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A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence

by David Waldstreicher

Pub Date: March 7th, 2023
ISBN: 9780809098248
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A biography of the Phillis Wheatley focused on her poetry and the politics of Revolutionary-era America.

Waldstreicher, a history professor and author of Slavery’s Constitution and Runaway America, documents Wheatley’s arrival in Boston on the slave ship Phillis, her purchase by Susanna Wheatley in 1761, her storied writing career, and her life after emancipation. The author’s primary focus, however, is Wheatley’s work, about which he offers many intriguing insights. This book, he writes, is “a joint exercise in history and literary criticism.” Waldstreicher argues that Wheatley gave “subversive and productive meanings” to her classical and neoclassical-inspired poetry, becoming both a “political actor and an artist of quality and note” in the 18th-century world she inhabited, a world marked by the “abominable hypocrisy” of American slave owners who likened their oppression by Britain to slavery. For those familiar only with Wheatley’s often anthologized “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” the breadth and depth of her poetry will be a revelation, as will her correspondence with Samson Occom and George Washington; her intimate, lifelong friendship with Obour Tanner, an enslaved woman in Newport, Rhode Island; and the details of Wheatley’s trip with her enslaver’s son to London, where she stayed for six weeks in 1763. The attention that Waldstreicher pays to the complexity of Wheatley’s identities as an African, a woman, and an enslaved person (among other identities) in his close readings of her poetry is sometimes missing from his discussion of her life. Questions like how much control Wheatley had over her own literary productions and their circulation while she was enslaved remain largely unasked. Given his focus on the political contexts and meanings of Wheatley’s work, Waldstreicher leaves room for future biographers to further examine Wheatley’s life as she became the “most famous African in North America and Europe during the era of the American Revolution.”

Wheatley’s poetry comes into sharper focus, but Wheatley herself remains elusive.