Book Review: Phillis Wheatley: Biography Of A Genius In Bondage

Phillis Wheatley: Biography Of A Genius In Bondage, by Vincent Carretta

This book touts itself as the only full-length biography of Phillis Wheatley, noted and celebrated (as well as frequently criticized) American colonial poetess. That may have been true at the time this book was written but it is certainly not the case now. Phillis Wheatley, during her life and ever afterwards, has been a complex figure that has served as a standardbearer, for good and ill, for her identity as a slave, as a young black woman, as a devout and serious Christian, as a woman whose privilege gave her a reach far beyond her somewhat sheltered life but which also made her a target for the views of those who thought her merely the talking parrot of her wealthy owners who raised her, for likely sentimental reasons, far beyond her station and who encouraged her self-expression as a means of bringing glory to themselves. The author, who is obviously somewhat fond of his subject at least, but also a critical scholar who does not share Wheatley’s strong religious background, strives to understand Wheatley as a person as well as a celebrity and as one of the first examples of the literary talents of African-Americans, a label she proudly claimed for herself in both senses when other options were available to her.

This book is about 200 pages long and it is divided into seven chapters in a relatively conventional chronological format with a mixture of intense research along with occasional speculation concerning the narrative of the life of a person whose beginning and ending lie somewhat in obscurity. Beginning with a preface and acknowledgements, each chapter of this book is prefaced with a line from one of the subject’s writings, as a way of describing the material that is included in the chapter. So the book begins with a chapter that discusses in some detail the circumstances of how it was that Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston and the fact that she was likely from the area of Ghana, where it would have made sense for a captain desperate to fill his boat with slaves would have been likely to take on a teething girl of seven who could not fetch a great price (1). After that the author explores the works of providence in how it was that Wheatley received the religious and intellectual education that allowed her to write and that gave her a strong Christian faith (2). The author then explores her development as a poet, which was certainly precocious (3). The author then explores the rising popularity she received as a poet in her native Boston (4), and then abroad in London (5) where her first book was published. After that the author explores Wheatley’s attempts to put herself on her own footing (6) through marriage and how it was that she lived the rest of her life as a poet in considerable obscurity, unable to publish her second book, and dying rather young (7), after which there is an afterword that places Wheatley within the body of African American literature, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

In what way was Phillis Wheatley a genius in bondage? This book gives interesting and complex and nuanced answers and the reader would do well to ponder these matters. In one of her most noted (and most criticized poems), Wheatley points to the providential reasons for her traumatic experience of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery across the Atlantic in terms of her fervent Presbyterian faith, but the fact that we know her as a poet at all depended on her being educated in a manner that was unusual for women, to say nothing of enslaved girls, and that relied on the elite status of her owners, for whom she was certainly an example of immensely conspicuous consumption as well as a great deal of fondness as a reminder of a deceased daughter who she may have reminded her of in one way or another, such as her youth and frailty. Had she remained in Africa, or had she been sold to an owner who was more interested in exploring her as a breeder or field hand, her latent powers of poetic genius would never have been known. Had she been a poor white girl born in the backwoods of rural Western Pennsylvania instead of the lightly burdened and pampered slave of a privileged Bostonian family, her mind would likely not have been turned in the same direction regardless of her native talents. And though she appreciated and took full advantage of her privilege while it lasted, she also never hesitated to defend any aspect of her complex identity, and in that she certainly resembles many people today.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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