Wheatley, Phillis: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Richmond, M. A. "The Critics." In Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) and George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-1883), pp. 53-66. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.

In the following essay, Richmond surveys the critical response to Wheatley's work, including questions about her authenticity as a black author.

Most illustrious of Phillis Wheatley's contemporary critics was Thomas Jefferson, part revolutionary and part Virginia patrician, offering his judgment of the poet in his latter guise.

"Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet," Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82). "The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." (Note the gratuitous skepticism even about the authenticity of her authorship in the phrase "published under her name.")

One reply to Jefferson came from Samuel Stanhope Smith, president of the College of New Jersey and a member of the American Philosophical Society. In "An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species" (1810), Dr. Smith wrote: "The poems of Phillis Whately, a poor African slave, taught to read by the indulgent piety of her master are spoken of with infinite contempt. But I will demand of Mr. Jefferson, or of any other man who is acquainted with American planters, how many of those masters could have written poems equal to those of Phillis Whately?"

In one sense, Dr. Smith's challenge begs the question. To say that Phillis Wheatley wrote better verse than American planters is not yet to say she was a poet. It is on the anthropological or sociological plane, rather than the literary, that Dr. Smith scores a point in contesting Jefferson's belief in the inherent inferiority of blacks.

A similar thrust came from a distinguished French contemporary, Henri Grégoire, prominent abbé in the French Revolutionary era and later a bishop. Among Grégoire's labors was a pioneer treatise, De la Littérature des Nègres (1808), in which he reproaches the American President. "Jefferson," he wrote, "appears unwilling to acknowledge the talents of Negroes, even those of Phillis Wheatley.…" To refute this prejudice, Grégoire cites the public response to the Wheatley volume of 1773 and offers selections from that volume. Among the first French responses to the volume of 1773 was one from Voltaire, who on occasion expressed no high regard for blacks. But in 1774 he wrote to Baron Constant de Rebecq: "Fontenelle was wrong in saying that there were never any poets among the Negroes; there is in fact one Negress who writes very good English verse."

As in the United States and France, so in the Germanic states there was a dissent from Jefferson's judgment among his scholarly contemporaries. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach often referred to as the father of anthropology and an original investigator of ethnic categories, described the Wheatley volume as "a collection which scarcely anyone who has any taste for poetry could read without pleasure" (Anthropological Treatises, 1865).

In Britain, where her volume was comprehensively reviewed in major periodicals upon its publication in 1773 and where she was, at the time, the best known Colonial poet, the tide of opinion was stronger and more widespread. Not that there was an excessive praise for the poems (they "display no astonishing powers of genius," said one review, and another found them "merely imitative"), but sufficient merit was discerned in them to arouse concern "that this ingenious young woman is yet a slave."

Later, in 1788, Thomas Clarkson, a tireless antislavery agitator and leader in the successful campaign to halt British participation in the slave trade, protested, "if the authoress was designed for slavery … the greater part of the inhabitants of Britain must lose their claim to freedom."

This again is Abolitionist argument rather than literary criticism, but only a mindless literary purist would exclude it from an ultimate assessment of Phillis Wheatley. It was no small achievement for the African child to have become a modest standard in the conflict that dominated the first nine decades of this country's history and in a different form continues to this day. She did not aspire to become an Abolitionist symbol, but the role was thrust upon her just the same because she absorbed the New England culture so swiftly and so well as to be the peer of any white contemporary in its poetic expression.

The poetic world of Phillis Wheatley was circumscribed by rigid boundaries: by the decasyllabic line in the heroic couplet, by the ornate diction of neoclassicism and the ritualistic obeisances it prescribed. Within these boundaries of meter and language other narrowing constrictions defined the thoughts and emotions that inhabited her poetic world.

Conforming to neoclassical ritual, she constantly addressed the Muses, singly or collectively, in such terms as these: Celestial Muse, heavenly Muse, Muse divine, sacred Nine, indulgent Muse, gentle Muse, tuneful Nine, tuneful goddess, sacred choir, blooming graces.

Among representative invocations to the Muses were these: inspire my song; aid my high design … assist my strains … my arduous flight sustain—raise my mind to a seraphic strain … assist my labors—my strains refine … inspire—fill my bosom with celestial fire … lend thine aid, nor let me sue in vain.

In the effulgent imagery of neoclassicism the sky became ethereal space, ethereal train, starry train, heavenly plains, Phoebe's realms, orient realms, azure plain, empyreal skies. The earth appeared as this vast machine, rolling globe, dusty plain, dark, terrestrial ball.



'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, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Wheatley, Phillis. "On being brought from Africa to America." In Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, p. 18. London: A. Bell, 1773.

The verse is peopled with figures from the Greek and Roman classics, literary and mythological; Homer and Virgil and Terence are here, as are gods and goddesses in profusion, and such place names as Helicon, Olympus, and Parnassus. Niobe appears much more often than any other figure from the Greco-Roman classics. Indeed, the tragedy of Niobe, as taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, inspired her longest poem, running to 224 lines. Only one other is so ambitious, containing 2 lines less, and it, too, is derivative, transmuting into heroic couplets the biblical narrative of David and Goliath. These choices, Ovid and Samuel, attest to the primacy of the classics and the Bible in forming her poetical mind. The coincident and related influence of Puritanism probably accounts for a suggestive omission in her recital of David's conquest. She discreetly ignores the two biblical references to Goliath as an "uncircumcised Philistine."

Something of her style may be gleaned by juxtaposing a biblical passage and her rendition of it.

And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?

—I Samuel, 17:26

Then Jesse's youngest hope:—"My brethern, say,
"What shall be done for him who takes away
"Reproach from Jacob, who destroys the chief,
"And puts a period to his country's grief?
"He vaunts the honours of his arms abroad,
"And scorns the armies of the living God."
—Phillis Wheatley

The biblical prose gains nothing in felicity or clarity by this rearrangement into neat columns, each line dressed, as it were, to the rhyming word on the right, and each marching to the beat of ten syllables. Only on rare occasions, as in the poems to her mistress, did she depart from this rigid form. In discussing Pope, the master of the form, George Saintsbury remarked that "artificiality … is the curse of the couplet," but in the same sentence he reiterated an admission that the curse "can be vanquished." Such conquest of artificiality depends not only upon prosodic skills in fashioning the mold, but even more upon the poetic sensibility that is poured into it. The more limited the sensibility, the more protrudent the artificiality. Phillis Wheatley's sensibility was indeed limited (although, as has often been repeated, hers was at least as fine as that of any Colonial poet). She was totally incapable, for example, of the playful sophistication in Pope's celebrated couplet:

Nature and Nature's Laws, lay hid in Night:
GOD said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.

