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Featured Books

Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and MoralSummary and Reviews of Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral
The Poems of Phillis WheatleySummary and Reviews of The Poems of Phillis Wheatley
Letters of Phillis Wheatley: the Negro-slave poet of BostonSummary and Reviews of Letters of Phillis Wheatley: the Negro-slave poet of Boston
Complete WritingsSummary and Reviews of Complete Writings
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Phillis Wheatley

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Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) began writing poetry a mere four years after she was sold in Boston’s South Market to Susanna Wheatley.  Susanna Wheatley was a wealthy woman and a pious Christian.  She apparently treated Phillis very well, holding her as slave in name only.  Susanna and her family included Phillis in the household Christian education, and the obviously gifted Phillis soon learned English, Latin, and the Bible.

Through clergy in the area, she was eventually able to publish a few poems in a newspaper in Newport, Rhode Island in 1767, when she was just thirteen or fourteen.  Within five years of this first success, she had twenty-eight poems ready for publication, a fact she advertised in the Boston Censor several times in the spring of 1772.  These twenty-eight poems covered a wide range of topics from Christian morality to a surprisingly positive reflection on her kidnapping and transport to America.  She was unsuccessful in this initial attempt to publish her collected work, but her mistress enlisted the help of the Countess of Huntingdon who arranged to publish the poems in London in 1773.  This is the first identified published book by any black American.  She tried again in 1779 and 1784 to solicit subscriptions for another volume in America, including one in Boston Magazine, but her struggle would end when she died on December 5, 1784, without seeing an American edition of her work.

Wheatley, during her short life, produced poems on diverse topics like Christianity, nature, and great contemporary figures.  She even translated the ancient poet Ovid from the Latin to English.  Her best poetry though is her reflective poetry on what it was like to be a black American slave.  Her Christian faith shines through, but many critics claim that the poetry on this subject is full of irony.  They say that Wheatley wasn’t really a sincere Christian; she was just mocking the hypocrisy she saw all around her.  This complexity is a testament to her talent.  The best way to know whether she was sincere or not is to read it and decide for yourself.


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