Enslavement, Boston and the Wheatleys
Born around 1753 somewhere in west Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana, the little girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761. Approximately one thousand of Boston's more than fifteen thousand residents were slaves, with perhaps twenty free people of African descent in the total population. The enslaved African child arrived aboard the slave ship Phillis. She was a sickly little girl, about seven or eight years old—her front teeth were missing. John Wheatley, a prosperous Boston merchant, bought her for his wife, Susanna. Renamed Phillis Wheatley after her new owners and the vessel that had brought her to America, she was purchased to help the Wheatleys' few other domestic slaves care for their mistress and master, as well as their eighteen-year-old twins, Mary and Nathaniel. The Wheatleys were members of the New South Congregational Church. Susanna was also an active supporter of the evangelical missions of the Calvinist Methodist minister George Whitefield and others. John was gradually turning over to his son the management of his real estate, warehouse, wharf, wholesale businesses, and the London Packet, a three-masted schooner, used to trade between Boston and London.
Education and reading
Mainly through the tutelage of Mary Wheatley, the obviously precocious Phillis gained an extraordinary education for a woman of the time, and an unprecedented one for a female slave. According to John Wheatley, within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to be able to read even "the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings." She was taught English and Classical literature (especially poetry), geography, and history, as well as the Bible, some Latin, and Christianity. Her poems and letters show that she became familiar with the poetry of Alexander Pope (her principal poetic model for the use of heroic couplets), John Milton (her most admired modern poet), William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer (the last through Pope's translations). None of Wheatley's surviving writings, however, indicates a familiarity with Classical sources that could not have been gained from translations alone. On August 18, 1771, Phillis was baptized by Samuel Cooper into the Old South Church, not the Wheatley family church.
Phillis wrote her first, unpublished, poem in 1765, when she was about twelve yearls old. In the same year she also wrote a now-lost letter to the Mohegan minister, Samson Occom. The Native American Occom was a Wheatley family friend. Her first surviving published work, the poem "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," appeared on December 21, 1767, in a newspaper, the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley. The poem's combination of Christian piety and Classical allusions anticipates the themes and expression found in most of her subsequent verse. The surviving variant versions of many of her poems demonstrate her desire to improve her verses and her ability to fit them for various audiences. For the next several years, Phillis published a number of occasional poems, that is, poems on recent events, culminating in her 1770 funeral elegy addressed to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, on the death of the Countess' chaplain, Whitefield. Wheatley probably heard Whitefield at least one of the four times he preached at the Congregationalist Old South Church in August 1770, a month before his sudden death in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Since Susanna Wheatley corresponded with the Countess, Whitefield may well have been a guest in the Wheatley house.
Phillis Wheatley's elegy brought her both international fame and the Countess's attention when it was published in London, as well as in Boston, in 1770. Her reputation was reinforced by the publication of her poem "Recollection," initially in March 1772, in the London Magazine: Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, and subsequently in both American and English periodicals. Wheatley's supporters soon extended beyond her American and English patrons to include her fellow Bostonian poet, Jane Dunlap. In her Poems Upon Several Sermons Preached by the Rev'd and Renowned George Whitefield While in Boston (Boston, 1771), Dunlap mentions Wheatley's elegy, referring to "a young Afric damsel's virgin tongue."
Proposal for book publication
By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems to enable her to try to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new verse. Consequently, subscriptions were solicited, probably by Susanna Wheatley, in the Boston Censor on February 29, March 14, and April 18, 1772 for a proposed volume of Phillis's poems to be published in Boston. Unfortunately, despite Wheatley's local reputation as a poet, sufficient support for the project was lacking. Having failed to find backing in Boston, in the fall of 1772 Susanna turned to London for a publisher, using Robert Calef, captain of the Wheatleys' London Packet, to seek out Archibald Bell, a relatively minor publisher and bookseller of primarily religious texts.
