Born c. 1753
Died December 5, 1784
"In every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom."
Phillis Wheatley, who spent her childhood as a slave, has been called the "Mother of Black Literature." The young girl became a sensation in Boston in the 1760s when her well-crafted poems made her famous. Wheatley's writing abilities and intelligence were an impressive example to English and American audiences of how a person can triumph over the circumstances of oppression.
In the mid-eighteenth century, slave trading played a large role in America's economy. Ships would leave the American East Coast for the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea with products to trade there for rum. They then traveled on to Africa, where they traded the rum for men, women, and children, who were transported back to America to be sold as slaves. During the trip across the seas from Africa, people were jammed together in unsanitary conditions, and many died from sickness or starvation. Young Phillis was kidnapped from West Africa and brought across the Atlantic Ocean on the slave ship Phillis, which landed in Massachusetts's Boston Harbor on July 11, 1761.
Sold as a slave; becomes educated
After the Phillis arrived in Boston in 1761, the captain placed a notice in the newspaper that he had slaves for sale. Susanna Wheatley, the wife of John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston tailor, went aboard the Phillis to find a young girl to serve as her personal servant. A thin child with attractive features aroused her sympathy, and Susanna was able to purchase the young girl for a small sum from the captain. The captain was eager to sell Phillis, as he was afraid the thin child might die soon and he would lose his investment in her.
The Wheatleys lived with their twin children, Mary and Nathaniel, in a house with many slaves. They named the new slave Phillis after the ship on which she had sailed from Africa. Because of her size, and the fact that she was losing her front teeth, the Wheatleys thought Phillis to be about seven years of age. In time her health improved, but she remained a small and delicate person who suffered from the breathing ailment asthma for the rest of her life.
Young Phillis proved to be very intelligent, and Susanna Wheatley allowed her time off from her chores to be given lessons by the Wheatley's teenage daughter, Mary. Unlike the other slaves, Phillis was permitted to eat most of her meals with the family, except when they had company. After learning to read and write, she went on to study astronomy, ancient and modern geography, and ancient history, as well as English literature, Latin, the Bible, and poetry.
Phillis's dearest friend was a young woman named Obour Tanner, who lived in Newport, Rhode Island, as the slave of James Tanner. The two young women probably met when the Wheatleys visited in Newport. Though the two young women rarely saw one another, they sent letters back and forth for many years.
Phillis wrote her first poems at about age thirteen. In the poem On Being Brought from Africa to America, she challenged members of white society who saw African people as less than human. Many of Phillis's early poems were tributes, written in praise of the achievements and character of someone who had died. Her poem On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell when Sick, 1765 was widely read in New England.
During the 1700s, many in New England spoke of the evils of slavery, and in May 1766, several citizens of Boston requested that slavery be completely done away with. But the lawmakers took no action. Phillis herself seldom wrote about the issue of slavery.
One of Phillis's most famous poems, To the University of Cambridge, was written in 1767. The poem addressed the students of what is now Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillis had learned that the students, who had a reputation for being loud and unruly, were protesting because they had been served stale butter. Phillis, with the disadvantages of being black, a slave, and female, could only imagine what it would be like to receive a fine education. She thought it silly that they would waste their energies worrying about something so minor as stale butter and encouraged them to be grateful for their opportunities:
Students, to you 'tis given to scan the heights
And mark the systems of revolving worlds, …
Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, …
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
by you be shun'd …
An Ebonite [African] tells you 'tis your greatest foe.
Gains fame locally for her poetry
It was not long before it became fashionable for upper class Bostonians to invite "Mrs. Wheatley's Phillis" to come to their homes and read her poetry. It seems that Phillis was aware of her unusual status in colonial society, in which many people believed that whites were superior to non-whites and acted accordingly. When Phillis was invited to the homes of wealthy whites, she always refused the seat offered her at their dining tables and asked that a small, simple side-table be set for her to have dinner apart from the rest of the company.
