Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): First African American Writer/Poet to Publish a Book

Reputation:  “The best poet of the period” (Martin Day, A Handbook of American Literature 21)

Phillis Wheatley is a notable poet/writer who wrote patriotic poems to George Washington during the revolutionary period. 

Biography

  • Brought to America at about Age 7
  • Bought by John and Susanna Wheatley
  • Read Bible and English and Latin literature, history, and geography
  • Began to write English poetry after 4 years exposure to English Language
  • 1767: Published first poem in Rhode Island Newspaper
  • 1770: Earned fame with an elegy on the death of Rev. George Whitefield
  • 1773: Sailed to England to publish the 1st volume of her poetry; was received by Benjamin Franklin
  • 1773: Returned to Boston due to Susanna’s serious illness
  • 1773: Was emancipated 20 years old
  • 1775: Undertook patriotic poetry by writing to Washington
  • 1776: Visited Washington
  • 1778: Married John Peters, a freed slave
  • 1784: Death.

Works: Authored POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS, RELIGION AND MORAL BY PHILLIS WHEATLEY, NEGRO SERVANT.

Subject matter ranges from:

  1. Wheatley’s devout Christianity
  2. Puritan beliefs/influence
  3. Interest in spiritual freedom rather than freedom from slavery.  See “On Being Brought from Africa”
  4. Celebration of her spiritual salvation
  5. Expression of grief: the death of Reverend George Whitefield
  6. Patriotism and allegiance to American Independence; see “To His Excellency General Washington.”
  7. Neo-Classical themes & style
  8. Weighty life-and-death matters
  9. Interest in current events and in poetry that addressed prominent people

Contemporary poet June Jordan calls Wheatley “Phillis Miracle.”  Why is her achievement(s) considered a “miracle”?  How did this “miracle” affect the thinking and assumptions at the time and even contributed to the abolition of slavery?

  1. Unprecedented
  2. African-born slave-woman-servant writing poems on “serious matters” in English, her adopted language?  How possible? 

Note use and effect of authenticating introductory/prefatory materials (not included in Anthology) by:

  1. John Wheatley, her master and a respected Boston merchant
  • Most respectable Characters in Boston, including His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Governor, 1771-74.
  • Challenged and reversed prejudices (on its title page alone)
  • Constituted indisputable proof of genius

Concluding Thoughts and Questions

What factors contributed to Wheatley’s success as a poet/writer

  1. Education: grew up in a fixed and prejudged position in then society, but with a stroke of a pen, she became a poet and gained prominence and upward social mobility.  In a sense, she started African American literature.
  2. Salvific message of her poetry—interested in spiritual redemption, in God’s goodness as opposed to His wrath, and in notion that salvation is the most important thing in life

Compare Wheatley with Bradstreet.  Does anything in Wheatley’s poetry indicate that she was a woman?

  • Both document important events in their poetry
  • Their works have great variety (historical, domestic, and religious)
  • Both show evidence of learning
  • Provide hope for the future—a delightful subject to Christians
  • Wheatley adopts a public voice, whereas Bradstreet’s voice is personal/private.  She did not intend to be published

Wheatley resembles the earlier colonial writers (such as Wigglesworth and Taylor) for whom personal concerns and personal voice are largely absent.  What explains the absence of personal voice in Wheatley and these early colonial writers? (Consider the following: artistic detachment and projection of self away from individual to universal—to one communicating a message—often religious–to the public).

Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, states: “religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet”; however, Washington, after receiving the poem “To His Excellency General Washington,” described Wheatley’s poetry as “elegant lines . . . the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of … poetical talents….”  What, in your opinion, explains the two leaders’ different perception of Wheatley’s poetry?