The early life of Phillis Wheatley was remarkable. She became the first African American in what would become the United States to publish poetry and second American women to do so. Her life, unique in education and friendship to the family who owned her, has been studied for years alongside her poetry. She is not only part of our 2020 Black History Month Special Feature but also our Authors, Poets, and Playwrights series.
I first encountered Phillis Wheatley when I was a young girl of about 8 with a great thirst for biographies. My family and I lived on a lake in the deep south of Georgia and after school I would often read on the dock until dinner. In my hand that day, as I walked onto the dock and curled up on the bench, was Phillis Wheatley: Young Colonial Poet, by Kathryn Kilby Borland, Helen Ross Speicher. As I sat there and opened the book, the sun began to set and I was introduced to a fascinating, strong young woman.
“Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main—A Hymn to the Evening, by Phillis Wheatley.
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats…”
Phillis Wheatley’s Childhood – Sold into Slavery and moving to Boston
Sold into slavery in West Africa when she was about seven years old, Wheatley most likely came from Senegal or Gambia. Very little is known about her life in Africa other than that she was born around 1753. Even this guess of her age came from a description of her by a Wheatley relative who said they guessed seven due to when she lost her front teeth.
She arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761 on The Phillis, captained by Peter Gwin. In August of that year, she was sold to Susanna Wheatley. Wife of the local tailor, John Wheatley, Susanna purchased the young girl to be a domestic slave. Her price was very cheap because the ship Captain thought that the little girl was sick and would likely die. As it turned out, she most likely had chronic asthma and was suffering from the change of climate and lack of sufficient clothing.
She was given the name Phillis after the boat and, as often happened with house slaves, given the last name of her owners, Wheatley. As she grew up, she grew closer to Mrs. Wheatley and referred to her as her “best friend.”
The education of Phillis Wheatley and her beginnings as Poet.
Wheatley was exceptionally intelligent, and the Wheatleys–including their children,twins Nathanial and Mary–taught her to read and write. She gained an exceptional education for that day and age. Her studies encompassed the Bible, Theology, Astronomy, Geography, History, British Literature, Greek and Latin Classics, Mythologys and more. She also learned Greek and Latin in less than two years after she mastered English. Given that in this era, blacks were discouraged and even intimidated from learning even how to read and write, this level of education was rare.
Phillis wrote her first poem at the age of 11. She published for the first time by the age of thirteen. Confirmed by scholars, her poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” was published in the Mercury, a Newport, Rhode Island paper on 21 December 1767. While still expected to do some housework, she was given time to study and write poetry for most of her childhood. Susanna and John Wheatley as well as several of their friends encouraged her poetry.
Publication and Reception of Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry.
At the age of 17, Phillis Wheatley wrote the poem An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield. The poem honors the death of Reverend Whitefield. He was a gregarious and generous man who traveled around the colonies and Europe sermonizing. Unbeknownst to her at the time, this poem would be the key to her getting published worldwide.
By the time she was 18, she had a collection of 28 poems she wanted to publish as a volume. Mrs. Wheatley tried to help her get published, but couldn’t find anyone in the colonies willing to publish the volume. In fact, she was required to go through a trial of sorts in Boston when they tried. On 8 October 1772 she stood before 18 prominent Boston gentlemen to defend that the poems were hers.
Later, when she was finally published in the American Colonies, a forward by these gentleman was included along with an engraving of her. The design was to prove that the poems were indeed printed by a black woman.
Wheatley’s first book of poems was finally published in London.
Meanwhile, since they were having little luck getting her book published in the Colonies, Mrs. Wheatley decided to try something else. M Susan Wheatley was very well acquainted with Reverend Whitefield who gave sermons in Boston often. She, Whitefield, and Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon were bound together through their commitment to Methodism. It was most likely through him that she developed an acquaintance with the Countess of Huntingdon. So, since publishing in the colonies wasn’t working, Susanna sent the Whitefield elegy to her. Reverend Whitefield had been the Countess’s Chaplain.
Countess Selina was both wealthy and supported both abolitionist and evangelical movements. She contacted Archibald Bell, a bookseller, and told him to correspond with them about publishing Wheatley’s poetry. Meanwhile, Mr. Wheatley took Phillis Wheatley to London. They traveled there to see about getting her work published and to treat her health issues at a doctor’s suggestion. The book, “Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published in the Summer of 1773. It was reprinted four times in London alone.
This wasn’t the end of her journey as a woman or a Poetess. It was, however, a great turning point in her life. Followed by excitement, heartache and the complicated struggles of being a free slave in a post-war country, Phillis Wheatley continued to write poetry and correspond. Continue on to read about Phillis Wheatley and her life after Slavery.