“A Farewel to America”
Phillis Wheatley herself left Boston for London with Captain Calef aboard the London Packet on May 8, 1773, arriving on June 17, just as the publicity campaign for her forthcoming book, coordinated by Susanna Wheatley and Bell, was beginning in the London press. Soon after Phillis left Boston, a copy of her poem "A Farewel to America" appeared in The London Chronicle with a cover note to stimulate interest in the soon-to-be-published volume. The note indicates that Phillis was already known to English readers:
You have no doubt heard of Phillis the extraordinary negro girl here [i.e., Boston], who has by her own application, unassisted by others, cultivated her natural talents for poetry in such a manner as to write several pieces which (all circumstances considered) have great merit. This girl, who is a servant to Mr. John Wheatley of this place, sailed last Saturday for London, under the protection of Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley; since which the following little piece of her's [sic] has been published.
Publication in London
Although advertisements for the book itself began to appear in London newspapers as early as the August 6 notice in The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Archibald Bell did not register Wheatley's Poems with the Stationers' Company to protect his copyright until September 10. As the remarkable advertisement in The London Chronicle and The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser attests, Poems, the first book by an English-speaking writer of African descent, went on sale the following day, while Wheatley was still at sea:
The Book here proposed for publication displays perhaps one of the greatest instances of pure, unassisted genius, that the world ever produced. The Author is a native of Africa, and left not that dark part of the habitable system, till she was eight years old. She is now no more than nineteen, and many of the Poems were penned before she arrived at near that age.
They were wrote upon a variety of interesting subjects, and in a stile rather to have been expected from those who, a native genius, have had the happiness of a liberal education, than from one born in the wilds of Africa.
The writer while in England a few weeks since, was conversed with by many of the principal Nobility and Gentry of this Country, who have been signally distinguished for their learning and abilities, among whom was the Earl of Dartmouth, the late Lord Lyttelton, and others who unanimously expressed their amazement at the gifts with which infinite Wisdom has furnished her.
But the Publisher means not, in this advertisement, to deliver any peculiar eulogiums on the present publication; he rather desires to submit the striking beauties of its contents to the unabashed candour of the impartial public.
The frontispiece portrait
The "elegant engraved like-ness of the Author" featured in Bell's advertisement had been added to Wheatley's Poems as a frontispiece at the urging of Huntingdon. It may have been designed in Boston, perhaps by Scipio Moorhead, a black artist to whom Wheatley addresses a poem, and engraved in London. Or Henry Pelham, whose print of the Boston Massacre in 1770 was plagiarized by Paul Revere, may have created the frontispiece. Pelham owned a signed copy of Wheatley's Poems. Humbly dressed as a servant, the poet looks upward, as if seeking inspiration. Significantly, Wheatley is shown with a book, perhaps intended either to be her own Poems, or to indicate that hers was an educated as well as an inspired "native genius." But perhaps as significantly, the frontispiece emphasizes Wheatley's African heritage and her inferior social status by having her likeness contained by an oval whose framing words appear to limit the extent of her gaze. The enslaved poet is euphemistically identified as "Phillis Wheatley Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston." The artistic quality of her frontispiece is as modest as her domestic status.
The dedication to the Countess of Huntingdon
Bell had agreed to publish Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, on the condition that the volume be prefaced by a document signed by Boston worthies certifying the authenticity of the poems for an English audience. Through Bell, Wheatley gained the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon, who agreed to allow Phillis to dedicate the book to her. As both Phillis and her mistress knew, Huntingdon had already sponsored the publication of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw's A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of . . . an African Prince, as Related by Himself, published in Bath, England, at the end of 1772. In a letter to Huntingdon written during her six-week visit to London immediately preceding the publication there of her Poems, Phillis Wheatley acknowledges Gronniosaw as her literary predecessor, thus recognizing a tradition of English-speaking writers of African descent, as well as Huntingdon's role in enabling such writers to gain access to print. Wheatley went to England supposedly to recover her health, to meet her aristocratic patron, and presumably to see her book through the press. But before she had a chance to meet the Countess, and before her Poems was published, Wheatley left England with Calef on July 26 to return to Boston to nurse her ailing mistress. Although Phillis failed to achieve any of her immediate goals in going to London, her trip led to something greater: her freedom.
