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BOOK REVIEW

‘Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage’ by Vincent Carretta

Vincent Carretta.
Vincent Carretta. Patricia Carretta

When Phillis Wheatley published her debut collection of poems in 1773, she expressed her gratitude to the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom the young writer dedicated her book. In a letter to the countess, Wheatley wrote that she was thankful for her patronage, with which, the poet wrote, “my feeble efforts will be Shielded from the Severe trials of unpitying Criticism.’’

But Wheatley, often called the “founding mother of African-American literature,’’ faced little criticism during her brief lifetime. Instead, she was widely heralded - in Boston, where she was brought as a 7-year-old slave, throughout the Colonies, and in literary London - as definitive proof that people of African origin were perfectly capable of impressive humanity and artistry.

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Not until after she died was Wheatley’s verse subjected to a measure of infamous scorn - at the pen of Thomas Jefferson, no less. The late poet’s compositions, wrote the future president, were “below the dignity of criticism.’’

“[I]f Phillis Wheatley was the mother of African-American literature, there is a sense in which Thomas Jefferson can be thought of as its midwife,’’ noted Henry Louis Gates Jr. more than 200 years later, presumably with a touch of sarcasm. Jefferson’s dismissal, besides bringing heightened attention to Wheatley’s work, “became the strongest motivation for blacks to create a body of literature’’ that would prove him wrong, Gates suggested. During the years of rising black consciousness in America, Wheatley’s work was often derided as the product of “a white mind,’’ but it has recently enjoyed a revival. Vincent Carretta’s “Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage’’ is billed as the first full-length biography of the first truly significant African-American writer.

The young girl was named Phillis after the brig that brought her to Boston from the coast of Africa. She was bought by the well-to-do Wheatley family, who, the author speculates, may have seen the girl as a surrogate for their own youngest daughter, Sarah, who had died a few years before.

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Phillis was raised in gentility, treated like a member of the family, and within a few years she was showing a remarkable aptitude for reading and writing. She wrote poems marking the deaths of religious leaders and family friends; soon she was writing about the strained relationship between the Colonies and the British government.

By the time she was 15, writes her biographer, she was “already commenting on transatlantic economic and political subjects. . . . The teenaged poet was in effect laying claim to being a protonational American muse.’’

At a time when only half of the white female population was sufficiently literate to sign their names, Wheatley’s writing was a thing to marvel at. When she traveled to England in 1772, she completed arrangements to have her poems published and was introduced to many British nobles.

To Carretta, a University of Maryland English professor, the young writer’s presence in cosmopolitan London was remarkable: “For many of the people Phillis Wheatley met while she was in London,’’ he writes, “a pious, enslaved, teenaged, female poet of African descent from the colonies must have seemed as much a curiosity as anything they would have paid to see in Cox’s Museum or the Tower [of London].’’

The British, who by the early 1770s had effectively granted black citizens their freedom, often dismissed the American revolutionaries as hypocrites. Was there not irony in a society of slave owners demanding independence? Wheatley, meanwhile, claimed a unique perspective, comparing her own enslavement to the Colonists’ subjugation:

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“Such, such my case. And can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrannic sway?’’

Upon her return from England, Wheatley was granted her freedom by the family that named her. But her literary celebrity wouldn’t last: Because of the hardships of the Revolution, she was unable to find a publisher for a proposed second volume of her poems and letters. After marrying and falling into obscurity, Wheatley died in December 1784 around age 33, the average life expectancy of people of African descent at the time. She is buried in Boston in an unmarked grave.


James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.