Saturday, 3 December 2011

Highs and Lows in the Life and Times of Phillis Wheatley

Vincent Carretta's new biography, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011) is simply spectacular. Carretta, a professor in the English department at that University of Maryland, has produced an engaging book on America's first black author.

Wheatley was kidnapped from an unknown location in Africa and put aboard a slave ship to America. Arriving at Boston in July 1761, Phillis was sold to the wealthy evangelical merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna. Named after the slave ship that brought her to America, Phillis probably could not have ended up in a better home. The Wheatleys and their eighteenth-year-old twins, Nathaniel and Mary, treated Phillis like a family member as opposed to a slave or even a servant. She learned to read and write, and showed an affinity for classical literature and poetry. Furthermore, the Wheatleys gave Phillis unusual freedom to mingle socially with visiting guests. Carretta writes, "The Wheatleys' treatment of Phillis enabled them to publicize their status, piety, and charity. They also used her to display their commitment to evangelical Christianity. They demonstrated that they could afford to spare Phillis the drudgery one would expect to be assigned to someone in her condition. Very few owners granted slaves the 'leisure Moments' that would allow them to write poetry" (23). This freedom proved beneficial to a young precocious girl with a gift for writing.

Carretta does a fairly good job at introducing the ministry of George Whitefield and Methodism in general. He shows Methodism as a despised movement due to its perceived emotionalism and outdoor preaching that infringed on the territory of resident clergyman in America and Britain. Carretta also rightly notes that many people disliked the fact that Methodist itinerants preached to the lower ranks of society, including slaves. Of course the hypocrisy of Whitefield is apparent in the fact that he purchased slaves to support his Georgia orphanage after denouncing the institution. Nevertheless, Wheatley and other slaves of African descent were drawn to the Grand Itinerant, perhaps because of his energetic preaching and message that an oppressed person experiencing the "new birth" would enjoy heavenly bliss in the afterlife. Although there is no record of when Phillis first heard Whitefield, it is possible that she went to his sermon at the Old South Church at Boston on February 27, 1764.

Carretta's expertise in English literature adds to the storyline as he explains the context and significance of Wheatley's poems, both in manuscript and published form. Carretta's research shows that Wheatley's first poem was not the assumed missing piece, "On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell," but rather a four-line poem about the Thachers, a distinguished Boston Congregationalist family. Carretta also analyzes Phillis's published poems, including "On Virtue," which calls on readers to seek God's grace rather than human wisdom alone, "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty," which praises George III for repealing the Stamp Act, and her most notorious work, "On being brought from Africa to America," which seems to condone slavery at first glance. Carretta, however, dispels the notion that Wheatley justifies slavery. Carretta states, "Modern critics have accused Wheatley, or at least the primary voice in her poem, of rejecting her African heritage and engaging in racial self-hatred. But such critics confuse accommodation with appropriation. Like many authors of African descent who follow her, Wheatley repeatedly appropriates the values of Christianity to judge and find wanting hypocritical self-styled Christians of European descent. Theologically, Wheatley perceives her capture in Africa as leading to fortunate fall that allows her formerly 'benighted soul' to rise to embrace Christianity" (61). The poem that set off Wheatley's career is undoubtedly her elegy on Whitfield, written eleven days after his death. "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield" was widely read by Americans and Britons and catapulted Wheatley to stardom.

As Wheatley increased her literary output and mastered her craft, John and Susanna encouraged Phillis to produce a book of her poetry. Wheatley's first attempt at finding subscribers for a book intended to be published in Boston was not successful. However, her fortunes changed for the better in a second attempt, thanks to the support she received from the wealthy evangelical patroness, Selena, Countess of Huntingdon. Archibald Bell of London published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 with a frontispiece of Wheatley that was unprecedented in its depiction of a female author of African descent.

To promote the book, Phillis left Boston for London with Nathaniel Wheatley as her traveling companion. Carretta raises the provocative argument that Phillis might have wanted to go to England in order to seek freedom. Her arrival at London in the summer of 1773 was on the anniversary of a landmark court case in which Lord Chief Justice William Murray, the first earl of Mansfield, ruled that a runaway Virginia slave named James Somerset captured in England could not be forced to return to the colonies as a slave. His judgment opened the door for self-manumission by colonial slaves residing in England. The timing of Wheatley's trip to London is suspicious to Carretta, who sees Phillis weighing her options. Carretta demonstrates that Phillis would have been familiar with Boston newspapers relaying the case (the same newspapers that printed her poems). Even more important is the fact that Wheatley's London tour guide was Granville Sharp, who backed Somerset, and almost assuredly would have talked about manumission with her. Carretta argues that "It is unimaginable that while Wheatley and Sharp were looking at caged African animals, as well as the emblems of British regal glory, Sharp would not have brought up the subject of his judicial triumph the preceding year in extending British liberty to enslaved people of African descent. Sharp considered himself ethically and morally bound to help people in Wheatley's condition" (128). While we don't know Wheatley's intentions, we do know that Nathaniel, who now ran the family's business, gave Phillis his word that she would be freed once she returned to Boston. The implication is that Phillis knew her options and Nathaniel virtually had no choice but to free her.

With her new found freedom, Wheatley was not necessarily better off. She returned to Boston on September 13, 1773 a free woman, but now had to provide for herself. John and Susanna Wheatley, although under no further financial obligation to help Phillis, apparently allowed her to live with them. But with Susanna's death shortly after Phillis's return from London, and John's five years later on March 12, 1778, Phillis, perhaps wanting a better social footing, married the purportedly notorious free black merchant John Peters in 1778. Carretta, however, questions the reliability of the information on Peters, particularly since one of the accounts unjustifiably portrays him as "the villain in a Dickensian narrative of the decline and death of a sentimental heroine" (176). Very little is known about Peters or about Phillis in the years following her marriage until her death in 1784. Within the limited data, Carretta discovers that Peters lost a lawsuit which effectively ruined the couple financially.

Phillis tried to publish a second book, printing proposals in 1779 for a substantial work of three hundred pages and priced between nine and twelve pounds. The poor timing of this book and its extraordinary price doomed it from the start. Her proposed project never saw the light of day. Wheatley continued to publish occasional individuals poems, but never produced a second book. She died on December 5, 1784 and was placed in an unmarked grave.

Coming from someone who normally does not appreciate poetry, I was captivated by Carretta's biography. He does not over-analyze the rhetorical composition of Wheatley's poems, nor does he ignore the context of Wheatley's surroundings. Carretta writes like a historian, asking critical questions on points that others have assumed to be true. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in eighteenth-century evangelicalism and religious history.

Jonathan Yeager

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