The Mansfield decision on slavery in England
Accompanied by Nathaniel Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley had arrived in London on the eve of the first anniversary of what many Britons, especially those of African descent, considered the emancipation proclamation for English slaves. London's African-British community euphorically greeted the Mansfield decision in the Somerset case on June 22, 1772. Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, the highest common law court in England, ruled that James Somerset, a slave brought to England in 1769 from Massachusetts by his master, a Boston customs official, could not legally be forced by his master back to the colonies. Somerset had run away from his owner in London in 1771 but was recaptured later that year and put on a ship bound for Jamaica. Prompted by the abolitionist Granville Sharp and others, Mansfield issued a writ of habeas corpus two days after the recapture of Somerset ordering the captain to bring Somerset before the court. Sharp convinced several lawyers to argue Somerset's case free of charge. Although rather than outlawing slavery, Mansfield's ruling technically established only that a slave could not be seized by his master and forced against his will to leave England, and that a slave could get a writ of habeas corpus to prevent his master's action, the ruling certainly undermined slavery in England by denying slave masters the coercive legal power to force slaves back to the colonies.
But how aware was Wheatley of the status of slavery in England before she arrived in June 1773, and how willing was she to take advantage of the opportunity it offered her? By August 1772, the Mansfield decision was being reported in colonial newspapers, a medium used since 1767 for the publication of Wheatley's poetry. For example, on Monday, September 21, 1772, the Boston Gazette pointed out the perceived implications of the Mansfield decision for any slave owner contemplating taking a slave to England: "June 22. A Correspondent observes, that as Blacks are free now in this country [England], Gentlemen will not be so fond of bringing them here as they used to be, it being computed that there are about 14000 blacks in this country." Although we cannot prove that Wheatley knew of Mansfield’s ruling, her October 18, 1773, letter to David "Worcester" [Wooster] in New Haven, Connecticut, strongly suggests that she did. Now back in Boston, Wheatley tells Wooster that she had been treated in England as a touring celebrity, visiting Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, among other London attractions. She mentions meeting Benjamin Franklin, the Earl of Dartmouth, and other members of English high society. Wheatley's owner had taken a great risk in allowing her to go to London to recover her health and oversee the publication of her Poems, a risk much increased by Wheatley's befriending "Grenville [sic] Sharp Esqr.[,] who attended me to the Tower [of London] & show'd the Lions, Panthers, Tigers, &c. the Horse Armoury, Small Armoury, the Crowns, Sceptres, Diadems, the Fount for christening the Royal Family." It is very difficult to imagine Wheatley and Sharp looking at caged African animals, as well as the emblems of British regal glory, without his mentioning to the most celebrated slave in the British empire his recent judicial triumph in extending British liberty to enslaved Africans. Not to have encouraged Wheatley to seek her freedom would have been completely out of character for Sharp.
Release from slavery
Wheatley's letter to Wooster looks both back and forward, with her recent manumission after her return to America marking the transition from her opening account of her experience in England to her plans for selling Poems in America. Mention of her manumission also marks the point at which she shifts from using the passive to the active voice, from describing herself as the beneficiary of the agency of others to being the agent of her own enlightened self-interest in the publication and distribution of her book. Wheatley’s new status as a free woman enables her to express her agency directly in the second half of the letter. The same status allowed her in March 1774 to publish in New England newspapers her most direct attack on slavery and her clearest expression of ethnic consciousness in a letter to Occom from February 11, 1774. But that status, rather than being a gift passively received from her master "at the desire of my friends in England," may well have been a concession Wheatley coerced from Nathaniel Wheatley in exchange for her promise to return to Boston to care for his mother: one promise for another. In light of the Somerset decision and the influence of Sharp and her other “friends in England,” Phillis had the power to insist that she would return to Boston only if she would be freed once there. In this negotiation, Wheatley had the stronger hand. Wheatley could neither legally nor practically be forced back to the colonies. In effect, the choice of freedom, the terms, and the place were Wheatley's to make.
The voices of Wheatley’s Poems (1773)
The assertiveness Phillis probably displayed in her dealings with Nathaniel Wheatley was anticipated more subtly in her Poems, which includes a Preface, a letter from John Wheatley to the publisher, and an "Attestation" by New England dignitaries, all intended to authorize and authenticate Phillis Wheatley's literary achievement. The Preface conventionally describes her as an author who did not write for publication, and who agreed to have her poems printed "at the Importunity of many of her best, and most generous Friends." The title of her book was also conventional for a work intended to display a new poet's talents in various forms of verse, such as the hymns, elegies, translations, philosophical poems, tales, and epyllions (short epics) found in Poems. Several of the arguably anti-British poems advertised in the 1772 subscription proposal are not included in the 1773 collection, which was published against a background of rapidly growing tensions between Britain and its North American colonies. And several of the occasional poems are given more general titles, better suited to a London audience unfamiliar with the particular Bostonians addressed or mentioned in them. The London edition of Wheatley's Poems became available in New England and Nova Scotia in early 1774.
