African American Studies Phillis Wheatley
by
Vincent Carretta
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0004

Introduction

The person now best known as Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in West Africa, most likely south of the Senegambia area. In 1761 the slave ship Phillis brought her to Boston, where the merchant John Wheatley and his wife, Susanna, purchased her. Wheatley’s mistress enabled her to become literate and encouraged her to write poetry that soon found its way into New England newspapers. Phillis Wheatley gained transatlantic recognition with her 1770 elegy on the death of the evangelist George Whitefield, which she addressed and sent to his English patron, the Countess of Huntingdon. By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems so that she could attempt to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new poems. Rather than publishing her volume in Boston, Phillis and her mistress successfully sought a London publisher through Huntingdon’s patronage. Phillis accompanied her owner’s son to London in 1773, where she spent several weeks promoting the forthcoming publication of her Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral. Its publication made her the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book and, consequently, to become a founder of African American literature. Phillis Wheatley was on her way back to Boston before her book appeared in September 1773. She probably agreed to return only if her owners promised to free her, as she told a correspondent, “at the desire of [her] friends in England” (Carretta 2001, cited under Primary Texts p. 147), one of whom was Granville Sharp. Sharp had procured a ruling in the King’s Bench in 1772 that legally no slave brought to England could be forced to return to the colonies as a slave. Her owners freed her within a few weeks of her return in September 1773 to Boston, where she quickly took charge of promoting, distributing, and selling her book. Her former mistress died the following March. Phillis continued to live with her former master, John Wheatley, until his death in March 1778. She became engaged to John Peters, a free black, the next month, and married him in November 1778. Initially a successful businessman, Peters soon suffered financial distress during the post-Revolution depression. Publication of Wheatley’s Poems gained her widespread contemporaneous fame, bringing her to the attention of Voltaire, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and George Washington, among others. However, during her lifetime, her fame was short-lived once she was on her own and after her marriage. She published only a few poems after 1773 and unsuccessfully tried to find a Boston publisher for a proposed second volume of her writings, which was to include correspondence and be dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. Her husband was probably in jail for debt when Phillis died in poverty in Boston on 5 December 1784. Her first biographer, Matilda Margaretta Odell, claims that Phillis and John had three children, who all died young. However, no records of their births, baptisms, or deaths have been found. Although Odell says only that John Peters “went South,” he died in Charlestown, just north of Boston, in March 1801.

General Overviews

Carretta 2014 and Robinson 1984 offer biographical and critical overviews of Wheatley’s life. Shields 2008 includes the most recent overview of the critical reception of Wheatley’s writings.

  • Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Rev. ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

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    Originally published in 2011. Significantly revised in 2014. The authoritative critical biography, based on extensive archival research, includes new writings by and attributed to Wheatley, as well as much new information about Wheatley and her husband, John Peters. Challenges many assertions published by others about Wheatley’s African origins, her political identity, and her married life.

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  • Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York: Garland, 1984.

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    First scholarly edition of the then-known published and unpublished writings by Wheatley. The biographical introduction uses primary research to supersede Odell 1834, which was superseded in turn by Carretta 2014. Includes a facsimile reprint of first London edition of Poems, as well as Odell’s, “Memoir,” photocopies of several Wheatley manuscripts, and some related texts.

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  • Shields, John C. Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.

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    Culmination of decades of editing and criticism of Wheatley and her writings by Shields. Useful, albeit sometimes intemperate, assessments of three centuries of critical reception history. Despite Shields’s tendency to disagree harshly with other critics and editors of Wheatley, his division of Wheatley’s writing career into three periods (before 1771, 1771–1773, and 1774–1784), his identification of her poetics of liberation, and his readings of individual poems are often insightful.

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Bibliographies

Phillis Wheatley and her works have been the subjects of only one comprehensive bibliography—Robinson 1981—which covers primary and secondary works related to Wheatley from 1761 to 1979. The textual bibliography by Stoddard and Whitesell 2012 identifies two editions of Wheatley’s Poems published during her life.

Biographies

Although all subsequent biographies of Wheatley necessarily rely on Odell 1834, those by Robinson 1984 (cited under General Overviews), and Carretta 2014 (cited under General Overviews) demonstrate that Odell 1834 must always be double-checked for accuracy and bias.

  • Odell, Margaretta Matilda. “Memoir.” In Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Edited by Margaretta Matilda Odell, 9–29. Boston: G. W. Light, 1834.