Phillis did light chores around the Wheatley house, but could ignore them when she felt ready to write her poems. Unlike the other slaves, she was granted her own room with both heat and light. She was given paper and pencils to keep near her bed in case she awoke with ideas to jot down. Despite the special attention she received, Phillis managed to remain friendly with the other slaves.
When she was doing housework, Phillis paid attention to events going on around her. Once two gentlemen named Hussey and Coffin came to the Wheatley house and told a tale of how they had narrowly escaped being washed overboard on a sailboat during a storm on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She remembered this story and incorporated it into a poem entitled On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin. Critics praised Phillis's poem about their adventure for its intensity of emotion, well-crafted images, and spirituality.
Poems become known internationally
In her 1768 poem To the King's Most Excellent Majesty Phillis praised King George III of England see entry for ending a tax called the Stamp Act of 1765, which was hated by the colonists. In 1770, Phillis wrote a poem in honor of a minister named George Whitefield who died from an asthma attack. Although Whitefield was a generous man who raised money to help homeless people, he had defended the practice of slavery using verses from the Bible. Still, Phillis had admired him.
In the mid-eighteenth century, it was customary to advertise poems for sale in the newspaper. The printing of Phillis's poem On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770 may have been paid for by Susanna Wheatley or the printer himself who thought it would sell. The poem was distributed throughout New England. Susanna sent a copy to Great Britain to the Countess of Huntington, a close friend of both her and the deceased clergyman. The countess arranged to have the poem published in London and Phillis soon gained an international reputation.
In 1771, Phillis's long-time tutor, Mary Wheatley, married John Lothrop, pastor of the Second Congregational Church of Boston. Mary left the Wheatley house to set up a new home with him. That same year, John Wheatley retired.
During the winter of 1772, Phillis was troubled with asthma and tuberculosis, a serious lung disease. Still, she and Susanna chose twenty-eight poems and had them advertised in a Boston newspaper. But not enough people ordered the book to pay for its being printed. Susanna had Phillis write to the Countess of Huntington and ask for her support in getting the book printed in London. The countess admired the poems and promised to see that they would be printed.
Travels to Great Britain
In 1773, the Wheatleys' doctor suggested that Phillis take a trip to London, thinking that the sea air would help her regain her health. Susanna Wheatley arranged for the trip. Plans were then underway for the British publication of Phillis's collected poems in a single volume. Susanna wrote to the Countess of Huntington in gratitude for allowing the young poet to dedicate the book to the countess. Before her departure, Phillis wrote the poem Farewell to America, in which she revealed her sorrow at leaving Susanna.
During Phillis's stay in Great Britain, she met many important people who were impressed with her conversational skills and writing talents. She was given presents and books by several royal admirers and was delighted to possess her very own books for the first time.
Phillis's poems appeared in popular magazines in America and in Great Britain. With the help of the Countess of Huntington, a volume of thirty-nine of Phillis's poems, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in Great Britain in 1773. It featured the poems for which she is most honored and remembered. The book was favorably received by critics and readers alike and has been reprinted many times. That year also saw the printing in Boston of several of Phillis's other poems in praise of people who had died.
Shortly before Phillis was to have the honor of being presented to King George III of England, she learned that Susanna Wheatley was very ill. She immediately left for Boston, though she herself was still in poor health. She arrived there in October 1773. In March 1774, Susanna Wheatley died. Phillis wrote to her friend Obour Tanner: "I was treated more like a child by her than her servant." She also informed Tanner that John Wheatley had granted her freedom from slavery shortly after her return from England.
Phillis made the acquaintance of some of the best known political figures of her time. When George Washington see entry was appointed head of the Continental army that fought to free America from Great Britain, Phillis sent the general a letter along with a poem she had written about him. The 1775 poem was entitled To His Excellency General Washington. A grateful Washington wrote back and invited her to come and visit his headquarters. In March 1776, Phillis made the trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see him. It is interesting to note that during this same period, Washington continued to own black slaves.
