Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings

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9780140424300: Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings

The extraordinary writings of Phillis Wheatley, a slave girl turned published poet

In 1761, a young girl arrived in Boston on a slave ship, sold to the Wheatley family, and given the name Phillis Wheatley. Struck by Phillis' extraordinary precociousness, the Wheatleys provided her with an education that was unusual for a woman of the time and astonishing for a slave. After studying English and classical literature, geography, the Bible, and Latin, Phillis published her first poem in 1767 at the age of 14, winning much public attention and considerable fame. When Boston publishers who doubted its authenticity rejected an initial collection of her poetry, Wheatley sailed to London in 1773 and found a publisher there for Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

This volume collects both Wheatley's letters and her poetry: hymns, elegies, translations, philosophical poems, tales, and epyllions--including a poignant plea to the Earl of Dartmouth urging freedom for America and comparing the country's condition to her own. With her contemplative elegies and her use of the poetic imagination to escape an unsatisfactory world, Wheatley anticipated the Romantic Movement of the following century. The appendices to this edition include poems of Wheatley's contemporary African-American poets: Lucy Terry, Jupiter Harmon, and Francis Williams.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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About the Author:

Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) was born in western Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Ghana. Having failed to find an American publisher for a second volume of her works, Wheatley died in Boston largely forgotten and impoverished.

Vincent Carretta is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of the Complete Writings of Phillis Wheatley, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, and Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings by Ottobah Cugoano.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents


Introduction

PREFACE

POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS.

EXTANT POEMS NOT PUBLISHED IN POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS

VARIANTS OF POEMS PUBLISHED IN POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS

LETTERS

VARIANT LETTERS

PROPOSALS FOR VOLUMES OF POETRY

NOTES

APPENDIX A

APPENDIX B

APPENDIX C

APPENDIX D

From the INTRODUCTION

Born around 1753 somewhere in west Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana, the little girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, aboard the Phillis, a slave ship commanded by captain Peter Gwin and owned by Timothy Fitch. At the time, approximately one thousand of Boston’s more than fifteen thousand residents were slaves, with perhaps twenty free people of African descent in the total population. About seven or eight years old (her front teeth were missing), the sickly child was soon bought from the slave dealer John Avery by John Wheatley, a prosperous Boston merchant, for his wife, Susanna. Named after her new owners and the vessel that had brought her to America, Phillis Wheatley was taken to the Wheatley home at the corner of King Street and Makerel Lane (present-day State and Kilby Streets) to help the Wheatleys’ few other domestic slaves care for their mistress and master, as well as their eighteen-year-old twins, Mary and Nathaniel. The Wheatleys were members of the New South Congregational Church. Susanna was also an active supporter of the evangelical missions of the Calvinist Methodist minister George Whitefield and others. John was gradually turning over to his son the management of his real estate, warehouse, wharf, and wholesale businesses, and the London Packet, a three-masted schooner, used to trade between Boston and London.

Mainly through the tutelage of Mary Wheatley, the obviously precocious Phillis gained an extraordinary education for a woman of the time, and an unprecedented one for a female slave. According to John Wheatley, within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to be able to read even “the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings.” She was taught English and Classical literature (especially poetry), geography, and history, as well as the Bible, some Latin, and Christianity. Her poems and letters show that she became familiar with works by Alexander Pope (her principal poetic model for the use of heroic couplets), John Milton (her most admired modern poet), William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer (the last through Pope’s translations). None of Wheatley’s surviving writings, however, indicates a familiarity with Classical sources that could not have been gained from translations alone.

Phillis’s first known piece of writing, a now-lost letter to the Mohegan minister, Samson Occom, was written in 1765, when she was about twelve years old. A Wheatley family friend, Occom had gone with Nathaniel Whitaker, another minister, to England and Scotland in 1766 to raise money for the education of Occom’s fellow Native Americans in New England. The school that resulted from their efforts was Dartmouth College, named after William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, another of Phillis’s correspondents and the subject of one of her poems. Her first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” appeared on December 21, 1767, in a newspaper, the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley. The poem’s combination of Christian piety and Classical allusions anticipates the themes and expression found in most of her subsequent verse. The subscription proposal for Phillis’s first volume of poetry indicates that she was composing poetry as early as 1765. The surviving variant versions of many of her poems demonstrate her desire to improve her verses and her ability to fit them for various audiences. For the next several years, Phillis published a number of occasional poems, that is, poems on recent events, culminating in her 1770 funeral elegy addressed to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, on the death of her chaplain, Whitefield. Wheatley probably heard Whitefield at least one of the four times he preached at the Old South Church in August 1770, a month before his sudden death in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Since Susanna Wheatley corresponded with the Countess, Whitefield may well have been a guest in the Wheatley house. On August 18, 1771, Phillis was baptized by Samuel Cooper into the Congregationalist Old South Church (not the Wheatley family church).

