The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley
By David Waldstreicher
Review by Richard Howe
Readers of this website will be familiar with my interest in history so it should come as no surprise that I often read biographies since they are a type of history. But it’s not just any biographies. For example, I usually pass on the lives of politicians or famous generals. What interest me most are stories of creators, a class that includes authors, filmmakers, musicians, and inventors. Poets would be in there, too, which is why the publication of “The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley” caught my attention. When early reviews praised the book as a biography but also as a detailed glimpse of life in Revolutionary War era Boston, I added it to my reading list.
I found Waldstreicher’s account of Wheatley’s life and the path she took to publication to be fascinating. He was particularly good at showing how the social and political upheaval in the decades before the Revolution affected Wheatley and her poetry.
Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753. She was captured and sold into slavery at age seven. Transported to Boston on a ship named Phillis, she was “sold” to the Wheatley family, thus the origin of the first and last names by which she became known. The family that enslaved Phillis also taught her to read and exposed her to a wealth of printed resources. She showed an amazing intellect and wrote her first poem at age 14.
Wheately’s enslavers promoted her poetry and helped get her first and only book of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” published in 1773 making her the first Black author in the colonies to be published.
Wheately was emancipated upon the death of her enslavers and married a free Black man named John Peters, however, they lived I poverty and she died at age 31. She was mostly forgotten at the time of her death but her legacy as a poet has ebbed and flowed with subsequent events.
To me, one of the most striking parts of this book was how prominent an issue slavery was in Boston in the lead up to the Revolution. The leading Patriots in Boston who were churning out protest literature that compared taxation without representation to slavery knew full well the hypocrisy of that stance as long as they and their allies remained literal slaveholders. Although some in Boston advocated the outright denunciation of all human slavery, more strategic rebels understood that any hint of abolitionist tendencies from New Englanders would drive a wedge between them and the Southern colonies. Unity in the political cause was more important to them than freedom for enslaved Black people, however righteous and just that would be, so they suppressed all talk of the abolishment of slavery.
These ethical dilemmas did not occur in a vacuum. The English took full advantage of colonial hypocrisy which added to the interest of London readers in Wheatley’s poetry.
As we approach the semiquincentennial of the United States, much attention will be paid to what happened in this region in 1775 and the decades before. We should all resolve to include in our celebration of those events an acknowledgement that all the soaring rhetoric covered up a system of white dominance that still plagues the country today.