Hard times begin
After Susanna's death, Phillis occasionally stayed at the Wheatley house and sometimes at the homes of Wheatley relatives. In 1778 John Wheatley died, leaving no money for Phillis in his will. Her friend and teacher, Mary Wheatley Lothrop, who died the same year, also failed to provide for her.
For the first time, Phillis had to find a way to take care of herself. With money tight and food scarce and expensive because of wartime shortages, she was unable to sell enough books to make ends meet. During the time of upheaval throughout the Revolutionary War (1775–83), she sewed for a living, earning just enough money to rent a little apartment.
Marries and has children
In 1778 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Phillis married a young, free black man named John Peters, whom she had met some years before. Phillis's biographers have portrayed her husband in different ways. One painted him as a handsome, respectable grocery store owner, with good manners, who ran into trouble with his business. Another described him as an intelligent man, and good speaker. He and Wheatley soon fled from Boston, where the Revolution was raging, to the village of Wilmington, Massachusetts. They lived there in poverty for several years.
In 1778 Wheatley wrote a poem to honor the memory of an American general. In the poem, the young woman spoke about freedom for America and freedom for the African slaves who lived there. She questioned how Americans could long for their own freedom and, at the same time, "hold in bondage Afric[a]'s blameless race."
In 1779 Phillis Wheatley had hoped to put together a book of thirty-three poems and thirteen letters. She advertised for buyers in the newspapers of Boston. Benjamin Franklin see entry tried to help her get them published. But even with his help, hard times caused by the war prevented her from getting enough buyers.
According to most accounts, Wheatley had three children with John Peters, and all suffered from ill health. Her first child, a son, was born in June 1779. That same year Wheatley's family moved back to Boston. For a time John may have held a job sailing on a seagoing ship. The couple lived for a while with the niece of Susanna Wheatley, but finally ended up in a boarding house in the slums of Boston, Massachusetts, where Wheatley did chores to earn money for food.
Hard times for Phillis and her family
After the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, Phillis wrote the poem Liberty and Peace, in which she rejoiced in her country's independence. That April the last of John and Susanna's children, Nathaniel Wheatley, died; no mention was made of Phillis in the wealthy man's will. That same year Phillis gave birth to a little girl, but lost her son to a stomach ailment.
Although they were still in grief over the death of their son, the family tried to look to the future. John Peters decided to try running a business again, and opened a bookstore in Boston. Unfortunately, the business did not succeed, and Peters soon went broke. Unable to pay his debts, he ended up in prison. Phillis barely scraped by, taking in other people's laundry to support her family.
A tragic end
When relatives of the Wheatleys sought out Phillis in the fall of 1784, they found her living under horrible circumstances. By that time, two of Phillis's children were already dead. After observing the ailing Phillis and her dying third child in a filthy apartment, one of the Wheatley relatives wrote: "The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good of that country which was hers by adoption … was numbering the last hours of life in a state of [terrible] misery."
Phillis Wheatley and her last child died in Boston on December 5, 1784. She was only thirty-one years old. Several local newspapers reported her death, but the names of the friends and family who attended her funeral went unreported. At the time of her death, Phillis's husband was probably still in prison. The burial places of Phillis and her children are unknown.
Some time after the death of his wife, John Peters reportedly visited the daughter of the Wheatley relative who had cared for Phillis and her child just before their deaths. He demanded and received the unpublished manuscript of the second edition of Phillis's poetry. He was said to have already sold the books she had received as gifts during her trip to London. Peters eventually moved to the South. No one knows what happened to the second volume of Phillis's poetry; it was never found and never published.
For More Information
Mason, Julian D., Jr. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York: Garland, 1984.
Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975.
Sherrow, Victoria. Phillis Wheatley. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.
Weidt, Maryann N. Revolutionary Poet: A Story about Phillis Wheatley. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1997.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1995.
Liberty! Chronicle of the Revolution. Diversity. [Online] Available http://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/chronicle/diversity-phillisw.html (accessed on 4/5/99).
