Document: Phillis Wheatley: frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) and letters to Rev. Samson Occom and George Washington
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Available online at PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide (Prof. Paul Reuben, California State University, Stanislaus)
Phillis Wheatley (c 1753-1784) was the nation’s first African-America poet. As a young girl of seven or eight, she was wrenched from her home in West Africa and brought by slave ship to Boston. Arriving in 1761, she was immediately purchased by a well-to-do tailor, John Wheatley, as a personal servant for his wife, Susannah. Unlike most slave-owners, the Wheatleys tutored Phillis (a name they gave her), not only in basic literacy skills but also in classical literature, ancient history, Latin and biblical studies. She published her first poem in a local newspaper in 1767. Several years later, she joined members of the Wheatley family on a trip to London, where she secured the patronage of a wealthy British Countess, who aided in publishing her first volume of poetry. In 1773, after several years of being feted in London, she received word that her mistress was ill, forcing her return to America. When her mistress died, she may have gained her freedom (the records are ambiguous). Certainly, she was free by 1778, the year in which both John Wheatley and his daughter died. A month after her master’s death, she married John Peters, a free African American man. Not much is known of her husband, although it is clear that he was financially unsuccessful. Eventually he deserted his wife, leaving her to raise her one surviving child (two others had died), which she did by working as a scullery maid in a boarding house. She died in poverty in 1784, closely followed to the grave by her child.
When the Revolution began in 1776, Wheatley was still a slave. Yet she strongly identified with the colonists’ struggle. By this time, she was something of a sensation in America, her poetry praised by such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush (Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, didn’t much care for her writing). She wrote a number of poems in support of the Revolution, such as the one included here, addressed to George Washington (to whom she sent three poems, only the first of which received a reply). As the style of her poetry suggests, she addressed not other slaves, but educated white elites. These documents address the way she depicted herself to this audience, the obstacles she faced, and the manner in which she staked her claim to freedom.
- Wheatley or her publishers chose a particular image of her for the cover of her first book. What does the image convey, and why might it have been chosen?
- After reading Wheatley’s letter to Reverend Occom, what can you tell about the Reverend’s position on slavery?
- It is 1773 when Wheatley is writing this letter. What is happening at that time? Whose “strange absurdity” is she referring to?
- Two years later, Wheatley dedicated a poem to George Washington, at this time the leader of the Continental Army. The poem wishes him success and glory. Why might Wheatley have decided not to openly voice the same anti-slavery convictions to General Washington?
- Are there any sentiments in the poem that might have a hidden anti-slavery meaning?
- This poem is difficult to understand now, as it uses an embellished language full of classical allusions. At the time Wheatley wrote this poem, she was still a slave. Why might Wheatley have decided to write such a formal poem to George Washington?