The Great American Poet Who Was Named After a Slave Ship

A new biography of Phillis Wheatley places her in her era and shows the ways she used poetry to criticize the existence of slavery.

The front pages of a book of Wheatley poetry
Heritage Art / Heritage Images / Getty

The small, sickly African girl who arrived in Boston on a seafaring vessel in 1761 had already been stripped of her family and her home. She missed her father, who suffered after having his young child “snatched,” she would later lament in writing. She longed for her mother, whose morning libations to the sun had imprinted on her an enduring memory. She was naked beneath her only physical covering, a “dirty carpet.” She owned nothing, not even herself.

A little over a decade later, this same girl, named Phillis Wheatley after the slave ship that had transported her (the Phillis) and the enslavers who had purchased her (Susanna and John Wheatley), was an author. Her widely read 1773 book of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was striking in its creativity and spoke up for Black humanity. In his erudite, enlightening new biography, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, the historian David Waldstreicher points out that the remarkable and unlikely story of this Revolutionary-era Black celebrity, who was both highlighted and castigated for her race, turns on such reversals and contradictions. Wheatley emerges in these pages as a literary marvel. Waldstreicher’s comprehensive account is a monument to her prowess.

Wheatley was a child prodigy. This is immediately and abundantly clear in Waldstreicher’s treatment and that of others, such as the soaring series of poems about Wheatley written by the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Age of Phillis. Jeffers’s deeply researched work of visionary verse begins with a tribute line by Langston Hughes: “This is a song for the genius child.” Phillis (and it is still painful to refer to her by that slave-ship name) had the kind of nimble mind that seems rare in any time period. Soon after she was brought to the Wheatleys’ fine house on King Street to work as a personal maid to Susanna (who had recently lost her 7-year-old daughter and was likely seeking some sort of replacement in the captive African girl), she showed an interest in the shape of letters and exhibited a hunger for learning. Susanna doted on the child, who was also her servant and property. Either Susanna; her eldest surviving daughter, Mary Wheatley; or both tutored Phillis in the lingua franca of the British empire.

Wheatley became a wordsmith of English—the language that had been used by her captors to catalog and register her, to record her sale on Boston’s shore, to exclude her from inheritance in the Wheatley estate after she had served the family for decades and brought them more glory than they ever would have achieved on their own. Through her mastery of language, her consciousness of political developments, and her astute sense of timing, Wheatley became, as Waldstreicher’s treatment shows, an informal poet laureate of the American Revolutionary age.

The greatest achievement of Waldstreicher’s biography is the portrayal of Wheatley as a serious poet. She wrote elegies for the dead, lyrics of Christian salvation, tributes to great figures, dramas of storms and sea travel, and, charmingly, riddles with political punch lines. She was an artist who seems to have answered an inner drive to create on the page, even as she was compelled to comply with the calls of her owners and members of their social set for poems on specific subjects and to respond to her own savvy sense of who in the Boston and British orbits should be commemorated.

Wheatley was a student who read classic works of European literature, from the ancient verse of Homer to the early-modern writings of Alexander Pope. She was a craftsperson who selected her subjects, attended to form, traded in classical references and literary allusions, and engaged in wordplay and ironic misdirection. She was a political commentator who saw words and ideas as battlegrounds for the high-stakes issues of her day. And she never forgot her African family or abandoned the cause of Black freedom. Wheatley wrote from her whole experience, out of fractured memory, and with a compassionate heart, asserting with every stroke of her quill that she was a thinking, feeling, political subject who should not be enslaved.

But Wheatley made this daring assertion about herself and her race at a time when the sale and purchase of Black people was a bustling trade in Boston, when Black intellectual incompetence was assumed, when an escalating crisis between the American colonies and Great Britain heightened debate about the future status of slavery itself. As an owned person belonging to a subjugated racial caste who had to please her captor-benefactors, the poet Wheatley faced an impossible task. Waldstreicher teases out these tangled threads and more, demonstrating Wheatley’s constrained position and how, from that tight spot, she waged ideological and political warfare with her words. “Writing is fighting by other means,” Waldstreicher contends. And Wheatley, Boston’s well-armed bard, was “a patriot poet and a political subject of Britain and New England.”

