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

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
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Authors: Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)

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

Phillis Wheatley Activities
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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.

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