Phillis Wheatley’s elegy brought her both international fame and the Countess’s attention when it was published in London, as well as in Boston, in 1771. Her reputation was reinforced by the publication of her poem “Recollection,” initially in March 1772, in the London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, and subsequently in both American and English periodicals. Wheatley’s community of women supporters soon extended beyond her American and English patrons to include her fellow Bostonian poet, Jane Dunlap. In her Poems Upon Several Sermons Preached by the Rev’d and Renowned George Whitefield While in Boston (Boston, 1771), Dunlap mentions Wheatley’s elegy, referring to “a young Afric damsel’s virgin tongue.” In An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlement in America, upon Slave-Keeping (Boston, 1773), mistaking her status and how long she had been “in the country,” Benjamin Rush observed that “[t]here is now in the town of Boston a Free Negro Girl, about 18 years of age, who has been but 9 [sic] years in the country, whose singular genius and accomplishments are such as not only do honor to her sex, but to human nature. Several of her poems have been printed, and read with pleasure by the public.” In France, Voltaire told Baron Constant de Rebecq in a 1774 letter than Wheatley’s very fine English verse disproved Fontenelle’s contention that no black poets existed. Wheatley, however, was neither the first black woman poet, the first published black poet, nor the first black poet to gain international notice in British America. Those honors belong, respectively, to Lucy Terry, whose poetry remained unpublished until the nineteenth century; Jupiter Hammon, who published his first poem at the end of 1760; and Francis Williams, who wrote poetry in Latin. (The poems of Terry, Hammon, and Williams are included in the Appendices to this Penguin edition.) But in contemporaneous and subsequent recognition, reputation, and influence Wheatley far surpassed her black predecessors, whose works she appears not to have known: unpublished, Terry was almost completely unknown until the following century; never published in London, Hammon remained a provincial poet; and unpublished and untranslated, Williams was largely unknown and inaccessible, especially before 1774.

By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems to enable her to try to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new verse. Consequently, subscriptions were solicited, probably by Susanna Wheatley, in the Boston Censor on February 29, March 14, and April 18, 1772, for a proposed volume of Phillis’s poems to be published in Boston. Unfortunately, despite Wheatley’s local reputation as a poet, sufficient support for the project was lacking. Having failed to find backing in Boston, Susanna turned to London for a publisher, using Robert Calef, captain of the Wheatleys’ London Packet, to seek out Archibald Bell, a relatively minor publisher and bookseller of primarily religious texts in the City of London, in the fall of 1772. Bell agreed to publish Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, on the condition that the volume be prefaced by a document signed by Boston worthies certifying the authenticity of the poems for an English audience. Through Bell, Wheatley gained the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon, who agreed to allow Phillis to dedicate the book to her. As Phillis and her mistress knew, Huntingdon had already sponsored the publication of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of ... an African Prince, as Related by Himself, published in Bath at the end of 1772. Huntingdon subsequently supported the publication of religiously oriented works by other black authors, including John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black ... Taken down from His Own Relation (London, 1785), and Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (London, 1789). Gronniosaw, Marrant, and Equiano all knew Whitefield, as well as Huntingdon, having heard him preach, either in England or during one of his seven trips to North America. In a letter Wheatley wrote to Huntingdon during her six-week visit to London, she acknowledges Gronniosaw as her literary predecessor, thus recognizing a tradition of English-speaking writers of African descent, as well as Huntingdon’s role in enabling such writers to gain access to print.

Wheatley went to England to recover her health, to meet her aristocratic patron, and presumably to see her book through the press. She achieved none of those goals. After Susanna Wheatley had written to the Countess asking her advice about finding proper housing for Phillis in London, Phillis left Boston with captain Calef aboard the London Packet on May 8, 1773. They reached London on June 17, just as the publicity campaign for the forthcoming book, coordinated by Susanna Wheatley and Bell, was beginning in the London press. Before she had a chance to meet the Countess, who had retired to her home in Wales for reasons of health, and before her Poems was published, Wheatley left England with Calef on July 26 to return to Boston to nurse her ailing mistress.

. . .

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