The Middle Passage. [Online] Available http://3mill.bitshop.com/middlePassage/mphome.htm (accessed on 4/5/99).
Slavery in the Americas
The shameful practice of slavery has existed in the world since ancient times. A slave is a person who functions as a servant to another and is considered a form of property. A slave can be bought or sold.
After their discovery of the New World in the fifteenth century, Europeans began kidnapping people from the coast of West Africa and sending them on ships to perform labor in North and South America. The process of acquiring Africans for the transatlantic slave trade was known as the Middle Passage. It included organizing the voyages to Europe and the Americas, capturing individuals from various African nations, building holding areas for the slaves, transporting them across the seas to the Americas, and distributing them there once they arrived.
An estimated 8 to 80 million Africans were enslaved and sent to work in the Americas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Arriving at an accurate figure is impossible because of the inaccuracy of shipping records of that time. Most slaves were captured in West Africa or West Central Africa. The majority of those enslaved and transported to the Americas were males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five, but the ships also carried a small percentage of women and children to America's shores.
In North America, although some slaves worked in towns or cities in the North and South, most lived on large farms in the southern part of the United States, where they toiled as servants and fieldworkers. How the slaves were treated depended largely on the type of work they did. House servants, such as Phillis Wheatley, generally had a much more comfortable existence than did the field slaves, who usually lived under terrible conditions. Slave families were often torn apart and children were separated from their parents and sold to the highest bidder.
Some historians believe that slavery was instituted in America by landowners because it was the only way to profitably raise large-scale crops on the vast areas of free, American land. Native Americans originally inhabited these open plots of land until the Europeans used force to seize the land from them. Because of the huge amounts of available and cheap land, most free laborers would not work for someone else when they could have their own land to work for themselves.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, European nations began to outlaw the slave trade. In the United States, the slaves were freed only after decades of political battles that ended in the bloody American Civil War (1861-65).
December 5, 1784
The poet Phillis Wheatley was born, according to her own testimony, in Gambia, West Africa, along the fertile lowlands of the Gambia River. She was abducted at the age of seven or eight, and then sold in Boston to John and Susanna Wheatley on July 11, 1761. The horrors of the Middle Passage very likely contributed to the persistent asthma that plagued her throughout her short life. The Wheatleys apparently named the girl, who had nothing but a piece of dirty carpet to conceal her nakedness, after the slave ship Phillis, which had transported her. Nonetheless, unlike most slave owners of the time, the Wheatleys permitted Phillis to learn to read, and her poetic talent soon began to emerge.
Her earliest known piece of writing was an undated letter from 1765 (no known copy now exists) to Samson Occom, a Native American Mohegan minister and one of Dartmouth College's first graduates. The budding poet first appeared in print on December 21, 1767, in the Newport Mercury newspaper, when the author was about fourteen. The poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," relates how the two gentlemen of the title narrowly escaped being drowned off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Much of her subsequent poetry also dealt with events occurring close to her Boston circle. Of her fifty-five extant poems, for example, nineteen are elegies; all but the last of these are devoted to commemorating someone known by the poet. Her last elegy is written about herself and her career.
In early October 1770, Wheatley published an elegy that was pivotal to her career. The subject of the elegy was George Whitefield, an evangelical Methodist minister and privy chaplain to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. Whitefield made seven journeys to the American colonies, where he was known as "the Voice of the Great Awakening" and "the Great Awakener." Only a week before his death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, Whitefield preached in Boston, where Wheatley very likely heard him. As Susanna Whea-tley regularly corresponded with the countess, she and the Wheatley household may well have entertained the Great Awakener. Wheatley's vivid, ostensibly firsthand account in the elegy, replete with quotations, may have been based on an actual acquaintance with Whitefield. In any case, Wheat-ley's deft elegy became an overnight sensation and was often reprinted.
It is almost certain that the ship that carried news of Whitefield's death to the countess also carried a copy of Wheatley's elegy, which brought Wheatley to the sympathetic attention of the countess. Such an acquaintance ensured that Wheatley's elegy was also reprinted many times in London, giving the young poet the distinction of an international reputation. When Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was denied publication in Boston for racist reasons, the Countess of Huntingdon generously financed its publication in London.
