Carretta (English/Univ. of Maryland; Equiano, the African, 2005) returns with an examination of the life of a woman of whom little is known but whom the author and literary history have crowned as the mother of African-American literature.
The author struggles mightily to add flesh to the skeletal structure of Phillis Wheatley’s (1753–1784) story. He tells us about the slave ship that brought her, when she was about 7, from Africa, as well as some general history about the Wheatleys, who purchased her then freed her at the urging of her supporters in England, where she had published her only volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Carretta supplies as much as he can about her life before she began writing, the effects of her poetry, her minor celebrity in England (where her volume earned some respectful but sometimes patronizing reviews; scholars have found no American reviews) and her relationships with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones and others. The author also discusses the man she later married, John Peters, whose financial troubles might have caused her virtual disappearance for a few years near the end of her life. She floated proposals for a second volume of verse, but circumstance denied her. Carretta speculates that she might have had a better life if she had stayed in England, where she traveled with a Wheatley on business in 1773. In London, she discovered an intellectual and personal freedom unknown to those of her race (and gender) in America. But too often the slim record forces Carretta to employ words like probably and likely, to substitute historical and cultural backgrounds for biographical fact and to tell us about other people only tangentially involved.
Even this most resolute, thorough excavation cannot uncover what is no longer there. Still, this is the most complete biography available, and no one is likely to find out much more of consequence about Wheatley.