The First Published Book by an African-American Woman (SOLD)
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“Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain PHILLIS WHEATLEY.
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!”
—from Wheatley’s “Thoughts on the Works of Providence”
Book. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. First edition. London: Archibald Bell, 1773, for Cox and Berry, Boston. 128 pp., 4 3/8 x 6¾ in.
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Born in Senegal, Phillis was sold into slavery at about age seven. John and Susannah Wheatley, a well-to-do Boston couple, purchased her and converted her to Christianity. A prodigy, her first poem was published in the Newport Mercury in 1767, when she was only 13. More poems soon followed, but because of her race, skeptics dismissed her as a fraud. In 1772, however, John Hancock and other prominent Bostonians attested to her legitimacy. Their testimony is printed here in the head matter.
Self-styled as “Afric’s muse,” Wheatley “was probably the first truly American poet in our literary history, for…her strong and graceful line plucked a uniquely American chord – what it meant to be black in white revolutionary America” (Kaplan, 170). In April 1776, Wheatley penned a poem, “To His Excellency General Washington,” that so moved the commander he invited her to meet him in Cambridge.
This book’s portrait frontispiece is often (perhaps incorrectly) attributed to fellow Bostonian and slave Scipio Moorehead. Wheatley celebrates his art in her eloquent poem “To S.M., a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.” This is the first published book of poetry authored by an African American, and the first published book authored by an African-American woman.
Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in
the Era of the American Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).