More is contained here, however, than playful sophistication; there is not only an awareness of Newton but also a conception of his junior partnership with God. In some critical analysis, the decasyllabic couplet, which attained its apogee with Pope, is perceived as an appropriate reflection of a harmonious confluence between science and religion in the early eighteenth century. Newton's discovery of natural laws, the argument goes, was greeted by contemporaries as illumination of God's inflnite wisdom in designing the universe; thus, scientific discernment of order in the apparent chaos of nature reinforced the faith in divine order. In turn, the mathematical precision of Pope's couplets was attuned to the discipline of science and the vision of a larger divine order to which it bore witness.1

Whatever the merit of such interpretive speculation in relationship to Pope, its applicability to Phillis Wheatley is somewhat vitiated because she was imitative. Certainly her own work does not reflect a comparable familiarity with the science of the age. Yet imitation also involves an element of choice. That she chose Pope as her model is readily explicable by his fashionable pre-eminence at the time and the Colonial cultural dependence on England, but the New England ambience must also enter into the explanation. There was a manifest affinity between the Puritan culture, with its admixture of practicality and faith, and the conception of a universal order, created by God and corroborated by science.

Wheatley's vision of the universe was etched most explicitly in "Thoughts on the Works of Providence" :

  ARISE, my soul; on wings enraptured, rise,
To praise the Monarch of the earth and skies,
Whose goodness and beneficence appear,
As round its centre moves the rolling year …
  Adored forever be the God unseen,
Which round the sun revolves this vast machine …
  Almighty, in these wondrous works of thine,
What Power, what Wisdom, and what Goodness shine!
And are thy wonders, Lord, by men explored,
And yet creating glory unadored?

In Wheatley's verse there is, indeed, a harmony between the symmetrical pattern and the apprehension of a well-ordered universe. There is a third part in this harmony: the human condition. In her view, despite the oh-so-slight reproach in the final lines cited above, there is no serious discord between man and the divinely enacted laws of nature. Nor is there much concern with the contradictions in man. She definitely does not imitate Pope's notorious flights into misogyny, and for her man was not, as he was for Pope, "The glory, jest, and riddle of the world … Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err … Created half to rise, and half to fall." With her benign disposition she does not divide man into such equal parts; her emphasis is on human redemption, not on wickedness and folly.

Even in her rare venture into polemic, the adolescent "Address to the Atheist," sin and its wages are couched in the gentlest terms:

Muse! where shall I begin the spacious field
To tell what curses unbelief doth yield?
If there's no heav'n, ah! whither wilt thou go
Make thy Ilysium in the shades below?

There are scattered references in her work to divine wrath, and in her rendition of verses from Isaiah these lines appear:

  Great God, what lightning flashes from thine eyes!
What power withstands if thou indignant rise?

But those are rare exceptions. She heralded God's wisdom and benevolence, not his vengeance. She was more prone to commend the human capacity for virtue than to scorn human susceptibility to vice. In the most personal testament to this credo, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," she wrote:

  '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 color is a diabolic dye.'
Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain
May be refined, and join the angelic train.

In this striking illustration of the suffusive religiosity in her work, slavery is incidental to salvation, and there is only the mild admonition to Christians that blackness is no bar to the angelic train. In a sense, this is her own adaptation of Pope's ultimate truth: "Whatever is, is right." Given her time and place and her conditioning, there is not much good in reproaching her for an insufficiency of mind and spirit to transcend Pope's dictum.

Nor is there much point in belaboring the contradiction between the depiction of a well-ordered universe in well-ordered verse and the overturn of the established order by revolutionary upheaval. True, the American Revolution was much less convulsive than the French one that followed, but even for the American an approximation of the carmagnole would have been more appropriate than the minuet. That the cadence of her verse more closely resembled the latter, even when she attempted to respond to the times, as in the ode to Washington, is also an explicable fault. Art, and most especially the forms in which it is rendered, often lags behind history, and there is no reason why Wheatley should have been less laggard than others.

So her poetry did not rise to the greatness that truly expresses the spirit of an age, but such poetry is rare, and there was none of it in Colonial times.

Summarizing the initial debate about her more than a century later (1915), Arthur Schomburg, who was devoted to the appreciation and preservation of black culture, offered his own judgment. "There was no great American poetry in the 18th century," Schomburg wrote, "and Phillis Wheatley's poetry was as good as the best American poetry of her age."

There is a depressing element in the literary argument to the degree that it hinges on whether she was a nonpoet or a mediocre one. To be sure, it is relevant to determine what was par for the course in a given time and place, but if this establishes her as the peer of her contemporaries, it also defines a less flattering place in the longer span of literary history. In purely literary terms, viewing her as a poet in the abstract, criticism cannot break out of such narrow confines. But she was a black poet, and it is not enough to say that the quality of her verse was as good as that of her best white contemporaries. She also has to be assessed in terms of her own identity.

Not until recently has black scholarship attempted to assess her in explicitly black terms. The more traditional view among black scholars was presented by James Weldon Johnson, who wrote:

Phillis Wheatley has never been given her rightful place in American literature. By some sort of conspiracy she is kept out of most of the books, especially the text-books on literature used in schools. Of course, she is not a great American poet—and in her day there were no great American poets—but she is an important American poet. Her importance, if for no other reason, rests on the fact that, save one, she is the first in order of time of all the women poets of America. And she is among the first of all American poets to issue a volume.

Johnson concluded:

… her work must not be judged by the work and standards of a later day, but by the work and standards of her own day and her own contemporaries. By this method of criticism she stands out as one of the important characters in the making of American literature, without any allowances for her sex or her antecedents.

This does not differ in substance from what has been said in sympathetic white criticism. It is not a matter of making allowances for her antecedents (that is, for her blackness and her slavery), but of taking them properly into account. This is attempted explicitly by the black critic J. Saunders Redding and in a curiously inverse way by the black novelist Richard Wright.

In his lecture on "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," Wright read passages from the works of Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas and made the obvious point that nothing in those passages suggested they were written by Negroes. "The writings I've just read to you," he went on, "were the work of men who were emotionally integrated with their country's culture; no matter what the color of their skins, they were not really Negroes. One was a Russian, the other a Frenchman."

Then he posed the question: has any American Negro ever written like the Russian poet and the French novelist? And he replied that one, only one, had done so—Phillis Wheatley. "Before the webs of slavery had so tightened as to snare nearly all Negroes in our land," he elaborated, "one was freed by accident to give in clear, bell-like, limpid cadence the hope of freedom in the New World."

Wright sketched an idyllic picture of her condition—she "was accepted into the Wheatley home as one of the family, enjoying all the rights of the other Wheatley children.…she got the kind of education that the white girls of her time received." As a consequence of her integration, he argued, she was able to articulate a "universal note" that was in total harmony with the Colonial culture. Only later on, he said, did a distinct "Negro literature" take form as "a reservoir of bitterness and despair and infrequent hope … a welter of crude patterns of surging hate and rebellion." This literature was the product of slavery, of its oppressions, lacerations, and humiliations, but since Wheatley did not experience these, and indeed antedated them, she "was at one with her colonial New England culture," just as Pushkin and Dumas were with theirs.

