the rising sun. Strikingly, there is scarcely a Wheatley poem that does not celebrate the rising sun. She repeatedly rejoices that "darkness ends in everlasting day." She interprets her slavery and her "darkness" (note the italicized words in the following) as typical of all mankind: "On Death's domain intent I fix my eyes, / where human nature in vast ruin lies." She, an "Ethiop," has experienced "those dark abodes" and that "Egyptian gloom" that make her so fully appreciate freedom's "genial ray."
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley was edited by Julian D. Mason, Jr. (1966), and Poems and Letters was edited by Charles Frederick Heartman (1915; repr. 1969). Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author (1931), discusses Phillis Wheatley's life and work; Langston Hughes, Famous American Negroes (1954), devotes a chapter to her; Martha S. Baconhas, Puritan Promenade (1964), contains a long section on her; and Benjamin G. Brawley, The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts (1966), offers a short, informative account of her life. An assessment of Wheatley's work in the context of black poetry is in J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939). □
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Phillis Wheatley, 1753?–1784, American poet, considered the first important black writer in the United States. Brought from Africa in 1761, she became a house slave for the Boston merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna, who, recognizing her intelligence and wit, educated her and encouraged her talent. Her work, which was derivative, was published in the collection Poems on Various Subjects (1773) and in various magazines. A second volume existed in manuscript, but it was not published and was subsequently lost. Although Wheatley traveled to England, where she was much admired, and soon thereafter obtained her freedom, she eventually died in poverty.
See her Life and Works (1916, repr. 1969); biography by V. Carretta (2011); H. L. Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (2003).
"Wheatley, Phillis." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wheatley-phillis
"Wheatley, Phillis." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wheatley-phillis