Phillis Wheatley became famous for being the first Black American to publish a book of poetry. In 1773, the publication of her “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” which she wrote while she was enslaved, made her an important literary symbol — something you can see in the bronze sculpture of her at the Boston Women’s Memorial in the Back Bay, where Wheatley sits, thoughtful and alone.
But if Wheatley is remembered for her literary genius, that masks a fiercer and richer story. She was also a sneakily subversive poet who critiqued the world around her. That’s the takeaway from an important new book, “The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence.” Its author, David Waldstreicher, is a celebrated historian of slavery and of the American Revolution, and he shows that Wheatley wrote in both of those contexts in a voice that remains radical if you listen closely.
Wheatley came to Boston on a slave ship with 80 or so other Africans; a dozen or more had died during their voyage. Her Middle Passage left her “slender” and “frail,” a contemporary remembered, wrapped in only “a quantity of dirty carpet.” The year was 1761, and the family that purchased her guessed she was 7 because she was losing her front teeth.
Boston was a city of 15,500, with about 10 percent of that population being Black — a mix of free and enslaved. The city also boasted a handful of newspapers, and they supplied a crucial source in Waldstreicher’s quest to reappraise Wheatley’s ambitious art. He read every page of every Boston newspaper that ran between 1761 and 1784, the year Wheatley died, a total of more than 50,000 pages. They provided details about Wheatley’s world — the ships coming and going, the ads seeking the capture of runaway slaves. They also helped him see how much she engaged with that world. “The most important thing I learned is that she was a very sophisticated cultural actor,” Waldstreicher says. “She absorbed everything around her and made careful choices about what to say. She was like a vacuum.”
Wheatley’s owner was a wealthy merchant who lived on King Street. Previous biographies have often focused on how his family encouraged Wheatley to read and write, a flattering story originally spread by the family itself. But Waldstreicher shows that Wheatley was not some isolated prodigy. Boston’s newspapers mentioned many highly literate white women and highly skilled Black people, including blacksmiths, gardeners, and wig makers. (One teenager named Peter Fleet made wood engravings for a local printer — ”of an ingenious turn,” another contemporary observed.) Each of these locals was young and talented and in some way controlled by someone else. “Wheatley could look around,” Waldstreicher says, “and see that ‘everyone my age is under a microscope, but they are also finding opportunities to create autonomy.’”
Wheatley created autonomy through her poems. She began writing and publishing them in New England newspapers as a teenager, a remarkable achievement even if some of those poems played to her audience and their prejudices. But Waldstreicher argues that Wheatley found ways to thrive within her era’s racial and gender politics. “Somehow she’s calculating all of these things,” he says, “and also covering her tracks.”
One of the best examples was a poem Wheatley wrote for the Earl of Dartmouth. When a London merchant asked her to write it, largely for his own career-driven reasons, Wheatley agreed — and then used his request to craft a poem so intelligent that it elevated her own reputation at home and abroad. “She was able to leapfrog the local structures of authority to be heard in London,” Waldstreicher says.
Wheatley was also able to speak in an explicitly enslaved voice. Sometimes it takes pages of context to appreciate Wheatley’s multiple meanings, and Waldstreicher’s book offers illuminating digressions on her classical sources and Revolutionary politics. But in this poem about the Earl, Wheatley chose to be blunt, referring to herself as a woman who’d been “snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat,” as a young daughter who’d left behind the “sorrows labor’d in the parent breast.”
In the 18th century, poetry didn’t just matter to poets — it mattered to nations. “Americans have in Europe a sad reputation on the article of literature,” John Quincy Adams once wrote to his father. “I shall purpose to render a service to my country by devoting to it the remainder of my life.”
While Adams wrote a number of books, none of them made an impact like Wheatley’s. After her Dartmouth poem and others circulated in London, Wheatley crossed the Atlantic to help manage the publication of her first book. She tweaked her poems for an international audience and strategized to prevent pirated editions back home. In a letter to Obour Tanner, an enslaved woman, Wheatley described her experience in London: “The friends I found there among the nobility and the gentry ... fills me with astonishment. I can scarcely realize it.”
“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” became a huge hit — a book that made Wheatley famous around the world. But the author’s enslavement made things complicated for her colony. “We are much concerned to find that this ingenious young woman is yet a slave,” noted one London magazine, before invoking her home city’s Liberty Tree. “The people of Boston boast themselves chiefly on their principles of liberty. One such act as the purchase of her freedom would, in our opinion, have done them more honor than hanging a thousand trees with ribbons.”
When Wheatley returned to Boston, in the fall of 1773, she used this hypocrisy to her advantage. “She leveraged that embarrassment to become free,” Waldstreicher says. Though it’s not clear precisely when she was emancipated, the book reveals that Wheatley’s final years in Massachusetts were far less bleak than previously realized, with highlights including her marriage to a Black Bostonian and her efforts to write more bold new poetry. (Her new name: Phillis Peters.)
At each step — as an enslaved person, then as a free person — Wheatley fought against prejudice and fought for control. “Instead of being an exception,” Waldstreicher says, “she’s quite representative of the first emancipation, of the long struggle against slavery and racism.”
What made Wheatley unique was her ability to render this struggle in text. One of her later poems, on George Washington, addressed him with a simple and sunny patriotism: “A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine / With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.” But in a private letter to Tanner, Wheatley described the nation Washington was fighting for in a tone that was more unsettled and unsure: America, in her words, was “this seemingly devoted Country.”
The gap between Wheatley’s lines to Washington and her letter to a fellow slave — that gap reveals so much about her brilliant life and her brilliant art. “Wheatley was deeply critical and deeply patriotic,” Waldstreicher says. “It’s one of the things I love about her.”
Craig Fehrman is a journalist and historian. His most recent book is “The Best Presidential Writing from 1789 to the Present.”
David Waldstreicher will discuss his new book at the Harvard Book Store with Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed on Wednesday, March 22, at 7 p.m.