- David L. Dudley
In September 1773, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in London. Its author, Phillis Wheatley, slave to John Wheatley of Boston, thus became the first African American to publish a book. Brought to America in 1761, Wheatley had soon proved herself astonishingly precocious; she mastered English and, as Hannah Mather Crocker later recalled, “made some progress in the latin [sic].” Wheatley read the classics in translation and began writing poetry. Her book made her internationally famous and won her freedom. Nevertheless, events beyond her control—including the death of many friends and patrons, and the chaos caused by the American Revolution—plunged the young (and now free) poet into poverty. Marriage to John Peters did not provide long-lasting financial security. According to 19th-century sources, Wheatley bore, and lost, three infant children, but no records exist of any births, baptisms, or deaths. In 1784, Wheatley died alone (Peters may have been in prison for debt), and an unmarked grave received her.
The poet’s surviving canon consists of about sixty-five poems and about two dozen letters. Many other poems are now lost, yet Wheatley’s importance is enormous. Praised by some as a writer of genius, a worthy Mother of the African American literary tradition, Wheatley has also been excoriated for not demonstrating sufficient racial pride or fighting hard enough for abolition. In the late 20th century, critics began to re-evaluate her work, and in the early 21st century, Wheatley is regarded as worthy of her place in American letters—a woman who detested tyranny; a writer keenly attuned to the political, racial, and spiritual movements of her times; and an influence on the Romantic poets who followed her.
- North American Literatures
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