The version of Wheatley that Waldstreicher paints is the one I’ve always wished I’d known. What Black student (especially if she aspires to be a writer) can forget the first encounter with Wheatley’s famous (or infamous) poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America”? I met this poem during college in a challenging African American–literature survey course, in which our lectures emphasized the complexity of African American subjectivities and the double-voiced discourses of the Black literary tradition. Nevertheless, I cringed when reading it silently to myself in a dorm room, and again when hearing it read aloud, the words echoing through the lecture hall. “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too, ” Wheatley had professed. I pleaded with Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book and one of the first North American women to publish a book of poetry: Certainly, you could not mean you were glad to be enslaved. Surely, you must not mean that slavery was a saving grace. Wheatley did not answer, so I argued with myself as I parsed her line describing “Negros, black as Cain.” This cannot be right. This cannot be all. This cannot be. Something was amiss beneath the surface of her seemingly placid poem, but it was hard for me to pinpoint what or where, to name the mechanics of literary resistance.

As a senior historian of early America with a love of poetry (which runs in the family, according to the book’s acknowledgments) Waldstreicher possesses the right tool kit for disassembling Wheatley’s words. He argues with absolute and convincing confidence that Wheatley harbored a political as well as poetical will, which she directed toward securing her survival, her emancipation, and the freedom of what she called her “sable” race—even as she came to side with the imperfect American colonies against Great Britain. Hers was political poetry. She successfully navigated her social context, in which one wrong move, one misplaced word, could lead to the withdrawal of her owners’ support for her writing, or even to her sale. She wielded her words with exacting control out of necessity. Many of Wheatley’s phrases and lines that seem disparaging of Africa or Black people can be read as sarcastic or sardonic, Waldstreicher shows, especially when placed beside her other writings, such as letters to friends and associates of color—like the enslaved woman Obour Tanner and the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom—and rediscovered poems.

Through close readings of Wheatley’s known work and an astonishing retrieval of several poems published anonymously (which Waldstreicher acknowledges may or may not have been written by Wheatley), Waldstreicher slowly unveils the person behind the pen. I needed to dust off my metaphorical handbook of literary terms to follow Waldstreicher’s references, but the effort was worth it. He seems to have done the same while reading Wheatley in order to catalog and address an array of classical and early-modern figures she references, ancient gods and goddesses she names, and lyrical formulations she adopts.

While tracing Wheatley’s evolution as a poet, Waldstreicher also explains why her writing has been devalued over time. Many modern readers find the rhyming-couplet form (one of Wheatley’s favorites) trite and simplistic, when this was an appreciated type of verse in Wheatley’s time. Beyond this, poetry overall has ceased to be the dominant form of private and public expression that it once was. As Waldstreicher puts it, poems of the late 18th century were like the tweets of today: omnipresent, constrained by form (rhythmic schemes then, 280 characters now), part of public culture. His painstaking interpretations equal Wheatley’s own intentional verse, making it a joy to follow along as he unpacks her words and their arrangement, instructing us to read a line of Wheatley’s and then read it again with an eye roll to see how the meaning changes. When Wheatley writes about race, Waldstreicher shows, she is often mocking a racist or hypocritical point of view that she personally disavows.

If The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is principally a literary biography, it is simultaneously and forcefully a political history of race and slavery in Revolutionary-era America. It is full of illuminating and specific insights about how slavery figured into colonial politics and how individual Black people played significant roles in events as they unfolded. Waldstreicher routinely points out the “countervailing trends” in Boston and New England that indicated both a weakening and strengthening of the rationale for and practice of slavery as the political winds changed. He compares the “stranger” status of outcast enslaved people in Boston to that of the reviled British soldiers sent to occupy the city. He highlights the ways that patriot leaders began to assume Black collusion with the British and projected fears about a Black fifth column that made Black residents more vulnerable. He notices that the street soldiers of Boston’s defense during the siege, those who taunted British soldiers and caused public ruckuses, were young people of Wheatley’s generation, and that age was a demographic factor that meaningfully intersected with race and class—young people in general being more willing to openly resist colonial rule. In showing how deeply enmeshed Wheatley was with Boston, Waldstreicher also illustrates how tightly woven the story of American liberty and Black American slavery truly were.

