Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Wheatley from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

Phillis Wheatley 1753?–1784 Am. (African-born) poet


Summary Article: WHEATLEY, PHILLIS (1753-84) from The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment

Phillis Wheatley's life and poetry presents a major dilemma within the environment of the American Enlightenment and the belief in natural liberty and human rights coexisting with the enslavement of Africans. Brought to Boston, Massachusetts, at the age of seven from the Senegambian coast of West Africa, she was the first female enslaved poet in the American colonies to publish a book of poetry. Published in Britain, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), is considered the beginning of the African American literary tradition. The preface provides an attestation with signatures from eighteen prominent men in the Boston community, including her owner, John Wheatley, and even governor Thomas Hutchinson. Often viewed as an exotic exception throughout her career, her very existence as a black poet capable of reason and culture was in question.

John Wheatley purchased Phillis in 1764 to help his wife, Susannah Wheatley; Phillis experienced a lenient form of slavery when Susannah recognized her as a child prodigy. The Wheatleys’ eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary, took Phillis under her tutelage and educated her in classical languages, literature, and theology. Phillis modeled much of her poetry on the Bible, and classics, such as Virgil and Ovid. Alexander Pope's translation of Homer influenced her adoption of many of the neoclassical conventions of the mid-eighteenth century: blank verse, a strong sense of order and symmetry shown in heroic couplets, the invocation of the muse, decorum, and attacks of human pride. Far from presenting an accommodating voice, Wheatley created a strong literary persona and her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge” (1767), is a public jeremiad that admonishes the college boys at Cambridge to mend their sinful ways and follow the advice of an “Ethiop” who had traversed the middle passage in an act of God: “Father of mercy, ‘twas they gracious hand/Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.” While these lines, along with her famous poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1768), have been interpreted as a denigration of African religions and a view of enslavement as justified through Christian redemption, they have also been viewed as strengthening the poet's position as a regenerate Christian entitled to civil and political liberty.

Wheatley was raised in a Calvinistic and Methodist context of the Congregational Church. Her Methodist orientation followed the evangelist George Whitefield, active in the First Great Awakening, and Samuel Hopkins, who adapted Jonathan Edwards's theology of conversion to abolitionism. The poem that brought her initial literary fame was a broadside published in Boston in 1770, “An Elegaic Poem on the Death of George Whitefield.” Wheatley followed the evangelistic strain of the Enlightenment in the American colonies that associated human freedom with the Christian experience of grace. The Enlightenment emphasis on reason shaped her commitment to natural law, liberty, and human rights, but she criticized the shift away from revelation and the experience of Christian regeneration, particularly in her 1767 poem, “An Address to the Deist.” Early criticism on Wheatley often viewed her as acculturated to European values and sequestered from African Americans or the black diaspora. But she was connected to a transatlantic antislavery discussion through the support of her patron, the Countess of Huntington, to whom she dedicated her book. She shared similar associations of Christian liberty with abolitionism, as did African British authors Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. Her most forceful condemnation of Enlightenment Christianity and the enslavement of Africans appears in her 1774 letter to her friend the Rev. Samson Occom, Mohegan and Presbyterian minister. In her “vindication” for the “natural Rights” of the enslaved, she wryly comments, “How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.” Though Thomas Jefferson denigrated Wheatley's poetry because of what he believed were natural racial inferiorities, other revolutionaries such as Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin expressed support. Wheatley published many poems on public figures, like her 1775 poem “To His Excellency George Washington.” She sent the poem to Washington who invited her to visit him in Cambridge the following year, indicating that she still garnered public recognition after she was freed by the Wheatleys in 1774. She was freed after returning from her trip to London in 1773, a time coinciding with the Somerset case that granted asylum to slaves brought to Britain. She continued to write and in 1779 a proposal appeared for a second book that was never published. She married a poor, free black, John Peters, and had three children who all died in infancy. Wheatley suffered from frail health throughout her brief life and died in Boston at the age of thirty-one from childbirth.

See also: AFRICAN AMERICANS; POETRY; SLAVERY; WOMEN

BIBLIOGRAPHY
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (Boston, 1773).
  • The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, ed. Shields, John C. (New York, 1988).
  • The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, ed. Mason, Julian D. Jr. (1966; rev. edn, Chapel Hill NC, 1989).
  • Further Reading
  • Bruce, Dickson D. Jr. The Origins of African American Literature, 1680-1865 (Charlottesville VA, 2001).
  • Erkkila, Betsy.Phillis Wheatley and the Black American Revolution,” in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, ed. Shuffleton, Frank (New York, 1993), pp. 225-40.
  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York, 2003).
  • Hughes, Langston; Arna Bontemps, eds. The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 (New York, 1949).
  • Kaplan, Sidney; Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (Amherst MA, 1989).
  • Levernier, James A.Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy,” Early American Literature 26, no. 1 (1991): 21-38.
  • Mcaleer Balkum, Mary.Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology,” African American Review 36, no. 1 (2002): 121-35.
  • Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography (Boston, 1981).
  • Robinson, William H. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (Boston, 1982).
  • Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings (Boston, 1984).
  • Shields, John C. Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts (Knoxville TN, 2008).
  • Walters, Tracey L. African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison (New York, 2007).
  • Watson, Marsha.A Classic Case: Phillis Wheatley and Her Poetry,” Early American Literature 31, no. 2 (1996): 103-32.
  • Carole Lynn
    Stewart Brock University
    © Mark G. Spencer and Contributors 2015

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Wheatley, Phillis
    African-American Writers: A Dictionary

    (1753?–12/5/1784) Poems One of the earliest known African-American writers and the first to publish a book of poetry, former slave Phillis...

    Full text Article WHEATLEY, PHILLIS (1753-1784)
    Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

    Phillis Wheatley was an African American poet and founding figure of an African American literary tradition. On July 11, 1761, the slave ship ...

    Full text Article Wheatley, Phillis c. 1753 - 1784
    The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English

    Author of the second known book by a woman in the North American colonies, an especially enormous achievement for a young...

    See more from Credo