Saturday, March 18, 2023

Phillis Wheatley Reconsidered

Boston in the mid-18th century was home to many enslaved Africans and also free men and women of African descent living there, along with the White, mainly British, inhabitants. My knowledge of this era was minimal, and reading The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatly by David Waldstreicher offered me a hugely interesting education in that time and place. 

Boston residents at the time were beginning to question the moral and religious implications of enslaving other human beings. As the century proceeded, antislavery sentiments became more and more mainstream and normal. Principled opposition to slavery grew simultaneously and in concert with the opposition to British rule.  The Revolution was coming!

Phillis Wheatley, the subject of this history, is frequently remembered in historic accounts because of her prominence as a poet. Waldstreicher portrays her in the context of the era and the intellectual climate of the times. She arrived in Boston in 1761 as a small and not-very-healthy child of around seven years old, who had been torn away from her father in Africa. She was purchased by the Wheatley family who lived in the center of the city. Her age was estimated by the fact that she was missing her front baby teeth; she was so young and small that they paid a low price for her. Within a few years, she learned to speak, read, and write English, and began to write impressive poetry in the classical style of the era. As I read this, I was deeply disturbed by imagining such a small and vulnerable child being kidnapped, sold as property, and valued only as a slave.

In both Boston and London in the 1770s, there were active and important intellectual and political debates about the moral and historic issues of slavery. As Phillis Wheatley’s poetry became known and admired, prominent members of society in Boston as well as visitors from London sought to meet her, and even requested that she write poetry to commemorate some of the participants in the debate, In particular, by request she wrote a poem about Lord Dartmouth, who was a proponent in British political life of the American requests for more respect, more economic freedom, and less tolerance for enslavement of Africans. 

Eventually, her family/owners determined that she should travel to London for the occasion of publication of her first book. Also for this book, they felt that she should have a portrait painted; the artist was probably Scipio Moorhead, another enslaved African who was unusually gifted and accomplished. Again, I cringe when I think of the horrific loss of opportunity for the African captives who served in the homes of these Bostonians: people who manage to have such a pure reputation in history as I was always taught it. 

An engraving of the portrait. The original oil painting is lost.

"Contemporaries would have recognized at once the pious and the literary conventions in the portrait, or at least the engraving based on it. The now famous image of Phillis Wheatley is the 'portrait of a young bluestocking.' ... The narrow black band around her neck may be a subtle variant on the metal collar that had been a convention in portraits of African slaves. Nevertheless, this is the portrait of a lady as a poet, a thinking person, who rests her arm and elbow on her own table, her own papers." (The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. p. 206-207).

Phillis Wheatley's book of poems was successful in many ways, including as a sort of autobiography: "The poems ... tell a story. They chart her development as a poet, her fulfillment of her early promise, and her development into a sophisticated adult worthy of patronage, capable of wisdom on 'various' topics, Christian but literate in the classics, African and American but also decidedly British." (p. 262). 

To London and Back

The description of Phillis Wheatley's trip to London is fascinating. She visited famous places, such as the Tower of London and the new British Museum, which was just receiving material from the voyages of Captain Cook. She met famous people, both British and American -- including Benjamin Franklin. And her accomplishments as a poet were greatly appreciated by the local people. 

Upon her return from London, “Eleven newspapers in the colonies announced Phillis Wheatley’s return as a passenger on a ship laden with goods…. These reports were even more effusive than the advance notices and initial reviews of her book.” (p. 274) She was treated as a celebrity, and participated increasingly in the ongoing controversies about abolition and the morality of holding slaves. Her book was selling; what’s more, her opinions and her status became important in the public eye.

