Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

by Vincent Carretta
     
 

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With Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) became the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book and only the second woman—of any race or background— to do so in America. Written in Boston while she was just a teenager, and when she was still a slave, Wheatley’s

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Overview

With Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) became the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book and only the second woman—of any race or background— to do so in America. Written in Boston while she was just a teenager, and when she was still a slave, Wheatley’s work was an international sensation. In Phillis Wheatley, Vincent Carretta offers the first full-length biography of a figure whose origins and later life have remained shadowy despite her iconic status.

A scholar with extensive knowledge of transatlantic literature and history, Carretta uncovers new details about Wheatley’s origins, her upbringing, and how she gained freedom. Carretta solves the mystery of John Peters, correcting the record of when he and Wheatley married and revealing what became of him after her death. Assessing Wheatley’s entire body of work, Carretta discusses the likely role she played in the production, market­ing, and distribution of her writing. Wheatley developed a remarkable transatlantic network that transcended racial, class, political, religious, and geographical boundaries. Carretta reconstructs that network and sheds new light on her religious and political identities. In the course of his research he discovered the earliest poem attributable to Wheatley and has included it and other unpublished poems in the biography.

Carretta relocates Wheatley from the margins to the center of her eighteenth-century transatlantic world, revealing the fascinating life of a woman who rose from the indignity of enslavement to earn wide recognition, only to die in obscurity a few years later.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is a satisfying study of the ‘elusive’ Wheatley, fleshed out with succinct, discerning readings of the body of her work. . . . Especially noteworthy is the book’s attentiveness to Wheatley’s involvement in the production and promotion of her book, the contemporary responses to her work, and an unprecedented account of her marriage to the debt-ridden John Peters, whose death forced her into domestic service.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Surprisingly the first full biography … Carretta presents his significant research in this comprehensive study of Wheatley. He uncovered her previously unknown earliest writings in the personal papers of a contemporary. Using court documents about her husband, John Peters, Carretta found new information about Wheatley’s postemancipation life in Boston and London, years about which scholars still know very little. He also provides fresh analysis of Wheatley’s poetry and gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of both free and enslaved blacks in Colonial New England.” —Library Journal

“Phillis Wheatley is a much too little-known figure, but at last she has found the right biographer. Those who have admired the clear, informed and judicious light that Vincent Carretta has already shed on the life and work of Olaudah Equiano will find the same qualities in this book. His deep knowledge of both shores of the eighteenth-century Atlantic make him the perfect person to bring alive this remarkable woman and the world of bondage and wary freedom in which she lived.”—Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves

"Phillis Wheatley is one of the very few women writers to have invented a literary tradition. Lavishly praised and viciously maligned, the enormity of Wheatley’s artistic achievements has long been obscured by the political uses to which she and her poetry have been put. Even more obscured have been the details of Wheatley’s life. At last, Vincent Carretta has written a biography of this great writer as complex and as nuanced as Wheatley and her work themselves. This book resurrects the 'mother' of the African American literary tradition, vividly, scrupulously, and without sentimentality, as no other biography of her has done."—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University, and author of The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers

"An extraordinary achievement. Carretta's ground-breaking research and sensitive readings greatly enrich our understanding of Wheatley's life and work."—John Wood Sweet, author of Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830

"Phillis Wheatley for a generation has been a vehicle for ideological warfare. Was this first internationally recognized African-American poet a race traitor or the spiritual foremother of anti-materialism, post-racial amity, and gracious community? In the heat of the argument Phillis Wheatley herself melted into near insignificance. Vincent Carretta’s biography brings the person—her life—career—literary context—marriage—illness—religious life—death—back into startling view. With his characteristic depth of new research and scrupulously even-handed assessment of evidence, Carretta makes us understand the milestones of her transit from slavery to freedom, from a local curiosity to an international celebrity. We see for the first time her earliest attempts at verse. We finally grasp the drama and negotiation surrounding her return to America from the virtual freedom of post-Mansfield decision England. We understand the dynamics of the transatlantic abolition movement and its support of her efforts. We encounter her husband John Peters as a complex entrepreneurial man, not a one-dimensional exploiter and cad. We grasp why the advertised second volume of poems—one of the great lost books of American literature—never came to press. In short, we come to know Phillis and her world in a way we were never able to before."—David S. Shields, McClintock Professor, University of South Carolina

"[Carretta's] wellresearched narrative succeeds in bringing the 'genius in bondage' out of history's shadows. . . . Wheatley emerges from the pages of Carretta's biography as a resourceful poet who played an active role in the production and distribution of her own writing on both sides of the Atlantic."—Douglas Field, Times Literary Supplement

"Such scholars as Vincent Carretta, in Phillis Wheatley, find her poetry more nuanced than her modern black critics have allowed. . . . Phillis Wheatley is a reminder that African-American literature began not as autobiography or protest but religious poetry, the literature of yearning. Phillis Wheatley was special, but her poetry was not. It earned her a place among the white contregants of her church precisely because it behaved, conformed. There is a speed and rhythm in her letters that is personal, whereas a poem by her can sound like the eighteenth-century poem next to it by someone else. We leave her, thirsting for the upper courts of the Lord."—Darryl Pinckney, Harper's Magazine

Publishers Weekly
In this first full-length biography of “the mother of African-American literature,” Carretta (Equiano, the African) offers a thoroughly readable, fully scholarly life of Wheatley (c. 1761–1784). Precise data about the roughly seven-year-old child, born in Senegal and transported into slavery in Massachusetts, who became a “pioneer of American and African literature,” is hard to come by, but this is a satisfying study of the “elusive” Wheatley, fleshed out with succinct, discerning readings of the body of her work, from a recently discovered poem composed when she was about 11 to her last known work. Carretta unveils the truly remarkable figure Wheatley was, as a highly literate, woman in colonial America, and, through a detailed assessment of her revisions and her correspondence, as the highly conscious poet she became. Especially noteworthy is the book’s attentiveness to Wheatley’s involvement in the production and promotion of her book, the contemporary responses to her work, and an unprecedented account of her marriage to the debt-ridden John Peters, whose death forced her into domestic service. That some of Carretta’s analyses and conjectures may spark debate only adds to the liveliness of his worthy, welcome biography. (Nov.)
Library Journal
West African-born Phillis Wheatley (1753?–84) was sold into slavery and became the property of a wealthy Boston family at the age of eight. In 1773, she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first person of African heritage and only the second woman to publish a book in America. Although she is the subject of several studies, e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, this is surprisingly the first full biography of her. Carretta (English, Univ. of Maryland; Equiano, the African) presents his significant research in this comprehensive study of Wheatley. He uncovered her previously unknown earliest writings in the personal papers of a contemporary. Using court documents about her husband, John Peters, Carretta found new information about Wheatley's postemancipation life in Boston and London, years about which scholars still know very little. He also provides fresh analysis of Wheatley's poetry and gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of both free and enslaved blacks in Colonial New England. VERDICT Recommended for both scholars and lay readers interested in African American history, the early history of the United States, and Wheatley's place in American literature.—Jason Martin, Univ. of Central Florida Lib., Orlando
Kirkus Reviews

Carretta (English/Univ. of Maryland; Equiano, the African, 2005) returns with an examination of the life of a woman of whom little is known but whom the author and literary history have crowned as the mother of African-American literature.

The author struggles mightily to add flesh to the skeletal structure of Phillis Wheatley's (1753–1784) story. He tells us about the slave ship that brought her, when she was about 7, from Africa, as well as some general history about the Wheatleys, who purchased her then freed her at the urging of her supporters in England, where she had published her only volume,Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Carretta supplies as much as he can about her life before she began writing, the effects of her poetry, her minor celebrity in England (where her volume earned some respectful but sometimes patronizing reviews; scholars have found no American reviews) and her relationships with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones and others. The author also discusses the man she later married, John Peters, whose financial troubles might have caused her virtual disappearance for a few years near the end of her life. She floated proposals for a second volume of verse, but circumstance denied her. Carretta speculates that she might have had a better life if she had stayed in England, where she traveled with a Wheatley on business in 1773. In London, she discovered an intellectual and personal freedom unknown to those of her race (and gender) in America. But too often the slim record forces Carretta to employ words likeprobablyandlikely, to substitute historical and cultural backgrounds for biographical fact and to tell us about other people only tangentially involved.

Even this most resolute, thorough excavation cannot uncover what is no longer there. Still, this is the most complete biography available, and no one is likely to find out much more of consequence about Wheatley.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780820346649
Publisher:
University of Georgia Press
Publication date:
02/15/2014
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
312
Sales rank:
761,097
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Vincent Carretta is a professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author or editor of more than ten books, including scholarly editions of the writings of Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, and Ottobah Cugoano. His most recent books are Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man, winner of the Annibel Jenkins Prize, and The Life and Letters of Philip Quaque, the First African Anglican Missionary, coedited with Ty M. Reese (both Georgia).

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