Among the shelves of the Historic Society of Pennsylvania’s research library, a poetry scholar appears to have discovered a quintessential piece of Boston history.
Written in one of its many books is the poem “On the Death of Love Rotch,” dated 1767. It is believed to be the earliest known full-length elegy by Phillis Wheatley, the Boston-based author who’s widely considered the first African American to publish a poetry book.
“There’s so much about Wheatley’s story that is compelling and that you just can’t look away from,” said Wendy Roberts, an associate professor of English at the University of Albany, and the scholar who stumbled upon the poem in a Quaker commonplace book.
Last year’s discovery, which still must be confirmed as written by Wheatley, comes around the 250th publishing anniversary of her sole book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” and as scholars interpret her as not just a poet but also a champion of justice, world traveler, and beloved friend.
“Phillis Wheatley is a monumental figure not just in terms of literature, but also in terms of culture,” said Barbara McCaskill, an English professor at the University of Georgia and co-director of the Wheatley Peters Project. “We haven’t granted her her due.”
A large fraction of research on Wheatley over the years has dismissed her as a Black artist pandering to white causes. But a new generation of thinkers are painting a more complete picture of the prodigy’s life with new poems, archival materials, and research angles.
Not much is known about Wheatley’s life before enslavement, but historians presume she was born in 1753 in West Africa. At age 7 or 8, a trader bought her from a local chief and brought her to Boston. John Wheatley, a wealthy local merchant, purchased the young girl for his wife, Susanna, and named her after the slave ship she arrived on, The Phillis.
The Wheatleys taught her to read and write, sowing the seeds for her literary abilities. After Phillis failed to secure an American publisher for her poetry book due to her race, she and her mistress’ son, Nathaniel, traveled to London and made the connections to publish her work in 1773. Shortly afterward, Wheatley was emancipated and married John Peters, a pioneering freedman. She died destitute in 1784 at age 31.
Such a lack of knowledge about her life, Roberts said, made the discovery of the new poem even sweeter because it provides scholars with more clues about her relationships, day-to-day travels, and impact on communities throughout New England. “On the Death of Love Rotch” centers on Love Macy Rotch, a prominent white member of Nantucket’s community.
Much of Wheatley’s legacy has been tied to Boston. But this poem’s 1767 publication date would place her earliest known activity in Nantucket and illustrate why some of her first printed works were published in the towns of New Bedford and Newport, R.I.
The poem leaves room to wonder about the young poet’s ventures around Nantucket, which at the time was home to a free Black community called New Guinea.
“I like to imagine that if Phillis Wheatley was in Nantucket, she was walking along the streets there in New Guinea,” and seeing the beginnings of what would become a thriving area for Black homeownership, Roberts said. “There’s a lot going on in Nantucket beyond the eyes of the Rotches that she would have been invested in, and making community there.”
Tara Bynum, an assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of Iowa, said that people today often think of the enslaved through a lens of hopelessness and misery. The newly discovered poem, she said, provides more evidence that enslaved people could forge loving relationships, develop their own pastimes, or even find joy in poetry in spite of their lack of freedom.
“History is not this binary of Black suffering or Black joy,” Bynum said. “Those can co-exist, and actually do co-exist in the lives of everyday Black people.”
Roberts believes the discovery could show how Wheatley’s poetry turned the Quaker community’s abolitionist sentiments into concrete action. Depending on the interpretation, “On the Death of Love Rotch” communicates that everyone ― enslaved, indentured, or free ― should experience happiness while on Earth, instead of counting on it in the afterlife.
“There hasn’t been such a focus on ... her influencing these early discussions among Quakers trying to finally get serious about abolition,” Roberts said. “I think she’s central to how they begin to change.”
Attributed to “A Negro Girl about 15 years of age,” the newly discovered poem can’t yet be attributed to Wheatley or anyone with absolute certainty. But circulators of Wheatley’s work often tagged her poetry with this descriptor, making Roberts confident that she is the author.
Despite the ambiguity, the encounter was a win-win situation, as Roberts put it. “We either have another Black poet or another Wheatley poem,” she said.
In the same book, Roberts also found “The Black Rose,” an unnamed elegy on the death of a Black woman named Rose. If it is Wheatley’s work, it would be her only known elegy to a Black woman.
New analyses show how much Wheatley’s relationship with bodies of thought have evolved over the years, said Joseph Rezek, an associate English professor at Boston University and director of its American and New England Studies program. Many Black artists of the ‘60s wrote her off as imitating white literature. But in the decades since ‘70s Black feminists reclaimed her work, people have connected Wheatley to British literature, trans-Atlantic literature, African American literature, and women’s literature.
“There’s new information that’s changing the way we think about her,” Rezek said. “It’s a really amazing moment to be a Wheatley scholar.”
Amid Roberts’ discovery, a collection of scholars, students, and stakeholders is also working on a year-long commemoration of Wheatley’s contributions to American literature.
Last summer, Barbara McCaskill and Sarah Ruffing Robbins, the Lorraine Sherley professor of literature at Texas Christian University, noted that the 250th publishing anniversary of “Poems on Various Subjects” was approaching. They wondered how they could commemorate the historic milestone.
Their exchange led to the formation of the Wheatley Peters Project, a hybrid collection of events and initiatives aimed at honoring the figure’s legacy. Since its January kickoff, they estimate that several dozen people have joined the core team, and at least 100 people have attended events, contributed materials, or led panel discussions.
“It’s hard to count now because every week we get contacted by someone who wants to get involved,” Robbins said. “Like Phillis Wheatley built networks, we’re trying to build networks, too.”
The project has transcended national borders, as scholars from Brazil, Scotland, and England have reached out to get involved. And this summer, Mona Narain, an English professor at Texas Christian and project co-director, is hosting a discussion in Rome to explore Wheatley’s love for ancient writers like Horace, Ovid, and Virgil.
Narain said the international interest in Wheatley’s work proves the poet’s status as a “global citizen” and a true Bostonian. Because Boston is a city of immigrants, after all, she said.
Since the 1600s, “people from all over the world have made Boston the colorful, diverse, multilingual, and wonderful city it is” today, Narain said. “Wheatley represents its history, its contemporaries, but also the future of Boston.”