Atlantic History Phillis Wheatley
Cassander L. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0407


The Atlantic, as a route and a region, was fundamental in the shaping of the person we know as Phillis Wheatley (Peters). Wheatley was an enslaved Black woman living in 18th-century Massachusetts who rose to fame as a poet when she published her one and only volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Hers is the earliest known book published by a person of African descent living in British North America. Wheatley was born in the Senegambia region of West Africa, somewhere between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers. Her encounter with the Atlantic began in 1761, when she was about seven or eight years old. She was kidnapped, taken across the Middle Passage, and sold into slavery in colonial Massachusetts. Compelled by what her enslavers deemed a natural curiosity, Wheatley quickly learned how to read and write in English. She began publishing poems as a young teen. One of her most famous poems, published in 1770, when she was about sixteen, is an elegy occasioned by the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, a famous English Methodist evangelist. Three years later, with the help of an English philanthropist named Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects. Importantly, she published the book in London when efforts to secure publication in colonial Massachusetts failed. In 1773 she traveled with the son of her enslavers to England to oversee publication and promote the book. The Atlantic was a prominent aspect in the process by which Wheatley published her book and in the themes of the poems in the book. The poems meditate on her capture from West Africa and transatlantic travel. She penned verses in honor of prominent figures in England and Massachusetts and even offered occasional oblique references to her parents in Senegambia. Shortly after the book was published, the Wheatleys manumitted Phillis Wheatley, succumbing perhaps to the pressures of a transatlantic community that advocated for her freedom. As a newly emancipated woman, Wheatley continued to pen verses with the intention of publishing a second book. The book never materialized in print, however, perhaps owing in part to the outbreak of war. In 1778 she married a man named John Peters, who also was formerly enslaved. Peters owned a small grocery store. They moved to the countryside outside of Massachusetts, until just before Wheatley’s death on 5 December 1784, at the approximate age of thirty-one.

General Overview

For much of the twentieth century, critics dismissed Wheatley as an inferior poet. Some echoed the assessment of Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared the poet’s work beneath the dignity of criticism. For critics who did engage her work, they deemed it mostly derivative and argued that her poetry perpetuated racist, hegemonic perspectives with poems like “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” In that poem, the speaker appears to celebrate her capture and enslavement as a spiritual deliverance that brings her in touch with Christ. Flanzbaum 1993 summarizes the history of this critical reception. Over the last four decades, scholarly perspective has shifted. More often today, scholars deem Wheatley’s poetry crafty and subversive, as seen in Monescalchi 2019, Loving 2016, and Bly 2018. Levernier 1993 and Smith 1989 note protest as a prominent theme guiding Wheatley’s poetics.

  • Bly, Antonio T. “‘On Death’s Domain Intent I Fix My Eyes.” Early American Literature 53.2 (2018): 317–341.

    DOI: 10.1353/eal.2018.0040

    Argues that the subversive nature of Wheatley’s poetry can be understood as a form of sass, an expression of agency.

  • Flanzbaum, Hilene. “Unprecedented Liberties: Re-reading Phillis Wheatley.” In Special Issue: Poetry and Poetics. MELUS 18.3 (Autumn 1993): 71–81.

    DOI: 10.2307/468067

    Noting that criticism of Wheatley tends to focus on the evaluative, Flanzbaum insists on reading Wheatley’s works through an interpretive mode.

  • Levernier, James A. “Style as Protest in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley.” Style 27.2 (Summer 1993): 172–193.

    Lavernier provides a close reading of “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to illustrate what he argues is a subversive persona that speaks throughout Wheatley’s works.

  • Loving, Mary Catherine. “Uncovering Subversion in Phillis Wheatley’s Signature Poem: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America.’” Journal of African American Studies 20.1 (March 2016): 67–74.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12111-015-9319-8

    Presents a close reading of Wheatley’s most often anthologized poem to illustrate instances of subversion in the poem’s diction, focusing on seemingly derogatory words like pagan and sable.

  • Monescalchi, Michael. “Phillis Wheatley, Sameul Hopkins, and the Rise of Disinterested Benevolence.” Early American Literature 54.2 (2019): 413–444.

    DOI: 10.1353/eal.2019.0035

    Argues that Wheatley critiques slavery without condemning her personal enslavement through a strategy of disinterestedness.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/2904208

    Reads Wheatley’s poetic voice as assertive. Argues that the poem “To Maecenas” is a racial critique and complaint.

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