But was she? Is the comparison with Pushkin and Dumas valid? She was born an African; the two men were born Russian and French. She entered her incarnation as Phillis Wheatley a naked child, a slave, forcibly abducted and cruelly transported. They were born into social status and moderate means. Pushkin, the son of landed gentry and a reluctant attendant at the czar's court, was three generations removed from the black slave who was his maternal grandfather. Dumas, the son of a French general, traced his lineage to a black grandmother and a wealthy French colonist in Haiti. Such genealogical traces of blackness in the Russian and the Frenchman had no real bearing on their lives or social status, although Pushkin expressed his awareness of it with a narrative about his great-grandfather. For Wheatley blackness was an ever-present reality that made its heavy imprint on her life.

Wright could say about Pushkin that "he went to the schools of his choice; he served in an army that was not Jim Crow; he worked where he wanted to; he lived where he wanted to.…" One may quibble that this last is not altogether true; Pushkin certainly did not live or work where he wanted to during his forced exile because he had displeased the czar but it is sufficiently true to underscore the contrast with Wheatley. (For that matter, Pushkin was punished, not for his great-grandfather's blackness, but for political and literary unorthodoxies that, in a sense, reinforced his oneness with the emergent Russian literature of the early nineteenth century.) Wheatley did not serve in any army, but she did serve a church where she was consigned, according to all the circumstantial evidence, to a "Nigger Pew" or "Nigger Heaven." She did not live or work where she wanted to, not even when she was free. The black lodging house was not her choice, and its designation as black indicates it was not simply a matter of means. Black ghettoes—situated near the docks or riverfronts or in alleys—had already sprouted in the New England of Wheatley's time.

A distinction may be drawn between Wright's general thesis and its specific application to Wheatley. The works of Dumas and Pushkin are impressive evidence to support his general argument that Negro literature is not rooted in some anthropological or biological mystique but is a socially and historically conditioned response to slavery and its legacies. This thesis is stated succinctly in a reference to George Moses Horton's poetry: it "does not stem from racial feeling, but from a social situation." Applying this analysis to Wheatley, the issue is, did Wright accurately comprehend the social situation that enveloped her, and the degree to which her poetic reflection of that situation was artificial or authentic?

Wright's sketch of Wheatley's condition is much too idyllic, and in spots careless. (For example, referring to her trip to England, he adds, "This was, of course, after the Revolutionary War.") To be sure, she was favored by kind and considerate masters, but the question still remains whether benign slavery, with its subtle discriminations, is the same as the freedom that Dumas and Pushkin enjoyed. It isn't, and the distinction makes dubious the identity that Wright discerned. It may be said that in Pushkin and Dumas, the oneness with the respective national culture was a natural extension of their social being. They wrote as a Russian or a Frenchman because this is, in fact, what they were. With respect to Wheatley, there is a nagging sense of contradiction between her cultural assimilation and her social situation, which was, despite its unique, individual features, also related to the general black condition.

It is to this contradiction that critic Redding addresses himself, arriving at a judgment that is the opposite of Wright's. What Wright hails as Wheatley's triumph, Redding deplores as her failure.

"There is no question but that Miss Wheatley considered herself a Negro poet: the question is to what degree she felt the full significance of such a designation," Redding wrote. "Certainly she was not a slave poet in any sense in which the term can be applied to many who followed her. She stands far outside the institution that was responsible for her.…Not once … did she express in either word or action a thought on the enslavement of her race; not once did she utter a straightforward word for the freedom of the Negro."

Redding quotes the lines from the poem to the Earl of Dartmouth:

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatched from Afric's fancied happy seat.

and comments:

"Seeming cruel" and "fancied happy" give her away as not believing either in the cruelty of the fate that had dragged thousands of her race into bondage in America nor in the happiness of their former freedom in Africa. How different the spirit of her work, and how unracial (not to say unnatural) are the stimuli that release her wan creative energies. How different are these from the work of George Horton who twenty-five years [sic] later could cry out with bitterness, without cavil or fear:

"Alas! and am I born for this,
      To wear this slavish chain?"

It is this negative, bloodless, unracial quality in Phillis Wheatley that makes her seem superficial, especially to members of her own race.…She is chilly.… First and last, she was the fragile product of three related forces—the age, the Wheatley household, and New England America. Her work lacks spontaneity because of the first, enthusiasm because of the second, and because of the third it lacks an unselfish purpose that drives to some ultimate goal of expression.

Harsh as it is, Redding's judgment points to obvious truths, which are insufficient for their very obviousness. It is easy enough to characterize the quality of personality mirrored in the poetry—negative, bloodless, unracial, chilly. The difficult question is what made her so. Redding replies that "she was the fragile product of … the age, the Wheatley household, and New England America." This is not enough, for if you change the name of the household, you can say the same about any white product of middle-class or upper-middle-class New England. But Phillis Wheatley was black and this is the difference and also the contradiction: the contradiction between her blackness, which she recognized and never was permitted to forget by a thousand humiliations, and white, mercantile New England, whose world was never truly hers but whose values she seemed to accept. The same contradiction is suggested in Redding's remark that "she stands far outside the institution [of slavery] that was responsible for her.…"It would be more apt to say she was in the slave world but not truly of it. This is the contradictory reality that shaped the subjective raw material which was processed by the three forces Redding lists—the age, the Wheatley household, New England America. The vital element missing from his critical assessment is just what was fed into the triple-gear machine he specifies.

For this we must revert once more to the frail, near-naked girl of seven displayed for sale on a Boston dock. At that age the native African culture and values are not firmly imbedded, certainly not with the depth and strength needed to withstand the powerful assimilative impact of the new culture into which she is thrust. She has no defenses against Puritan certitude and self-righteousness, no resources for critical assimilation. To begin with she does not have a chance, and then two specific factors reinforce the process that is better described as inundation than assimilation.

One is her precocity, and the Wheatley's appreciation and cultivation of it. She is encouraged with patronizing kindness. Privileges and material rewards are compensation for piety and for poetry that respects the prevailing conventions in theme and style. It does no good to reproach an adolescent child for yielding to these attractive influences, especially when within herself there is no strong residue of any other influence or tradition. These are her formative years, and the subsequent years are so disordered and, as it turns out, so brief that they do not modify the initial mold.

This first factor is complemented by the second, her isolation from the society of slaves and its subculture. In this respect, Redding astutely notes the difference between her and George Moses Horton, who came a generation later. Unlike Wheatley, Horton was born a slave on a Southern plantation and there never was any ambiguity about his status or identity. Knowing clearly what he was, it was easier for him to determine what he ought to be.

