The infamous times of slavery in America had begun in the early 17th century and continued lawfully for over 250 years. This period of legal consent for abusive treatment of an ethnic minority has heavily marked the racial relations in the United States. For centuries African Americans appeared invisible to the majority of white citizens who considered them as capable of merely physical work. For this reason, the figure of Phillis Wheatley, the first published Afro-American poet of either gender, remains a literary and historical sensation. Her distinctly conscious creative output, characterized by racial awareness and double meanings, made her a pioneer of African-American literature. Moreover, it served as proof that an African woman with opportunity was as capable of intellectual and artistic greatness as any male European. Unquestionably, a thorough analysis of Phillis Wheatley’s poems allows the examination of issues of both social and political nature. Consequently, the aim of this essay is to analyze chosen Wheatley’s works and acknowledge her contribution to American literature and culture.
Personal Life and Influences
Considering the unprivileged position of African-Americans in the 18th century United States, the case of a young colored female getting published remains very intriguing. It causes no doubt that Wheatley’s unusual life experiences must have comprised the main factors enabling her to compose poetry and influencing her beliefs. Therefore, before going straight to the analysis of Phillis Wheatley’s chosen poems, it is worth examining the circumstances in which the poet achieved literacy and developed her distinct literary style.
To begin with, Phillis Wheatley was most probably born around 1753 in what is supposed to be the territory of modern-day Senegal and Gambia. At the age of seven, she was captured by American slave traders and brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on a ship called “the Phillis” (Michals). The girl was purchased by a wealthy merchant John Wheatley to become a help for his aging wife Susannah. Following a prevailing custom, the wedded couple gave the girl their surname and named her after the ship she sailed on to America.
Significantly, the householders treated Phillis differently than the other slaves from the very beginning. The skinny, sickly looking child quickly aroused the housewife’s sympathy, especially due to its extraordinary talents. Illiterate and unable to understand English by the time she arrived in America, Phillis appeared to be a remarkably clever and inquisitive young girl (Gregson 8). Although it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, the Wheatleys decided that Phillis’ potential could not be wasted. Susannah, together with her adult twin children, started to educate the girl. They taught her how to read and write in English and Latin and later developed her knowledge in the fields of mathematics and philosophy (Gregson 10). As a very inquisitive person, Phillis developed herself through reading and writing on her own during most of her free time.
The circumstances of Phillis Wheatley’s interrupted childhood undoubtedly influenced her as a person. Although she was appreciative for the seemingly privileged life she was living, she was not blind for the situation of most of her fellow slaves. Moreover, her rare status in the household, as well as poor health, made her experience loneliness. She was not permitted to invest much time with other servants and did not feel fully accepted by her white companions either (Gregson 13). An important sphere of the poet’s identity constituted her spirituality. She was extremely committed to evangelical theology which appeared to her to remain an obvious tool undermining the racial hierarchicalism so commonly observed among British Americans. The study of the Bible and Christian imagery served her as the means of discussing racial inequalities and hypocrisy of Christian slave owners.
Phillis Wheatley’s formidable intellect and creativity resulted in an early literary debut. She published her first poem when she was twelve years old. The verse entitled “On Messrs Hussey and Coffin” was included in the Newport Mercury’s newspaper on 21st December 1767. The poem and its author gained the attention of Selena Hastings, the Countess of Huffington. She helped Wheatley publish her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. The book received a variety of reviews, with some critics, among whom Thomas Jefferson, undermining the authenticity of Wheatley’s authorship (Alexander et al. 122). However, the young poet proved herself in court using the attestation of seventeen men representing the Boston elite.
Phillis Wheatley’s talents and successful literary activity enabled her to travel to England and regain freedom. However, although much admired by white elites considering her a sensation, the poet, being a freed African-American slave, she was not living a very glorious life. She married John Peters, a free black grocer, who abandoned her after the death of their two children. Some sources claim that he was imprisoned because of an overwhelming debt. To support herself, Wheatley turned back to working as a servant. She died at the age of 31 during childbirth, and her third baby died along with her (Alexander et al. 122). During the period of her life marked by her emancipation, Wheatley continued writing. Unfortunately, although she most probably had written a manuscript for the second collection of verses, it has never been found and published. Apart from composing poetry, Wheatley corresponded with many intellectuals and fellow writers and the preserved letters often shed new light on her creative output.
To sum up, following the new historical approach towards literary criticism, it is significant to notice that Phillis Wheatley’s short, yet unusual life experiences created circumstances which enabled her to become a published pioneer of African-American literature. However, while analyzing her poetry, one should not belittle her uncommon talents and intellectual insight. Although Wheatley’s creative output evoked mixed responses, with some critics accusing her of insufficient involvement in the subject of slavery, the publication of her poems was a landmark achievement in the history of American literature.