Poet Phillis Wheatley achieved an astonishing number of breakthroughs — she published the first book in English by a person of African descent, and was the third North American woman to publish a book of poetry. A 19-year-old slave living in colonial Boston, Wheatley, hailed as a genius on both sides of the Atlantic, became a major inspiration for an emerging anti-slavery movement.
But Wheatley wrote little about herself, and the white people around her wrote nothing about her until she became famous. Many 18th-century whites disbelieved that a slave could have written such accomplished poetry and questioned whether she was really Black. People have been debating the merit and importance of Wheatley's work ever since.
In the 19th and 20th centuries she embodied learning and literacy in the Black struggle against Jim Crow, inspiring women's groups and community centers around the country (including one in Minneapolis). In the late 20th century her reputation took a drubbing from Black authors who judged her too accommodating to slavery. In the 21st, poets, authors and historians, recognizing her as a Black woman whose voice survived silencing both by men and the white establishment, have reclaimed her.
Historian David Waldstreicher knows Wheatley's world — he's the author of several books about early America, specializing in politics, culture and slavery. He places Wheatley squarely in her times and shows how she navigated them. In that he succeeds, but his limitation — and that of the book — is that despite his best efforts, Wheatley as a person remains a cipher. "The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley" is not a cradle-to-grave biography, and a reader eager for details of this path-breaking writer's life will be frustrated. Students of American colonial history and literature, of slavery and of the emerging power of the abolition movement will be rewarded.
Waldstreicher vividly re-creates Wheatley's Boston. Slavery was integral to pre-revolutionary Boston, and many Bostonians grew wealthy off of the slave trade. His portrait of colonial-era slavery is chilling, and he makes expert use of documents to show its cruelty. Slavers sometimes "advertised to give away small children who got in the way of their mothers' work." One mother of two was offered for sale because she "breeds too fast." Though many Bostonians opposed slavery, others deemed slaves essential for providing both unskilled and skilled labor.
But as the colonists agitated for freedom from their colonial masters, their tolerance of slavery made them increasingly vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy by the British. Into this fraught moment, Wheatley, author of poems with both religious and neoclassical themes, offered up her work. How did she navigate this tinderbox situation? Waldstreicher shows that she was a brilliant and resourceful person, a canny political observer and an astute businesswoman.
She was an expert networker — she met or corresponded with British aristocracy and abolitionists and secured key support to have her book published in Britain. In America, both British colonial occupiers and future founding fathers inspired her encomiums and elegies. But as the revolution gathered steam, her poems increasingly agitated for freedom, both from the British and from slavery. Although Wheatley died young, and probably poor, she died free. Her work has become a symbol for freedom ever since.
In his conclusion, Waldstreicher writes of the "historian's paradox: to remember, to discover, to revise the past is also to realize, always, how much we do not know." We don't know Phillis Wheatley — who she loved, how she struggled, how she navigated the daunting tasks of the everyday. If only a world class novelist would fill in the blanks. Wheatley's life is a story crying to be told.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a Seattle-based book critic.
The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet's Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence
By: David Waldstreicher.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $30.