The Writings of Phillis Wheatley
Edited by Vincent Carretta
Oxford University Press, 2019
288 pages (hardcover), $125.00
What do we know about Phillis Wheatley? A small poll among my Facebook friends (the thirty-eight who replied) showed that about one-third has never heard of her, over one-third has heard of her but knows little, and less than one-third is well versed with her biography and writings—usually through anthologies that are introduced in schools. I imagine this is a good representation of the general public.
I suspect, however, that most of the people who know something about Wheatley are relying on the popular account that was written by a self-proclaimed descendant of the family that purchased her at a slave market or auction. This account, Vincent Carretta explains, is largely unsubstantiated and appears motivated by a desire to show that Wheatley lived a good life as a slave and suffered greatly from her emancipation.
The Writings of Phillis Wheatley begins with a chronology and a general introduction to Wheatley’s life and writings. Though not exhaustive, this helpfully sets the historical context of these writings. For those interested in learning more about Wheatley’s life, Carretta has also published the more thorough biography, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia, 2011), and a shorter compilation of her works, Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings (Penguin Classics, 2001). These are highly recommended as companions to this volume.
The introduction to this volume highlights the main points of Phillis’s life, debunks common notions of her as a passive voice for the Wheatley family’s desire for admiration, and outlines the progression of her work as a clear demonstration of her growth in maturity, skills, and political and social awareness. It also provides a chronological overview of the critical reception of her work and highlights the importance and remarkable effects of her writings during her life. Phillis Wheatley deserves a more serious study than critics and scholars have afforded her until now. This volume should serve to fill that lacuna.
The merits of The Writings of Phillis Wheatley lie largely in its thoroughness and organization. It is the most complete collection of Wheatley’s surviving works, including the variations the poet produced, which contribute to our understanding of the development of her thoughts.
From the start, Wheatley’s writings have generated different responses. Some early readers were simply baffled, wondering how a girl so young, who had freshly arrived from a supposedly “dark” continent, could write classical poetry that betrayed a level of education rare even among white women.
While some expressed their admiration, others chose the comfort of denial. Standing on Enlightenment notions of reason as the foremost mark of humanity, they insisted that Africans had never produced any literary, artistic, or scientific work and consequently were subhuman. Most famously, Thomas Jefferson undervalued Wheatley’s work by saying, “Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” Given this historical and philosophical context, it is no wonder that Wheatley could find a publisher only in England, where discussions on the abolition of slavery and the inherent value of all human beings were already underway.
But American slave owners and the immediate children of the Enlightenment were not the only ones to criticize Wheatley’s writings. In the 1960s, when Black activists scoured their past to bring new appreciation for African accomplishments, they either dismissed or outright accused Wheatley of being a traitor to her race, making her one of the first victims of an incipient “cancel culture.” Their negative judgment was largely based on Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which starts with these lines (56):
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
In some ways, their judgment paralleled Jefferson’s. In their view, she was a product of blind adherence to the religion promoted by her white slaveowners, not a worthy representative of her race.
In our century, there has been a renewed interest in Wheatley and in her writings, and she is now unanimously recognized as the founder of African-American literature. For anyone who wants to take this poet seriously and examine her poems in their proper context, Carretta’s The Writings of Phillis Wheatley is an invaluable and unparalleled tool.
The value of this book is not limited to literary critics and scholars of social studies. Wheatley’s theology is of paramount importance in the understanding of both her message and her choices. I believe that the inability to understand this foundational aspect of her life has crippled the judgment of many critics who, unacquainted with either church history or the Scriptures, have discounted Wheatley’s faith as a “white” imposition.
For example, her assertion in a letter to John Thornton that if the Wheatleys had not agreed to her manumission, she hoped she would “willingly Submit to Servitude to be free in Christ” is puzzling to anyone who is not aware of its biblical context. So is her prayer, “Let me be a Servant of Christ and that is the most perfect freedom.” Christians will recognize these as a clear reference to 1 Corinthians 7:22: “For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.”
These are statements that have to be taken in the context of Paul’s larger discussion on the attitude Christians should maintain in their different social roles, and in the light of each believer’s inherent value as an individual “bought with a price.” In this context, Paul’s encouragement is balanced by the exhortation, “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourselfof the opportunity” (1 Cor. 7:21, 23).
Wheatley had a thorough understanding of Paul’s full message and of the overarching biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty and providence. It was this understanding that allowed her to see God’s hand in the events of her life, including her enslavement, and find reason for gratitude. This attitude is evident not only in her most-quoted poem about being brought to America, but also in her numerous poems of comfort for people who had lost their loved ones. This is seen in her letters to her best friend Obour Tanner and in many other writings.
Carretta understands how Wheatley is able to reconcile her faith in God’s sovereignty with human efforts to grant respect, dignity, and justice to all. He writes,
Wheatley’s position is completely consistent with a belief in an omniscient and benevolent deity. But that belief does not necessarily imply that she either accepts or endorses slavery. (186)
The Writings of Phillis Wheatley helps us understand how a woman with a profound trust in God’s love and righteousness could deal with the contradictions of her time, encourage King George III and George Washington to rule justly, and openly denounce the hypocrisy of those who fought for freedom while keeping slaves in their homes. In our uncertain and volatile times, Wheatley’s analysis of the issues of her day and the biblical answers she presented can stimulate fruitful reflections.
The notes at the end of Carretta’s book are a delight to any note lover and include a wealth of information about people and places that will enrich the reader’s understanding of the context in which Wheatley wrote.
This volume should be made available in the library of every university, college, and seminary. Professors would do well to include it in their curriculum of historical, theological, or literary studies in order to equip a new generation of scholars to gain a better understanding of Black voices in eighteenth-century America and to avoid the prejudices and hurried conclusions of early critics.
The Writings of Phillis Wheatley, as already mentioned, doesn’t need to be limited to scholars. Carretta’s enthusiasm and engaging writing style make this a pleasurable read for anyone interested in history and poetry. The only obstacle is the price, but a wider distribution of this volume in public libraries should remedy this problem.
Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books) and Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes (P&R, 2019).