by Jim DeVinney, Corn Hill Historian
This article was first published in the April 2017 Corn Hill Gazette.
In my last column, I described how a small girl was taken from her West African home and carried on the slave ship Phillis to Boston where, in 1761, the sick child was purchased by Susanna Wheatley.
Seven-year-old Phillis Wheatley, as she came to be known, found herself living with a wealthy Boston family, filling a void created by the death of Susanna’s daughter Sarah. The African girl’s health improved although she would remain frail and subject to repeated bouts of illness throughout her life. Over the next sixteen months, under the tutelage of Susanna and her daughter Mary, Phillis learned not only to speak English but was soon capable of reading the “most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.”
She also read John Milton and Alexander Pope; even ancients like Ovid and Homer. By 1765, she was writing her own poetry. An early work was published in a London literary magazine and later in its American counterpart. In 1772, Phillis had written enough poems that, with Wheatley’s support, she set out to publish a book of her work. The general public questioned whether a young African girl was capable of writing poetry that showed awareness of classical literature. In response, a number of Boston dignitaries, John Hancock among them, issued a joint “Attestation” that Phillis was indeed the true author.
To secure a proper copyright and to protect Phillis’s owner-ship (and royalties) for her work, it was necessary to publish the book in London where she found a patron in Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, guaranteeing that the work would be published. In appreciation, Phillis dedicated her book to the Countess. Suffering another one of her illnesses, doctors thought sea air would do her good. She was soon off to meet her British benefactor.
Once again the young girl was on board a ship traveling across the Atlantic, but this time with better accommodations. She carried with her a letter from Susanna to the Countess that contained a request: “[A]s your Ladiship [sic] has condescended to take so much notice of my dear Phillis as to permit her book to [be]Dedicated to you, and desiring her Picture in the Frontispiece: I flatter’d my Self that your good advice and Counsel will not be wanting.” A drawing of the young girl illustrated the front cover of the book—the only image ever made of Phillis in her lifetime.
Phillis Wheatley’s writings were often inspired by events that happened around her. When the Boston Massacre occurred not far from where she lived, Phillis, wrote about it: “Long as in Freedom’s Cause the wise contend, / Dear to your unity shall Fame extend; / While to the World, the letter’s Stone shall tell, / How Caldwell, Attucks, Gray, and Mav’rick fell.”
Many of the Founding Fathers knew her and cited her work. When the colonies broke with England and the American Revo-lution began, George Washington’s army was encamped at nearby Cambridge seeking to drive the British from Boston. Phillis wrote to the Commander-in-Chief, attaching a poem she had written in his honor. It earned an invitation to meet with the General.
Following publication of her book, the Wheatleys released her from bondage. After their deaths, however, Phillis did not fare well. She married another freed slave but, in the economic down-turn that followed the war, they struggled with debt. Her husband was arrested and sent to debtor’s prison. She tried unsuccessfully to publish another book of poetry. Two children died in infancy, a third child, a little girl, was sickly. Phillis became ill again and died on December 5, 1784. Estimates of her age range from 30 to 33 years. Her little girl died several hours later.
Phillis’ husband cleared himself of debt by selling her manu-scripts and books. Two years later, her original book of poems was finally published by an America printer. Today Phillis Wheat-ley is recognized as the first person of African descent to have a book published in the Americas. In Novem-ber 2005, one of her letters was sold at auction for $253,000.