Book Review: The Poems Of Phillis Wheatley

The Poems Of Phillis Wheatley, Revised And Enlarged Edition, edited with an introduction by Julian D. Mason, Jr.

Although she only published one book during her lifetime, a somewhat fascinating aspect of the life and writings of Phillis Wheatley has been the earnest attempt to hunt down as many of her manuscript poems as possible, as her writing demonstrates some of the complexities of publishing that exist in any time and that certainly existed during her own lifetime as her career as a writer spanned the period of the rising tensions between the North American colonies of Britain and the mother country, as well as the period of the Great Awakening, in which she was a participant, as well as the rising tide of abolitionism’s first wave in Great Britain and America. A patriotic American, so patriotic that one of her poems puts words into the mouth of the imprisoned Charles Lee that he would never have said about the bravery and courage and excellence of one George Washington (who she also wrote a poem about, with his blessing and indirect support in its printing, concerning the siege of Boston, her adopted hometown), her one book of published poetry was printed in London, with some of her more patriotic poems excised and other poems renamed to give them more general titles than the very specific occasional titles that they had as very specific occasional poems. The result of these and other issues is that the writings of Phillis Wheatley are not only interesting in their own right but have a fascinating publishing history that this book explores somewhat.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and it is divided topically and chronologically into several parts. The book begins with acknowledgements, an introduction, some notes on the reputation of Phillis Wheatley as a poet, and a note on the text. After that, the book contains the first and only work of Wheatley’s that was published in her lifetime, including the letters and notes, and the titles insofar as they were originally intended, frequently as topical works. This takes up a few dozen pages. After that the author provides other poems that have survived in manuscript form or that were printed in various newspapers during and after the life of the poetess as well as variants to her works that show the process of editing and revision that occasionally took place in her works. The third part of the book consists of letters and proposals that frequently discuss the efforts that Wheatley and others on her behalf made to get her works into print, and which presents a fascinating look at the efforts that were required to become a published poet(ess) in the late 18th century English speaking world. The book then ends with a selection of works for further reference and an index.

What one gets out of a book like this, if one is a reader who is also a writer, is the reminder that publishing and the survival of one’s writing has always been a highly chancy matter. Let us consider all that Wheatley had going for her as a writer? She was a pioneer black writer whose situation as a slave but also someone who was learned about the Bible, a devout Christian, and familiar with classical literature in translation. She was the property of indulgent and very wealthy elite owners in Boston, no mean cultural hub of the Atlantic world, who were willing to spend a fair amount of money and effort to encourage her efforts and had obtained the support of eighteen elite figures to vouch for her credibility as the writer of the poems that she was publishing under her name. The poems were written when she was fairly young, and are actually competently written poems, and yet with all of these advantages she was unable to be published in Boston and required considerable support in England to be published in London. The barriers to her being published despite all of the advantages that she had based on her place and the novelty interest of being a black slave poetess (the first we are aware of in Anglo-America) demonstrate that it was no easy thing to be published in the 1700’s as a poet, and that poetry has always struggled to be marketable by publishers, something that remains true today.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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