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:
- Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, Treasurer Harrison Gray, and other royal appointees
- Council members James Bowdoin and James Pitts, selectman John Hancock, and other Whigs
- most of the town’s Congregationalist ministers, including the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy (both Whigs), and the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr. (a friend of the royal government)