From "Uncultivated Barbarian" to "Poetical Genius": The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley

Article excerpt

The first edition of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) included an attestation that the volume was the work of its purported author. "To the PUBLICK" was signed by Massachusetts's royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver, and sixteen other Bay Colony notables, including John Hancock and John Wheatley, "her Master." The signatories assured the volume's readers that Poems on Various Subjects was indeed "written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town" (Wheatley 48). When Wheatley landed in Boston upon her return from England in September 1773, the Boston Gazette, the newspaper of revolutionary Massachusetts, hailed the young slave woman as "the extraordinary Poetical Genius" ("Boston" 2). The two poles of public identity represented by "To the PUBLICK" and the Gazette notice--"uncultivated Barbarian" and "Poetical Genius"--suggest the possibilities open to Wheatley in eighteenth-century Anglo-American culture. However, the two identities also make it apparent that between arriving in America the first time from Africa on board the slaver Phillis and re-arriving from London on board the London Packet, shortly before the appearance of her book in the colonies, Wheatley's public presence had undergone a significant transformation. Construed as an "uncultivated Barbarian," Wheatley was just another slave among thousands, and therefore hardly worth notice. Yet recognized as a "Poetical Genius," Wheatley's comings and goings became worthy of public report. In a very real sense, upon her re-arrival in America, Wheatley had begun to exist. We might simply dismiss Wheatley's authorial metamorphosis as the "natural" result of the interconnected racial and intellectual presumptions of Anglo-American culture. However, seen from a more critical perspective, Wheatley's symbolic transformation in the eyes of contemporary white Anglo-American culture from "Barbarian" to "Genius" suggests her successful crafting of a public persona, her subsequent participation in the public discourse of her time, and, most important, her acquisition of a power such public participation entailed.

In part due to the aesthetics of the eighteenth-century public discourse in which her poetry participated, Wheatley's place in American literature has been problematic. In "Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy," James A. Levernier notes the peculiar literary destiny of the young slave woman who authored Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral: "in contrast to most major American writers, scholarship on Phillis Wheatley has tended to emphasize less what she accomplished than what she might have accomplished" (21). For example, Merle A. Richmond's assessment of the effect of slavery upon Wheatley's literary sensibility would seem to grow out of this "might have" tradition: "What emerges most starkly from her poetry is the near surgical, 1obotomy-like excision of a human personality with warmth and blood and the self-assertiveness that is grounded in an awareness of one's self and the relationship of this self to contemporary society" (65). However, as Levernier notes, a number of scholars have since come to understand the impressive achievement Wheatley's poetry actually represents, and in the work of '"William H. Robinson, Jr., John C. Shields, Mukhtar Ali Isani, and Sondra O'Neale, among others" (21), we can trace a greater appreciation of the intricacies and implications of Wheatley's poetic practice.

As study of Wheatley's work has continued, critics have come to recognize the significance of Wheatley's discursive strategies, particularly as deployed within her cultural context, as key to understanding her literary contribution. Russell J. Reising sees Wheatley employing an intricate rhetorical negotiation that rendered her verse "virtually unreadable for a public with certain racial, political, theological, and cultural assumptions" and at the same time "eminently readable. …