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    The first biography, by a great-grand-niece of Susanna Wheatley, that serves as the basis for all subsequent treatments of Phillis Wheatley’s life. Still indispensable, but must be used with extreme caution. Many errors and misrepresentations corrected by Carretta 2014 (cited under General Overviews).

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  • Richmond, M. A. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) and George Moses Horton (ca. 1797–1883). Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.

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    Biography of Wheatley (3–78) based on the unreliable “Memoir” by Odell 1834. Characterizes Wheatley’s poems as demonstrating “a lobotomy-like excision of human personality with warmth and blood and the self-assertiveness that is grounded in an awareness of one’s self” (p. 65).

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Primary Texts

Many editions of Wheatley’s Poems (Wheatley 1773) have appeared since her death. Wheatley’s works have been handled well by her editors only during the last three decades, however. Robinson 1984 (cited under General Overviews) includes additional Wheatley writings: correspondence, published and unpublished poems, variants, possible attributions, and supplementary primary texts. Shields 1988 adds extensive critical commentary. Mason 1989 is based on further primary research, making it now the most authoritative edition. Carretta 2001 adds more contextual material, including works by contemporaneous poets of African descent.

  • Carretta, Vincent, ed. Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings. New York: Penguin, 2001.

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    Based on archival and published primary sources of all of the then-known writings by Wheatley. Mistakenly attributes Mary Whateley Darwall’s “Elegy on Leaving” to Wheatley.

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  • Mason, Julian D., Jr., ed. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

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    The currently authoritative edition, based on extensive primary research. Includes all of Wheatley’s then-known letters, as well as balanced critical judgments. Mistakenly attributes Mary Whateley Darwall’s “Elegy on Leaving” to Wheatley.

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  • Shields, John C., ed. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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    Includes a facsimile of the first edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Transcriptions and notes are less reliable than those in Carretta 2001 and Mason 1989. Believes that the solar imagery in Wheatley’s poetry reflects combination of animist African, Islamic, and Jungian Mandala archetype. “Phillis Wheatley’s Struggle for Freedom in Her Poetry and Prose” (pp. 229–270) anticipates most of the aesthetic and political themes in Wheatley’s writings subsequently developed further by others. Mistakenly attributes Mary Whateley Darwall’s “Elegy on Leaving” to Wheatley.

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  • Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: Archibald Bell, 1773.

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    Two editions were published in London during Wheatley’s lifetime (see also Stoddard and Whitesell 2012, cited under Bibliographies). Wheatley’s Poems was not published in the United States until 1786, two years after her death, by Joseph Crukshank in Philadelphia. A searchable digitized facsimile of the first 1773 edition of Poems is available in the University of South Carolina Rare Books and Special Collections, with an introduction by Vincent Carretta.

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Critical Monographs

Gates 2003 is a useful survey of the critical reception of Wheatley and her writings, whereas Shields 2008 (cited under General Overviews) concentrates on critical readings of her poems. Shields 2010 considers particular works as evidence for Wheatley’s place in literary history. Loscocco 2014 argues for the pervasive influence of John Milton on the organization and contents of Wheatley’s Poems.

Collected Critical Articles

Robinson 1982 includes selections from critical commentaries on Wheatley and her writings during the previous two centuries, including three previously unpublished essays. Shields and Lamore 2011 comprises fourteen previously unpublished essays that reflect critical approaches developed since Robinson 1982.

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

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    Useful collection of a range of approaches to Wheatley and her writings during the previous two centuries. Includes three previously unpublished essays: Albertha Sistrunk on the influence of Alexander Pope on Wheatley; John C. Shields on Wheatley and the sublime; and Mukhtar Ali Isani on Wheatley’s elegies.

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  • Shields, John C., and Eric D. Lamore, eds. New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.

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    Fourteen previously unpublished essays of uneven quality consider Wheatley’s poetry in the contexts of classical influences, marketing studies, New Historicism, Pan-Africanism, queer theory, and reception theory.

