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 26, 2011

Richard Cary: “The Negro Girl of Mr. Wheatley’s”

When Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote about the life of Phillis Wheatley, he interpreted the “attestation” of her talents by eighteen Bostonians to be “one of the oddest oral examinations on record.” That’s an academic metaphor, reflecting his field.

I spent my first eleven years after college in commercial publishing, so I look at the same documents about Wheatley’s book from a different perspective. I can’t help but interpret them as evidence of an author seeking the best publishing deal, and her publishers doing their best to market her book.

As I pointed out earlier, by 1772 printers in Boston were already publishing Wheatley’s poetry, crediting her for it, and highlighting her status as a young African slave. People in Boston could visit the Wheatley household, or speak to the growing number of people who had met the girl. Ezekiel Russell’s proposal for a collection of her poems tried to dispel any remaining skepticism among potential customers by reminding them that “the best Judges…find that the declared Author was capable of writing” those poems.

But subscriptions didn’t come in right away. And that spring, the Wheatleys heard that Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon (shown above), was asking about Phillis. John and Susannah Wheatley had already hosted some of the evangelical ministers whom Lady Huntingdon had sponsored in America, and at some point Phillis had sent a copy of her poem about the Rev. George Whitefield, who was the countess’s official chaplain.

On 25 May 1772, the Charlestown merchant Richard Cary answered the countess’s inquiry:
The Negro Girl of Mr. Wheatley’s, by her virtuous Behaviour and Conversation in Life gives Reason to believe, she’s a Subject of Divine Grace—remarkable for her Piety, of an extraordinary Genius, and in full Communion with one of the Churches; the Family, & Girl, was Affected at the kind enquiry your Ladyship made after her.
What might Lady Huntingdon’s interest mean for the poetry collection? That year she sponsored the publication of A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself, one of the earliest autobiographies of an African who had been enslaved. Her prestige, and possibly her money, had raised that book’s profile.

At that point, I believe, Phillis Wheatley and her advisors decided that her best prospects lay in having her poems published in London. That would be more prestigious, and the result might look better as well. (Russell wasn’t known for beautiful printing.) As Boston merchant John Andrews later described the situation, Wheatley was “made to exp[ect] a large emolument if she sent ye copy home [i.e., to England], which inducd her to remand it of ye printer” in Boston.

The Wheatleys delivered that manuscript to Capt. Robert Calef, who set off on his regular trip to London. But apparently, even with telling printers about the countess’s interest, he couldn’t find a deal. Londoners, unlike Bostonians, couldn’t just drop by the Wheatleys to dispel their skepticism. They had been exposed to only a couple of examples of Phillis’s work (the poem about Whitefield and her lines on “Recollection”), in a much larger literary pool. So in the fall of 1772, Calef brought the manuscript back.

TOMORROW: The publishing environment of 1772.

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