Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

Article excerpt

Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Vincent Carretta. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014). 312 pages. $27.95 (paperback).

Phillis Wheatley's name is known to many as the first published African American woman in North America. Born in West Africa around 1753, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven and transported to the British colonies, where she was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. They taught her to read and write, provided an advanced education in the classics (along with many other subjects), and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent. Her first poem was published in 1767. In 1773 the publication of her first and only book of poems, titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, brought her fame both in England and the American colonies; figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin praised her work.

However, many white Americans of the time found it hard to believe that a young, female, African slave could write poetry. In 1772 Wheatley defended her literary ability in public. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries which included John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson (the governor of Massachusetts), and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an "attestation" which was published in the preface to her book. Despite this, she was unable to find enough prepaid "subscribers" to publish in Boston; instead she went to London to campaign for its publication.

Barely aged twenty, she gained her freedom shortly afterward, but her remaining life has been shrouded in obscurity. She married a free African, John Peters, and slipped from the public limelight amidst the chaos, confusion, and economic dislocation of the American Revolution, only to die impoverished a decade later. Although her name is widely known, the full history of her short life has remained obscure until now. No scholar has ever attempted to construct a full biography. If one were to Google her name, much of the biographical information that one would discover on numerous websites and in many online encyclopedias, databases, and educational forums would be false and misleading.

Dr. Vincent Carretta's recent study, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (2011), magnificently fills that gap. A revised edition was published in 2014. It has garnered lavish praise from many scholars. Renowned historian Henry Louis Gates wrote in his review: "At last, Carretta has written a biography of this great writer as complex and as nuanced as Wheatley and her work themselves. This book resurrects the 'mother' of the African American literary tradition, vividly, scrupulously, and without sentimentality, as no other biography of her has done." Historian John Wood Sweet concurs: "An extraordinary achievement, Carretta's groundbreaking research and sensitive readings greatly enrich our understanding of Wheatley's life and work."1

Vincent Carretta is an English professor at the University of Maryland. The author of many acclaimed books on African American biography, he specializes in eighteenth-century transatlantic authors of African descent. According to Dr. Carretta, new information about Phillis' origins, her upbringing, the role of evangelical Protestantism in her education, the role she played in securing her freedom, and her husband's character are some of the reasons she needs to be re-introduced to us. At the same time, as he explores and unearths the historical background of her life, Carretta reintroduces us to Wheatley's poetry. He offers a thoughtful and original analysis of many of her poems.

The Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) who emerges from these pages is a far more active, shrewd, and self-actualizing woman than traditional portraits suggest. For example, her freedom was not simply "granted" to her magnanimously by her owners but was carefully and cunningly procured during a trip to England. …

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