Unprecedented Liberties: Re-Reading Phillis Wheatley
Flanzbaum, Hilene, MELUS
The very fact that Phillis Wheatley, a black female slave, wrote at all has attracted more attention, prompted more theories, and inspired more heated debate than any line of her poetry ever has. From its very publication in 1773, Wheatley's book, Poems on Various Occasions, Religious and Moral, has served to signify more than itself. In the eighteenth century, Voltaire advertised her poetry as evidence of "genius on all parts of the earth" and the perfectibility of the Negro. When Thomas Jefferson claimed her writing proved that the Negro lacked imagination and was dull, tasteless, and anomalous, the tenor of the debate was set for over two centuries.(1)
In addition, Wheatley's biography has achieved legendary status. The story of the little black girl, stolen from her parents and sold as a slave to the kind family that furnished her with pen and paper, taught her to read and write, and distinguished her at mealtimes by not permitting her to eat with the other slaves, is familiar to most of us. Also familiar is the account of what transpired in 1774 when her book first appeared. Afraid that no one would believe a female slave had actually written these poems, her publishers enlisted twelve of the most distinguished men in Boston--including John Hancock and the Reverend Charles Chauncey--to swear that she had.
After the publication of her book, which included tiffs testimony of authenticity, Boston and London society paraded Wheatley from one genteel drawing room to another where she entertained, simply by reading her work aloud. She performed with charm and poise, assets that contributed to her growing fame. For those assembled to watch a young black female slave read poems that she had written, Wheatley seemed to be a miracle. Neither the content nor the quality of these poems was ever at issue: merely the fact that she had written them constituted a major event.
It is no tribute to literary scholarship that succeeding generations of critics did not substantially distance themselves from the response Wheatley's poetry elicited in those eighteenth-century drawing rooms. While contemporary scholarship no longer regards Wheatley as an anthropological test case, the seemingly debatable quality of her work juxtaposed to the fascinating details of her biography have continued to dominate the critic's attention. Even in the second half of the twentieth century, when scholarship begins to examine African American authors more fully, the actual substance and language of Wheatley's poetry has been overlooked in favor of a discussion of her historical significance.
I would argue that the reticence to bestow on Wheatley a legitimate place in the canon can best be perceived as a function of the critic's inability to find a constructive way in which to discuss the actual poetry itself. First, this essay will give a brief overview of the twentieth century's misreading of her career; second, it will closely read several of Wheatley's poems in order to expose key themes that have been overlooked in the sociological and political mayhem generated by a black female slave having taken up the pen.
Benjamin Brawley's judgments in The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts (1930) illustrate the classic pose of the Wheatley critic in the first half of the twentieth century. While Brawley first writes that Wheatley stands as a "shining example of Negro genius," he concludes that she "has historical significance far beyond what the intrinsic merit of her verses might warrant" (Brawley 19). Seven years later, Sterling Brown had similar reservations.(2) In his anthology, Negro Poetry and Drama, Brown calls her verses "polished and elegant," yet ultimately claims that they lack "any real emotion" and that Wheatley's position in American literature "remains one solely of curiosity" (Brown 6).
In 1966, Julian Mason furnishes a thoroughly ambivalent introduction to a first complete collection of Wheatley's work. …