Phillis Wheatley is considered the first African-American poet, a status which makes her all the more important given that she made her mark in a time when America had few distinct literary voices of any ethnicity. She was brought to this country at the age of eight by slave traders and sold to John Wheatley, a prosperous Boston tailor, who educated her along with his own children. Her charm, quick wit, and an amazing facility for language made her something of a sensation among Boston intellectuals. She wrote her first verses at the age of 13, and in 1773 was taken to England where she was received in the highest circles of the aristocracy.
The selections featured in the exhibit come from the first edition of her Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (London, 1773), which is considered a high spot by collectors of American literature. This copy is somewhat unique for retaining the frontispiece portrait of Phillis Wheatley. Many copies found today do not contain this page. Some critics have speculated that early booksellers may have removed the frontispiece for fear of offending potential buyers. Others maintain that some copies were simply issued without the portrait. Whatever the case, all Wheatley scholars agree that the image is a very accurate likeness. Tradition has it that Mrs. John Wheatley, who was very fond of Phillis, kept a framed copy of the frontispiece above her fireplace.
Phillis was freed shortly after her trip to England. She married John Peters, also a freed slave. Early sources maintain that he was "disagreeable in manner." He seems to have been arrested and jailed on more than one occasion. More recent research has shown that he may have been a politically active individual who agitated for the abolition of slavery and the rights of African-Americans.
Phillis and John Peters eventually separated, and Phillis died alone at the age of 30. Two of her three children did not survive infancy, and the last died shortly after her death. The final years of her life were spent in ill health and abject poverty.
This book was donated by Harrison T.
ŠTHE CUSHING MEMORIAL LIBRARY OF TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY