Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage
University of Georgia Press, 2011
304 pp., $31.95
Jonathan M. Yeager
Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage
A number of biographies of black 18th-century evangelicals have been published in the last decade. Chief among these are John Saillant's Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753-1833; Richard Newman's Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers; and Vincent Carretta's Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. In his latest book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, Carretta explores the life and work of a leading African American poet.
Kidnapped from an unknown location in Africa as a child and put aboard a slave ship to America, Phillis Wheatley arrived at Boston in July 1761. The wealthy evangelical merchant John Wheatley and his wife, Susanna, bought the young girl, naming her Phillis after the slave ship that carried her across the Atlantic. She probably could not have ended up in a better home, for the Wheatleys and their 18-year-old twins, Nathaniel and Mary, treated her like a family member as opposed to a slave or even a servant. She learned to read and write, and exhibited an affinity for classical literature and poetry. Furthermore, the Wheatleys gave Phillis unusual freedom to mingle socially with visiting guests.
While recognizing that the Wheatleys' kindness toward Phillis was rare at that time, Carretta bypasses any thorough analysis of the role that faith played within the family. Instead, benevolence toward Phillis was meant "to publicize their status, piety, and charity." Carretta admits that the Wheatleys "also used her to display their commitment to evangelical Christianity," but apparently not out of love. Rather they wanted to demonstrate "that they could afford to spare Phillis the drudgery one would expect to be assigned to someone in her condition." It is certainly possible that the Wheatleys paraded Phillis about as a way of highlighting their wealth and status, but another scenario, and one that is not seriously considered by Carretta, is that John and Susanna Wheatley genuinely cared for Phillis and made sure that she was given ample free time to develop her talent as a writer.
Carretta does a fairly good job at introducing the ministry of George Whitefield and Methodism in general. He depicts Methodism as a despised movement due to its perceived emotionalism and outdoor preaching that infringed on the territory of resident clergyman in America and Britain. Carretta also rightly notes that many people disliked the democratic spirit of Methodist itinerants, who routinely preached to the lower ranks of society, including slaves. Of course the hypocrisy of Whitefield is apparent in his purchasing slaves to support his Georgia orphanage after denouncing the institution itself. Nevertheless, Wheatley and other slaves of African descent were drawn to the Grand Itinerant, perhaps because of his energetic preaching and his assurance that an oppressed person experiencing the "new birth" would enjoy heavenly bliss in the afterlife. Although there is no record of when Wheatley first heard Whitefield, it is likely that she went to hear his sermon at the Old South Church at Boston on February 27, 1764.
Carretta, a professor of English literature at the University of Maryland, gives careful attention to Wheatley's poems, both in manuscript and published form. His research identifies Wheatley's first poem: not, as previously assumed, "On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell" but rather a four-line piece about the Thachers, a distinguished Boston Congregationalist family. Among Wheatley's published poems, Carretta singles out "On Virtue," which urges readers to seek divine grace rather than human wisdom alone; "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty," a piece that praises George III for repealing the Stamp Act; and her most notorious poem, "On being brought from Africa to America," which seemingly condones slavery. Carretta, however, dispels the notion that Wheatley justified slavery:
Modern critics have accused Wheatley, or at least the primary voice in her poem, of rejecting her African heritage and engaging in racial self-hatred. But such critics confuse accommodation with appropriation. Like many authors of African descent who follow her, Wheatley repeatedly appropriates the values of Christianity to judge and find wanting hypocritical self-styled Christians of European descent. Theologically, Wheatley perceives her capture in Africa as leading to a fortunate fall that allows her formerly "benighted soul" to rise to embrace Christianity.
The poem that undoubtedly set off Wheatley's career is her elegy "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield," which was widely read by Americans and Britons alike and catapulted the young author to stardom. As Wheatley increased her literary output and mastered her craft, John and Susanna encouraged her to produce a collection of her poetry. While at first not successful at locating subscribers in Boston for her proposed book, Wheatley's fortunes changed when she became acquainted with the wealthy English evangelical, Selena, Countess of Huntingdon. With the support of the countess, Archibald Bell of London published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 with an unprecedented frontispiece depicting a female author of African descent.