Poet and Marketing "Mastermind"

Phillis Wheatley:

Biography of a Genius in Bondage

By Vincent Carretta

Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 279 pp., $29.95, hardcover

By Joycelyn Moody

Slavery and Abolition article, in which he boasts about uncovering a baptismal record casting doubt on the authenticity of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), any biography of a person of African descent by Carretta is likely to give some folks pause. Nevertheless, there is less to resist in Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley, though, perhaps, no more to trust. But the sometime untrustworthiness of Phillis Wheatley stems less from Carretta’s courting controversy than from his ever-elusive subject. This new biography is well-written, deft at demonstrating the kinds of archives prospective biographers should consult and how to mine and apply them, and rich in both documented evidence and speculative detail. In it, Carretta also crafts expert sociocultural contextualizations of Boston during the Great Awakening and on the eve of the American Revolution. At the end of the day, however, Phillis Wheatley is more a superb history of Wheatley’s Poems and its afterlife than it is a fulfilling account of the life of Phillis Wheatley.

There have been only a few biographies of Wheatley, not because the poet does not merit scrutiny, but because the records of her life are so scarce. The biographies we do have date back to 1834, and all remark on her extraordinary poetic gifts. Wheatley’s linguistic and philological talents were fiercely debated during the Enlightenment, perhaps most infamously by Thomas Jefferson, who opined in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. … Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.”

Two centuries later, religion was again foregrounded in critiques of Wheatley. In the 1960s and seventies, black nationalists and ardent feminists mining the history books for champions called out Wheatley as a race and/or gender apostate, for imbibing Christianity. They generally rejected the complex spiritual values of poems such as Wheatley’s famous “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called “the most reviled poem in African American literature,” because of its appreciation for deliverance (ostensibly from African religious traditions) into Wesleyan Methodism through the preaching of George Whitefield. Nevertheless, in “On Being Brought” and elsewhere, Wheatley adroitly distinguishes between gratitude to her enslavers for her piety and recognition of slavery as a spiritual evil. Hasty or indiscriminate readers misread Wheatley’s veiled lyrics. Carretta emphasizes Wheatley’s penchant for signaling blackness as a precondition to salvation—subversive wit generally lost on Black Arts poets and Second Wave feminists.

In addition to its lucid close readings of Wheatley’s poems, Phillis Wheatley documents some long-sought milestones of Wheatley’s life, even though other vital statistics remain unknown. We may never learn who the parents were of “the child known to us as Phillis Wheatley,” writes Carretta, precisely where she was born, or how long “the future Phillis Wheatley” lived in captivity aboard the Phillis, the slaver on which she spent two months sailing through the Middle Passage to arrive in Boston on July 11, 1761. None of the letters sent to Wheatley by Obour Tanner, her presumed most intimate black woman friend, “is known to exist,” says Carretta. He admits he cannot tell us where Phillis slept or ate after John and Susanna Wheatley bought her when she was approximately seven years old. Instead, he has sought to reconstruct Wheatley’s world.

Carretta succeeds, and Phillis Wheatley makes useful contributions to early African American and women’s print culture studies, fields pioneered by such black feminist scholars as Frances Smith Foster, Pier Gabrielle Foreman, and Carla Peterson. Carretta recovers and contextualizes manuscript drafts of numerous Wheatley poems that later appeared in New England newspapers and eventually in her Poems on Various Subjects, first published in London in 1773. For example, he discusses four short lines copied by the Congregationalist minister and, according to Carretta, amateur poet Jeremy Belknap into his diary both as prose and as a four-line stanza and labeled “Phillis Wheatley’s first Effort-------A. D. 1765. AE II.” The lines lament the deaths of the Thatcher children, the offspring of prosperous neighbors of Wheatley’s owners. Carretta reasons that Belknap has correctly identified Wheatley’s “first effort,” noting that “[t]he brevity, style, genre, content, and allusions of the poem on the Thatchers all point to Phillis Wheatley as its author in 1765”; they “anticipate the most common type of poem found among Wheatley’s later works.” Significantly, the lines in Belknap’s diary supplant as Wheatley’s “first effort” that which scholars have long thought it to be: a lost 1765 elegy to Joseph Sewall.  

