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, October 29, 2011

“Phillis Wheatley, the extraordinary Poetical Genius”

By early 1773, as merchant John Andrews’s 24 February letter shows, news had spread in Boston that a London printer was ready to publish Phillis Wheatley’s poems. If there were widespread doubts or hostility about the enslaved young poet, we should expect skeptics to have spoken up in newspapers, letters, and diaries at that time.

Instead, Wheatley’s local profile had grown since the first proposal for a volume of her writing. Her poems about the deaths of the Rev. Timothy Pitkin’s wife and Thomas Hubbard’s daughter were published in 1772 as broadsides with her name attached. Her poem about the death of Samuel Eliot’s baby circulated in manuscript.

On 6 May 1773, the Boston News-Letter reported that Phillis Wheatley had departed for England after an invitation by the Countess of Huntingdon. That was premature, but it reflected how the young writer had become a local celebrity. The next week’s newspaper got the story right:
Saturday last Capt. [Robert] Calef sailed for London, in whom went Passengers Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley, Merchant; also, Phillis, the extraordinary Negro Poet, Servant to Mr. John Wheatley.
“Servant” was colonial New England’s euphemism for “slave.” The newspaper then published Phillis’s poem “Farewell to America.” Prof. William H. Robinson found mentions of Wheatley’s departure in the Providence Gazette, Boston Post-Boy, Connecticut Gazette, and New York Gazette as well.

Similarly, the 13 Sept 1773 Boston Post-Boy reported that Calef had returned to the harbor with four notable passengers, the last being “Phillis Wheatley, the extraordinary Poetical Genius, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley.” The same phrase appeared in the 16 September Boston News-Letter. Other articles about her return ran in the Massachusetts Spy, Providence Gazette, and Newport Mercury.

There’s no question that American and British readers responded to Phillis Wheatley’s writing based on their thinking about race and slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, denied any notable quality in what he called the “compositions published under her name.” Jefferson’s insinuation about authorship is clear (even if he would have mumbled a denial of that intent). But there’s little evidence that many colonial Bostonians entertained such doubt.

TOMORROW: The author of a new biography of Phillis Wheatley speaks in Boston.

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