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New Essays on Phillis Wheatley

Edited by John C. Shields and Eric D. Lamore

Publication Year: 2011

The first African American to publish a book on any subject, poet Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) has long been denigrated by literary critics who refused to believe that a black woman could produce such dense, intellectual work, let alone influence Romantic-period giants like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson once declared that “the compositions published under her name are below dignity of criticism.” In recent decades, however, Wheatley’s work has come under new scrutiny as the literature of the eighteenth century and the impact of African American literature have been reconceived. In these never-before-published essays, fourteen prominent Wheatley scholars consider her work from a variety of angles, affirming her rise into the first rank of American writers. The pieces in the first section show that perhaps the most substantial measure of Wheatley’s multilayered texts resides in her deft handling of classical materials. The contributors consider Wheatley’s references to Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics and to the feminine figure Dido as well as her subversive critique of white readers attracted to her adaptation of familiar classics. They also discuss Wheatley’s use of the Homeric Trojan horse and eighteenth-century verse to mask her ambitions for freedom and her treatment of the classics as political tools. Engaging Wheatley’s multilayered texts with innovative approaches, the essays in the second section recontextualize her rich manuscripts and demonstrate how her late-eighteenth-century works remain both current and timeless. They ponder Wheatley’s verse within the framework of queer theory, the concepts of political theorist Hannah Arendt, rhetoric, African studies, eighteenth-century “salon culture,” and the theoretics of imagination. Together, these essays reveal the depth of Phillis Wheatley’s literary achievement and present concrete evidence that her extant oeuvre merits still further scrutiny.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

It is a considerable pleasure to offer gratitude to those individuals who have encouraged this project. The Illinois State University Libraries, as always, have given us unusual and generous guidance, especially Cheryl A. Elzy, University Librarian, Professor Vanetta Mae Schwartz of Milner Library, and Gary R. Thiel, Library Assistant. ...

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pp. xi-xxvi

Recently, scholarly studies of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book on any subject, have astonishingly begun to burgeon, as the present collection attests. These critical essays comprising New Essays, fourteen in number, have the remarkable distinction of having never before appeared ...

Part I: Examining New Manifestations of Classicism in the Poetics of Phillis Wheatley

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Phillis Wheatley’s Dido: An Analysis of “An Hymn to Humanity. To S.P.G. Esq.”

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pp. 3-18

A profound misconception about the construction and use of hymn in Early American literature is that it is exclusively modeled after earlier Christian hymn forms. Previous to the eighteenth-century American writers, the hymn was adopted and celebrated as a Christian ...

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I Remember Mama: Honoring the Goddess-Mother While Denouncing the Slaveowner-God in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry

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pp. 19-34

Still contrary to popular belief, Phillis Wheatley consistently honors her African homeland while critiquing the very institution of slavery that inspired her poetic gifts. Potentially in an awkward situation of ambiguity, she fights against the system that has taken her away from her family and now enslaves ...

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The Interaction of the Classical Traditions of Literature and Politics in the Work of Phillis Wheatley

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pp. 35-56

Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American woman writer, draws upon the Western classical tradition to assert poetic authority, and to argue for slaves’ rights to liberty.1 In the mid-eighteenth century, classical poetics and literary conventions were strictly observed by those who wished to demonstrate ...

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The Trojan Horse: Classics, Memory, Transformation, and Afric Ambition in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

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pp. 57-94

In 1772, at the commencement of a revolutionary season, Phillis Wheatley sought to publish a collection of classically pastoral, epic, religious, and elegiac poetry. Revolutionary in her own right, she disrupted established assumptions about black literary authorship in eighteenth-century America and challenged ...

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Empowerment through Classicism in Phillis Wheatley’s “Ode to Neptune”

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pp. 95-110

Even the most recently initiated Phillis Wheatley scholar can pinpoint the charge most often leveled against the young African American poet: that she is, at the end of the day, at best a clever rhymester but always a derivative ...

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Phillis Wheatley’s Use of the Georgic

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pp. 111-156

The first African American to publish a book in the English language, Phillis Wheatley was captured from her African homeland at the age of seven or eight and survived the horrific Middle Passage in the ship bearing the name, Phillis. This African American artist arrived in colonial Boston in 1761 with ...

Part II: Placing Phillis Wheatley in Newly Applied Historical Contexts

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Works of Wonder, Wondering Eyes, and the Wondrous Poet: The Use of Wonder in Phillis Wheatley’s Marvelous Poetics

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pp. 159-190

Upon receiving an award in Gotthold Lessing’s name, the political thinker Hannah Arendt reflected, “That a person appears in public at all, and that the public receives and confirms him is by no means a matter to be taken for granted. Only the genius is driven by his very gifts into public life ...

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Queering Phillis Wheatley

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pp. 191-208

I first became interested in attempting a queer discussion of Phillis Wheatley after reading her poem, “To S.M. a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works.” John Shields notes that “[b]oth Mason . . . and Robinson . . . identify ‘S.M.’ as Scipio Moorhead, black slave of the Reverend John Moorhead. ...

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Marketing a Sable Muse: Phillis Wheatley and the Antebellum Press

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pp. 209-246

While Phillis Wheatley worked to shape her own identity, the media had its different, sometimes contradictory characterizations of her. During her seventeen-year career, which spanned from 1767 to 1784, Wheatley employed four principal marketing strategies: her concerns for individual salvation, ...

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Phillis Wheatley: The Consensual Blackness of Early African American Writing

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pp. 247-270

It is no accident that early black writing is an Enlightenment phenomenon. The first African writers of the Anglo-Atlantic world turned their appropriated Europeanized consciousness back upon the West itself. Through them, the West saw itself mirrored in African eyes. Eighteenth-century travel narratives ...

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The Pan-African and Puritan Dimensions of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems and Letters

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pp. 271-294

Phillis Wheatley was an eighteenth-century African American writer who strongly identified with Africa’s suffering from the Atlantic slave trade and developed sustained criticisms against slavery, racism, and other injustices against blacks in America and Africa. In her poems and her extant letters, ...

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An Untangled Web: Mapping Phillis Wheatley’s Network of Support in America and Great Britain

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pp. 295-336

The immense public popularity of Phillis Wheatley, which cannot be doubted, was unfortunately as brief as her life: a short thirty-one years. Yet her influence as “the first truly American poet in our literary history” and “the first black, the first slave, and the second woman to publish a book of poems in the United ...

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Phillis Wheatley’s Theoretics of the Imagination: An Untold Chapter in the History of Early American Literary Aesthetics

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pp. 337-370

Two studies that allegedly do the work of tracing the development of literary aesthetics in Early America are Max I. Baym’s A History of Literary Aesthetics in America and James Engell’s The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism. Baym’s helpful volume opens, interestingly, with Jonathan ...

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To “pursue th’ unbodied mind”: Phillis Wheatley and the Raced Bod yin Early America

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pp. 371-396

Phillis Wheatley lived and wrote in an interesting and complex moment in the history of the body, one that was informed by a variety of philosophical, theological, scientific, and even social movements. The influence of Enlightenment philosophic thought—the work of Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley, to name a ...


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pp. 397-400


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pp. 401-407

E-ISBN-13: 9781572338012
E-ISBN-10: 1572338016
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572337268
Print-ISBN-10: 1572337265

Page Count: 416
Illustrations: 0 illustrations
Publication Year: 2011