Some of Carretta’s finest scholarship in this biography manifests in his elucidation of the Christian contexts of Wheatley’s world: he provides an impressive description of the theological landscape in which she lived. He outlines the Wheatleys’ religious values, including their failure to perceive any contradiction between owning “servants” and professing Christianity. While his discussion of the Great Awakening and the British evangelist George Whitefield’s spiritual conversion of thousands of enslaved African Americans covers familiar ground, Carretta uses it to chart the Methodist road Phillis followed, ultimately into literary patronage by Selena Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon and benefactress of Whitefield’s own itinerant ministry. (Ironically, Whitefield would enslave blacks during the 1740s to grow rice to support his Orphan House in Bethesda, Georgia. Hastings inherited them with the rest of his estate.)

In portraying the setting in which Wheatley lived, Carretta combines exegesis and hermeneutics of print culture with compelling literary and historical contextualizations. A good example is his citation of the Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament and signed by King George III in March 1765. Crisis in the North American colonies ensued thereafter. Carretta analyzes Wheatley’s responses to the situation, including her manuscript titled, “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty on His Repealing the American Stamp Act 1768.” Here, too, he underscores the poet’s subversive, multivalent critique of American slavery, this time through a public address to “Liberty” about tyrannical parents and enchained weepers. Notably, Carretta contrasts manuscripts of poems Wheatley advertised in a list of “Proposals” with poems she ultimately published, demonstrating that her unpublished works sound less subversive than the ones she eventually published. The archive he recovered exposes as unmerited the label “accommodationist” sometimes applied to Wheatley.

In addition to his careful documentation, Carretta frequently conjectures, often without apology. To an extent, he engages (but does not cite) a germane essay, “Subject to Speculation,” by his University of Maryland colleague Carla L. Peterson (in Women’s Studies in Transition: The Pursuit of Interdisciplinarity, 1998), in which she identifies speculation as a black feminist research methodology, which scholars should use to resolve the dilemma of locating and illuminating events omitted from the historical record. Peterson cogently argues that by maintaining raced and/ or gendered codes of respectability, black women of Wheatley’s day enshrouded themselves in silence, partly in self-protection. “Given this lack of documentation, [scholarly] speculation then becomes the only alternative to silence, secrecy, and invisibility,” Peterson writes. Carretta tacitly follows Peterson’s advice, illuminating Wheatley’s long obscure life in eighteenth-century Boston and lauding her skillful exploitation of fortuitous sociopolitical events, disproving a common Anglo-American misperception of Africans as fatuous or barbaric.

Carretta more than once proclaims Wheatley “a mastermind” at both the composition and the business of poetry, as well as at the negotiation of her manumission. Having failed to find a publisher for her Poems on Various Subjects in the colonies, she and her young master Nathaniel Wheatley traveled to England to meet Phillis’s patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, to seek her help in publishing Poems. Their arrival coincided with the ruling by Lord Chief Justice William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield, stipulating that people of African descent enslaved in Britain’s North American colonies and brought to England could not be forcibly re-enslaved in the colonies, but rather had the option of remaining abroad, free unto themselves. In other words, Mansfield’s June 1772 ruling provided Wheatley with a choice: on one hand, to remain in London, dependent on patronage from the countess, whom she had not yet met or seen; and, on the other, to return to the Wheatley home, where she could more or less count on shelter and community—albeit purchased with marginal agency and certain subjection. Wheatley’s London escort was the ardent abolitionist Granville Sharp, who had triggered the Mansfield ruling. Carretta convincingly demonstrates that Wheatley worked her options as she and Nathaniel toured London together, so that in the end, the young slave-owner promised the sage poet freedom when they returned to Boston. Wheatley disembarked from her second transatlantic journey on September 13, 1773, free and essentially unfettered.

