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, June 15, 2019

A Graphic Profile of Phillis Wheatley

Earlier this week, Dave Kellett’s Sheldon comic strip featured a single panel titled “Anatomy of Phillis Wheatley.” Around a picture of the young poet are remarks on her life and legacy.

Back in 2011 I discussed why I think it’s mistaken to say Wheatley “had to go to court to prove” that she wrote her poems. That’s an exaggerated reading of what Henry Louis Gates wrote about her, which was in turn an exaggerated reading of the testimonial that Boston clergymen and other notables supplied for her book.

The comic also states, “She was even offered an audience with the king of England.” That’s based on an early biographical profile written by a great-grandniece of Susannah Wheatley, the woman who owned and raised Wheatley. She wrote in 1834 that Phillis Wheatley declined the invitation and returned to Boston after learning that her mistress was in poor health. Wheatley’s best biographer, Vincent Carretta, said the story is “plausible,” but she herself made no mention of it.

Thanks to Eric Gjovaag for alerting me to this strip.

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