Slavery informed Americans’ understanding of the meaning of freedom. The fact of Black captivity at the hands of American colonists made the British threat of unfettered control seem all too real, even as their subjugation of Black people weakened the patriots’ argument in defense of liberty. American freedom and Black slavery were bound together. And, as Waldstreicher shows, Black patriots like Wheatley, who was both African and American, knew this to be the case.

Wheatley observed and recorded in verse the great swirl of events in the Revolutionary hub that was Boston. She wrote poems about youth killed in the Boston streets, fallen patriot soldiers, British naval commanders, and George Washington. She wrote a poem titled “America,” and if Waldstreicher’s attribution of an exciting unsigned work is correct, she wrote a poem about the Boston Massacre and therein named Crispus Attucks, the Afro-Native man who was the first to fall in the conflict. She commented with sophistication on the occurrences of her times and somehow managed to fold in rhyme. After the publication of her book and a visit to London, Wheatley gained her freedom.

By the time Waldstreicher recounts Thomas Jefferson’s snide attack on Wheatley in Notes on the State of Virginia (she died before its publication), he has shaped a biography that makes Wheatley’s gifts clear and Jefferson’s desperation palpable. Jefferson was a slaveholder who recognized the practice as a moral wrong and yet needed to justify chattel slavery and Black exclusion by asserting racial inferiority. When Jefferson besmirched Wheatley by saying she lacked originality of thought and was merely an imitator of others as evidence of his inferiority theory, he was being disingenuous. Or perhaps Wheatley’s sly insertion of penetrating insights in seemingly accommodating verse went over Jefferson’s head, as it has so many of ours.

Like that of other Black geniuses in earlier eras, Wheatley’s life was no crystal stair. When John Wheatley died in 1778, he left her nothing. Her most valuable piece of property was the book she had written. Soon after, she married a free Black merchant and took his name, becoming Phillis Wheatley Peters. The couple seem to have had at least one child; they then fell into debt and poverty. Wheatley may have died in a boardinghouse alone. Even as he retells this last phase of Wheatley’s life, Waldstreicher warns that this tragic version of events, which comes mostly from the white Wheatley family line, is far from complete.

The same cannot be said for The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. This book does the complexity of Wheatley’s life and work justice. But while thorough, the narrative is not immersive in the way of some other historical biographies swimming in setting and character sketches. One never feels as though the texture and verve of 18th-century Boston are fully captured. Waldstreicher speaks, at times, with a utilitarian directness that may have stemmed from a desire to write accessibly, especially as a means of balancing out the thick passages of literary criticism. Sometimes this leads him to turns of phrase that diminish the gravity of his subject matter, such as his indelicate suggestion that children like Wheatley were “pawned” by their African parents, his reference to “Boston-baked slavery” (which brings to mind baked beans), and his comment that Wheatley seems to (but does not) throw Africa “under the proverbial bus.”

There is, besides these minor slippages, another instance that seems askew. Although Waldstreicher spends hundreds of pages meticulously portraying Wheatley in the richness of her context and tracing the intricacies of her intellectual contemporaries and antecedents, he chooses not to do the same for his own predecessors and interlocutors. It is possible to read this book without realizing that the author is building on the work of others, as all scholarship does. Only at the very end, nearly on the final page, do readers learn any real detail about the generations of Black clubwomen and Black women writers, and about the modern-day Black poets, whose revival of Wheatley’s legacy and engagement with her poetry made Waldstreicher’s investigation possible. Given that this book is about the historical importance, impact, and dismissal of Black talent, the editorial decision to drop these names in at the end is disappointing.

Still, Waldstreicher has done more than his part. There can now be no doubt of Wheatley’s importance not only to African America but also to the country and culture as a whole. She was a learned, dexterous wielder of the written word in a taut political and racial moment. “Hers is an African diaspora story, a British story, a New England story, and an American story,” Waldstreicher writes. With patient skill, Waldstreicher demonstrates what we should have seen all along. Wheatley is among the greatest thinkers of her age, and her writing should join the American canon of Revolutionary literature alongside the works of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the rest, as a testament to the entwined contestations of that consequential era.

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