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The Grace and Genius of Phillis Wheatley

by Richard Kigel

Publisher: Paragon House

A biography explores the life and work of the poet Phillis Wheatley.

Too long ignored by scholars of American poetry, Wheatley’s oeuvre is finally regarded as an indispensable part of the national heritage. It provides a glimpse into the birth of African- American literature, American women’s literature, and America itself. Using Wheatley’s poetry and other primary sources from the 18th century—including some that have only recently been rediscovered—Kigel argues for the exceptional place Wheatley inhabits in American letters. Arriving in Boston as a slave—“She could not have been more than seven years old”—in 1761, she was purchased by the wealthy Wheatley family and named Phillis after the ship that brought her across the middle passage. After receiving an unprecedented education by the Wheatleys’ daughter, Mary, Phillis started writing poetry, publishing her first book at 20 and thereby becoming a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Celebrating George Washington and the Revolutionary cause in her verses, Wheatley was, as Kigel argues, the de facto poet laureate of the war, serving as both a champion and the embodiment of the humanistic values that would become the basis of the American identity. With a foreword in verse by Nikki Giovanni, the book deftly blends poetry, biography, and criticism to argue for Wheatley’s pre-eminence in the American literary pantheon. Kigel (Becoming Abraham Lincoln, 2017, etc.) writes in a literary prose that summons the drama of Wheatley’s life in novelistic detail: “Like the others, she had been taken from home and family, crammed into a pit of unimaginable squalor, and left to languish there, sickened by the stench of disease and death, lonely, terrified, and utterly deprived of any human comfort.” While his treatment of his subject often borders on the hagiographic, Wheatley is one of those figures whose stories are so utterly unlikely that it is difficult not to write of them with reverence. Thoroughly researched and delightfully readable, the stirring book makes a fine addition to the growing library of Wheatley studies.

A comprehensive and moving portrait of a resurrected American icon.