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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)

[7388] Scipio Moorhead, Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston (1773), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5316].

One of the best known and most highly regarded pre-nineteenth-century American poets, Phillis Wheatley achieved poetic fame despite her status as an African American slave. Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa (probably Senegal or Gambia) when she was six or seven years old, transported to America on a slave ship, and sold in Boston to the wealthy Wheatley family in 1761. Her mistress, Susannah Wheatley, soon recognized that her young slave was a remarkably intelligent, talented child and, apparently motivated by an unusual compassion and leniency, undertook the highly irregular project of providing her slave with an education. Phillis’s domestic duties were curtailed and she quickly learned to read and write. Her exposure to Latin texts, and especially to English poets such as John Milton and Alexander Pope, provided her with models that profoundly influenced her subsequent work. The Wheatley family also instilled in Phillis a background in the Bible and in Christian tradition. Throughout her career, Phillis’s evangelical Christianity was one of the most important forces in her thought and poetry.

In 1767, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, Phillis Wheatley published her first poem in The Mercury, a Newport, Rhode Island, newspaper. Three years later she composed an elegy on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, the popular itinerant minister who had spread evangelical Christianity throughout the colonies. Published first in The Massachusetts Spy and eventually appearing in broadside and pamphlet form in New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and London, Wheatley’s elegy for Whitefield brought her international recognition. Because her poetry was published as the work of “a Servant Girl . . . Belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley of Boston: And has been but 9 Years in this Country from Africa,” Phillis’s readers knew that she was an African American slave. By 1772, she had compiled a collection of twenty-eight poems that she hoped to publish as a book. Unfortunately, Wheatley’s advertisements in the Boston newspapers seeking subscribers to help finance her proposed book yielded few patrons. With the help of Susannah Wheatley and the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon, she then traveled to England, where her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published by a British press in 1773. Though she was treated with great respect in London–important figures such as Benjamin Franklin, the Earl of Dartmouth, and the Lord Mayor of London hosted her during her stay–Phillis had to cut her trip short and return to Boston when she learned that Susannah Wheatley was gravely ill. Before her death in 1774 Susannah Wheatley granted Phillis her freedom.

Now independent of the Wheatley family, Phillis married John Peters, a free black man about whom little information is known. It is clear that the couple faced serious financial problems, forcing Phillis to work as a scullery maid in order to help support the family. Although she placed advertisements in an effort to fund a second volume of poetry and letters, she was never able to generate enough support to publish more of her work. She died in poverty.

Wheatley’s poetry is characterized by a strict adherence to the conventions of neoclassical verse–that is, a reliance on carefully controlled iambic pentameter couplets and a focus on public, impersonal themes rather than personal self-expression. Some literary critics have understood the restraint and conventionality of her poetry as an indication that Wheatley lacked racial consciousness or was uninterested in protesting slavery. Recently, however, scholars have begun to find evidence that Wheatley actively addressed sociopolitical concerns and brought racial issues to the forefront in her work. Furthermore, since slaves were considered subhuman, Wheatley’s ability to “master” the sophisticated style of neoclassicism itself functioned as a protest of slavery. Many of her poems contain pointed reminders to her audience that she is an African, and her celebrations of American ideals of liberty both implicitly and explicitly condemn African American slavery.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask students to read some passages from poems by Alexander Pope, the English poet who served as one of Wheatley’s most important literary models (stanzas from An Essay on Man or Imitations of Horace would work well). Help them to analyze the construction of the heroic couplets Pope employed–that is, two sequential, rhymed lines in iambic pentameter–and ask them to pay attention to his ability to achieve rhythmic variety even while strictly adhering to this rigid metrical form. Have them then turn to Wheatley’s poetry. Ask them to consider to what extent her work was influenced by Pope. How do the meter, rhythm, and thematic concerns of Wheatley’s poetry both derive from and differ from Pope’s model?
  • Wheatley made two revisions to her poem “To the University of Cambridge, in New England.” Originally, the fourth line described Africa as “The sable land of error’s darkest night,” referring to what Wheatley perceived as the continent’s paganism. The poem then went on to request the students at Harvard to “suppress the sable monster in its growth.” In her revisions for the 1773 volume, Wheatley deleted the word “sable” from both lines, changing line 4 to “The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom,” and altering line 28 to read “Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.” Provide students with a handout that delineates the revisions Wheatley made to her poem and ask them to think about the significance of her deletion of the word “sable.” You might have them look up the etymology of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to provide them with a clearer understanding of the connotations that “sable” would have held for eighteenth-century readers.

Author Questions

  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?

Selected Archive Items

[1235Ezekial Russell, Poem by Phillis, A Negro Girl [of] Boston, on the Death of the Reverend George Whitefield (1770),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Woodcut from the frontispiece of Wheatley’s poem. An evangelical Christian, Phillis Wheatley drew heavily on religious themes for her work.

[1239Phillis Wheatley, Frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wheatley was a respected poet in the late eighteenth century. Her work was resurrected by abolitionists just before the Civil War.

[1240Phillis Wheatley, To the Rev. Mr. Pitkin, on the Death of His Lady. [Signed] Phillis Wheatley, Boston, June 16th, 1772,
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wheatley was greatly influenced by English poets such as John Milton and Alexander Pope. Her ability to master some of the conventions of their difficult styles was itself a form of protest against slavery.

[1241Phillis Wheatley, A Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Dear Obour. Dated Boston, March 21, 1774,
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Although Wheatley received great acclaim for her poetry, she was not able to find funding for her work after the death of her mistress, and she died in poverty.

[2734David Bustill Bowser, Rather Die Freemen than Live to Be Slaves–3rd United States Colored Troops (c. 1865),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-23098].
This regimental flag shows an African American soldier standing next to Columbia. Due to pressure on both the War Department and President Lincoln, black soldiers began serving in the Union Army beginning in 1863.

[6551Kenyon Cox, Columbia & Cuba–Magazine cover–Nude Study (1898),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-68463].
An allegorical cover of an 1898 magazine, exemplifying the openness toward the human body of the late-nineteenth-century realists. The names of the women, “Columbia” and “Cuba,” refer to the relationship of the nations during the Spanish-American War.

[7388Scipio Moorhead, Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston (1773),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC USZC4-5316].
Engraving of Wheatley seated at a desk, which appeared as an illustration in the 1773 edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. By the age of fourteen, Wheatley had already published her first poem and was well on her way to publishing Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which she traveled to Europe to promote.

[9019Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1733),
courtesy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition.
The first stanza of Pope’s Essay on Man. Phillis Wheatley emulated Pope’s neoclassical style. Her mastery of this difficult meter was a form of protest against slavery.

[9020Alexander Pope, Imitations of Horace, from The Complete Poetical Works of Alexander Pope. With Life. (c. 1886),
courtesy of T. Y. Crowell & Co.
The first two stanzas from Pope’s “Imitations of Horace.” Phillis Wheatley drew heavily on Pope’s prosody, including his use of heroic couplets.

[9048Deacon George Thomas, Figurehead of America (2002),
courtesy of Claire Dennerlein and Paul Manson.
Plaque on side of statue reads: “This figurehead is from the clipper ship “America’ built in 1874 at Quincy, Massachusetts, by Deacon George Thomas. In 1887 she was put on the Pacific coasting trade and was wrecked on San Juan Island in 1914.” Seattle businessman and former mayor Robert Moran erected the figurehead at his resort in 1916 to commemorate the dying era of great shipbuilding in America.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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