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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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Vincent Carretta on Phillis Wheatley, 2 Nov.

I hope folks have been enjoying the postings on Phillis Wheatley’s path to publication, and how she was regarded in Boston. To learn a lot more, I recommend attending Vincent Carretta’s talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Wednesday, 2 November, at 6:00 P.M., about his new book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. (Refreshments available for a half-hour before; book signing afterward.)

Carretta has already edited an edition of Wheatley’s poetry for Penguin. This book is, its publisher says, “the first full-length biography” of the poet. “First full-length” is in the eyes of a publisher’s marketing department, but in this case I know the book will have information not in any previous study.

In particular, Carretta has uncovered solid evidence about the black businessman Phillis married in 1778, John Peters. Most of what we’ve known about him came from relatives of the white Wheatleys, who appear to have been somewhat miffed that he became more important to her than they were. Carretta has found documents from Peters himself.

This book follows Carretta’s discoveries about Olaudah Equiano, another very important figure in African-American literature. He found two documents that say Equiano was born in South Carolina, not Africa as described in his autobiography. Not every scholars accepts those documents as more reliable, but Carretta’s book prompted fresh discussion and interpretations of the man.

Carretta also built up the record of Francis Williams’s life as a black man of property and learning in Jamaica, replacing legend and hearsay, as I summarized here. Like Wheatley, Williams became known for his intellectual achievements, making him a symbol for people on both sides of the British-American argument over slavery and racial quality; details about the real person got lost in the shuffle.

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