Wheatley, Phillis

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Wheatley, Phillis (1753?-84): American Writer.

Phillis Wheatley was one of the first African-American poets and holds a prominent place in the history of African-American literature. Wheatley was born in the Senegal-Gambia region of west Africa and kidnapped at about seven years old. In Boston, she was sold to John Wheatley, a merchant-tailor, to be his wife’s servant. Instead, she was educated in the Wheatley home and treated as a member of the family. That education, notably the Bible, the classics, and the great British poets of the age—Pope, Alexander, Gray, Thomas, and Milton—influenced her own poetry.

Wheatley’s first poem appeared in1767, but her 1770 poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, the evangelical preacher, began to make her famous. Her call for subscribers to a proposed collection failed in Boston, but on her trip to London, for health reasons, she was the toast of the town, and a London publisher brought out Wheatley's only collection of poems, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African-American.

Although hailed as the “Sable Muse,” Wheatley wrote little about slavery or the Black experience. Instead, her works were written for whites, and were rooted in the English neoclassical tradition—many being elegies, and the rest dealing with religion, morality, and classical and abstract themes. Her poems were reissued in the 1830s by abolitionists eager to prove the human potential of Blacks, but some modern Black critics have been critical of her failure to be “Black enough.”

Following the deaths of the white Wheatleys, her protectors, Wheatley, though freed, fell on hard times. She married John Peters, a free Black, and had three children, who died in infancy. She died in poverty in 1784, at approximately thirty years old.

Further Reading:

William H. Robinson, Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, 1982.

Robert Russ

Elon University