Carretta claims to have definitively distinguished the John Peters whom Wheatley married on November 26, 1778, from other men of the same name by using Boston tax assessment documents to eliminate the contenders. The case Carretta makes is almost convincing. As he confesses, “Few early accounts of John Peters exist”—as in, of any John Peters; he also notes that he was unable to locate “birth, baptismal, or burial records…for any children of Phillis and John Peters.” The Peters he settles on through his impressive sleuthing was a shopkeeper informally skilled at law, medicine, and diverse journeyman trades. He was also in and out of court. If Carretta’s speculations are correct, then Wheatley’s husband was a successful plaintiff numerous times—until in 1780, a devastating lost suit sent him to debtors’ prison. Thus, the court documents Carretta claims to have found belie earlier portrayals of Peters as idle or profligate. If Carretta has correctly identified Wheatley’s husband, then before their losses during the economic depression of the mid-1780s, the shrewd, free businessman and the poet cum “marketing mastermind” formed a formidable partnership: a signal to whites of the irrefutable talent and ambition of African citizens of the new republic.

More convincing than Carretta’s speculations about John Peters is the evidence he offers of Wheatley’s precocious skills at manipulating both poetry and powerful people in her pursuit of a literary career, an aspiration virtually unprecedented among black women in 1770. Take, for example, the 21-year-old’s whipping up an ode “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth” on command. Or her daring epistle-poem “To His Excellency General Washington,” sent to the future president when he was besieged by Redcoats in 1776.

Carretta’s biography details Wheatley’s role in the composition, publication, and distribution of individual works and her collection, Poems on Various Subjects. Phillis Wheatley Peters also strove to publish second book. But her newspaper advertisements of proposed new poems in 1779, and again five years later in the September 1784 issue of the Boston Magazine, could not engender for the freed, married woman the degree of attention that she and her white backers had earlier earned for the enslaved adolescent prodigy. Wheatley’s poems had always denounced impediments to black liberty. Increasingly, her own literary and economic independence was hindered by whites interested only in her crafting of occasional poems devoted to whites themselves.

Carretta portrays Wheatley as an exceptionally stalwart woman. He follows the lead of the literary historian Joanna Brooks in dispelling the myth of Wheatley squirming before a panel of severe white men convened to judge her capacity to write Poems. Not even their approval was sufficient to procure the volume’s publication in the North American colonies. Wheatley then sought support overseas, carrying with her a letter from Susanna Wheatley requesting that Wheatley’s hosts not spoil the adult slave “girl.” The British press praised first Wheatley’s Proposals, then the 1773 London edition of her Poems on Various Subjects. Poems would be published in the United States in 1786. Meanwhile, Wheatley successfully inserted herself into multiple international networks spanning class, race, gender, caste, and political and religious affiliation, which contributed to her renown. Late eighteenth-century women poets and literary critics in Britain regarded her as a sister—African and British, never American.

That Phillis Wheatley Peters could not make her professional connections work for her in publishing a second volume of poems illustrates the stranglehold of white racism and negrophobia in the young United States. The positive British press reviews Carretta uncovered of Poems give every indication that Wheatley would have continued to be celebrated as a prodigious, brilliant intellect had she remained in Britain, and that publishing a second—and third—volume would have posed no challenge for her.

Phillis Wheatley died on December 5, 1784, of her lifelong “asthmatic condition.” She died young, but no younger than other black people, male or female, free or enslaved. She did not die “in obscurity,” as many have long insisted. Rather, she was still writing, still advertising, and still seeking publication; her “Elegy on Leaving _____” had appeared in the Arminian Magazine only five months before she passed. Wheatley died resisting the marginality of white neglect and silence, unheeded but not unknown. White supremacy and racial anxiety drove her into an unmarked grave, in which she was laid “to rest” alongside whites of greater privilege but lesser genius.


Joycelyn Moody is Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she also directs the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute.

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