Africa in Poems (1773)
Wheatley does not hesitate in Poems to proclaim her African heritage. Her opening poem, "To Maecenas," thanks her unnamed patron, loosely imitating Classical models such as Virgil and Horace's poems dedicated to Maecenas, the Roman politician and patron of the arts. Emphasizing in a footnote that the Classical Roman poet Terence "was an African by birth," Wheatley implies that her "Maecenas" has enabled her to claim a place in the Western literary tradition, which has included Africans since its beginning. Elsewhere in her poems, Wheatley appropriates the persona of authority or power normally associated with men and her social superiors. For example, in "To the University of Cambridge, in New-England," first composed when she was about fifteen years old, Wheatley speaks as a teacher to students, or a minister to his flock, in addressing the young men of what was to become Harvard University, many of whom were being trained there to become ministers themselves. Confident that "the muses" will "assist my pen," she asserts her authority as one who has "left my native shore/The land of errors" and "those dark abodes," and who has known "sin, that baneful evil to the soul," and rejected it to embrace the "Father of mercy." From a position of moral superiority gained through experience she speaks as an "Ethiop" to warn her implicitly complacent students—"Ye pupils"— to "Improve your privileges while they stay." Audaciously, the teenaged, enslaved, self-educated, female, and formerly pagan poet of African descent assumes a voice that transcends the "privileges" of those who are reputedly her superiors in age, status, abilities, authority, race, and gender.
Contemporary response to Poems (1773)
Perhaps in part because of Huntingdon's patronage and protection, Wheatley's Poems was widely and generally favorably reviewed in British literary magazines, many of which included exemplary poems from the collection. Wheatley benefited from the growing interest during the later eighteenth century in temporally, geographically, socially, and ethnically exotic sources of sentiment and literature. For example, after reproducing the text of "To Maecenas," the anonymous writer in the British Critical Review (September 1773) remarks, "[t]here are several lines in this piece, which would be no discredit to an English poet. The whole is indeed extraordinary, considered as the production of a young Negro, who was, but a few years since, an illiterate barbarian." The American Benjamin Rush praised Wheatley’s achievements as a woman and a person of African descent in An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlement in America, upon Slave-Keeping (Boston, 1773), although he was mistaken about her status and how long she had been in America: "[t]here is now in the town of Boston a Free Negro Girl, about 18 years of age, who has been but 9 [sic] years in the country, whose singular genius and accomplishments are such as not only do honor to her sex, but to human nature. Several of her poems have been printed, and read with pleasure by the public." In France, Voltaire told Baron Constant de Rebecq in a 1774 letter that Wheatley's very fine English verse disproved Fontenelle's contention that no black poets existed. Political considerations also affected literary judgments: several British commentators shared the opinion expressed anonymously in the Monthly Review (December 1773): [w]e are much concerned to find that this ingenious young woman is yet a slave. The people of Boston boast themselves chiefly on their principles of liberty. One such act as the purchase of her freedom, would, in our opinion, have done them more honour than hanging a thousand trees with ribbons and emblems."
African-British and African-American response
In the posthumously published Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (London, 1782), Wheatley's first black critic later shared the Monthly Review's concern about her status. Sancho, a free man who had been a slave and servant before becoming a Westminster grocer, considered Wheatley's presumed return to Boston as a slave to have been a tragic move. Sancho, who never met Wheatley, obviously never learned of her manumission. Jupiter Hammon, a slave in Connecticut, seems to have been as unaware as Sancho that Wheatley had gained her freedom by the time he published An Address to Miss PHILLIS WHEATLY[sic], Ethiopian Poetess (Hartford, 1778) in response to "On Being Brought from Africa to America" in her Poems. Neither the anonymous writer in the Monthly Review, Sancho, nor Hammon recognized that Wheatley's trip to London had not only transformed her literary identity, but had also offered her the opportunity to transform her legal, social, and political identities.