From suckling infancy he absorbed the slave world subculture and its two interwoven strains: the African origins and the realities of slavery, of the master-slave relationship. Most of the original African slaves were, of course, older than Phillis Wheatley was at the time of her abduction, old enough to retain much of African culture and customs, and this retention, although diffused by time and diluted by the flow of strong stimuli from the immediate environment, remained a pervasive influence, handed down through the generations that shaped the Afro-American community. The more proximate influence was the master-slave relationship with its constant tensions, often bursting into open conflict, along with the contradictory accommodations of expediency. To survive as a human being in the context of slavery is no simple art, one not mastered without some training and without the folk wisdom born of community experience. Horton had such sustenance; Wheatley did not.

Further, as the first significant black writer in North America she faced a problem that her successors were to face. She wrote for a white audience, this being the audience created by the economics of publication and the realities of a market shaped by the affluence to buy and the literacy to consume. For the most part, her successors—even to this day—write for a white audience, but with the consciousness that on the sidelines and behind them black contemporaries are readers and critics. Removed as she was from black society, and possibly also because black reader-critics were so few then, no such critical restraints seemed to affect her.

"There is no question," Redding says, "but that Miss Wheatley considered herself a Negro poet: the question is to what degree she felt the full significance of such a designation." The answer is that all circumstances conspired to diminish, in her own perception, the significance of what she was. Therefore, she was diminished as a poet—and as a human being. For one reading her verse almost two centuries later, the almost reflex reaction is to scorn it and its creator. This response is misconceived and misaddressed. Anger would be more appropriate, and it ought to be addressed against the institution of slavery.

Perhaps the first significance of Phillis Wheatley is as a laboratory, test-tube exemplar of what was done to black identity, to black pride and self-awareness, by the institution of slavery with all its accessories of custom, culture, and ideological rationales. She was, after all, a first-generation African brought to these shores, and because she was articulate and had the opportunity to cultivate this gift, she left a singular record of this initial encounter between slave and master, between black and white, and its consequence in a setting of unusual circumstances.

She experienced this encounter under supposedly ideal conditions—a kind and understanding mistress, physical comforts, an opportunity to develop her talents—and this gives the experience its test-tube quality. It is not the typical experience of the mass of first-generation slaves, destined for hard, menial labor, for physical deprivation and a more oppressive regime. Such lacerations she was spared as long as she remained in her privileged sanctuary, placing in bolder relief the more refined inflictions she was not spared. What emerges most starkly from her poetry and her private correspondence is the near surgical, lobotomy-like excision of a human personality with warmth and blood and the self-assertiveness that is grounded in an awareness of one's self and relationship of this self to contemporary society. The religious moralisms that lard her letters to Obour Tanner are a poor form of sublimation, a substitute for the expression of emotional response to personal experience. The poems are vicarious in theme and imitative in style. In the circumstances it hardly could have been different. She was permitted to cultivate her intelligence, to develop her feeling for language and her facility in its use, but one thing she was not permitted to develop: the sense of her own distinct identity as a black poet. And without this there could be no personal distinction in style or the choice of themes that make for greater poetry. The barter of her soul, as it were, was no conscious contract. Enclosed by a cloying embrace of slavery at a tender age, alternatives did not at first intrude, and later, when she might have chosen one, she was drained of the will and perception to do so.

Involved here is not a condemnation of Puritanism as such, or of its general influence upon American thought and behavior. Such a judgment, sorting and weighing all the sins and virtues, belongs elsewhere. The concern here is more particular: it is the imposition of Puritanism upon a young African whose color and bondage placed her outside of those premises and compensations to which Puritanism appealed for its validity. Property and its acquisition, the temporal rewards of thrift and abstinence, were not for slaves (and this was true despite the rare and paradoxical exceptions in New England's relatively lenient slave regime). Even the restricted personal range of moral and social choice open to white Puritans was foreclosed to blacks. The full measure of self-reliance was a paradox in the essential dependency of slavery. What blacks were offered was the theology, disembodied from its temporal matrix. It is this that makes Phillis Wheatley's piety seem so empty and repellent, so classical an instance of glorifying celestial promise to tolerate terrestrial misery. For her Puritanism entailed a substitution of simulation for reality as in the most ironic of master-servant cliches, "We treated her like a member of the family.…"In sum, whatever Puritanism might have done for its white believers, it was grotesque imposition, amputating and mutilating, upon the black poet.

It may be idle to speculate about her true potential, but surely, given the evidence of her intelligence and talent, it is a permissible assumption that it was far greater than the one realized with the oppressive restrictions imposed upon the flowering of her own personality as a black poet. One school of American literary criticism dwells on the aptitude of American society to frustrate its writers and truncate their growth. If this is a great American tradition, then few, if any, writers were so warped by it as was Phillis Wheatley.

In her case, the primary warping influence was slavery. It mutilated her. Having inflicted spiritual mutilation, its aftermath went on to achieve her physical destruction. Sketchy as it is, the preserved record of her final years—the cold neglect, the poverty, the drudgery, the infant deaths, and finally the circumstances of her own death at age thirty-one—is a searing indictment of slavery, of the cruel nexus of the white-black relationship in the evolution of American society.

Phillis Wheatley is not a great figure in American literary history, but she is a tragic one. It is the tragedy rather than the poetry of Phillis Wheatley that has the more enduring relevance for American life. Elements of the tragedy have far more contemporary urgency than is evoked by the echoes of her poetry. To those in the present black generations, who are involved in the assertion and definition of black identity, in the rekindling of black pride, she can represent, with rare purity, the initial deprivation of that which they seek to regain.

To the contemporary black militant, the poetry will indeed seem "superficial" and "chilly," assuming he reads it at all, and there is little reason to believe he will. The tragedy should be more germane. If this is so, then it is conceivable that in striking some militant blow for freedom, in a spirit of retribution and poetic justice, he might say, "This one is for you, baby."


1. Of the many lines by Pope that celebrate the synthesis of nature and God the following may be cited:

        All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
      Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
        All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
        All Chance, Direction which thou canst not see;
        All Discord, Harmony not understood;
        All partial Evil, universal Good.
All of this is encompassed in a climactic line:
        One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.

The Critics

James Weldon Johnson quotes Jefferson as saying "her poems are beneath contempt" (American Negro Poetry, [New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1922] p. xxiii). Though not so gentlemanly in expression, Johnson's phrase is no doubt much closer to what Jefferson actually felt than what he wrote.