Wheatley's support by Selina Hastings, and her rejection by male-dominated Boston, signaled her nourishment as a literary artist by a community of women. All these women—the countess, who encouraged and financed the publication of her Poems in 1773; Mary and Susanna Wheatley, who taught her the rudiments of reading and writing; and Obour Tanner, who could empathize probably better than anyone with her condition as a slave—were much older than Wheatley and obviously nurtured her creative development.
During the summer of 1772, Wheatley actually journeyed to England, where she assisted in the preparation of her volume for the press. While in London she enjoyed considerable recognition by such dignitaries as Lord Dartmouth, Lord Lincoln, Granville Sharp (who escorted Wheatley on several tours about London), Benjamin Franklin, and Brook Watson, a wealthy merchant who presented Wheatley with a folio edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost and who would later become lord mayor of London. Wheatley was to have been presented at court when Susanna Wheatley became ill. Wheatley was summoned to return to Boston in early August 1773. Sometime before October 18, 1773, she was granted her freedom, according to her own testimony, "at the desire of my friends in England." It seems likely, then, that if Selina Hastings had not agreed to finance Wheatley's Poems and if the poet had not journeyed to London, she would never have been manumitted.
As the American Revolution erupted, Wheatley's patriotic feelings began to separate her even more from the Wheatleys, who were loyalists. Her patriotism is clearly underscored in her two most famous Revolutionary War poems. "To His Excellency General Washington" (1775) closes with this justly famous encomium: "A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading WASHINGTON! be thine." "Liberty and Peace" (1784), written to celebrate the Treaty of Paris (September 1783), declares: "And new-born Rome [i.e., America] shall give Britannia Law."
Phillis Wheatley's attitude toward slavery has also been misunderstood. Because some of her antislavery statements have been recovered only in the 1970s and 1980s, she has often been criticized for ignoring the issue.
But her position was clear: In February 1774, for example, Wheatley wrote to Samson Occom that "in every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance." This letter was reprinted a dozen times in American newspapers over the course of the next twelve months. Certainly Americans of Wheatley's time never questioned her attitude toward slavery after the publication of this letter.
In 1778 Wheatley married John Peters, a free African American who was a jack-of-all-trades, serving in various capacities from storekeeper to advocate for African Americans before the courts. But given the turbulent conditions of a nation caught up in the Revolution, Wheatley's fortunes began to decline steadily. In 1779 she published "Proposals for Printing by Subscription," a solicitation for funds for a new volume of poems. Although this failed to attract subscribers, it attests that the poet had been diligent with her pen since the 1773 Poems, and that she had indeed produced some three hundred pages of new poetry. This volume never appeared, however, and most of its poems are now lost.
Phillis Wheatley Peters and her newborn child died in a shack on the edge of Boston on December 5, 1784. Preceded in death by two other young children, Wheat-ley's tragic end resembles her beginning in America. Yet Wheatley has left to her largely unappreciative country a legacy of firsts: She was the first African American to publish a book, the first woman writer whose publication was urged and nurtured by a community of women, and the first American woman author who tried to earn a living by means of her writing.
On February 4, 1999, a long-lost poem by Phillis Wheatley, titled "Ocean," was read publicly for the first time in 226 years. The copy of the poem, written in Wheatley's hand, was part of the Newseum's 1999 special exhibition African American Newspeople, Newsmakers.
See also Poetry, U.S.
Davis, Arthur P. "Personal Elements in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley." Phylon 13 (1953): 191–198.
O'Neale, Sondra A. "A Slave's Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley's Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol." Early American Literature 21 (1986): 144–165.
Robinson, William H., ed. Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside Press, 1975.
Robinson, William H., ed. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Shields, John C. "Phillis Wheatley and Mather Byles: A Study of Literature Relationship." College Language Association Journal 23 (1980): 377–390.
