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 21, 2011

The Endorsement of Phillis Wheatley

The belief that eighteen Boston gentlemen sat down together to test Phillis Wheatley’s intellect starts with an attestation dated 8 Oct 1772 and first printed in September 1773 in issues of the Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle and the Morning Post and Advertiser of London. The bookseller Archibald Bell had already stated in the Morning Post and Advertiser that the document could be viewed at his shop.

Later Bell had the same text (without its date) printed in the frontmatter of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, as shown above. The earliest copies misprinted a few of the Bostonians’ names, mostly corrected later in the printing process.

The names on that list comprise the elite of Boston:
It’s an impressive community endorsement. As the London bookseller stated, those eighteen gentlemen were among “the most respectable Characters in Boston.

However, those eighteen men didn’t claim to have examined Phillis Wheatley themselves. Rather, they said they believed that she wrote her poems because, in part, “She has been examined by some of the best Judges”—evidently referring to other people.

In fact, the first proposal for publishing Wheatley’s poems back in Boston, appearing in the 29 Feb 1772 Boston Censor and thus months before this attestation, stated:
The Poems having been seen and read by the best Judges, who think them worthy of the Publick View; and upon critical examination, they find that the declared Author was capable of writing them.
So any “critical examination” Phillis Wheatley underwent to prove that she could write took place before that February date. We don’t know who the judges were, or how many were involved. We don’t know where they examined her, or how formal the test was. We do know that eighteen eminent Bostonians thought that examination—and everything else they knew of Phillis Wheatley—was enough to endorse her poetry in late October. By then, it was clear, she was seeking publication in London.

TOMORROW: One man describes his test of Phillis Wheatley.


Chris said...

Fascinating! I see this event as both reflecting poorly and positively on how we can view our early American ancestors. It reflects poorly on them that there was such a poor view of the black slaves that it was impossible for them to believe that they had the intelligence and skill to write these poems. I am sure that they originally came to a conclusion that these had been written by someone else and the idea of a book of "Negro" poems .was a stunt being used to sell the books. However, we do have to give them credit that once they did complete their examination that they did determine that she was the author of these poems. I am sure that there are many people that will say that they can't give any credit to them for admitting the truth, but I am sure there are many, many instances where facts have not overcome racism. For example, in the pre- civil war south they would have never let the facts get in the way that maintaing the belief that no person of black skin color have the potential to create so impressive poetry.

J. L. Bell said...

Phillis Wheatley was remarkable not only only for being black, but also for being so young—evidently still in her teens when she began publishing poetry—and for being someone who learned English as a second language, as we’d say today. But the quality about her that most upset the established order was indeed her status as an African-born slave.

Thomas Jefferson found Wheatley so troubling that he tried to deny her skills on unprovable aesthetic grounds: i.e., she might write poetry, but not good poetry, and as a rich, educated white gentleman he could say which was which.