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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Activities: Author Activities

Phillis Wheatley - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: Examine the engraving of Phillis Wheatley that appeared in the 1773 edition of her Poems (reproduced in the archive). How does the portrait depict Wheatley? Why do you think her British publishers would have printed this picture of Wheatley, along with the caption describing her as the "negro servant of Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston" in the first edition of her book?

  2. Context: In "To His Excellency General Washington," Wheatley refers to America as "Columbia"--a feminized personification of the "land Columbus found." While this designation of America as "Columbia" became commonplace in the years following the Revolution, Wheatley's use of the term marks its first-known appearance in print. Why might Wheatley have been interested in coining this description of America? How does she describe "Columbia" in her poem? What does the ideal of "Columbia" seem to signify for her? How does Wheatley's depiction of America as "Columbia" compare to other textual and visual representations of "Columbia"?

  3. Context: In his efforts to support his arguments for the racial inferiority of black people in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously dismissed the artistic merit of Wheatley's poetry: "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." Why do you think Jefferson felt compelled to denounce Wheatley in this way? What is at stake in his refusal to "dignify" her poetry with his criticism?

  4. Exploration: Literary and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. has argued that Phillis Wheatley's poetry is enormously significant in that it "launched two traditions at once--the black American literary tradition and the black woman's literary tradition." How did Wheatley's poetry influence subsequent African American poets and writers, such as nineteenth-century writers of slave narratives or the poets of the Harlem Renaissance? How does her work deal with issues of gender? How do we reconcile Gates's claims for her status as a founder with the fact that Wheatley's work was largely forgotten after her death until abolitionists republished some of her poems in the mid-nineteenth century?

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