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Criticism and Scholarship in Periodicals and Chapters in Books

The assessments of Phillis Wheatley as a person and as an author have undergone a revolution since the 18th century. Nine British periodicals quickly reviewed her Poems when it appeared. The reviews were generally favorable, although usually somewhat patronizingly expressing surprise at her literary talent, given the limitations of her youth, ethnicity, and limited education. The political implications of the reception of Wheatley and her writings were immediately recognized in the context of rising tensions between Britain and its North American colonies. From shortly after Wheatley’s death, abolitionists opposed to the transatlantic slave trade, as well as emancipationists opposed to the institution of slavery, frequently cited the literary quality of Wheatley’s poetry to demonstrate the humanity and inherent equality of Africans. In response, defenders of slavery denied those achievements without offering any evidence from her writings. Thomas Jefferson’s dismissal of Wheatley dominated the reception of her writings for nearly the next two hundred years. During the 19th century and through the first three quarters of the 20th century, critics on both sides of the debate over the intellectual capacity and literary achievements of people of African descent tended to emphasize the fact that Wheatley was a writer, rather than to look closely at what she wrote. White critics before the late 20th century often failed to take her seriously enough to analyze her writings carefully, perhaps because they saw her as an African American author, rather than as an author who was an American of African descent. In other words, to them she was “too black” to be taken seriously. Ironically, some black critics during the 1960s and 1970s denounced Wheatley and her writings as being insufficiently black to be taken seriously. To them she was a traitor to her race because she allegedly failed to address the issues of race and slavery. Neither group of Wheatley’s denigrators betrayed much familiarity with her actual writings. Despite the frequently negative critical treatment of Wheatley before 1980, the groundwork was also being laid for the subsequent renaissance in Wheatley studies with the discovery of Wheatley’s manuscripts of unpublished poems and letters, as well as the recovery of early manuscript versions of several of her subsequently published poems. The 1980s mark the turning point in the biographical, historical, and literary appreciation of Wheatley and her writings. The first scholarly and critical editions of her writings appeared. Critics in the 1990s applied the biographical and historical discoveries of the previous decade to recognize Wheatley as a perceptive and subtle commentator on race, gender, and politics. Close attention to Wheatley as a person, as well as to what and how she wrote, continued in the 21st century. The first full-length scholarly biography of Wheatley appeared (Carretta 2014, cited under General Overviews). Literary critics and historians relocated Wheatley from the margins of the 18th-century world to its center. Considered during the 18th century to be a remarkable curiosity, Wheatley is now recognized universally as a major historical and literary figure, the achievement of whose works transcends the time in which they were written.

Before 1800

British periodicals reviewed Wheatley’s Poems as soon as it appeared. The reviews, which usually include selections from her poems, are generally favorable, although occasionally somewhat patronizing. The Critical Review (Anonymous 1773a) observes that Wheatley’s extraordinary achievement, despite her youth and social status, disproves the alleged ineducability of people of African descent. The London Magazine (Anonymous 1773b) is impressed by Wheatley’s familiarity with classical figures. Gough 1773 laments that such a talented writer is still denied her natural right to freedom. Similarly, the Monthly Review (Anonymous 1773c) sees Wheatley as an example of the hypocrisy of discontented white colonists who pride themselves on the liberty they deny to others. Sancho 2015, too, sees Wheatley as a victim of hypocrisy, notwithstanding her evident genius. Following Wheatley’s death, her life and works were invoked by both sides in the arguments during the next two centuries over (1) the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, (2) the abolition of the institution of slavery, and (3) the intellectual capacity of free people of African descent. Clarkson 1786 notes that if freedom depends on literary talent equal to Wheatley’s, most Britons should be enslaved. Even an apologist for slavery acknowledges Wheatley’s genius (Stedman 1796). In response, Jefferson denied Wheatley’s literary achievements in 1787 (Jefferson 1999). Although Imlay 1793 challenges Jefferson, Jefferson’s condescending and dismissive attitude toward the mental capacity of people of African descent dominated the debate over much of the next two hundred years.

  • Anonymous. Critical Review of London 26 (September 1773a): 232–233.

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    Before reproducing the text of “To Maecenas,” notes that [t]he Negroes of Africa are generally treated as a dull, ignorant, and ignoble race of men, fit only to be slaves, and incapable of any considerable attainments in the liberal arts and sciences” (p. 232). Wheatley is a “literary phaenomenon” because “[t]here are several lines in this piece, which would be no discredit to an English poet. The whole is indeed extraordinary, considered as the production of a young Negro, who was, but a few years since, an illiterate barbarian” (p. 233).

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  • Anonymous. London Magazine 42 (September 1773b): 456.

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    Includes Wheatley’s “Hymn to the Morning” to vindicate the assessment that “[t]hese poems display no astonishing power of genius; but when we consider them as the productions of a young untutored African . . . we cannot suppress our admiration of talents so vigorous and lively. We are the more surprised too, as we find her verses interspersed with the poetical names of the ancients, which she has in every instance used with strict propriety” (p. 456).

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  • Anonymous. Monthly Review 49 (December 1773c): 457–459.

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    Although acknowledging that Wheatley “has written many good lines, and now and then one of superior character,” the judgment of her works as a whole is harsh: “[t]he poems written by this young negro bear no endemial [endemic] marks of solar fire or spirit” because “[t]hey are merely imitative; and, indeed, most of those people have a turn for imitation, though they have little or none for invention” (p. 458). The reviewer is nonetheless “much concerned to find that this ingenious young woman is yet a slave. The people of Boston boast themselves chiefly on their principles of liberty. One such act as the purchase of her freedom, would, in our opinion, have done them more honour than hanging a thousand trees with ribbons and emblems” (p. 459).

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  • Clarkson, Thomas. An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. London: Printed by Phillips, 1786.

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    Clarkson quotes from Wheatley’s “Hymn to Evening,” “Hymn to Morning,” “On Imagination,” as well as the “Attestation” from Poems to argue that “if the authoress was designed for slavery . . . the greater part of the inhabitants of Britain must lose their claim to freedom” (p. 175).

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  • Gough, Richard. Gentleman’s Magazine 43 (September 1773): 456.

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    Reprints “On Recollection” and laments, “Youth, innocence, and piety, united with genius, have not yet been able to restore her to the condition and character with which she was invested by the Great Author of her being. So powerful is custom in rendering the heart insensible to the rights of nature, and the claims of excellence” (p. 456).

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  • Imlay, Gilbert. A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America. Vol. 1. New York: S. Campbell, 1793.

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    Includes lines from Wheatley’s “On Imagination” to refute Jefferson’s judgment of her genius, and challenges anyone to inform him “what white upon this continent has written more beautiful lines” (p. 186).

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  • Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by Frank Shuffelton. New York: Penguin, 1999.

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    Originally published in 1787. Notoriously and influentially remarks: “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum [inspiration] of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions composed 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” (p. 147). See especially Query XIV. See also Gates 2003, cited under Critical Monographs.

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  • Sancho, Ignatius. Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. Edited by Vincent Carretta. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 2015.

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    Originally published in London in 1782. Unaware that Wheatley (whom Sancho never met) was now free, Sancho expresses his concern about her current social status in America. His are the first critical comments on Wheatley’s work by another African Briton. He refers to her as a “Genius in bondage” (p. 166) and presciently anticipates that her former white admirers will abandon her once she’s free (Sancho to Jabez Fisher, 27 January 1778).

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  • Stedman, John Gabriel. Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Vol. 2. London: J. Johnson and J. Edwards, 1796.

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    Quotes from Wheatley’s “On Imagination” as evidence that Wheatley and other people of African descent “are neither divested of a good ear, nor poetical genius” (p. 260).

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1950–1970s

The third quarter of the 20th century saw the beginnings of the recuperation and reassessment by historians and literary critics of Wheatley and her writings. Smith 1974 sees Wheatley as denying her racial identity, whereas Collins 1975 goes further, contending that Wheatley expresses racial self-hatred in her poetry. Gates 1979 marks a turning point from the race-based approach to Wheatley to a critical assessment of her writings. Davis 1953, however, notes several examples of racial self-awareness in her poems. Matson 1972 appreciates how subtly Wheatley expresses her racial consciousness, as well as her opposition to slavery. Akers 1975 considers Wheatley in the political context of the American Revolution. Rawley 1977 begins to reconstruct Wheatley’s transatlantic evangelical network. The literary traditions that inform Wheatley’s elegies are the subject of Rigsby 1975. Isani 1976 is the first of many discoveries of hitherto unknown writings by Wheatley.

1980s

The 1980s mark the beginning of the renaissance of Wheatley studies. Scruggs 1981 warns us not to read Wheatley anachronistically as a Romantic poet. The bibliographical research by Robinson 1981 (cited under Bibliographies) prepared the ground for Robinson 1984 (cited under General Overviews), the first truly scholarly edition of Wheatley’s life, times, and works. Robinson 1984 (cited under General Overviews), in turn, enabled Grimsted 1989 to dig deeply into the historical contexts of Wheatley’s writings. Increasingly more sophisticated literary criticism also followed. O’Neale 1986 emphasizes that Wheatley’s status as a slave affected her rhetorical choices. Similarly, Reising 1989 warns us against assuming that Wheatley writes transparently rather than rhetorically. Smith 1989 considers how and why Wheatley creates an ideal reader for her poetry.

  • Grimsted, David. “Anglo-American Racism and Phillis Wheatley’s ‘Sable Veil,’ ‘Length’ned Chain,’ and ‘Knitted Heart.’” In Women in the Age of the American Revolution. Edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, 338–444. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989.

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    Important treatment of the relationship between Wheatley and evangelicalism, Revolutionary politics, the antislavery movement, and contemporaneous women’s circles. Close readings of several poems in contemporaneous political context. Notes that she writes about slavery almost as frequently as religion. Discusses the use of Wheatley and her poems in contemporaneous and subsequent arguments about intellectual capacity and literary achievements of people of African descent. Anticipates many subsequent approaches to her and her writings.

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  • O’Neale, Sondra. “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol.” Early American Literature 21 (1986): 144–165.

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    O’Neale says that it should always be remembered that Wheatley’s status as a slave required her covertly to reappropriate terms such as “black,” “redemption,” and “Ethiopian” in poems such as “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and her verse epistle to Dartmouth to protest against slavery.

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  • Reising, Russell J. “Trafficking in White: Phillis Wheatley’s Semiotics of Racial Representation.” Genre 22 (1989): 231–261.

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    We must read Wheatley’s writings as carefully and subtly crafted rhetoric, rather than as transparent.

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  • Scruggs, Charles. “Phillis Wheatley and the Poetic Legacy of Eighteenth-Century England.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 10 (1981): 279–295.

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    Rightly calls Odell’s “Memoir” “[a] strange mixture of fact and fiction” (p. 283). Warns against approaching Wheatley as a Romantic poet rather than appreciating the influence of Alexander Pope on her use of personae to express her “imagined self” (p. 284).

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  • Shields, John C. “Phillis Wheatley’s Struggle for Freedom in Her Poetry and Prose.” In The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields, 229–270. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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    Believes that the solar imagery in Wheatley’s poetry reflects a combination of animist African, Islamic, and Jungian Mandala archetype. Anticipates most of the aesthetic and political themes in Wheatley’s writings subsequently developed further by others.

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  • Smith, Cynthia. “‘To Maecenas’: Phillis Wheatley’s Invocation of an Idealized Reader.” Black American Literature Forum 23.3 (Autumn 1989): 579–592.

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    Wheatley addresses Maecenas “not as a provider of material support but as a sympathetic reader” (p. 583), the model of the type of reader she hopes to have for her Poems.

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1990s

Building on the bibliographical, biographical, and historical discoveries of the previous two decades, critics in the 1990s increasingly recognized Wheatley as a perceptive and subtle commentator on race, gender, and politics. Wilcox 1999 looks at the possible role that Susanna Wheatley played in the revision of Phillis’s poems for a London audience. Bassard 1999 studies the development of Wheatley’s self-representation from manuscript to print. Nott 1993 believes that Wheatley effectively writes herself into existence by entering the public sphere of print. Zafar 1997 shows how Wheatley uses literary conventions to comment on race. Wheatley’s assertions of power and her pride in her ethnicity are the subjects of Foster 1993. The relationship between Wheatley’s political and religious rhetoric is discussed by Levernier 1991. Burke 1994 argues that Wheatley appropriates contemporaneous political rhetoric to claim an American identity. Wheatley’s assertion of an American identity is also the subject of Richards 1992.

  • Bassard, Katherine C. Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early American Women’s Writing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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    In Diaspora Subjectivity and Transatlantic Crossings: Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Recovery” and “The Too Advent’rous Strain”: Slavery, Conversion, and Poetic Empowerment in Phillis Wheatley’s Elegies, Bassard argues that the final pair of poems in Wheatley’s Poems is an appropriate conclusion. Traces Wheatley’s maturation in self-representation, ideology, and technique in poems from manuscripts to published versions in which her identity as a Middle Passage survivor is more significant than her status as a slave. Considers Wheatley a “Puritan poet” (p. 63) drawn to the elegy genre by her sense of isolation and desire for community.

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  • Burke, Helen. “Problematizing American Dissent: The Subject of Phillis Wheatley.” In Cohesion and Dissent in America. Edited by Carol Colatrella and Joseph Alkana, 193–209. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

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    By assuming a humble persona, Wheatley, like Alexander Pope, understands “how the process of poetic legitimization works in the Western European literary tradition” (p. 196). She also appropriates the political rhetoric of liberty and freedom in her poems and letters to write from within a concept of being American that paradoxically denies her that identity because of her race, class, and gender.