Slavery in Wheatley’s Poems (1773)
Several of Wheatley's poems demonstrate a nuanced treatment of slavery. For example, written in October 1772 to celebrate Dartmouth's appointment the previous August, "To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c." is one of the most carefully crafted poems in the 1773 volume. In it Wheatley re-appropriates the concept of slavery from its common metaphorical use in the colonial rhetoric of discontent, which described any perceived limitation on colonial rights and liberty as an attempt by England to "enslave" (white) Americans. Wheatley appears to useslavery in this conventional sense in the poem:
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shall thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t'enslave the land.
But Wheatley's reference to her authority to speak against this conventionally metaphorical slavery reminds her readers of the reality of chattel slavery trivialized by the political metaphor:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat
. . . .
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
Wheatley condemns both metaphorical and real slavery, seeing herself as partaking of "the common good." She subtly reminds her readers that physical enslavement has already led to "Freedom" in America on the spiritual level. In retrospect, her kidnapping in Africa was an act of only "seeming cruel fate" because she has since discovered that it was a fortunate fall into religious liberation. Thus, "Afric's fancy'd happy seat" is "fancy'd" (alive in her imagination) in two senses: now (at the time of writing the poem) because "Afric" can only be recalled; but also then (at the time when she was kidnapped) because she mistook her pagan condition for a state of happiness. Complete "Freedom"—political, social, and religious—may be realized and restored by the new political order represented by Dartmouth and the new judicial order represented by Somerset.
England offered the possibility of social and physical as well as spiritual redemption. The association of England with the lost freedom of Africa reappears in "Phillis's Reply to the Answer," first published in Boston on December 5, 1774, in the Royal American Magazine:
And pleasing Gambia on my soul returns,
With native grace in spring's luxuriant reign,
Smiles the gay mead, and Eden blooms again
. . .
There, as in Britain's favour'd isle, behold
The bending harvest ripens into gold!
Just are thy views of Afric's blissful plain,
On the warm limits of the land and main.
Issues in returning to Boston
Wheatley's likely ambivalence about choosing between Boston and London as the site of her anticipated emancipation is understandable. The London alternative must have appeared pretty certain; and in light of recent events, the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts may have seemed imminent, even though it did not actually happen until sometime later (historians disagree about exactly when slavery legally ended in the state). Like England, Wheatley's Massachusetts was a slave-owning society, where some slaves could be found, rather than aslave society, where slavery was the basis of the economy and social structure, as in the deep South in North America and throughout the West Indies. The Mansfield ruling energized the abolitionist movement in New England that had been developing since the 1760s. While Wheatley was in London, the abolition of slavery was the subject debated at Harvard's commencement, an annual event that in 1767 may have occasioned one of her earliest poems, and slaves in Massachusetts began to petition for their freedom and wages.
Moreover, all available evidence indicates that Wheatley's yoke as a favored domestic slave was a light one, virtually that of a free servant. She seems to have had an intimate, nearly familial relationship with her owners. In a letter to her black friend Miss Obour Tanner on March 21, 1774, Wheatley compares the death of her mistress to "the loss of a parent, sister, or brother." To Wheatley, freedom in America among her friends and surrogate family in 1773 probably seemed easily within reach. Ambivalence and caution may explain why Wheatley did not share her hopes with the Countess of Huntingdon in the July 17, 1773, farewell letter Wheatley wrote to her on the eve of her return to America. Like most people during the period, Huntingdon, who had inherited slaves in Georgia in 1770, did not see slavery and Christianity as necessarily incompatible.
Wheatley’s manumission from slavery
Wheatley returned to America on September 13, 1773, was granted her freedom by October 18, and received the first copies of her book to sell in early January 1774. Having gone to England as an enslaved African Briton, Wheatley returned to the colonies prepared to embrace the free African-American identity the American Revolution would make available to her. As her letter to Occom denouncing slavery indicates, once back in Boston, Wheatley increasingly came to believe that the colonial struggle for freedom from Britain would lead to the end of slavery in the former colonies. Her anti-slavery stance became more overt than in her poems published while she had been enslaved. For example, in the poem "On the Death of General Wooster," included in a letter to Wooster's widow, Mary, on July 15, 1778, Wheatley exclaims, "But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/Divine acceptance with th'Almighty mind—/While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race?" In retrospect, however, subsequent events would render her trip to London and its immediate aftermath the most fortunate period of her life.
