The First Published Book by an African-American Woman
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“Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!”
—from Wheatley’s“Thoughts on the Works of Providence” PHILLIS WHEATLEY.
Book. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
. First edition, with the advertisement on the final page reading “Lately published in 2 vols. Twelves...”
and engraved frontispiece portrait after Scipio Morehead (second state). London: Archibald Bell, 1773, for Cox and Berry, Boston. 128 pp., 4⅜ x 6¾ in. Modern half brown leather, marbled sides.
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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, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson and James Bowdoin, attested to her legitimacy, assuring the public that “the young Negro Girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian, from Africa...has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them [the poems].” 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.
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) probably hailed from the Senegambian coast. She was purchased by John and Susanna Wheatley as a house servant. Phillis quickly mastered English and began to write poetry, even reciting her intricate verses for the New England elite. Many of her poems were published in both American and British newspapers and magazines, making her somewhat of an international celebrity. She was also a fervent Christian whose poems and letters reflected her core beliefs and strong moral values. She soon became a member of the Old South Meeting House in Boston.
On May 8, 1773, her mistress sent the young poet to England where her poetry had already been introduced to the Countess of Huntingdon (to whom one of Wheatley’s first poems was addressed). Before Phillis returned to America, arrangements had been made to have her book published, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, bringing her still wider acclaim in both England and the Colonies. Sailing back from England early, owing to the ill health of Susanna, Phillis was manumitted sometime between September 13 and October 18, 1773, according to one of her letters. After her mistress died, Phillis, with the help of the remaining slaves, managed the house for her former master, John Wheatley. In 1778, John Wheatley died, and Phillis finally left the house for smaller quarters. She married John Peters but wrote few new poems as Phillis Peters.
Binding separated at front interior hinge, overall a large copy (the full platemark of the engraving is visible), old traces of library ownership (faint stamped accession number on dedication leaf, circular blindstamp on leaf F1), generally a very clean copy.
Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).