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  • Foster, Frances Smith. “Sometimes by Simile, a Victory’s Won.” In Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. By Frances Smith Foster, 30–43. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

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    Wheatley dealt with the conflict between the expectation of her white owners and audience that she demonstrate Christian humility and her own artistic ambitions by employing “linguistic ambiguity and diplomacy” (p. 35). Wheatley repeatedly noted her ethnicity and asserted her power despite “the racial and sexual restrictions of her time” (p. 35). Convincing readings of several poems, including likening David in “Goliath of Gath” to Wheatley herself. Sees her poems as “autobiographical statements” (p. 43).

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  • Levernier, James A. “Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy.” Early American Literature 26 (1991): 21–38.

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    Demonstrates that Wheatley’s religious training exposed her to “a revolutionary politics of both social and spiritual liberation” (p. 23) through the sermons and writings of many of the clergymen who signed the “Attestation” that prefaces her Poems.

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  • Nott, Walt. “From ‘Uncultivated Barbarian’ to ‘Poetical Genius’: The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley.” MELUS 18.3 (1993): 21–32.

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    Argues that by entering the public sphere of print, Wheatley in effect writes herself into existence, compelling readers to ponder how someone defined as property can create and own property.

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  • Richards, Phillip M. “Phillis Wheatley and Literary Americanization.” American Quarterly 44 (1992): 163–191.

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    Important and influential treatment of Wheatley’s “acculturation or Americanization” (p. 165) that demonstrates that rather than either resisting or surrendering to Anglo-American cultural norms and forms, Wheatley absorbs, appropriates, and assimilates them to create “legitimizing strategies” (p. 179) to express her religious and political views from an African American perspective to a predominantly white audience.

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  • Wilcox, Kirstin. “The Body into Print: Marketing Phillis Wheatley.” American Literature 71.1 (March 1999): 1–29.

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    Argues that Susanna Wheatley played a major role in getting Phillis Wheatley’s Poems published in London in 1773 and in having poems revised and added to appeal to metropolitan, rather than colonial, readers. Says that contemporaneous readers did not take Wheatley seriously. See also Bilbro 2012 (cited under 2010s) and Shields 2010 (cited under Critical Monographs).

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  • Zafar, Rafia. “Sable Patriots and Modern Egyptians: Phyllis Wheatley, Joel Barlow, and Ann Eliza Barlow.” In We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760–1870. By Rafia Zafar, 15–39. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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    Compares works by Joel Barlow and Ann Eliza Bleeker to those by Wheatley, their contemporary, to demonstrate how the latter worked within literary conventions to express her racial identity and views. Notes, “[t]he refusal to recognize the liberating possibilities of Protestant Christianity and the supposition that Wheatley must want to be ‘white’ because she is a confessed Christian have fostered simplistic critiques of her work” (p. 17).

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2000s

By 2000 Wheatley’s status as a preeminent African American author was unquestioned. Her writings were read increasingly closely and contextually. Balkun 2002 demonstrates how Wheatley rhetorically manipulates her white readers to question slavery. Wheatley’s relationship to her readers, especially her white women readers, is also the subject of Brooks 2010. Shuffelton 2001 argues that the political tensions during the American Revolution compelled Wheatley to try to address conflicting audiences simultaneously. Cook and Tatum 2010 reminds us that Wheatley and her audience were familiar with classical literature through translations that enabled her to claim a place in the classical tradition, whether or not she was able to read Latin. McBride 2001 and Slauter 2004 discuss Wheatley’s place in intellectual history. McBride 2001 contends that Wheatley challenges Enlightenment notions of race. Slauter 2004 sees Wheatley’s writings as illustrating the mid-18th-century transition from an emphasis on imitation to a stress on invention. Fichtelberg 2010 warns against misreading Wheatley’s poems in light of the Romantic concept of the sublime, rather than from the perspective of the 18th-century sense of the sublime. Franke 2004 analyzes the role that the theme of melancholy plays in Wheatley’s verbal and visual self-representations.

  • Balkun, Mary McAleer. “Phillis Wheatley’s Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology.” African American Review 36.1 (Spring 2002): 121–136.

