Wheatley, Phillis: Introduction

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Wheatley is the first black woman known to have published a book in the United States. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was used as an example of the power of education by proponents of egalitarian and abolitionist aims, who emphasized Wheatley's command of Western literature and classical mythology as well as the religious expression strongly evident in her poetry. Wheatley's talent came to the attention of political and cultural leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, and she once corresponded with George Washington. Although her reputation as a poet has sometimes been disparaged and her literary skills challenged, most modern assessments recognize Wheatley's accomplishments as typical of the best poetry of her age.


Believed to have been born in West Africa circa 1753 (possibly in present-day Senegal or Gambia), Wheatley was purchased when she was about seven years old at a slave auction in 1761 by the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant, Susannah Wheatley. Bought to be a personal maid for her mistress, she was renamed by her owner and given the family's surname. She displayed a curiosity and aptitude for learning that led the Wheatleys to educate her, primarily through Bible study. Wheatley was taught to read and write English and studied classical and contemporary poetry as well as French, Latin, and Greek literature. She began writing poetry around the age of thirteen. She was given the unusual privilege of a private room with a lamp and writing materials in order to encourage her writing, but she was forbidden to associate with other slaves. Wheatley's first published poem, an elegy commemorating the death of the well-known abolitionist minister George Whitefield, was printed locally in 1770; however, she soon gained national and international attention when this poem was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies and in England. As a palliative for her asthma, she traveled to England in 1773 with the Wheatleys' son and was treated as a celebrity, especially among English abolitionists. Among them was the antislavery activist Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, who secured publication in London of Wheatley's collection Poems on Various Subjects. The work was first published with the signed testimonies of John Hancock and Reverend Samuel Mather affirming its authenticity as the work of a slave girl. Wheatley was granted an audience with King George III but missed the meeting in order to return to Boston to attend Mrs. Wheatley on her deathbed. Wheatley was freed in 1774, about four months before Mrs. Wheatley's death. Wheatley married John Peters in 1778, a free black man who worked as a lawyer and a grocer, and they had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Her attempts to publish another volume of poetry were unsuccessful; she could not find enough subscribers to make publication financially possible, despite the praise of men including Voltaire, George Washington, and John Paul Jones. The family eventually fell into financial difficulties, and Peters was jailed in a debtor's prison. Wheatley spent her last years in poverty, working as a maid in boardinghouses until her death on December 5, 1784.


Wheatley was primarily an occasional poet, writing elegies and honorific works to commemorate the lives of friends and famous contemporaries and poems to celebrate important events, such as Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces ("To His Excellency George Washington"). Her poems follow the then-widely imitated diction, meter, and rhyme patterns established by Alexander Pope and his school of neoclassical poetry, but Wheatley's technical skill sets her work apart from that of many of her contemporaries. Poems on Various Subjects contains thirty-nine poems which form the majority of her extant work and range in subject matter from very personal and philosophical musings, such as "An Hymn to Morning" and "An Hymn to Evening," to more conventional neoclassical subjects, as in "On Recollection." Many of the poems combine Christian imagery or scriptural interpretation with classical influences, particularly Homeric allusions. Her poems reflect an attention to the major political events of her day as well as more mundane occurrences among her acquaintances. Of the extant poems not contained in Poems on Various Subjects, many are variants of earlier poems, but these also include the poems in praise of George Washington and General Lee.


Early reviews of the Poems on Various Subjects focus on the novelty of an educated, literate female slave more than the work itself, which was dismissed as merely average or simply imitative, though a few of Wheatley's defenders maintained that her poetry could hold its own with that of contemporary white poets. Twentieth-century African American critics scrutinized Wheatley's verse for evidence of racial pride or defiance of bondage, and some faulted her for what they perceived as a lack of either sentiment. More recent critics of the late twentieth century have argued that in using neoclassical and traditionally white modes of discourse, Wheatley subverted the language of her oppressors and used it for her own purposes. Some critics have contended that Wheatley's subjects must be judged within the context of the poetic models and social influences in her restricted surroundings, noting the irony of her position as a pampered favorite of Boston's privileged class and of her enforced isolation from other slaves. Despite much supposition concerning her poetic gifts and potential under different circumstances, Wheatley's poetry is considered a point of departure for the study of African American literature. Many commentators assess her poetry superior to that typical of her era, and cite instances of individuality that acquit her of the common charge of being a mere imitator. James Weldon Johnson has explained that when Wheatley's work is judged by the standards of her time, rather than those of a "later day," Wheatley "stands out as one of the important characters in the making of American literature, without any allowances for her sex or her antecedents."

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