Wheatley carefully took out an extra insurance policy by sending a copy of her manumission papers to Israel Mauduit, the London agent representing the interests of Massachusetts since 1763, and in her letter to Wooster she is clear about her motives for having done so: "The Instrument is drawn, so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the Execturs [executors], administrators, &c. of my master, & secure whatsoever should be given me as my Own [in case, at the death of her master, any of his heirs tried to claim Wheatley or her possessions as part of his estate, as if she were still a slave]. A Copy is sent to Isra. Mauduit Esq. F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society]." Wheatley apparently chose the method of emancipation that appeared to grant her the most freedom of movement. She used Mauduit as the equivalent of a safe deposit box for her manumission papers so that she could live legally free as either an African Briton or an African American.
Wheatley and the Revolution
Susanna Wheatley died on March 3, 1774. At the end of October 1774, Phillis declined the invitation by the English philanthropist John Thornton to join the African-born men Bristol Yamma and John Quamine as missionaries to Africa. Phillis continued to live in John Wheatley's house until growing hostilities with Britain forced her Loyalist master to leave the city. Phillis apparently moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to live with the former Mary Wheatley, now married to John Lathrop, a minister. The Lathrops had fled Boston some time before May 1775. From Providence, Wheatley sent a panegyrical poem and cover letter dated October 26, 1775, to General George Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Publication of the poem by others in periodicals the following spring kept her name before the public. Wheatley may have accepted Washington's invitation to visit him before the British evacuated Boston in March 1776: "[i]f you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations." By December 1776 she was back in Boston, where she composed a patriotic panegyric to General Charles Lee, but the poem remained unpublished until 1863. Wheatley published no more poems between December 1774 and January 1784, when she celebrated the formal end of the American Revolution with Liberty and Peace, A Poem.
Marriage and later years
But events in Wheatley's personal life gave her little reason for celebration. By 1778 nearly half of the dignitaries who had signed the "Attestation" to her Poems were dead. John Wheatley died in March 1778, leaving Phillis nothing in his estate; Mary Wheatley Lathrop died in September 1778; Nathaniel Wheatley was still in London, where he would die in 1783. Struggling to make a living by selling copies of her Poems, Phillis married John Peters, a free black, on November 26, 1778, and used his surname thereafter. Like many of his contemporaries, John Peters had several occupations. At various times, and sometimes simultaneously, he advertised himself as a lawyer, physician, and gentleman. And also like many of his contemporaries during the post-Revolution depression, he was often imprisoned for debt.Each week between October 30 and December 18, 1779, Phillis published proposals for a second volume of poems, with letters, in theBoston Evening Post and General Advertiser, without success. Her final unsuccessful attempt to find support for a second volume appeared in the September 1784 issue of The Boston Magazine. John Peters was apparently in jail for debt when Phillis died on Sunday, December 5, 1784. According to unsubstantiated nineteenth-century sources, John and Phillis had three children, all of whom died very early, the last dying with Phillis. Phillis Wheatley Peters was buried in an unmarked grave On December 8, 1784. John sold his late wife's manuscripts and books to cover his debts. The first American edition of her Poems was not published until 1786, in Philadelphia.
Had Wheatley remained in London in 1773, she very probably would have found a publisher for her second volume. Interest in her work and her status as a woman writer of color certainly continued after her departure. The celebrity she maintained in England gave her what we today might call cultural capital. For example, an anonymous satirist in the London newspaper The Public Advertiser during the summer of 1777 includes her in his attacks on literary women such as Hannah More and Catherine Macaulay. The satirist assumes that Wheatley is as familiar to his readers as the English members of the so-called Blue Stocking Circle of literary ladies. In the July 14 issue, a fictional "Phillis Wheatley" responds to this "white-faced (I might have added white-livered) Enemy of modern Poetesses" on behalf of her fellow writers. She threatens, "It will . . . be a black Affair for him if (to use a Sea Phrase) he comes under my Lee; for I will have no Mercy on a Man who stands up against me on that Score." She assures him "that I am a Match for any Literary Male in the Kingdom." The sexual subtext becomes even more explicit in his July 23 ironic "Palinode to Phillis Wheatley," in which he addresses her as the "Poetic Queen of parch'd WHIDAW [an area on the slave coast of Africa]!" John Wesley reprinted several of Wheatley's poems during the 1780s in London in his Arminian Magazine. Wesley erred, however, in attributing Mary Whateley Darwall’s "Elegy on Leaving" to Wheatley, a mistake repeated by twentieth-century editors of Wheatley’s writings.
