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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Thursday, October 20, 2011

“One of the oddest oral examinations on record”

Early in his lecture series The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (published in 2003), Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offered this image:
Sometime before October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley, a slim, African slave in her late teens, met with eighteen gentlemen so august that they could later allow themselves to be identified publicly “as the most respectable characters in Boston.” The panel has been assembled to verify the authorship of her poems and to answer a much larger question: was a Negro capable of producing literature?

The details of the meeting have been lost to history, but I have often imagined how it might have happened. She entered the room—perhaps in Boston’s Town Hall, the Old Colony House—carrying a manuscript consisting of twenty-odd poems that she claims to have written. No doubt the young woman would have been demure, soft-spoken, and frightened, for she was about to undergo one of the oddest oral examinations on record.
At several spots Gates called this meeting a “tribunal,” suggesting a formal or official judgment. He imagined details down to who was sitting where: “At the center no doubt would have sat His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts…”

That wasn’t the first time Gates imagined such an event in print. Fifteen years earlier, in an introduction to a Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley edited by John C. Shields, he wrote:
Sometime in 1772, a young African girl walked demurely into a room in Boston to undergo an oral examination, the results of which would determine the direction of her life and work. Perhaps she was shocked upon entering the appointed room. For there, perhaps gathered in a semicircle, sat eighteen of Boston’s most notable citizens.
Then, too, Gates called the event he described “surely one of the oddest oral examinations on record.” It’s a metaphor that modern academics can easily relate to, but perhaps a projection onto colonial Boston.

Both books credit the work of William H. Robinson, who had published his own collection of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in 1984, cataloguing the different states of her Poems on Various Subjects and tracking down unpublished manuscripts.

Robinson referred to the “the Old Colony House (today’s memorial Old State House).” In fact, pre-Revolutionary Bostonians called that building “the Town House.” (The Old Colony House was a similar building in Rhode Island, where Robinson taught.) Misnaming a building isn’t a harmful error, but like a D.N.A. marker its reappearance in another book nearly two decades later shows how much Gates relied on Robinson’s work and didn’t research Wheatley’s life independently.

Both Robinson and Gates are literary scholars, and their books contain other errors and omissions about pre-Revolutionary Boston. Robinson wrote that “In 1765,…Boston had a population of 15,520, of which about 1000 were blacks, by one count.” The 1765 census that provides the total population figure also reported exactly 811 black Bostonians. Robinson stated, “In the Boston of 1762, Boston Selectmen counted only eighteen free blacks.” Those selectmen were seeking only free black men of militia age, not all free blacks. Robinson misstated the terms of the Quartering Act, mixed up the Old North Church and the Old North Meeting-House, and referred to “the siege of 1769-1770.”

On documents and reports relating to Phillis Wheatley’s writing career, however, Robinson seems very thorough, especially considering how he worked in the years before digital archives. I’m not convinced by all the conclusions he drew—for example, there seems to be a leap from Wheatley receiving 300 copies of her book in one shipment from London to stating that every print run consisted of 300 copies. But I trust that Robinson would have reprinted any report about Wheatley meeting with eighteen gentlemen for a formal examination.

Thus, Gates seems to have come up with the idea of Phillis Wheatley’s “oral examination” based entirely on one document, which Robinson didn’t interpret the same way.

TOMORROW: That document.

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