Phillis Wheatley: The Inspiring Life Story Of The American Poet, by Robin S. Doak
This book is aimed at middle grade to high school readers and it provides context for the life of Phillis Wheatley, a poet whose short life notwithstanding is a major figure in late colonial literature and in African American studies. The life of Wheatley involves a great deal of complicated questions of identity and from the time her writings first reached the public attention in her local Boston and then across the wider world of the Atlantic, she became a touchstone for controversy about what it meant to be a woman writer and a black writer and how one would address the concerns of the American or the slave in literature and the extent to which her achievements helped or hurt the reputation of her people. All of that is a lot of weight for the shoulders of a frail young woman to bear, not least one whose frequent respiratory problems led to her early grave and were responsible for her life as an object of conspicuous consumption for the elite Wheatley family in the first place. This book does a good job at laying out the life story, insofar as we know it, for the poetess, but it invites a lot of questions about how it was that she was able to get her poems published and why it matters today.
This book is about 100 pages long and it is divided into nine chapters. The first chapter discusses Wheatley’s progress from a surplus slave bought for a song to a poet whose works were recognized and appreciated by her neighbors in Boston and surrounding areas in New England (1). After that the author discusses what it meant to come out of Africa on the slave trade as she did, drawing on the experiences of others (2). This leads to a look at her life in a strange land (3) and her growing fame as a writer of elegies for her neighbors that led to calls for her work to be published (4). After that the author explores the success that Wheatley had in England in getting to know anti-slavery figures as well as having her first book of poems published in London (5). Her return home brought her sadness with the death of her owner/adopted mother as well as success (6), and the author discusses as well her freedom and the importance of the American Revolution (7). The book then ends with a discussion of her later years (8), her place in history (9), as well as a timeline, glossary, additional resources, source notes, bibliography, index, and how this book fits in with the common core, presumably for her poetry.
It is really context and timing that have given Wheatley her noted place in history. It was the development of the economy and culture of coastal New England that gave the people of Boston enough money that they could buy children as slaves and raise them and give them an education that would allow for them to become sufficiently creative, and then sponsor the publication of their literature as a way of giving the families they belonged to even more credit thereby. The only other female poet that was published in the colonial period of the United States came from an elite background as well, unsurprisingly enough, and was similarly connected with the religious world of New England. The identity of Wheatley as a black woman was important to her as a writer, and an identity she drew upon in her writings and of course it has been similarly drawn upon throughout the rest of history up to this day, although it should be noted that Wheatley’s identity was more complicated, because she was a patriotic American who drew upon the American struggle for liberty to advance her own cause for personal liberty as well as that for her people, and because she later married and struggled with the loss of freedom that resulted from that choice as well.