Wheatley’s Poems and the abolition movement
Opponents of slavery and the slave trade, especially in Britain, frequently cited the literary quality of Wheatley's poetry, usually in combination with that of Sancho's Letters, as evidence of the humanity and inherent equality of Africans. Such citations began the development of the canon of authors of African descent writing in the English language. For example, in hisEssays Historical and Moral (London, 1785), George Gregory sees Wheatley's poems and Sancho's letters as "striking instances of genius contending against every disadvantage, resulting from want of encouragement, and of early cultivation." In An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (London, 1786), Thomas Clarkson, a leading British abolitionist, says of Wheatley, "if the authoress was designed for slavery, . . . the greater part of the inhabitants of Britain must lose their claim to freedom." To support his position, Clarkson quotes liberally from her Poems. Not only abolitionists acknowledged the merit of some black writers, as John Gabriel Stedman demonstrates in his Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (London, 1796):
That these people are neither divested of a good ear, nor poetical genius, has been frequently proved, when they had the advantage of a good education. Amongst others, Phillis Wheatley, who was a slave at Boston in New England, learned the Latin language, and wrote thirty-eight elegant pieces of poetry on different subjects, which were published in 1773.
Jefferson’s criticism of Wheatley and Imlay’s response
Even those who denied the achievement of Black writers implicitly acknowledged the developing black canon by disputing the quality of the authors' literary productions. This sort of negative recognition is most notoriously expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (London, 1787), Query XIV: “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum [inspiration] of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions composed under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” The American Gilbert Imlay was one of the first to answer Jefferson's attack on Wheatley in his A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (New York, 1793):
I will transcribe part of her Poem on Imagination, and leave you to judge whether it is poetical or not. It will afford you an opportunity, if you have never met with it, of estimating her genius and Mr. Jefferson's judgment; and I think, without any disparagement to him, that by comparison, Phillis appears much the superior. Indeed, I should be glad to be informed what white upon this continent has written more beautiful lines.
Wheatley's poetry continued to be used by ante-bellum American abolitionists in the nineteenth century as evidence for the humanity, equality, and literary talents of African Americans. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, her place in the developing tradition of early transatlantic literature by people of African descent, and her role as the mother of African-American literature are secure. The prophecy offered by the pseudonymous "Matilda" in "On Reading the Poems of Phillis Wheatley, the African Poetess" (New York Magazine, October 1796) has been realized:
A PHILLIS rises, and the world no more
Denies the sacred right to mental pow'r;
While, Heav'n-inspir'd, she proves her Country's claim
To Freedom, and her own to deathless Fame.
Vincent Carretta is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, specializing in eighteenth-century transatlantic English-speaking authors of African descent. His recent fellowships include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 2009-2010, a John Carter Brown Library Fellowship, 2009, a Massachusetts Historical Society Fellowship, 2008, a W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research Fellowship, at Harvard University, 2004-2005, and a School of Historical Studies Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, 2003-2004. Among his publications are the following editions: Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (Penguin, 1995; rev. ed. 2003);Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African (Penguin, 1998); Quobna Ottobah Cugoano,Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings (Penguin, 1999); Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings (Penguin, 2001); and Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (University Press of Kentucky, 1996; rev. ed. 2004). With Philip Gould, Carretta has co-edited and contributed toGenius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic (University Press of Kentucky, 2001). His biography, Olaudah Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (University of Georgia Press, 2005) was chosen co-winner of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 2004-06 Annibel Jenkins Prize for best biography of the year. It was also selected by the editors of Amazon.com as one of the ten best biographies published in 2005; chosen one of “The Best of the Best of the University Presses: Books You Should Know About” by the Association of American University Presses (2006); and rated by Foreword the best of the “Exceptional Books from University Presses” (2006). His most recent book is Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011).