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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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Assessing a Big Test

Phillis’s Big Test is a picture-book biography of Phillis Wheatley written by Prof. Catherine Clinton (who’s also scripted the graphic novel Booth) and illustrated by Sean Qualls. It was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2008.

For a picture book, Phillis’s Big Test has a curious structure: it follows the teen-aged poet to a meeting with eighteen of Boston’s most eminent citizens. The main action is thus literally a young woman walking through the streets and thinking. Earlier events in Wheatley’s life appear as brief flashbacks. We never see the meeting itself, nor Wheatley’s trip to London, publication, or marriage and children. There’s no challenge–response–triumph plot as usual.

That text has its heroine passing Old North Church in the North End on her way from home to “the public hall” where she would meet with the citizens. Since the Wheatleys lived near the center of town, and thus near the Town House, the Province House, and Faneuil Hall (all the “public halls” available), such a walk would take her well out of her way.

The author’s epilogue overstates a couple more facts. It says Wheatley “gladly made” the journey to meet Gen. George Washington at his headquarters, but there’s no good evidence for such a meeting, which would have attracted attention; the first claim that it happened appeared in 1841, from unreliable journalist Benson J. Lossing. The afterword also says that Wheatley’s “unpublished poems disappeared.” Some poems known from her advertisements are indeed lost, but several survive in manuscript.

The biggest question I have about this book, however, is its very basis: the idea that eighteen Bostonians made a formal test of Wheatley’s intellect. The men involved include Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, James Bowdoin, the Rev. Andrew Eliot, John Hancock, and many other well-documented notables. To my knowledge, none of those men left accounts of such a meeting. Nobody else in Boston in 1772 reported that it happened. None of the early-1800s accounts of Phillis Wheatley’s life includes that moment.

Nevertheless, Phillis Wheatley’s “big test” has become a standard part of her biography in the last forty years. It’s the central metaphor of Prof. Henry Louis Gates’s New Yorker article “Phillis Wheatley on Trial” and lecture collection The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (both published in 2003). The scene appears in Ann Rinaldi’s Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons (1996), a historical novel. (In contrast, Clinton and Qualls’s picture book gets filed in the biographies for young children.)

TOMORROW: The birth and spread of a meme.

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