Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley

ISBN-10: 0195060857
ISBN-13: 9780195060850
Edition: 1988
List price: $24.99 Buy it from $4.11
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Description: Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first black American to publish a book and enjoyed international fame during her short life. Yet despite the considerable achievements of this young poet, her work has received little critical attention. This  More...

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Book details

List price: $24.99
Copyright year: 1988
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 12/14/1989
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 384
Size: 4.75" wide x 6.50" long x 1.25" tall
Weight: 0.638

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first black American to publish a book and enjoyed international fame during her short life. Yet despite the considerable achievements of this young poet, her work has received little critical attention. This collection restores her to her proper place in America's literary heritage. Together with the editor's essay on `Phillis Wheatley's Struggle for Freedom in Her Poetry and Prose', the collection reveals her to have been a writer who passionately sought freedom, both for herself and for her people, through her work, and who, in her contemplative elegies and use of the poetic imagination to escape an unsatisfactory world, anticipated the Romantic movement of the following century.

Seized in Senegal/Gambia, West Africa by slave traders, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston when she was about seven years old. Purchased as a domestic in 1761, by Susanna and John Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley was frail and asthmatic. Perhaps because of her delicate constitution, she was excused from the most tiring aspects of her domestic duties. Instead, she was taught to read and write and was instructed in the Bible and the classics. Before she was thirteen, Wheatley was writing poetry that gained quick and widespread acclaim; in 1770 she published her first poem---"An Elegiac Poem on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield"---a work that touched on the terrible conditions of her own Atlantic crossing. By 1772 Phillis Wheatley had compiled a collection of verse. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of John and Susanna Wheatley, no publisher within the colonies was willing to print literature written by an African. Nonetheless, the Wheatleys persisted in their search, and through the intervention of Benjamin Franklin and various British sympathizers, including the abolitionist Earl of Dartmouth, they succeeded in finding a publisher for the work. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was printed in London in 1772; it is the first collection of poetry written by an African American to be published. Three months before Susanna Wheatley died in 1774 she manumitted (freed) Phillis Wheatley. But with Susanna's death, the Wheatley family disintegrated, and Phillis Wheatley suffered from severe financial difficulties during the Revolutionary War. Despite the voiced misgivings of her friends, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters in 1778. Their marriage was troubled by penury and sickness; in 1784, John Peters was confined to jail because of debt. Wheatley bore three children. Of these, two died in infancy and the third outlived her mother by only a few days. Desperate for assistance, Wheatley worked as a charwoman and maid. Destitute, sick, and alone, Phillis Wheatley died in 1784; she was barely thirty. Wheatley wrote approximately 145 poems, including the 64-line work "Liberty and Peace," published as a pamphlet under the name of Phillis Peters. Criticized during the early part of this century for not more openly addressing the theme of slavery, Wheatley's work combines Christian imagery and classical typology with an undeniably elegiac tone. Recent scholarship suggests that her Biblical allusions and metaphors demonstrate an antipathy to slavery and that her elegant and educated verse served to undermine colonial institutions of power.

John C. Shields is professor of English at Illinois State University. He is the editor of The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, has edited several numbers of Style, and has served as an advisory editor to The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and to the twenty-three-volume American National Biography. His articles have appeared in American Literature, Studies in Philology, Studies in Short Fiction, African American Review, and other publications.

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