J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Phillis Wheatley Gathers Testimonials

In 1772 the Wheatley family announced that a volume of their enslaved servant Phillis’s poetry would soon be published. I’ve seen it written that the Wheatleys were “unable to get her poems published in Boston,” with the possible implication that the town was hostile to them.

But I suspect the real problem was how volumes of poetry got published in the eighteenth-century British Empire. Poets had to pay their own printing bills. They could either be wealthy to begin with, attract wealthy patrons to subsidize them, or sign up lots of subscribers before publication. And Americans weren’t as interested in books of poetry as the wealthy top of British society.

Phillis’s ode to the late Rev. George Whitefield had attracted the admiration of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, and other evangelicals in England. They encouraged her to send her poems to be printed in London instead of Boston. But while New Englanders had been seeing Phillis’s poems in newspapers for six years, and Bostonians probably knew her by sight, Londoners didn’t know her—and many didn’t believe that a young black woman could write poetry.

Merchant John Andrews described the problem and Phillis’s solution in a letter to a relative in Philadelphia:

In regard to Phillis’s poems they will originate from a London press, as she was blamd by her friends for printg them here & made to expt [expect] a large emolument if she sent ye copy home, which induced her to remand yt of ye printer & dld [delivered] it Capt Calef, who could not sell it by reason of their not crediting ye performance to be by a Negro, since which, she has had a paper drawn up & signd by the Govr. Council, Ministers & most of ye people of note in this place, certifying the authenticity of it; which paper Capt Calef carried last fall, thefore we may expect it in print by the spring ships
(My reading of this letter differs from the standard transcription from the Massachusetts Historical Society. But hey, I don’t hold it against them.)

That “paper drawn up & signd” is evidence that Boston’s establishment didn’t stand in Phillis’s way. The eighteen men who signed it were the establishment, from both sides of the political divide, and they testified about her genuine talent: In the language of modern book marketing, Phillis Wheatley had the best “blurb” Boston could provide, on top of the countess’s financial support. Those men’s names appeared at the front of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, when it was printed in London in 1773.

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