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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Phillis Wheatley

Known best for her Christian verses reflecting orthodox piety, Phillis Wheatley (Peters) in fact wrote on a wide variety of topics. A kidnapped African slave child, aged about seven years old, she was sold from the South Market in Boston to well-to-do Susanna Wheatley. She was raised in a pious Christian household, and the precocious child evidently experienced special, much-indulged comfort and only token slavery. (Phillis Wheatley was manumitted by October 18, 1773.) Tutored by family members, she quickly learned English, Latin, and the Bible, and she began writing in 1765, four years after arriving in Boston harbor.

She wrote to Reverend Samson Occom, a converted Christian Mohican Indian minister, and she sent a poem to Reverend Joseph Sewall of Boston’s Old South Church. Both this letter and poem are not extant, but a poem from this early period remains: in 1767, when she was about thirteen or fourteen years old, Phillis Wheatley published her first verses in a Newport, Rhode Island, newspaper. By 1772 she had composed enough poems to advertise twenty-eight of them in The Boston Censor for February 29, March 14, and April 11. She hoped to publish a volume of her poems that year in Boston.

The range of her topical concerns was already evident in these twenty-eight titles. Along with poems on morality and piety, the volume offered patriotic American pieces, an epithalamium, and a short, racially self-conscious poem, “Thoughts on Being Brought from Africa to America.” Had enough subscribers for this volume come forward, it would have been printed. But advertisements brought no subscribers, for reasons in part racially motivated. Wheatley was encouraged by her doting and undaunted mistress to revise her manuscripts in preparation for a volume that Susanna Wheatley had arranged, with the prestigious cooperation of the Countess of Huntingdon, to have published in London in 1773, complete with an engraved likeness of the poet as a frontispiece. This was the first volume known to have been published by a black American, man or woman.

In the fall of 1779, she ran (six times) proposals for a projected third volume, of thirty-three poems and thirteen letters. The work was to be dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. But again, as in 1772 and 1773, these 1779 proposals were rejected by Bostonians. In the Boston Magazine for September, 1784, there would be printed a final solicitation for subscribers to this third volume, but there would be no such book in print by the time Phillis Wheatley died three months later on December 5. She was buried obscurely on December 8, along with the body of the last of three infant children.

Wheatley’s poems ably and imaginatively suit the neoclassical poetic norms of her day, yet she was not accepted by whites of her generation. Indeed her life evidences the effects of racial injustice. Her first volume, the projected 1772 Boston publication, was advertised by printers, who although they knew better, claimed that they could not credit “ye performances to be by a Negro.” But it was no secret that Wheatley was a black poet. In the half-dozen poems she published in America and London before and during the time she solicited Boston subscribers for her 1772 book, she was almost always identified as a black poet. While her second collection, published as Poems, went through at least four London printings for a run of about 1200 copies, in America the same volume fared poorly early on. Wheatley received a second lot of 300 copies of her Poems from London in May of 1774, but as late as 1778 she could write to a friend in New Haven and ask for return to her of copies of her “books that remain unsold,” announcing with unfounded bravado that she “could easily dispose of them here for 12/Lm°” (that is, twelve pounds Legal money). Her book was never reprinted in America during her lifetime; the first American reprinting appeared in Philadelphia in 1786, two years after she had died.

But if her early rejection seems peculiarly American, so too were her gradual conscious tags, reminding readers that she was African. In more than thirty posthumously published letters and variants, and in several poems published after her 1773 volume, Phillis Wheatley would continue to register her racial awareness, but nowhere more bitingly than in her 1774 letter to Samson Occom.

Wheatley’s sense of herself as an African and an American makes her in some ways a dual provincial in relationship to the eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic cosmopolitan center. The art of her poetry resides in her capacity to make her political, cultural, and poetic self-consciousness a literary subject in and of itself. In her acutely self-aware occasional poetry, she gives us one of the most searching portraits available of the American provincial consciousness.

Wheatley’s London-published volume included not only Christian elegies, but also a highly original English translation from the Latin of Ovid, biblical paraphrases, and poems about nature, imagination, and memory. Like any good poet who sought patrons, Wheatley also included flattering salutes to an English captain and the Earl of Dartmouth, two happy pieces on the good fortunes of two ladies, and even a playful rebus to James Bowdoin. She included as well her poem on being brought from Africa to America, a metrical salute to a local black Boston artist, and several poems that spoke to the issues of racial self-acceptance leading to success here and hereafter. Poems was eventually reprinted more than two dozen times in America and Europe, and selections appear with regularity in American textbooks. An autographed copy of her book sells today for several thousands of dollars.

William H. Robinson
Rhode Island College

Phillip M. Richards
Colgate University

In the Heath Anthology
Letter to the Rt. Hon'ble the Countess of Huntingdon (1770)
On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield 1770 (1770)
Letter to the Right Hon'ble The Earl of Dartmouth per favour of Mr. Wooldridge (1772)
To Mæcenas (1772)
To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North-America, & c (c.1772)
Farewell to America (1773)
On Being Brought from Africa to America (1773)
On the Death of Dr. Samuel Marshall 1771 (1773)
To the University of Cambridge, in New England (1773)
Letter to Samson Occom, Feb. 11, 1774 (1774)
Philis's [sic] Reply to the Answer in Our Last by the Gentleman in the Navy (1774)
To His Excellency General Washington (1776)
Liberty and Peace, A Poem by Phillis Peters (1785)

Other Works
Poems (1773)
Anonymous, Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A Native African and a Slave (1834)

Cultural Objects
TEXT fileAssertion of Authentication of Wheatley's Poetry

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Phillis Wheatley
A brief biography and links to scans of the first two pages of Poems on Various Subjects...

Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Woman Poet
Site including a short biography of Wheatley and the electronic text of On Being Brought from Africa to America.

Phillis Wheatley: Precursor to American Abolitionism
A biography and the text of an address to the students of Harvard.

Secondary Sources

Julian D. Mason, The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, 1989

Phillip M. Richards, "Phillis Wheatley and Literary Americanization," American Quarterly, 44 June 1992

William H. Robinson, ed., Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, 1982

William H. Robinson, Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings, 1984

John Shields, ed., The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, 1988