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Phillis Wheatley: America’s First African American Poet
Phillis Wheatley's talent was questioned but then authenticated during her lifetime, and she is now hailed by all but the most cynical as one of America's finest poetic voices.
Phillis Wheatley’s first and only book of published poetry was titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral; it was published in England.
Two Versions of a Publication History
There are two versions of the history of this book’s publication: one is that the Countess Selina of Huntington invited Phillis to London and found a publisher for the poet; the other is that Phillis suffered from asthma, and so the Wheatley family took her to England to recuperate, and while there, they sought publication of her work.
Either way, the book was published and Wheatley’s career was established. The Wheatley family’s insight played a major role in helping a slave rise above the hardships of that vile institution.
The Value of One Poem
In May 1968, one poem written by Phillis Wheatley brought $68,500 at Christie's auction, Rockefeller Center in New York. It had been estimated to bring between $18,000 and $25,000.
The poem is titled "Ocean"; its seventy lines were written on three pages that had yellowed with time. It is thought to be the only copy.
Coming to America
Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal, Africa, in 1753. At age seven, she was brought to America and sold to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston. She soon became a family member instead of a slave.
The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read, and she was soon reading classic literature in Greek and Latin, as well as English. But her talent did not stop with reading, because she began to write poetry, influenced by the Bible and the English poets, particularly John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray.
Phillis wrote her first poem at age thirteen, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," which was published in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. But she gained wide recognition as a poet with “On the Death of the Reverand Mr. George Whitefield,” which appeared only three years later. Chiefly, because of this poem, Phillis’ first book was later published. It is thought that she had a second book of poems, but the manuscript seems to have disappeared.
In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a failed businessman. They had three children, all of whom died in childhood. Phillis' final years were spent in extreme poverty, despite her work as a seamstress. She continued to write poetry and tried in vain to publish her second book of poetry. She died at age 31 in Boston.
Controversy Over Authenticity
As one might surmise, there was, indeed, a controversy over the authenticity of Phillis’ writing. That a young black slave girl could write like a John Milton was not a fact easily digested back in Colonial America, when slaves were considered something less than human.
Even Thomas Jefferson showed disdain for Phillis’ writing; in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he remarked, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic] but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."
Yet Jefferson goes ahead and offers criticism in his next remark, “The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.”
Unlike Jefferson, George Washington proved to be a fan; in 1776, she wrote a poem and a letter to Washington, who praised her efforts and invited her to visit. I wonder how seriously we can take Jefferson’s criticism, when he so badly misspelled her name; one wonders if he might be speaking of someone else.
Victory Over Suffering
Readers can sample Phillis’ poetry online; her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is offered in its entirety, including the front material that shows how strong the controversy over her talent was.
Though suffering the ambivalence of the Colonial mind-set during her lifetime, today Phillis Wheately is hailed as the first African American poet and as the fourth important American poet in the history of American poetry.
Introduction to Phillis Wheatley Biography
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes