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Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

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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 work was an international sensation. In P 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 In the course of his research he discovered the earliest poem attributable to Wheatley and has included it and other unpublished poems in the biography.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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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 P 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.

30 review for Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steven Walle

    I highly recommend this book which chronicals the life of a slave girl and her relationship with her Boston owners. The book tells us of her genius and the fame she aquires in England andand her marriage to free black man John Peters. Enjoy and Be Blessed.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mike E.

    I am fascinated and impressed with Wheatley--joyful Christian woman, gifted poet, and freed slave. This is the definitive biography on her, as of 2013. If you want to know Wheatley, this biography published by the University of Georgia press does not have the expected weight of an academic tome. With scant details of her life available, Carretta is to be applauded for taking on the task of portraying, in his words, this "Genius in Bondage." Critics challenge both her poetic "genius" and her "bon I am fascinated and impressed with Wheatley--joyful Christian woman, gifted poet, and freed slave. This is the definitive biography on her, as of 2013. If you want to know Wheatley, this biography published by the University of Georgia press does not have the expected weight of an academic tome. With scant details of her life available, Carretta is to be applauded for taking on the task of portraying, in his words, this "Genius in Bondage." Critics challenge both her poetic "genius" and her "bondage." The book engages regularly with original documents, sources, and poetry. Carretta presents many surprising historical details. First, Wheatley's capture and bondage into slavery is the providential means of her liberty and freedom. She writes: On being brought from Africa to America. 'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there's a God, and there's a Savior too: Once I redemption neither sought nor new. Some view our sable race with scornful eye, "Their color is a diabolical dye." Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train. (ll. 1-8) The family that purchased Phillis loved her. They lived out the gospel in front of and with Phillis. It was wrong for human beings to be bought and sold. It was wrong for Scripture to be used to oppress Africans. However, I am more than reluctant to cast diachronic stones at John & Susanna Wheatley. If I were a well-to-do white Christian man living in the 1700s, am I certain I would not have done the same thing? Purchased a slave and cared for her, in most ways, as though she were a family member? Loving her, educating her, guiding her, granting her free person status? Carretta could have labored this point more. He follows the misplaced keep-your-distance-masquerding-as-objectivity expectations of contemporary American historiography. The reality is that Wheatley's perspective on her own life was one of gratitude to God and His providential grace. You get this from Carretta's portrayal, but his vantage point is one of detachment. The paradoxes of Wheatley's life are extreme: as a slave she experienced freedom--as a free woman she experienced bondage. I don't want the story of her life to read this way, but it does. Human beings and how we relate to one another are complex and not fair. I am thankful for Carretta's attention to detail. One of my favorite parts of the book was the correspondence between Phillis and George Washington. Carretta opened my eyes to the cultural naïveté of Washington's glamorous and impeccable personae. His own slaves abandoned Mt. Vernon and fought for the British! Details like this make his book worth reading. Another point of interest for Greek grammarians like myself is that Granville Sharp capably appears on these pages. It was great to see him in a light other than that of a generator of grammatical rules. Susanna Wheatley, friend and owner of Phillis, died in 1774. Grieving the death of her friend, Phillis writes to Obour Tanner. Carretta is to be thanked for his detailed research and presentation of documents such as this letter: "I have lately met with the great trial in the death of my mistress; let us imagine the loss of a Parent, Sister or Brother the tenderness of all these were united in her. – I was a poor little outcast and a stranger when she took me in: not only into her house but I presently became a sharer in her most tender affections. I was treated by her more like her child than her servant; no opportunity was left unimproved, of giving me the best of advice, but in terms how tender! How engaging! This I hope ever to keep in remembrance. Her exemplary life was a greater monitor than all her precepts and instruction, thus we may observe of how much greater force example is than instruction. To alleviate our sorrows we had the satisfaction to see her depart in inexpressible raptures, earnest longings and impatient thirstings for the upper Courts of the Lord. Do, my dear friend, remember me and this family in your Closet, that this afflicting dispensation maybe sanctified to us." You can read Wheatley's poetry for free. Go to Google books, "Memoir and poems of Phillis Wheatley, a native African and a slave" (1834). ================ Small Group Study Guide, Preface, Chapter 1 What do you make of one of Wheatley's letters selling for $253,000 in 2005? (ix) "Of the millions of enslaved Africans taken to the British colonies and their descendants by the end of the 18th century, Phillis Wheatley  was one of fewer than twenty whose words found their way directly into print during their lifetimes”. (4) How important is the availability of education to the poor/oppressed?  What responsibility does the church or individual Christians have to educate the poor and needy today? How might this be accomplished?  What motivated John & Susanna Wheatley to educate and care for Phillis as they did? What do we learn about the Wheatley children John, Susanna, and Sarah?  (14).  What affinity does Carretta see between the purchase and care of Phillis Wheatley and Susanna Wheatley? Was the purchase of Phillis motivated by: (1) a desire for status, (2) an adoptive- surrogate spirit, (3) to assist with household duties, (4) the gospel (5) a mixture of the preceding, or (6) something else? Does Carretta lead the reader in a specific direction in reference to the preceding question? If you were corresponding with Phillis what counsel would you give her regarding her status as property of John Wheatley? In other words, assuming she is loved and cared for as one made in the imago Dei, would you counsel her to seek her freedom? Do you think it is possible that you could have given Phillis to your wife as a gift--had you lived in Boston in the 1700s? (page 1) Is it possible that the Wheatleys loved and honored Phillis and Christ in their purchase and care of Phillis? Why or why not? "Defenders of slavery cited Leviticus 25:45–46 to justify their enslavement of outsiders." (page 1) Read this passage and list biblical texts which might be used to negate the institution of slavery. Had you lived in Boston in the 1700s would you have been one of those calling for abolition of slavery? Or, would you have perhaps owned a slave and treated him/her as closely as possible as a family member? ================ CHAPTER 2 What is the significance of Wheatley arriving in Boston during the transatlantic Great Awakening? (25) "Evangelical Christianity offered the poor a way to try to make sense of their present misery.” (29) What Scripture texts support this statement? What is the church’s role regarding those in misery? Phillis was baptized 18 August 1771. Carretta notes that congregationalists generally baptized believers at the age of eighteen. Why might have this practice fallen away? What do you think of baptizing whenever (contemporary evangelical baptistic practice) as compared to baptizing at eighteen (1700s evangelical baptistic practice)? Carefully read “A conversation between a New York gentleman and Phillis” on pp 35-36. What stands out to you most in this catechism authored by Phillis? The church in America today has little power and influence on our culture. This was not so in the 1700s. “Public theatrical performances were banned in Boston during Phillis Wheatley's lifetime.” (42) If the church had the authority to influence legislation today, what one law would you desire to be passed? How do you think the church’s view on recreation and entertainment has changed so dramatically since Colonial days? Do you think banning the theater promoted godliness in individuals or served the public good? What did you most enjoy in chapter 2? Any places in chapter two where you strongly agreed or disagreed with Carretta’s analysis? Small Group Study Guide, Chapter 3 1. According to Carretta, upon what does Wheatley base her arguments in An Address to the Atheist ? [55] 2. "To an orthodox Trinitarian Calvinist, a deist was little better than an atheist, and orthodox Christians often equated them during the period." [56] Is the same true today? In what way? 3. What does Carretta say that Phillis was saying to her readers by referring to herself as an Ethiopian? [57] Did Moses have a black African wife? 4. Did God curse the descendants of Ham with black skin and slavery, as proposed by some defenders of slavery? 5. What do you think about Ebenezer Richardson? [71] 6. Any comments about George Whitefield that are prompted by chapter 3? 7. In The Wordless Book, which uses colored pages to present the gospel, black is used to talk about sin. Are there verses in the Bible to support this? I wonder how much of our theology is based on human traditions, songs, and sayings that are not all that biblical. ================ Chapter 7 1. Who was John Peters? 2. What do you make of the author's statement that Wheatley and Peters started living together prior to their marriage? (173) 3. What was the difference between feme sole and femme covert? (174) 4. What was the result of the scarcity of money in the colonies during the 18th century? (177) 5. Were John and Phillis Peters initially and ultimately financially prosperous? (178, 182-3, 186, 191-94) 6. Did Phillis have children (support your answer)? 7. Was John Wesley a supporter of slavery, as was Whitefield? (188) 8. Read the opening and closing stanzas to the poem on page 189 that was published five months prior to Phillis's death. What strikes you most in these lines?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    This book touts itself as the only full-length biography of Phillis Wheatley, noted and celebrated (as well as frequently criticized) American colonial poetess. That may have been true at the time this book was written but it is certainly not the case now. Phillis Wheatley, during her life and ever afterwards, has been a complex figure that has served as a standardbearer, for good and ill, for her identity as a slave, as a young black woman, as a devout and serious Christian, as a woman whose pr This book touts itself as the only full-length biography of Phillis Wheatley, noted and celebrated (as well as frequently criticized) American colonial poetess. That may have been true at the time this book was written but it is certainly not the case now. Phillis Wheatley, during her life and ever afterwards, has been a complex figure that has served as a standardbearer, for good and ill, for her identity as a slave, as a young black woman, as a devout and serious Christian, as a woman whose privilege gave her a reach far beyond her somewhat sheltered life but which also made her a target for the views of those who thought her merely the talking parrot of her wealthy owners who raised her, for likely sentimental reasons, far beyond her station and who encouraged her self-expression as a means of bringing glory to themselves. The author, who is obviously somewhat fond of his subject at least, but also a critical scholar who does not share Wheatley's strong religious background, strives to understand Wheatley as a person as well as a celebrity and as one of the first examples of the literary talents of African-Americans, a label she proudly claimed for herself in both senses when other options were available to her. This book is about 200 pages long and it is divided into seven chapters in a relatively conventional chronological format with a mixture of intense research along with occasional speculation concerning the narrative of the life of a person whose beginning and ending lie somewhat in obscurity. Beginning with a preface and acknowledgements, each chapter of this book is prefaced with a line from one of the subject's writings, as a way of describing the material that is included in the chapter. So the book begins with a chapter that discusses in some detail the circumstances of how it was that Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston and the fact that she was likely from the area of Ghana, where it would have made sense for a captain desperate to fill his boat with slaves would have been likely to take on a teething girl of seven who could not fetch a great price (1). After that the author explores the works of providence in how it was that Wheatley received the religious and intellectual education that allowed her to write and that gave her a strong Christian faith (2). The author then explores her development as a poet, which was certainly precocious (3). The author then explores the rising popularity she received as a poet in her native Boston (4), and then abroad in London (5) where her first book was published. After that the author explores Wheatley's attempts to put herself on her own footing (6) through marriage and how it was that she lived the rest of her life as a poet in considerable obscurity, unable to publish her second book, and dying rather young (7), after which there is an afterword that places Wheatley as high among the second tier of colonial American poets (a fair ranking), notes, a bibliography, and an index. In what way was Phillis Wheatley a genius in bondage? This book gives interesting and complex and nuanced answers and the reader would do well to ponder these matters. In one of her most noted (and most criticized poems), Wheatley points to the providential reasons for her traumatic experience of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery across the Atlantic in terms of her fervent Presbyterian faith, but the fact that we know her as a poet at all depended on her being educated in a manner that was unusual for women, to say nothing of enslaved girls, and that relied on the elite status of her owners, for whom she was certainly an example of immensely conspicuous consumption as well as a great deal of fondness as a reminder of a deceased daughter who she may have reminded her of in one way or another, such as her youth and frailty. Had she remained in Africa, or had she been sold to an owner who was more interested in exploring her as a breeder or field hand, her latent powers of poetic genius would never have been known. Had she been a poor white girl born in the backwoods of rural Western Pennsylvania instead of the lightly burdened and pampered slave of a privileged Bostonian family, her mind would likely not have been turned in the same direction regardless of her native talents. And though she appreciated and took full advantage of her privilege while it lasted, she also never hesitated to defend any aspect of her complex identity, and in that she certainly resembles many people today.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Justin Goodman

    While detail-oriented, not in a way that denies a holistic view. In fact the details are reinforced by and reinforce the wide lens Carretta uses to try to grasp at Wheatley. Very engaging because of this society-in-the-individual approach. Carretta envisions her as secretly ironic and heading towards an abolitionist mindset, which, while I think can be read into her from what Carretta provides, isn't really thoroughly argued more than stated imo. On a content level it's a fascinating and tragic s While detail-oriented, not in a way that denies a holistic view. In fact the details are reinforced by and reinforce the wide lens Carretta uses to try to grasp at Wheatley. Very engaging because of this society-in-the-individual approach. Carretta envisions her as secretly ironic and heading towards an abolitionist mindset, which, while I think can be read into her from what Carretta provides, isn't really thoroughly argued more than stated imo. On a content level it's a fascinating and tragic story made more tragic by the dearth of documentation for such a vital African American figure, and on a meta-level an inspiring detective story about reviving the legacy of a figure who'd become both an abolitionist symbol for the possibilities of a people when not enslaved and later a Black Power symbol for the colonization of the black mind by white supremacy. My only want would be an extra chapter, as opposed to the 5 page afterward, of how her legacy shaped future work. Nonetheless, a thorough book definitely worth the read if you're interested in American poetry.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Erik

    Accessible for the lay reader who doesn't know a lot about Wheatley. Makes a good case for calling her the Poet Laureate of the American Revolution, for her talent, her recognition by people in her own time, and of course, her status as an enslaved American, which helps focus on the contradictions inherent in the project of freedom in America since the revolution. Accessible for the lay reader who doesn't know a lot about Wheatley. Makes a good case for calling her the Poet Laureate of the American Revolution, for her talent, her recognition by people in her own time, and of course, her status as an enslaved American, which helps focus on the contradictions inherent in the project of freedom in America since the revolution.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laura Thigpen

    Excellent biography! A beautiful wedding of literary textual criticism and historical investigation. The life, testimony, and works of Phillis Wheatley is a gift to all of us who come after her.

  7. 5 out of 5

    JJ

    This book was highly recommended but although wonderfully researched, I failed to really grasp the story of Wheatley. The book veered off in so many areas that it was difficult to follow.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Chloe

    3.5 stars I was recently tasked with creating a short presentation on the life of significance of Phillis Wheatley, and it didn't take too long to realize that there is very little modern day scholars can say with absolute certainty about her life and work, let alone her private attitudes and opinions. This book, however, is one of the clearest and most thoroughly researched works I've come across that deal with Wheatley's life and work - in fact, it occasionally veers on the point of being overl 3.5 stars I was recently tasked with creating a short presentation on the life of significance of Phillis Wheatley, and it didn't take too long to realize that there is very little modern day scholars can say with absolute certainty about her life and work, let alone her private attitudes and opinions. This book, however, is one of the clearest and most thoroughly researched works I've come across that deal with Wheatley's life and work - in fact, it occasionally veers on the point of being overly thorough. Despite the long passages about important persons of the time and place which seem only marginally relevant, I was largely quite pleased with the depth to which this book was researched. I felt I had a more thorough understanding of Wheatley's life and situation once I finished this, and although I wish the author had gone into more depth about Phillis's relations towards the Wheatley household, I can't fault any decisions to stick to only what can be verified or surmised from historical fact. I would definitely recommend this to those interested in Bostonian revolutionary era society and early African-American artists and authors.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sam Poole

    Excellent comprehensive biography of the first published English speaking published black poet. Contrary to some assumptions, Wheatley was subtly subversive of racist and sexist boundaries of the 18th century while becoming a highly educated upper middle class free woman. Her story is fascinating and her sense of self both conflicted and confident. She does not get the credit she deserves for expanding the strict lines of literature and art in America. She used Christianity and conventional, hig Excellent comprehensive biography of the first published English speaking published black poet. Contrary to some assumptions, Wheatley was subtly subversive of racist and sexist boundaries of the 18th century while becoming a highly educated upper middle class free woman. Her story is fascinating and her sense of self both conflicted and confident. She does not get the credit she deserves for expanding the strict lines of literature and art in America. She used Christianity and conventional, highly structured poetry to define herself and fight conceptions of black inferiority and, upon buying her freedom after a promotional tour in England, the slave system in the new world. Academic but enlightened, and not over written or meant to transform her into a symbol. Highly well researched and annotated. Recommend!!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Colette Byfield

    This book provides the most clear picture (to date) of Phillis Wheatley's professional and personal life. Sourcing a number of primary documents, such as letters and contemporaneous newspaper accounts, Carretta provides a long overdue chronicle of a tragically incomplete life and career. For too long, Wheatley's true genius has been shamefully overlooked by too many other historians. Her poetic contributions and apparent genius provided the creative writing foundation from which so many other Ame This book provides the most clear picture (to date) of Phillis Wheatley's professional and personal life. Sourcing a number of primary documents, such as letters and contemporaneous newspaper accounts, Carretta provides a long overdue chronicle of a tragically incomplete life and career. For too long, Wheatley's true genius has been shamefully overlooked by too many other historians. Her poetic contributions and apparent genius provided the creative writing foundation from which so many other Americans are benefiting. She is more than a poetic genius, she is a national treasure. Delightfully upbeat and written with a storyteller's fluidity, this book is a must read for all students of history and fans of Wheatley. --cb

  11. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Great book that includes a lot of exhaustive research about Phillis Wheatley. Carretta really frames the book as, and gives evidence to, Phillis being an intelligent person and shrewd negotiator, rather than just a talented poet who was kept down by her station in life. There are many primary sources used - letters, diary entries - that really give you a better sense of who Phillis was outside of her poetry.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lurana

    This is an academic biography-extremely well researched--about a remarkable person, but it is a bit lacking in flair. I'd recommend Gates's short book on Wheatley (The Trials of Phillis Wheatley) instead, even if it's not as fact-oriented. This is an academic biography-extremely well researched--about a remarkable person, but it is a bit lacking in flair. I'd recommend Gates's short book on Wheatley (The Trials of Phillis Wheatley) instead, even if it's not as fact-oriented.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Dholsten

    Heavily researched, but spent way too much time repeating known stories. I was hoping to learn more about the latter years of Wheatley.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Erica Turner

    I have found a new poet to love!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sue

  16. 4 out of 5

    Cassaundra Shaw

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dindy

  18. 5 out of 5

    Aysia

  19. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Rose

  20. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  21. 5 out of 5

    Christine Fabian

  22. 4 out of 5

    Eliz

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jean M. Caldora

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  25. 5 out of 5

    Olivia

  26. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kat

  28. 5 out of 5

    Grace Mc

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mikael Izkovellarosy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Judith Bongiovanni

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