Shields, John C. "Phillis Wheatley's Use of Classicism." American Literature 52 (1980): 97–111.
Shields, John C. "Phillis Wheatley." In African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith. New York: Scribner's, 1991.
john c. shields (1996)
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);
Born circa 1753, Senegal, Africa; died 5 December 1784, Boston, Massachusetts
Married John Peters, 1778; children: three, all of whom died young
Facts about Phillis (sometimes written as Phyllis) Wheatley's birth are unknown. The speculation of biographers that she was seven years old in 1760, when she was sold as a slave in Boston, is based on the condition of her teeth at the time. Susannah Wheatley, the wife of a prosperous Boston tailor, bought the frail, asthmatic child. It is inferred from her later recollection of a sunrise ritual and familiarity with Arabic script that her African background was that of a Senegalese Moslem.
Her nurturing with the Wheatley's two eighteen-year-old twins was remarkably pleasant and unique to the period. Struck by her sharp intellect, the Wheatleys, contrary to the law and the accepted morality of the times, immediately began to teach Phillis to read and write. In sixteen months, Wheatley was reading the Bible, and at the age of twelve, she began to learn Latin and read the classics of English literature.
Greatly influenced by Pope, Wheatley began poetry at thirteen. After she started publishing at seventeen, she received the attention of Boston society and was invited to social gatherings. Whether to advance their social status or to further Phillis's career, the Wheatleys greatly supported her success among the Boston elite. Her fame soon spread from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, and England. She became a freedwoman in 1772. In 1773, the Wheatleys financed her trip to England, where—on a visit cut short by Mrs. Wheatley's illness—Phillis Wheatley was presented to London society. In 1776 Wheatley was warmly received by General Washington, with whom she had corresponded and to whom she had addressed a 42-line poem, published in the Pennsylvania Magazine, edited by Thomas Paine (April 1776).
By 1778 the Wheatleys were either dead or had moved to England; Phillis fended for herself as a poet and seamstress. After marrying Peters, she moved to Wilmington, Massachusetts, and lived in poverty for the rest of her life. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society record, when Peters was jailed for debts, Wheatley experienced drudgery for the first time in her life, working in a boarding house for blacks in Boston. She bore three children, and two had died by 1783; the third died a few hours after her own death in 1784.
Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was first published in England in 1773; the first American edition did not follow until 1784. It includes 39 poems of varying merit, some published earlier in magazines. Most of the poems are occasional; some are elegies. "Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo" and "Goliath of Gath," both long poems, reveal the two all-encompassing passions in Wheatley's life, for the Bible and the classics. The first, along with short poems such as "An Hymn to Morning" and "An Hymn to Evening," exhibits her characteristic classical allusions and use of heroic couplets. A very few poems, such as her odes to Washington and Major General Charles Lee reflect her response to the war.
Wheatley has been criticized for not being concerned enough with her own background and the problems of her race. Only two poems, "On Being Brought from Africa" and "To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works," deal with African subjects. There are clear references to Africa in only another nine poems. Richard Wright suggests that Wheatley's lack of racial protest must be explained by her acceptance in Boston society. It may well be that what we consider weaknesses in the collection of her poetry are the results of the temper of contemporary New England and the literary tastes of Wheatley's time.
Wheatley was celebrated by her contemporaries as a child prodigy and poet and regarded as a skillful letter writer and entertaining literary conversationalist. Her poetry is impersonal, with a self-effacement that subordinates her racial and sexual identities to her identities as Christian and poet. She retains, however, the distinction of being the first famous black woman poet.
Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro-Slave Poet of Boston (edited by C. Deane 1864).
Hughes, L., Famous American Negroes (1954). Mason, J., Introduction to The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley (1966, revised and expanded 1989). Odell, M. M., Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1834). Richmond, M. A., Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton (1974). Robinson, W. H., Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings (1975). Robinson, W. H., Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography (1981). Shields, J. C., The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (1988).
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
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). □