b. 1753 - 1784
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Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
— To Maecenas
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses home;
When they from tow'ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire,
But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
The fault'ring music dies upon my tongue. The happier Terence all the choir inspir'd,
His soul replenish'd, and his bosom fir'd;
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric's sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the first glory in the rolls of fame?
Biography / Criticism
Born in Africa in the early 1750's, the child who would be known as Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston in 1761 to be sold on the slave market. The child was purchased by the Wheatleys, a prominent Boston family. Early on, Phillis showed signs of remarkable intelligence. The Wheatley's noticed this intelligence and encouraged it by making Mary Wheatley her personal tutor. Phillis began writing poems as a young woman and gradually began to see poetry as her avenue of expression in literate white culture. Her first published poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin. " appeared in the Newport Mercury in 1767. The poem demonstrates remarkable literary maturity and a profound Christian spirituality. In the following years, a number of poems appeared in various publications in and around Boston. "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770" was published in at least ten separate editions in cities such as Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia. In 1770, the poem appeared in London and served to cement her international reputation as a talented poet.
In 1773, the frigid New England winters aggravated Phillis's frail asthmatic condition. Hoping to improve her health, the Wheatleys organized a trip to London where Phillis recuperated and promoted her first and only published volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773 by Arch Bell, Aldgate.
Bad fortune awaited Phillis' return. In the five following years, both Mr. and Mrs Wheatley passed away, leaving Phillis to struggle to support herself as a poet and seamstress. In the Spring of 1778, Phillis married John Peters, an African American. The burdens of the racist white world proved too much for Phillis, Peters, and their three children. Peters put Phillis and the children into a negro boarding house where foul conditions resulted in the children's deaths and a drastic decline in Phillis' health.
Despite the tragedy and poverty, Phillis continued to write poetry. In 1779, she advertised in the "Boston Evening Post" and "General Advertiser," in hopes of finding a publisher for a volume of thirty three poems and thirteen letters. Sadly, due mostly to the struggling post-revolutionary economy, this volume was never published. In 1784, several poems celebrating the end of the Revolution and "To Mr. and Mrs. ----, on the Death of Their Infant Son," a poem from the proposed volume, were published under the name Phillis Peters.
On December 5, 1784, Phillis Wheatley Peters died in Boston. After Phillis' death, John Peters went to a woman who had provided temporary shelter for Phillis and the children and demanded the manuscripts of the proposed second volume. Tragically, these manuscripts disappeared with Peters and have never been recovered.
Works by the Author
- Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). (While this was Wheatley's only published volume of poetry, a number of her single poems appeared in various publications. )
Works about the Author
- Hughes, Langston, and Bontemps, Arna, eds. The Poetry of the Negro 1746 - 1949. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. , 1949.
- Richmond, Merle A. Bid the Vassals Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton. Washington D.C. : Howard University Press, 1974.
- Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975.
- Robinson, William H. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company,1982.
- Thompson, Gordon E. "Methodism and the Consolation of Heavenly Bliss in Phillis Wheatley's Funeral Elegies. " CLA Journal 48, no. 1 (2004 Sept. )
- Franke, Astrid. "Phillis Wheatley, Melancholy Muse. " New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters 77, no. 2 (2004 June)
- Ennis, Daniel J. "Poetry and American Revolutionary Identity: The Case of Phillis Wheatley and John Paul Jones. " Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 31, (2002): p. 85-98
- Herron, Carolivia. "Milton and Afro-American Literature. " In: Evans, J. Martin (ed. and introd. ); xii, 374 pp. ; John Milton: Twentieth-Century Perspectives, Volume 1: The Man and the Author; Routledge, New York, NY
- Langley, April. "Imagined Post-Coloniality and 'Natural' Coloniality: The Production of Space in Phillis Wheatley's 'Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo'. " A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 16, no. 1 (2001 Summer): p. 90-108
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. New York, NY : Basic Civitas, 2003.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Phillis Wheatley on Trial: In 1772, a Slave Girl Had to Prove She Was a Poet. She's Had to Do So Ever Since. " New Yorker 78, no. 43 (2003 Jan 20).
- Balkun, Mary McAleer, "Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology. " African American Review 36, no. 1 (2002 Spring): p. 121-35.
- Prince, Dorothy Mains. "Phillis Wheatley: The Duplicity of Freedom. " Maryland Humanities 78, (2001 Summer): p. 21-24.
- Coviello, Peter. "Agonizing Affection: Affect and Nation in Early America. " Early American Literature 37, no. 2 (2002): p. 439-68.
- Cima, Gay Gibson. "Black and Unmarked: Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, and the Limits of Strategic Anonymity. " Theatre Journal 52, no. 4 (2000 Dec): p. 465-95.
- Carretta, Vincent. "Phillis Wheatley, the Mansfield Decision of 1772, and the Choice of Identity. " In: Schmidt, Klaus H. (ed. and introd. )--Fleischman, Fritz (ed. and introd. ). Early America Re-Explored: New Readings in Colonial, Early National, and Antebellum Culture; Peter Lang, New York, NY, pp. 201-23.
- Birkle, Carmen. "Border Crossing and Identity Creation in Phillis Wheatley's Poetry. " In: Hebel, Udo J. (ed. and preface). The Construction and Contestation of American Cultures and Identities in the Early National Period; Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg, Germany, pp. 47-66.
- Wilcox, Kirstin. "The Body into Print: Marketing Phillis Wheatley. " American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 71, no. 1 (1999 Mar): p. 1-29
Works by and about the author in other languages
- Lavallée, Joseph, 1747-1816. The negro equalled by few Europeans. Poems on various subjects, moral and entertaining. New Haven : Yale University Photographic Services,1980, 1801. French Note: Photocopy of 1801 ed. : Philadelphia : Printed by and for William W. Woodward.
- J T Moriarty, Phillis Wheatley: poeta afroamericana / 1st Spanish ed. New York: Editorial Buenas letras, Rosen Pub. Group, 2004
Poems on various subjects, religious and moral
An electronic edition of Wheatley's book of poetry, part of the Digital Schomburg: African American Writers of the 19th Century collection.
Phillis Wheatley: Precursor of American Abolitionism
A biography of Wheatley that emphasizes the influence of Christianity in her life.
A Collection of Wheatley's works
An extensive full-text collection of Wheatley's poems available through the University of Michigan's American Verse Project.
Perspectives in American Literature: Phillis Wheatley
An online essay on Wheatley's poetry that includes bibliographic references and selected poems.
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This page was researched and submitted by: Aaren Hanson and Steve Yernberg on 11/25/96. It was updated by Maria Zavialova on 9/20/2004