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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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

John Andrews: “In regard to Phillis’s poems”

On 24 Feb 1773, the Boston merchant John Andrews, who had signed up for a book of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry months before, relayed news of the project to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia. That letter came back to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and today it’s available for online viewing.

In 1977, William H. Robinson published what I think was the first transcription of the relevant passage in his book Black New England Letters:
In regard to Phillis’ poems, they will originate from a London press, as she was [illegible, blam’d?] by her friends for printing them here & made to expect a large emolument if she sent the copy home [sic, i.e., England], which induc’d her to remand it of the printers & also of Capt Calef who could not sell it by the reason of their not crediting the performances to be by a Negro, since which she has had had [sic] papers drawn up & sign’d by the Gov. Council, Ministers & most of the people of note in this place, certifying the authenticity of it; which Capt Calef carried last fall…
The transcription on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s webpage for this document is similar.

However, in 1989 Julian D. Mason published an edition of The Poems of Phillis Wheatley which transcribed the same letter in a different way:
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 exp a large emolument if she sent ye copy home, which inducd her to remand it of ye printer & dld 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 & signed by the Gov. Council, Ministers & most of ye people of note in this place, certifying the authenticity of it, which paper Capt. Calef carried last fall…
I shared my own interpretation of the letter back here. You can also download a big image of Andrews’s page for yourself.

One crucial difference is the phrase before “Capt Calef.” Did Wheatley take her manuscript back from printer Ezekiel Russell “& also of” Calef? Or did she take it back from Russell “& dld [i.e., delivered] it” to Calef? Andrews used the “dld” abbreviation in other letters; for example, on 28 Jan 1774 he finally wrote: “After so long a time, have at last got Phillis’s poems in print, which will be dld you by Capt Dunn.”

We know that Robert Calef made regular runs between Boston and London for the Wheatley family firm. That suggests he wouldn’t have been in Boston long enough to help sell the manuscript in there. But he would have been (indeed, we know he later was) the family’s agent promoting the project in London.

Then we have to interpret what pronouns mean. Does the “who” in “who could not sell it” refer to the Boston printer(s) and Calef together, or Calef alone? Does the “their” in “their not crediting ye performance” refer to book-buyers in Boston or publishers in London?

TOMORROW: My perspective.

2 comments:

Chris said...

From your research, do you think Phillis's success caused some to "rethink" their beliefs about slavery. The fact that slaves were considered savages has always been used as a justification that slavery was ethical Or was Phillis seen as a statistical anomaly? It would be interesting to know if the abolitionist movement held her up as an example on why slavery was wrong.

J. L. Bell said...

The Wheatley family definitely changed their legal relationship to Phillis after the publication of her book, but I don’t know if they emancipated their other slaves. (The oldest son moved to London, where slavery became unenforceable, and the parents died before the Massachusetts court ruled the same.)

Abolitionists and equal-rights advocates definitely used Phillis Wheatley as an example of African intellect. Apologists for slavery and white supremacy, like Thomas Jefferson, definitely tried to downplay her achievements or treat her as an exception. Whether her example changed anybody’s mind is harder to answer.