    DOI: 10.2307/2903370Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Close readings of Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England” demonstrate how she manipulates her personae’s place and role in the Christian community she shares with her white audience to compel its members, including prominent slave owners, to associate themselves with a critique of slavery.

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  • Brooks, Joanna. “Our Phillis, Ourselves.” American Literature 82.1 (2010): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1215/00029831-2009-067Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Like Grimsted 1989 (cited under 1980s) and Wilcox 1999 (cited under 1990s), Brooks refutes the scene of the examination of Wheatley imagined in Gates 2003 (cited under Critical Monographs). Argues for Phillis Wheatley’s agency in the creation and publication of her poems. Demonstrates the support that Wheatley received from white women who ultimately abandoned her after she gained her freedom.

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  • Cook, William W., and James Tatum. African American Writers and Classical Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226789989.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Emphasizes that it is only speculation that Wheatley was fluent in Latin. Sees the influence on Wheatley of classical literature available in translation, Milton, Pope, and neoclassical forms as positive rather than constricting. Convincing readings of “To Maecenas,” “Goliath of Gath,” and “Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo,” the latter of which is seen as reflecting Wheatley’s own loss of family.

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  • Fichtelberg, Joseph. “Phillis Wheatley’s Feminine Sublime.” In Risk Culture: Performance and Danger in Early America. By Joseph Fichtelberg, 94–121. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

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    Wheatley uses the “feminine sublime” to assert authority and freedom through submission, especially in elegies influenced by the Calvinistic concept of sublimity promoted during the Great Awakening. Warns against applying anachronistic definitions of the sublime to Wheatley (e.g., Shields 1988, cited under Primary Texts).

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  • Franke, Astrid. “Phillis Wheatley, Melancholy Muse.” New England Quarterly 77.2 (2004): 224–251.

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    Demonstrates that many aspects of Wheatley’s poems, as well as the frontispiece to her Poems, that critics have considered solely or primarily in the context of racial discourse are evaluated more accurately and productively in the context of the verbal and visual traditions of representing melancholy. The concept of melancholy enables Wheatley to link religion, politics, and poetic inspiration in her pre-Revolutionary war writings in ways that became increasingly unavailable during the more secular postwar period. Significant readings of “To Maecenas,” elegies, and “An Answer to the REBUS.”

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  • McBride, Dwight A. “Appropriating the Word: Phillis Wheatley, Religious Rhetoric, and the Poetics of Liberation.” In Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. By Dwight A. McBride, 103–119. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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    Approaching Wheatley as a pre-Romantic figure, McBride sees her writings as challenging Enlightenment assumptions about race and authorship. Argues that Wheatley distinguishes between affirming God’s grace and claiming that God’s mercy absolves proponents of slavery of guilt.

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  • Shuffelton, Frank. “On Her Own Footing: Phillis Wheatley in Freedom.” In Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Edited by Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould, 175–189. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

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    Rejecting both conservative and radical approaches to Wheatley’s poetry, Shuffelton argues that poems such as her exchange with Lieutenant Rochfort demonstrate that the political crisis in the British Empire disrupted the alliances she had established in England, forcing her to create a more imbricated audience comprising loyalists, rebels, and people of African descent.

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  • Slauter, Eric. “Neoclassical Culture in a Society with Slaves: Race and Rights in the Age of Wheatley.” Early American Studies 2.1 (2004): 81–122.

    DOI: 10.1353/eam.2007.0039Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sees Wheatley’s writings as exemplifying the complicated relationship between white calls for political freedom and black calls for physical freedom in the contexts of Revolutionary rhetoric, as well as in the context of the mid-18th-century transition in aesthetic values from neoclassical emphasis on imitation to Romantic stress on invention. Includes a very speculative reading of Wheatley’s “Niobe” as a political allegory.

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2010s

By the second decade of the 21st century, criticism of Wheatley had evolved as far as possible from earlier treatments of her as a humble, limited, even racially self-hating figure to assuming that she was a prodigiously informed, sophisticated, and talented poet and cultural critic. She has moved from the margin of the 18th-century transatlantic world to its center. Weyler 2013 offers a view of Wheatley as being savvy enough to exploit the print market with the publication of her elegy on Whitefield. Wilburn 2014 places Wheatley in the literary tradition of John Milton. Thorn 2012 argues that Wheatley employs the persona of a child to empower herself by ventriloquizing a white voice. To Hodgson 2014, the child persona allows Wheatley to associate the dependent status of enslaved people in the colonies with white colonists rebelling against Britain. Hairston 2013 contends that Wheatley uses the humble persona in her poetry to contest contemporaneous attitudes about gender, race, and slavery. Similarly, Chiles 2014 argues that Wheatley uses puns and mythological allusions to challenge 18th-century associations of blackness with slavery. Bilbro 2012 suggests that Wheatley may have influenced the British side of the contemporaneous evangelical network as much as vice versa. Waldstreicher 2011 argues that Wheatley’s correspondence with some of the most significant political figures of her time demonstrates her centrality in the age of the American Revolution.