The remarks of Jefferson, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Henri Grégoire, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Thomas Clarkson are referred to by Arthur A. Schomburg (introduction, "Appreciation," [Charles Frederick] Heartman, Wheatley, Poems and Letters [New York, n.d.], pp. 14-15). Edward D. Seeber quotes Voltaire's remark ("Phillis Wheatley," Journal of Negro History, Vol. 24, no. 3, July, 1939, pp. 259-262); see also [Julian] Mason ([The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966)] pp. xlvi-xlvii).

Mason is the source for the reviews of her poems in English periodicals (ibid., pp. xxxvi-xxxvii).

Thomas Clarkson's remark is in An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (Philadelphia: Cruikshank, 1786), p. 122; see also Mason (Poems, p. xlvi).

George Saintsbury's discussion of Pope and the heroic couplet is to be found in English Prosody, 2:454.

There is an interesting presentation of the relation between science and poetry in Science and English Poetry, A Historical Sketch, 1590-1950, by Douglas Bush (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950).

The two lines on Newton are quoted from Pope's "Epitaph Intended for Sir Isaac Newton." The quotations from Pope contained in the footnote on page 56 [see note 1 below] are from his Essay on Man, Epistle I, lines 267-268, 289-294. The subsequent quotations from Pope are in his Essay on Man, Epistle II, lines (variously) 10-17.

James Weldon Johnson's assessment of her poetry is contained in his American Negro Poetry (pp. xxii-xxiv). His estimation of the time span between Anne Brad-street and Phillis Wheatley ("Anne Bradstreet preceded Phillis Wheatley by a little over twenty years. She published her volume of poems, 'The Tenth Muse,' in 1750" [ibid., p. xxiii] is off by about a century. Bradstreet's collected works were first published in England in 1650; the second edition was published in 1678, and the third in 1758, the latter two in Boston (see Elizabeth Wade White, Anne Bradstreet [The Tenth Muse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971)]). The critical comparison of Bradstreet and Wheatley made by Johnson appears on page xxiii. The quote from Arthur Schomburg is in his introduction to Poems and Letters by Phillis Wheatley (Phillis Peters) (New York: C. F. Heartman's Historical Series #8).

Richard Wright's discussion of Phillis Wheatley is in White Man, Listen (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), pp. 74-79.

For Redding's quotation see To Make a Poet Black, pp. 8-11. (He is the victim of either a mathematical or typographical error when he says that twenty-five years after Phillis Wheatley's poem to the Earl of Dartmouth [1772], Horton wrote the lines he quotes. The year of Horton's birth is usually estimated as 1797.) Loggins also advances the theme Redding develops, that "… she neglected almost entirely her own state of slavery and the miserable oppression of thousands of her race." He finds that "In all of her writings she only once referred in strong terms to the wrongs of the Negro in America." That once is her poem addressed to Lord Dartmouth [Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931, 1959)], pp. 24-25).


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TO Miss Phillis Wheatley.
Cambridge, 28 February, 1776.
Miss Phillis,

Your favor of the 26th of October did not reach my hands till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming but not real neglect. I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents; in honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints.

If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near head-quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great respect, your obedient humble servant.

Washington, George. The Writings of George Washington; Being his Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers, Official and Private, Selected and published from the Original Manuscripts; with a life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, edited by Jared Sparks, pp. 38-9. Boston: Little, Brown, 1855.

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SOURCE: Nott, Walt. "From 'uncultivated Barbarian' to 'Poetical Genius': The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley." MELUS 18, no. 3 (fall 1993): 21-32.

In the following essay, Nott surveys the public response to Wheatley's poetry.

The first edition of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) included an attestation that the volume was the work of its purported author. "To the PUBLICK" was signed by Massachusetts's royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver, and sixteen other Bay Colony notables, including John Hancock and John Wheatley, "her Master." The signatories assured the volume's readers that Poems on Various Subjects was indeed "written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town" (Wheatley 48). When Wheatley landed in Boston upon her return from England in September 1773, the Boston Gazette, the newspaper of revolutionary Massachusetts, hailed the young slave woman as "the extraordinary Poetical Genius" ("Boston" 2). The two poles of public identity represented by "To the PUBLICK" and the Gazette notice—"uncultivated Barbarian" and "Poetical Genius"—suggest the possibilities open to Wheatley in eighteenth-century Anglo-American culture. However, the two identities also make it apparent that between arriving in America the first time from Africa on board the slaver Phillis and re-arriving from London on board the London Packet, shortly before the appearance of her book in the colonies, Wheatley's public presence had undergone a significant transformation. Construed as an "uncultivated Barbarian," Wheatley was just another slave among thousands, and therefore hardly worth notice. Yet recognized as a "Poetical Genius," Wheatley's comings and goings became worthy of public report. In a very real sense, upon her re-arrival in America, Wheatley had begun to exist. We might simply dismiss Wheatley's authorial metamorphosis as the "natural" result of the interconnected racial and intellectual presumptions of Anglo-American culture. However, seen from a more critical perspective, Wheatley's symbolic transformation in the eyes of contemporary white Anglo-American culture from "Barbarian" to "Genius" suggests her successful crafting of a public persona, her subsequent participation in the public discourse of her time, and, most important, her acquisition of a power such public participation entailed.

In part due to the aesthetics of the eighteenth-century public discourse in which her poetry participated, Wheatley's place in American literature has been problematic. In "Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy," James A. Levernier notes the peculiar literary destiny of the young slave woman who authored Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral : "in contrast to most major American writers, scholarship on Phillis Wheatley has tended to emphasize less what she accomplished than what she might have accomplished" (21). For example, Merle A. Richmond's assessment of the effect of slavery upon Wheatley's literary sensibility would seem to grow out of this "might have" tradition: "What emerges most starkly from her poetry is the near surgical, lobotomy-like excision of a human personality with warmth and blood and the self-assertiveness that is grounded in an awareness of one's self and the relationship of this self to contemporary society" (65). However, as Levernier notes, a number of scholars have since come to understand the impressive achievement Wheatley's poetry actually represents, and in the work of "William H. Robinson, Jr., John C. Shields, Mukhtar Ali Isani, and Sondra O'Neale, among others" (21), we can trace a greater appreciation of the intricacies and implications of Wheatley's poetic practice.

As study of Wheatley's work has continued, critics have come to recognize the significance of Wheatley's discursive strategies, particularly as deployed within her cultural context, as key to understanding her literary contribution. Russell J. Reising sees Wheatley employing an intricate rhetorical negotiation that rendered her verse "virtually unreadable for a public with certain racial, political, theological, and cultural assumptions" and at the same time "eminently readable … within the discursive practices of her culture" (259). For Reising this seemingly contradictory discursive strategy is central to Wheatley's work: "What is crucial is that we cease processing her rhetoric as transparent and selfevident and that we begin to read her rhetoric as rhetoric—strategic, subtle, and veiled" (258). Similarly, Betsy Erkkila argues for Wheatley's powerful "challenge" to the "constituted authority" of her time, and she points to the transformative and frankly political impact of Wheatley's poetry: "… Wheatley transformed the revolutionary discourse on liberty, natural rights, and human nature into a subtle critique of the color code and the oppressive racial structures of republican America" (201). As both Reising and Erkkila show, Wheatley's poetry suggests anything but a lack, surgical or otherwise; instead, Wheatley's poetry manifests itself as a powerful public presence.

However, no study has yet discussed the mechanism by which the public authorial persona we know as Phillis Wheatley came into existence, or the literary, historical, and political means through which Wheatley's poetry called the racial assumptions of the dominant culture into question. The purpose of this essay is to provide a theoretical and historical construct within which Wheatley's poetry, especially Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, can be seen for the radical and incisive act it was. Wheatley's book represents her conspicuous participation in the "public sphere"—the eighteenth-century network of rational discourse whose formation and operation aimed at the acquisition of political power through the control of an emerging public opinion. The transformation symbolized in the movement from "uncivilized Barbarian" to "Poetical Genius" represents Wheatley's creation of a public presence and her participation within the eighteenth-century discursive network of the public sphere. Seen within this context, Wheatley's book becomes the manifestation of her power to call into question the conceptual assumptions that both formed the foundation of the public sphere and justified the American/European enslavement of Africans.

The London publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in September 1773 was a significant literary event for several reasons. First, as Julian Mason has pointed out, the book was "probably the first book—and certainly the first book of poetry—published by a black American" (13). This accomplishment in itself would seem to make Wheatley's book noteworthy. However, simply being first barely begins to point to the true import of Poems on Various Subjects.

For example, the conditions of the book's composition and subsequent publication are as significant as the historical timing of the publication itself. As Sondra O'Neale argues in "A Slave's Subtle War," any understanding of Wheatley's poetry must begin with the condition of her slavery: "Wheatley was one of only three Americans who were able to publish poetry and prose while still in bondage. (The other two were Jupiter Hammon [1711-1797] and George Moses Horton [1797-1883].)" (144). For a slave, the very act of publishing was, in O'Neale's words, "a monumental task" (144). The fact that only two others accomplished the task in itself suggests the achievement that Wheatley's poetry, and especially Poems on Various Subjects, represents. As O'Neale additionally notes, to "speak out against one's owners or the society which either condoned or ignored the owners' action" necessitated great risk and required guile and courage. Yet in spite of the significance of Wheatley's enslavement, very few critics have made Wheatley's publication out of slavery central to their readings of her work and the work's literary place (O'Neale 144).

The most important aspect of the publication of Wheatley's book involves the public presence the work creates. Nowhere is this presence more evident than in the portrait of Wheatley printed opposite the title page of the first edition of Poems. 1 Rendered by Scipio Moorhead, a black artist and slave (Robinson, Phillis Wheatley 31), the engraving shows Wheatley seated at a table, left hand on her chin, looking into the distance, obviously lost in poetic contemplation. In her right hand she holds a quill pen poised above a page of paper on which she has already written two lines. A book rests just to the right of the paper. An inscription is printed around the oval border of the portrait: "Phillis Wheatley Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston." Two lines detailing publishing information are printed below the portrait; below them is Wheatley's signature.

The significance of the book's frontpiece has been noted by several critics. Betsy Erkkila refers to this portrait as the emblem of "Wheatley's complex position as a black woman slave in revolutionary America":

Within the discourse of racial inequality in the eighteenth century, the fact of a black woman reading, writing, and publishing was in itself enough to splinter the categories of white and black, and explode a social order grounded in notions of racial difference.


Erkkila emphasizes the "potential danger" this emblematic portrait embodies: the portrait is "enchain[ed]" by an inscription of slavery (202). David Grimsted has called the portrait "an icon of the dignified, respectable, literary, and especially thoughtful black" (396). The poet's printed visage, according to Grimsted, "is a quiet refutation, like most of the poems, of the tacit prejudice that a few men … were soon to make explicit in the justification of slavery: that blacks were incapable of being fully intelligent and respectable human beings" (396-97).

Therefore, in Wheatley's portrait the inherent power of her public poetic enterprise becomes evident. For here on the printed page in public view, the reader is confronted with a palpable presence—a face, a signature, an act. The picture portrays a black woman, a slave, engaged in literary work rather than menial labor—within a public context. And this portrait constitutes the graphic representation of Wheatley's public presence and the power it produces. In short, the portrait is the emblem of the book as a whole and is the public manifestation of her participation in the discursive sphere itself.

To discern the importance of Wheatley's public presence and the cultural opposition her book represented, we need to look more closely at what Erkkila calls "the discourse of racial inequality in the eighteenth century" (202). And we further need to recognize that the debate concerning race took place within a larger discursive structure. In particular, Terry Eagleton's discussion of Habermas's formulation of the eighteenth-century phenomenon known as the "public sphere" offers a useful theoretical and historical construct to describe the public context in which Wheatley's public presence made itself felt.

In The Function of Criticism, Eagleton defines the public sphere as "a distinct discursive space, one of rational judgement and enlightened critique … poised between the state and civil society." Comprised of clubs, coffee houses, and literary publications, the public sphere, according to Eagleton, presented an opportunity for individuals to engage in a "free, equal interchange of reasonable discourse." Formed in a complex historical process that produced an emergent middle class and a declining monarchy and aristocracy, the effect of this discourse network was to create a "polite, informal public opinion"—a consensus which "pit[ted] itself against the arbitrary diktats of autocracy … and weld[ed itself] into a relatively cohesive body whose deliberations … assume[d] the form of a powerful political force" (9). The result of "this ceaseless circulation of polite discourse among rational subjects" was, as Eagleton argues, "the cementing of a new power bloc at the level of the sign" (14). Wheatley's book appeared within this political and cultural discursive context.

A number of aspects of the public sphere are important to our discussion of Wheatley's work. First, this discursive network was public—open, available—and intensely political. Through her book, Wheatley gained access to this public network and the political power it made available. As has been noted, few slaves, if any, had access to this power.

Second, the public sphere was, as Eagleton argues, consensual in nature.

Within the translucent space of the public sphere it is supposedly no longer social power, privilege and tradition which confer upon the individual the title to speak and judge, but the degree to which they are constituted as discoursing subjects by sharing in a consensus of universal reason.


The ability to engage in reasonable discourse, as judged by the "normative regulations" applied by critics (Eagleton 15), became the primary criterion for admittance to the public sphere. Through the publication of her book and her ability to negotiate the requirements of "reasonable" discourse in her poetry, Wheatley participated in this politically and culturally powerful arena. Seen within this context, Wheatley's apparently conventional verse appears less an aesthetic and ethnic "treason" than as a deliberate strategy to power.