Another cringey subject in this book is the way admiring Bostonians related to Phillis Wheatley, both recognizing her genius and accomplishments, but also reacting with bigotry. They often wanted to meet her and take tea or dine with her, but were halted by prejudice, which for her created "an everyday balancing act, always knowing her audience at least as well as they knew themselves." (p. 145). Specifically: 

“…after her return from London, Phillis did take tea at the same table with white women—but only when they insisted. Eunice Fitch—none other than the second wife of Timothy Fitch, owner of the [ship] Phillis, who had sent a slaver to Africa as recently as 1771—overruled her anxious daughters and stepdaughters, ‘who could not bear that they should sit down at table with a colored person’ (as someone who had heard the story later put it using polite nineteenth-century language).” (p. 144)


Phillis Wheatley became a free woman in the autumn of 1773. The process of emancipating a slave in Boston at the time was complicated and could be expensive. Details of exactly how and by whom she was made free are not clearly known. Her freedom seems due mainly to the fame and fortune that she acquired in London. Fame: because she was recognized there as an important and to some extent symbolic person, a key indicator of the evils of enslaving human beings. Fortune: because funds from the sale of her book of poetry and also other rewards she received were significant, though complications later ensued. 

Although she was no longer enslaved to the Wheatley family, Phillis Wheatley continued to live in their large home as a free person. Susanna Wheatley, the matriarch of the family and original purchaser of the young Phillis, had been ill for a long time prior to Phillis’s voyage to London; on her return, Phillis attended to Susanna in her final illness, and mourned her deeply when she died a few months later. It’s complicated —

“Susanna was her enslaver and yet something like kin by adoption. Phillis did feel in some measure chosen, rescued from a still worse fate: ‘I was a poor little outcast & a stranger when she took me in: not only into her house but I presently became a sharer in her most tender affections.’” (p. 294)

Boston, 1775 and After

The anti-British sentiment in Boston grew, and soon became an armed conflict. Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord are all familiar names to any American who knows even a small amount of history (like me). Phillis Wheatley was present in Boston, and then evacuated when things became dangerous. Though the loyalty to the American side by enslaved or free Africans was not assumed (the politics are very complex), Phillis was on the side of the rebels. Among other things, she wrote an ode to George Washington and wrote letters directly to him during his early campaigns, which he acknowledged publicly and answered with letters directly to her.

In Massachusetts, there was a hot war, which is well-covered by the standard histories of the time. During the war years, there was also a constant debate about enslavement of Africans, and about the various views of racial differences. As the principles of citizenship and democracy were explored, the civil rights of non-European, non-White residents, including voting rights were discussed, and legal rights for all races (men only, of course) were eventually achieved. Eventually,"the bill of rights in the actually ratified Massachusetts constitution of 1780 did include language about 'all men' being 'born free and equal.' Enslaved people began to use that provision in court when suing for their freedom. No single decision banned slavery, though judges seemed reluctant to enforce hereditary bondage." (pp. 359-360). \

Much of the remainder of The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatly covers these issues in very interesting detail, though Phillis Wheatley's role was often as a symbol, not a speaker. Her accomplishments were seen as proof that race didn't result in any natural inequality of human beings. 

In her own life, in 1778, she married a man named John Peters, and lived with him through some very hard times; she died in 1784. Little is known about her final years with Peters. Her second book was never published, so she had little or no income. In fact, the manuscript with her second collection of poems was lost and never recovered.

"The ambiguities of emancipation persisted and magnified throughout the final years of Wheatley’s life and shaped the actions she took. She tested the meaning and substance of her freedom. She experienced on a personal level many of the triumphs and the tragedies of the first U.S. emancipation, which might also be called the first Reconstruction." (p. 360).

The final chapter of this biography summarizes the reputation and readership for Phillis Wheatley and her poetry throughout history, and the way she influenced later Black poetry and other intellectual history.

What I learned

Before I read The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley I had minimal knowledge of the events, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party that preceded the American Revolution. I had even less knowledge of the development and publication of the ideas of liberty and the anti-slavery movement in Boston and their influence on the same thoughts throughout the British colonies that became the United States. In particular, I learned that both the British loyalists and the revolutionaries both tried to claim the loyalty of the African-Americans, both free and enslaved. 

In reading this book, I learned much more about the development of the principles of liberty for both Whites and Blacks. I also learned that writers opposing slavery and denigration of Africans often invoked Phillis Wheatley's accomplishments of proof of their point about racial justice. 

As I read about Phillis, her emancipation, and her growing participation in the anti-slavery movement, I learned a lot about the legalities of slavery and the challenges of emancipation in that era. Further, I learned about the challenges of making a living as an author in that time, and about the dependence of authors on patronage by wealthy, noble, and prominent sponsors.

Above all, I learned about the life and work of a great American poet. Much of Phillis Wheatley's work is quoted in the book, with interpretations and explanations of the way the poetry fit into its time and place. As I understand it, author David Waldstreicher. has reinterpreted many of the poems in the light of the historic events and controversies of the era, especially the anti-slaver movement. Recognition of Phyllis Wheatley’s poetic accomplishments was widespread in America, England, and even in France, where Voltaire mentioned her success. 

In reviewing this book here, I didn't try to create a full summary of the many interesting features of the poet's life and times, or of her poetry, which was covered in quite a lot of detail. My review is very incomplete -- if you want to actually know about Phillis Wheatley, you should read more, definitely not just my brief thoughts!

Review © 2023 mae sander


Tina said...

That is horrific to think of a child ripped from her family and sold as a piece of furniture. She made great accomplishments in her life.

anno said...

What a remarkable woman! And this biography you've reviewed sounds like an interesting and carefully considered of her life and the work she produced, especially in context of the times she lived in. Thanks for making the introduction.

Harvee said...

Heavy but important reading! Have a great week.

Bill said...

An amazingly strong and determined woman.

Joy said...

Thanks for this. Such a fascinating and under-told story. I've been aware of Phillis Wheatley since I encountered her in a museum during a trip to Boston.
My fascination with Benjamin Franklin in London was after that, though, and I somehow missed that they would have been there at the same time and, naturally, met.

I'm adding this book to the list of books to recommend to my book club that specializes in books about race in America. We've read a lot of history, but I don't think that we've covered New England in the Revolution Era. Phillis Wheatley's life would be a terrific way to explore that time and place.

Helen's Book Blog said...

I had never heard of Phyllis Wheatley until my daughter did a report on her in elementary school. What an amazing woman.

Mark Baker said...

Overall, this sounds like an interesting book.

Terrie said...

I haven't heard of Phyllis Wheatley but what a life she had. The book sounds like a very thorough telling and analysis of life of the time, and racial issues. Thanks for sharing! Have a terrific week.
Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

Iris Flavia said...

Again. If I was a teacher...
I would "force" my pupils to read it and I bet they would love to learn, English as well as history.
I had a great English teacher who said: No German is spoken here. And when a pupil complained about the boring school book he ordered "surprising stories" and we all enjoyed learning the language big. With this German pupils could learn something else but about Hit#er, two flies with one... you know.
On another note... this "girl" must´ve been very tough. To travel, in those times, to meet all those famous people... and still to love her former "owner" - what a word, to own a human.
I lies beyond my understanding.
As much does...

Aj @ Read All The Things! said...

I want to read more books about American history. This sounds like an interesting one!

Jackie McGuinness said...

This is absolutely fascinating!

Cindy said...

Nice review, Mae! Have a great week!

Laurie C said...

A great review! Being from the Boston area, I have heard of Phyllis Wheatley but didn't know really anything about her. I just finished listening to The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, which is historical fiction, but traces one family's history back through the generations, delving deep into Black history in the South, going back to pre-slavery times when the land the family lived on belonged to the Creek Indians. I learned a lot, and also how little I still actually know!

JoAnn said...

I learned of Phyllis Wheatley during a visit to Boston, but never followed up to learn more. This sounds like a difficult, but informative read.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

What a strange life Phyllis Wheatley had. I can't imagine how horrific it would be to have experienced the kidnapping and enslavement Wheatley experienced. I would like to take a look at her poems.

Thank you for sharing this book with us, Mae.

reese said...

Fascinating! I remember there were a few of her poems I read in my high school American literature class, but I haven't read anything since then.