  • Bilbro, Jeffrey. “Who Are Lost and How They’re Found: Redemption and Theodicy in Wheatley, Newton, and Cowper.” Early American Literature 47.3 (2012): 561–589.

    DOI: 10.1353/eal.2012.0054Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers Wheatley’s Calvinistic and Augustinian notions of grace and memory in relation to her theodicy in “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” “To . . . Dartmouth,” On the Death of . . . Whitefield,” and “On Recollection.” Primary research links Wheatley and John Newton, and possibly William Cowper, in transatlantic evangelical network. Notes a possible influence of Wheatley on poems by Newton and Cowper.

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  • Chiles, Katy L. “To Make a Poet Black.” In Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America. By Katy L. Chiles, 49–63. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199313501.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Wheatley’s uses of “die” and “dye,” as well as the mythological tradition of linking the sun with poetic inspiration and 18th-century notions of the origin of differences in complexion, to associate blackness with poetic genius. Wheatley thus refutes the racialization of complexion used to associate blackness with slavery.

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  • Hairston, Eric Ashley. “The Trojan Horse: Phillis Wheatley.” In The Ebony Column: Classics, Civilization, and the African American Reclamation of the West. By Eric Ashley Hairston, 24–63. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013.

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    Argues that Wheatley uses her self-representation as a pious, humble practitioner of classical conventions as a “Trojan Horse” to challenge contemporaneous beliefs about gender, race, and slavery. Apparently believes that the adolescent Wheatley’s fluency in Latin and her familiarity with classical texts were so great that only the imagination of critics limits the extent of her allusions.

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  • Hodgson, Lucia. “Infant Muse: Phillis Wheatley and the Revolutionary Rhetoric of Childhood.” Early American Literature 49.3 (2014): 663–682.

    DOI: 10.1353/eal.2014.0060Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Wheatley employs the persona of a child in several poems to link the status of enslaved people of African descent to the relationship between rebellious American colonists and the mother country. Attributes Wheatley’s relative public silence after 1773 in part to her reaching adulthood as the revolutionary parent–child political metaphor fell out of use.

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  • Thorn, Jennnifer. “Seduction, Juvenile Death Literature, and Phillis Wheatley’s Child Elegies.” In Atlantic Worlds in the Long Eighteenth Century: Seduction and Sentiment. Edited by Toni Bowers and Tita Chico, 189–204. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137014610Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Emphasizing Wheatley’s youth when she wrote her elegies on the death of children, Thorn appropriates the tradition of child elegies and its theme of resisting seduction by worldly values to empower the dead children and the black poet who ventriloquizes their white voices.

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  • Waldstreicher, David. “The Wheatleyan Moment.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9.3 (2011): 522–551.

    DOI: 10.1353/eam.2011.0024Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Wheatley’s interactions with Lord Dartmouth, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s response to her writings, demonstrate how central a role she played in her writings and in person in promoting the Revolutionary cause and the claim of the role that people of African descent played in it.

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  • Weyler, Karen A. “Mourning New England: Phillis Wheatley and the Broadside Elegy.” In Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America. By Karen A. Weyler, 25–75. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.

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    Emphasizing Wheatley’s place in book history, chapter 1 demonstrates how skillfully Wheatley appropriates the elegy genre and the broadside format to gain access to print and thus literary prominence, exemplified in her elegy on the death of George Whitefield. Notes that Wheatley’s inability to find a Boston publisher for her book may have been due to the market rather than to racism.

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  • Wilburn, Reginald A. “Phillis Wheatley’s Miltonic Journeys in Poems on Various Subjects.” In Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature. By Reginald A. Wilburn, 57–93. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2014.

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    Argues that Wheatley appropriates Milton in her elegies by transitioning from darkness to light. Sees the frequency of the syntactical reversals of nouns and adjectives in Wheatley’s poems as evidence of Miltonic influence (a frequency, one might note, that may be dictated more by the demands of couplet form than by any debt to Milton).

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