Phillis Wheatley & Early African-American Literature

Phillis Wheatley’s (1753-1784) Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773) is the first book published by an African-American author, and the frontispiece portrait of Wheatley is the only surviving work by the African-American slave artist Scipio Moorhead (born ca. 1750). The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is home to a first edition of the work (http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/wheatley/wheatleyp.html), and the University Libraries’ Digital Collections hosts a digital facsimile of the volume that is freely available to view (http://digital.tcl.sc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/pwp/id/138).

As Vincent Carretta explains, “the little girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 somewhere in west Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana, and was then brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on 11 July 1761. A Boston Merchant, John Wheatley, bought the little girl for his wife, Susanna, and they renamed her Phillis Wheatley after vessel that brought her to America.”

Phillis showed great perspicacity, quickly learned English, and received an education in English and Classical literature, history, geography, and Christianity, predominantly under the guidance of the Wheatley’s daughter, Mary. Phillis Wheatley’s poetry shows not only command of imagery and allusion but also a mastery of the Augustan poetic style that was popular in both Britain and America during the eighteenth century. While much of her work was occasional verse, such as her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. 1770,” her most commonly taught and anthologized poem today is “On being brought from Africa to America.”

Wheatley was self-conscious about both her African origin and her position as an American Slave writing within a British literary tradition. This is perhaps best exemplified in her poem “To Mæcenas,” in which she uses her understanding of the Classics to simultaneously situate her own writings in the European tradition and cannily remind her readers that many classical authors such as Terence were, like her, African.  You can read more about Phillis Wheatley’s life and works at http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/wheatley/carretta.html  

Michael C. Weisenburg 
Reference & Instruction Librarian
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

This entry was posted in African American, American literature, Phillis Wheatley, Poetry, Women authors. Bookmark the permalink.