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Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage
Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage
Vincent Carretta
University of Georgia Press, 2011
304 pp., $31.95

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Jonathan M. Yeager


Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

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To promote the book, Phillis traveled to London with Nathaniel Wheatley. In this section of the story, Carretta raises the provocative argument that the aspiring female author might have gone to England in order to seek freedom. Her arrival at London in the summer of 1773 coincided with the anniversary of a landmark court case in which Lord Chief Justice William Murray, the first earl of Mansfield, ruled that a runaway Virginia slave named James Somerset, who had been captured in England, could not be forced to return to the colonies as a slave. Murray's judgment opened the door for self-manumission by colonial slaves residing in England. Carretta points out that Wheatley would have been familiar with Boston newspapers relaying the Somerset case (the same newspapers that printed her poems). Even more important, Wheatley's London tour guide was none other than the outspoken abolitionist Granville Sharp, who had backed Somerset. Carretta is right to claim that Sharp almost assuredly would have talked about manumission with Wheatley: "It is unimaginable that while Wheatley and Sharp were looking at caged African animals, as well as the emblems of British regal glory, Sharp would not have brought up the subject of his judicial triumph the preceding year in extending British liberty to enslaved people of African descent. Sharp considered himself ethically and morally bound to help people in Wheatley's condition." While we don't know Wheatley's intentions in traveling to London, we do know that Nathaniel, who now ran the family's business, gave Phillis his word that she would be freed once she returned to Boston. The implication is that Phillis knew her options and Nathaniel virtually had no choice but to free her.

With her newfound freedom, Wheatley was not necessarily better off. On September 13, 1773, she returned to Boston a free woman, but now she had to provide for herself. Carretta quickly passes over the possibility that the faith of John and Susanna Wheatley might have played an important part in allowing Phillis to continue to live with them, even though they were now under no further financial obligation to help their former slave.

Susanna died not long after Phillis' return from London, and John's death followed five years later. Phillis, perhaps wanting a better social footing, married the purportedly disreputable free black merchant John Peters in 1778. After poring over the available records, Carretta questions the reliability of the information on Peters, particularly since one of the accounts unjustifiably portrays him as "the villain in a Dickensian narrative of the decline and death of a sentimental heroine." Indeed, very little is known about Peters or about Phillis in the years following her marriage until her death in 1784. Within the limited data, Carretta discovers that Peters lost a lawsuit which effectively ruined the couple financially. Once a successful author with a bright future, Wheatley now struggled to publish a second book, printing proposals in 1779 for a substantial work of three hundred pages to be priced (extremely expensively) between nine and twelve pounds. Her proposed project never saw the light of day. Wheatley continued to publish occasional individual poems but never produced a second book. She died on December 5, 1784 and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

Carretta's biography of Wheatley is simply superb—a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on key 18th-century evangelicals. In many ways, Phillis Wheatley is a marked improvement from Carretta's earlier book on Olaudah Equiano, a much longer monograph which often belabors the point that Equiano might not have been born in Africa. The slimmer volume on Wheatley succinctly narrates the captivating story of a woman in bondage who used her talent as a writer to secure her freedom.

Jonathan M. Yeager is visiting assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His most recent book is Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine, published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

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