The third and final characteristic of the public sphere concerns the socio-economic underpinning of its reasonable and consensual character. What is assumed or inherent in the dynamic of the public sphere is the propertied basis for this reasonable discourse. According to Eagleton, the public sphere assumed that only those with property—in other words, those with an "interest" in the social and economic constitution—were capable of engaging in the public discourse. Property, therefore, created the "interest"—the part, the stake, the share in the public constitution that in turn bred the "reason" and "common sense" and "disinterest" that made discursive participation possible (Eagleton 15-16). Owning property and having an "interested disinterest" made possible the sitting, reading, writing, and thinking that comprised the discursive production and consumption of the public sphere. Within this complex network of reason, property, class, and power, Wheatley's public presence made its inherent critical demand felt.

The British publication of a major artistic work such as Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects threatened the assumptions of the public sphere at a number of points. In "Phillis Wheatley and the 'Nature of the Negro,'" Henry Louis Gates indicates one area in which Wheatley's public presence affected the dominant culture's aesthetic and racial assumptions. According to Gates, the presence of Wheatley's poetry served to complicate the Enlightenment debate of human nature and human rights.2 In particular, her poetry influenced discussion of the "humanity" of slaves and the role of their writing within logocentric EuroAmerican culture. Within the debate, Wheatley was often presented as "a living refutation of the charge of innate Negro inferiority" (68), and her poetry thereby called into question "commonly repeated assumptions about the nature of the Negro" (72). For a cultural context in which the deployment of language, "reasonable" discourse, was paramount, Wheatley's book presented itself as a significant challenge to the assumption of African inferiority based on a supposed lack of artistic and rhetorical ability and the pro-slavery position such assumptions upheld.

The impact Wheatley's poetry had upon the human rights debate is evident from the comments of two American participants in the debate. First, Benjamin Rush, physician and anti-slavery activist, cites Wheatley as evidence of African "humanity" in a footnote to An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America Upon Slave Keeping (Philadelphia, 1773):

There is now in the town of Boston a Free Negro Girl, about 18 years of age, who has been but 9 years in the country, whose singular genius and accomplishments are such as not only do honor to her sex, but to human nature. Several of her poems have been printed, and read with pleasure by the public.

(qtd. in Gates 68; Robinson, Critical Essays 24; Erkkila 202)

Wheatley's impact on the human rights debate is obvious here: her public presence stands as a powerfully concrete example of the slave's inherent "humanity." One need only reasonably refer to the public text—Wheatley's public presence—for refutation of any number of pro-slavery arguments based on African cultural and intellectual inferiority.

The power of Wheatley's presence becomes even more evident in an attack penned by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (London, 1787), years after her death:

Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.… Religion, indeed, has produced Phillis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.…

(qtd. in Robinson, Critical Essays 42-3; Gates 5-6)

Jefferson's need to debase Wheatley's presence is evident throughout this excerpt. Since his library contained a copy of Poems on Various Subjects (Robinson, Critical Essays 43n), we might be tempted to assume that he deliberately misspelled her name in a childish attempt at denigration, but there is no proof for this interpretation. However, the charge that Wheatley was a product of "Religion" was particularly condemning coming from Jefferson the rationalist, since it implied a lack of reason and suggested the influence of superstition. Further, Jefferson specifically called into question Wheatley's authorship of the book "published under her name" and thereby anticipated a charge often to be leveled against nineteenth-century slave narratives by pro-slavery commentators. However, the fact that Wheatley elicited such a vehement attack from Jefferson almost fifteen years after her last major publication and three years after her death testifies to the strong public presence she exerted within the discourse of the time.3 Specifically, Jefferson's attack suggests how strong an argument against African enslavement her presence represented, since as Erkkila notes, "he singles out her work for criticism" (210). However, in the years following her death, as Jefferson was writing his critique, Wheatley had no "presence" except that as constituted by the public sphere and her discursive participation.

To these interconnected issues of reason, language, and slavery are related the propertied assumptions of the public sphere's discourse. For not only did Wheatley's public presence call into question the public sphere's assumptions about reason and a "common sense," it also stood as a discursive challenge to the assumptions of "interest" inherent in the discourse itself. When Thomas Hutchinson, John Hancock, John Wheatley, and their colleagues attested to Wheatley's authorship of Poems on Various Subjects, they were doing more than testifying to her genius. Inadvertently, they themselves were calling into question the propertied assumptions of a "reasonable" discourse. For if the ownership of property was prior to the interest necessary to participate in the public sphere, Wheatley's participation as property directly contradicted this assumption. If a person who owned not even an "interest" in herself could produce a competent literary creation and have it favorably received by the public, then the propertied basis for reasonable discourse was itself questionable, if not invalid. As we shall see, when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared, the British critics approved.

In "The British Reception of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects," Mukhtar Ali Isani details the reviews Wheatley's book received. In the four months following the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, notes Isani, "nine British periodicals reviewed the work, usually contributing space in generous amounts.…All [the] reviews were favorable" (145). Most of the reviews included a representative poem, and in a few cases more than one. In particular, two features of this critical reception are important to our discussion of Wheatley's presence and participation in the public sphere.

The first feature of Wheatley's critical reception is the right of participation a favorable judgement entailed. Eagleton observes that the role of the critic in the public sphere was that of cultural arbiter. In the view of the public sphere, "the truly free market is that of cultural discourse itself, within of course, certain normative regulations; the role of the critic is to administer those norms, in a double refusal of absolutism and anarchy" (15). This administration of the public sphere's norms is important because of the character of discourse within the sphere:

What is said derives its legitimacy neither from itself as message nor from the social [or racial] character of the utterer, but from its conformity as a statement within a certain paradigm of reason.…One's title as speaker is derived from the formal character of one's discourse rather than the authority of that discourse derived from one's title. Discursive identities are not pre-given, but constructed by the very act of participation in polite conversation … for what counts as rationality is precisely the capacity to articulate within its constraints; the rational are those capable of a certain mode of discourse.…


The critic, therefore, administered this judgement of capacity, and the positive response of the British critics to Wheatley's book indicated her successful negotiation of the forms of discourse and her participation in the power such discourse conferred.

The second feature of Wheatley's critical reception addresses the nature of the power her public presence created. Consider the following portion of a review printed in both Gentleman's Magazine and Scots Magazine (both September 1773):

A testimony in favor of the poems as genuine productions of this young person, is signed by the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, seven clergymen, and others eminent for station and literature, and also by her master: and in this it is said, disgraceful as it may be to all that have signed it, that "this poor girl was brought an uncultivated barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is—A slave!"

