Those of us who are fond of reading the writings of early Americans in the colonial and early Republican period will sooner or later have to deal with the case of Phillis Wheatley. This was true in her own time, when this sadly short-lived American poetess had her initial book of poetry vetted and approved by more than a dozen local elites in Boston society and engaged a transatlatnic support network in favor of her initial publication efforts, and who later ended up writing some fiercely patriotic works on behalf of Generals George Washington and Charles Lee. What do we see when we look into the writing efforts of someone whose most famous writings occurred when she was a perhaps somewhat pampered slave of one of Boston’s elites and who ended up dying in a fate of some obscurity as the wife of a black entrepreneur whose propensity to sue made him viewed as somewhat of a pest by the local Massachusetts court and who struggled with occasional debts related to business practices? People as famous as Thomas Jefferson have viewed her works with contempt, while she has become a subject of considerable conflict regarding the state of African-American writings, where she is undoubtedly a pioneer.
My own taste for her writings is moderate. Viewed strictly on an aesthetic level, I find her to be a writer not unlike myself. She is preoccupied often with themes of death and with expressing her evangelical conservative beliefs, and with pointing out the gap that exists between the desire of Americans to be free and their lack of urgency about freeing others, including herself. She has a sort of defensive tone about her sometimes in her writings, as when she notes that her own experiences with tyranny lead her to oppose tyrants elsewhere, and when she claims the Roman poet Terrance to have been a black African and therefore a voice for her people among the classics, and as someone who feels it similarly necessary in my own times to defend my own people against accusations that we are the source of all evil in the world, I definitely relate to her occasional prickliness in defending herself as I would defend myself in a similar fashion with my keyboard or pen. Her development as a poet has not been dissimilar to my own, and the similarity of subject matter and perspective means that I enjoy her works while not feeling them to be beyond my own achievements as a writer. I see her as a peer, not as a model, but respect her as a peer in the same way I would respect and demand respect for myself as a writer.
It is hard to appreciate Phillis Wheatley on her efforts as a poetess alone. While her achievement as a writer is moderate, the fact that she was able to write competent verses with a generally sound understanding of the Bible and classical myths and literature (at least in translation) only a few years after having been completely unfamiliar with English and writing for the first seven years of her life and only learning them as a slave is itself quite an achievement and is demonstrative of the level of cultural and educational attainments that are possible to those who combine natural resources of intellect and creativity with proper support from others and an unquestioned drive for self-expression and self-improvement. The fact that she is the first known African-American to have published a book and only the second woman at all in the entire period of colonial history to have published a book of poetry is nothing short of intensely remarkable and is a reminder of the benefits that one gains from one’s connection to elites in any society. Despite the success of her first book, she was unable to publish her second in the midst of the American Revolution and the disorder that followed her, lacking the strong connections that had allowed for her initial success.
Is Phillis Wheatley a great writer? That depends, as if often does, on what is being meant. She is certainly a pioneer of African American letters, and that is worth what it is worth. If her writing is not necessarily sublime, it is certainly creditable to herself as a person of sensitivity and thoughtfulness in being able to choose the right kind of classical allusions to make and biblical stories to talk about and occasions to write about that reflect well upon her. Some of her poetic lines are quite good and would be a credit to any poet of any age, and in general her poetry can be enjoyed today, all the more so if someone has somewhat morbid tastes and a high degree of religious belief and a fondness for the classics. For what it’s worth, I consider any writer whose works I can enjoy to be someone worth commending, and she is worthy of commendation on the merits of her works apart from any identity politics her writing was inevitably involved with in terms of race, class, and gender. She ranks somewhere in the top ten or twenty American poets of any background in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and her poems are still worth reading today. If that is not greatness, I do not know what would be. What I find most strange is that I see her, for all of her differences, as someone not unlike myself as a writer, and that is something quite striking and unusual about the persistence of a certain mode of thinking about death and religion over the course of two hundred and fifty years of history.