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, January 20, 2023

A Likely Addition to Phillis Wheatley’s Works

Prof. Wendy Raphael Roberts of the University of Albany has announced the discovery of a previously unknown poem by Phillis Wheatley, “On the Death of Love Rotch.”

Or, as this press release from the university says, Roberts found a poem in the 1782 commonplace book of Mary Powel Potts (1769–1787) of Pennsylvania, the lines dated to 1767 and attributed to “A Negro Girl about 15 years of age.”

Since we know of only one teen-aged girl of African descent writing poetry in British North America at the time, Phillis Wheatley is the most likely candidate.

Of course, a few years ago we assumed that the black portrait artist advertising in Boston newspapers 250 years ago this season had to be Scipio Moorhead, since he was the only possibility to appear in the published sources. (In fact, one of the main sources about him is a poem by Phillis Wheatley.)

But then Paula Bagger put together manuscript sources (including letters I quoted back here) to bring out the life of Prince Demah, now almost certainly the portraitist in those advertisements.

Thus, while it would be unlikely that two African girls were writing poetry in New England in 1767, it’s not impossible.

There are, however, some additional clues pointing to Wheatley:
  • Wheatley often wrote memorial verse like this elegy, particularly when she was starting out. She didn’t necessarily know the people she wrote about.
  • The title and date of this poem match the details of Love (Macy) Rotch, a Quaker on Nantucket, who died 14 Nov 1767.
  • Wheatley wrote “To a Gentleman on his Voyage to Great Britain for the Recovery of his Health” to Love Rotch’s son Joseph, Jr., reportedly in or before 1767. (Boston newspapers reported in March 1773 that he had died in England.)
  • Love Rotch’s other sons, William and Francis, owned the ship Dartmouth, which carried the first edition of Wheatley’s poems back to Boston in 1773.
  • We know Wheatley’s poems circulated in manuscript and commonplace books among Philadelphia Quaker women like Mary Powel Potts.
And here’s a new bread crumb: In the 25 Apr 1765 Boston News-Letter and several other newspapers that spring, Love Rotch’s husband and two of her sons, William and Joseph, Jr., asked anyone indebted to the late John Morley to pay up “at the store of Nathaniel Wheatley, in King-Street, Boston.” They authorized Wheatley to collect money due to Morley’s widow. That shows a close business relationship between the Wheatley and Rotch households a couple of years before Phillis wrote her poems.

There are still some mysteries. For one:
The only thing that didn’t make sense to Roberts was the copyist’s claim that Love Rotch was the poet’s mistress, since it was widely known that Susanna Wheatley held that role.
Roberts apparently suggests that the Wheatley family loaned or rented Phillis to the Rotch family. That strikes me as a more complex, less likely explanation than that Potts or her teacher misunderstood the origin of the poem and assumed it reflected the author’s lament for someone she knew well.

Another open question:
Roberts found another anonymous poem in the Potts book that she believes Wheatley wrote but can only speculatively attribute to her. Titled “The Black Rose,” it mourns the death of a Black woman named Rose and uses theology to critique a society that refused to mourn the enslaved and oppressed. It would be the only known elegy Wheatley wrote for a Black woman.
Also a mystery in the press release is the actual text of these poems. Those will presumably appear with Prof. Roberts’s analysis in the upcoming Early American Literature article. On Thursday, 26 January, at 6:00 P.M., the Library Company of Philadelphia will host a virtual talk by Roberts on “A Newly Unearthed Poem by Phillis Wheatley (Peters) and the Future of the Wheatley Canon.”

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

This posting is based on the university press release. I now understand from Prof. Roberts that her article will include more about the business ties between the Wheatley and Rotch families, which strikes me as cementing the identification of the author of the Love Rotch elegy.