(qtd. in Isani 146 and 148; emphasis in original review)

The power available to Wheatley to bring into discussion both the reality of her own bondage, and by implication the reality of all in bondage, is clearly evident here. The testimony of authenticity, made necessary by the very nature of her enslaved condition, served to bring to the fore the actuality of her slavery and the moral issues her enslaved condition assumed. The foregrounding of this condition additionally brought into play questions concerning interest and the nature of property and its connection with reason and humanity. Here in this one review we can see the public presence of Phillis Wheatley in operation: the critic, artist, "master," slave, property, and literary form were joined in a complex and destabilizing network of discourse. All assumed relations and assumptions were brought into question. Until this time, no black American, slave or free, had been able to exert this kind of pressure.

Phillis Wheatley returned to Boston on 16 September 1773, her trip to England cut short by the illness of Susanna Wheatley, so the poet was not in London when her book, her public presence, emerged from the press of Archibald Bell. But her return was not without its moment of recognition. Four days after she disembarked in Boston, the 20 September 1773 number of the Boston Gazette noted her return: "In Capt. Calef came Passengers, Capt. Hillhouse and Lady, Mr. Alleing; also Phillis Wheatley, the extraordinary Poetical Genius, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley" ("Boston" 2). There was some irony in this reception. After all, the citizens of Boston had the year before declined subscription to the very volume of poetry that was eliciting favorable British reviews at the time its author was setting foot on the Boston dock.

Beyond a brief moment of recognition, Wheatley's seemingly inconsequential mention in the Gazette serves to remind us of the intense political activity of the times in general and the public sphere in particular, especially as this activity was embodied in this particular newspaper. Frank Luther Mott characterizes the Boston Gazette as "one of the most Patriotic newspapers of the Revolution" (15). Royal Governor Bernard gave the paper a similar review—though from a different angle when in 1770 he called the Gazette "an infamous weekly paper which has swarmed with Libells of the most atrocious kind." Unfortunately for British interests, as the governor further complained, "seven eighths of the people read none but this infamous paper," (qtd. in Mott 75). The writers for the Gazette were drawn primarily from the membership of the Caucus Club: "a small and purposely obscure organization designed to control political action" (Mott 76). Additionally, the club claimed some of the most important political figures of the Massachusetts struggle against Great Britain: John and Samuel Adams, Samuel Cooper, Thomas Cushing, John Hancock, James Otis, Josiah Quincy, and Joseph Warren (Mott 76). At least two members of the club—Cooper and Hancock—signed the authenticating preface to Wheatley's book.

Edited by Boston printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill, the Boston Gazette was an important focus for political action against the crown. Edes later wrote that the leaders of the Boston resistance "constantly assembled within the confines of the Gazette office" (qtd. in Mott 76). John Adams described the political activity centering around the newspaper in his diary entry for Sunday, 3 September 1769: "The evening spent in preparing for the next day's newspaper,—a curious employment, cooking up paragraphs, articles, occurrences, etc., working the political engine!" (Adams 2:229). However, the Gazette's role in the struggle for American independence went beyond cooking up the odd article or paragraph. Mott notes that according to tradition the members of the Boston Tea Party dressed for the occasion in the newspaper's offices (76). Writing and politics were joined in the Gazette offices.

The Boston Gazette provides a concrete example of the public sphere in operation. As Adams notes, the paper's purpose was frankly political and directed toward controlling public opinion. Within this context, rhetoric and writing went beyond simple personal expression. And the seemingly casual mention of Wheatley suggests just how close she was to this intense political activity. Boston was a small town. Wheatley knew many of the prominent political and religious figures, and they knew her. Not only had patriot, preacher, educator, and Caucus Club member Samuel Cooper attested to Wheatley's poetic abilities, he had baptized the poet in 1771 (Mason 10). The Gazette notice of Wheatley's return suggests that her public presence was very much a political presence.

However, the most significant consequence of Wheatley's public sphere participation—her public presence—is to be found on the front page of the same number of the Boston Gazette that announced her return from England:


A very likely Molatto Boy, about 7 or 8 Years of Age, is very active, and can be well recommended for his many Qualities; he speaks good French, etc.

Inquire of Edes and Gill.

("To Be Sold" 1)

History does not tell us the name of the linguistically talented young man offered for sale through the good offices of the Gazette's publishers. His presence is confined to this brief mention. Yet the Gazette's pages are filled with similar offerings: the concrete records of the colonial trade in human beings. Interwoven with these notices and the articles calling for American liberty and freedom is the public presence of a young black woman who thought and wrote, and whose very presence called the trade into question.


  1. A facsimile reprint of the 1773 edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appears in William Robinson, Phillis Wheatley and Her Writing, 141-275, with the portrait reprinted on page 142. Robinson briefly discusses the transformations Wheatley's pictorial representation has undergone on pages 78-81. Erkkila also reproduces the portrait on page 203 of her essay.
  2. Gates is not alone in recognizing Wheatley's effect upon the human rights discussion. Erkkila discusses the debate (201-10), and David Grimsted offers a detailed analysis of it (394-436).
  3. In fact, as Grimsted notes, Wheatley's presence served as such a potent refutation that subsequent pro-slavery advocates who adopted Jefferson's inferiority argument nevertheless ignored Wheatley as an example: "It was hard to read her poetry and conclude the mental incompetence or notable inferiority of blacks. It was impossible even to look at the frontpiece and complacently to tie human 'dignity and beauty' to racist denigration. She was obviously thinking, not asleep" (434).

Works Cited

Adams, John. The Works of John Adams. Ed. Charles Francis Adams. 1850-56. 10 vols. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries P, 1969.

"Boston." Boston Gazette and Country Journal. 20 September 1773: 2.

Eagleton, Terry. The Function of Criticism: From The Spectator to Post-Structuralism. London: Verso, 1984.

Erkkila, Betsy. "Revolutionary Women." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (1987): 189-223.

Gates, Henry Louis. "Phillis Wheatley and the 'Nature of the Negro.'" Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford U P, 1989. 215-33.

Grimsted, David. "Anglo-American Racism and Phillis Wheatley's 'Sable Veil,' 'Length'ned Chain,' and 'Knitted Heart.'" Women in the Age of the American Revolution. Ed. Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville, VA:UPofVirginia, 1989. 338-444.

Isani, Mukhtar Ali. "The British Reception of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects." Journal of Negro History 66 (1981): 144-49.

Levernier, James A. "Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy." Early American Literature 26 (1991): 21-38.

Mason, Julian D., Jr. Introduction. Wheatley 1-22.

Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History, 1690-1960. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

O'Neale, Sondra. "A Slave's Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley's Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol." Early American Literature 21 (1986): 144-65.

Reising, Russell J. "Trafficking in White: Phillis Wheatley's Semiotics of Racial Representation." Genre 22 (1989): 231-61.

Richmond, Merle A. Bid the Vassal Soar. Washington, DC: Howard U P, 1974.

Robinson, William H., ed. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

——. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York: Garland, 1984.

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