Books

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

In 1767, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston via a slave ship at the age of 7. In the years leading up to the start of the American Revolution in 1775, she became famous across New England and in London for her poetry. For all her talent and influence on the issues of her day, such as abolition, emancipation and revolution, the details of Wheatley’s life are still unknown to many. Award-winning historian David Waldstreicher sets out to change that with his in-depth, engrossing biography, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence.

At a time when enslaved—and free—Black people were regarded by many colonists as barely literate “barbarians” and possible threats to Massachusetts’ rebellion against England, Wheatley earned her fame with words. Recognizing her unique ability, Wheatley’s wealthy, white enslavers gave her the time and privacy to write. Her poems, such as “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” were metered, not free verse, and spoke to the intellectual and impassioned Christian beliefs of her times. Wheatley’s elegies for the dead were distributed as broadsides at funerals, and her poems—which managed to praise British soldiers as well as American patriots and abolitionists—were published in newspapers on both sides of the churning political divide. Waldstreicher includes the text of many of Wheatley’s poems, explaining them well for those less familiar with the classical forms she used.

When an enslaved man fled his captors while they were visiting England, the ensuing public and legal controversy revealed the hypocrisy of a group of colonies seeking freedom while allowing slavery to persist. Within this context, Wheatley’s own position was precarious. She often had to prove that a young enslaved Black girl could indeed be a brilliant poet. In 1773, she achieved her emancipation with the help of her many patrons in Boston and England after the publication of her first book—at a time when very few women could get published.

Waldstreicher documents the long, tortuous journeys toward independence for both the poet and the American colonies in The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. Along the way, the likes of Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams cross Wheatley’s path, and events like the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre feature prominently. This account of Wheatley’s life adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.

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