In This Article Phillis Wheatley

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Primary Texts
  • Critical Monographs
  • Collected Critical Articles

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.

  • 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.

  • 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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