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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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Wheatleys’ Men in London

On 19 Nov 1772, Robert Calef, captain of the Wheatley family’s ship London, set sail from Massachusetts to England. He carried:

  • a document signed by eighteen local notables attesting to the genuine poetic talent of the family’s slave Phillis.
  • a short biography of Phillis, probably drafted by herself and signed by John Wheatley on 14 November.
  • a manuscript collection of her poems, possibly the same one he had failed to sell in London earlier that year.
In London, Calef met with the printer Archibald Bell. According to a letter that Calef sent back to Boston on 7 Jan 1773, about five weeks earlier the printer has met with Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon and read out copies of Phillis Wheatley’s poems. (It’s possible that Calef got the timing wrong, and Bell read from the new manuscript.)

Calef wrote:
he waited upon the Countess of Huntingdon with the Poems, who was greatly pleas’d with them, and pray’d him to Read them; and often would break in upon him and Say, “is not this, or that, very fine? do read another,” and then expressd herself, She found her heart to knit with her and Questioned him much, whether she was Real without a deception? He then Convinc’d her by bringing my Name in question.
Again, this was a person outside Boston, who had never had the chance of meeting Phillis Wheatley, needing assurances about her talents.

Bell planned to meet with the countess when she was in London that January, and to bring Calef (and the Bostonians’ testimonial) along. Lady Huntingdon was clearly leaning toward letting the book be dedicated to her, which would attract attention, and she had made one request:
She desir’d which She Said She hardly tho’t would be denied her, that was to have Phillis’ picture in the frontispiece. So that, if you would get it done it can be Engrav’d here, I do imagine it can be Easily done, and think would contribute greatly to the Sale of the Book.
That news got back to Boston by March 1773. The Wheatleys quickly commissioned a portrait of their slave, most likely painted by another artistically talented slave named Scipio Moorhead. His legal owner was the Rev. John Moorhead, a Presbyterian minister who had signed the attestation.

On 16 April, the Boston News-Letter carried this new advertisement:
PROPOSALS
From Printing in London by SUBSCRIPTION,
A Volume of POEMS,
Dedicated by Permission to the Right Hon. the COUNTESS OF HUNTINGDON,
Written by PHILLIS,
A Negro Servant to Mr. Wheatley, of Boston in New-England.

Terms of Subscription.
I. The Book to be neatly printed in 12mo. [duodecimo], on a new Type and a fine Paper, adorned with an elegant Frontispiece, representing the Author.
II. That the Price to Subscribers shall be Two Shillings sewed, or Two Shillings and Six-pence neatly bound.
II [sic]. That every Subscriber deposit One Shilling at the Time of subscribing; and the Remainder to be paid on the Delivery of the Book.
Subscriptions are received by COX & BERRY, in Boston.
Cox and Berry ran a bookstore. Even though this book would include an engraving and be shipped across the Atlantic, its price was about a third less than what Ezekiel Russell had proposed, and thus closer to what Bostonians were used to paying for poetry.

TOMORROW: Boston’s response to this news.

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