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Reviewed by:
  • Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts
  • Phillip M. Richards
John C. Shields, Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008). Pp. xii, 236. $37.95.

John Shields’s most recent monograph, Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation, comes to an American audience at a propitious time. A recent burst of scholarly work has given her reputation an important boost. She may no longer be written off merely as a weak neoclassical imitator of Alexander Pope: scholars of American literature now find new significance in her work within the traditions of sentimentality, the political and religious rhetoric of the American Revolution, and pre-Romanticism. In the last ten years, a growing list of biographical, textual, and manuscript discoveries has demanded serious interpretive revision of her life and work. With Anne Bradstreet, Wheatley is one of the two most studied women poets of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. The easy, patronizing dismissal of her person and her poems no longer signals literary discrimination but rather a serious naiveté about race, culture, and politics in the American Age of Revolution.

Shields’s bold interpretative study of Wheatley successfully undertakes basic literary historical tasks that have long remained undone. We have, for the first time, a comprehensive historical account of Wheatley’s literary reception, artistic development, artistic milieu, aesthetic outlook, and place in the Anglo-American literary canon. Her strikingly small corpus and brief career are compellingly analyzed as the consequence of a truncated poetic development that nevertheless had elements of full maturity, hints of which are apparent in such late poems as “Thoughts on the Works of Providence” and “An Elegy on Leaving.” Shields usefully distinguishes three major phases in Wheatley’s career: her early evangelical poems (“To an Atheist”), later verse that echoed her epoch’s period conventions and political ideologies, and more sophisticated lyrics and epyllia that forecast the fulfillment of a tragically incomplete career. [End Page 523]

Insisting upon Wheatley’s exceptionality as an American poet, Shields presents her work, as he has since his early dissertation, as a complicated blend of African and Anglo-American literary traditions. At the core of her public verse, he plausibly asserts, lie literary forms, conventions, and postures that Wheatley might have inherited from a remembered West African past. Wheatley’s role as a poet in New England society possibly reflected the African tradition of female poetic advocacy in interethnic engagements. Likewise, the poetic personae in Wheatley’s elegies for Whitefield and William Cooper and her celebratory verse for Lord Dartmouth engage in the Anglo-American equivalents of the elegies, praise poems, and celebratory verse of African communities. The same may be said of her lyrics and epyllia. Although Shields does not explore Wheatley’s role as an occasional poet, this public communal role may represent the largest continuity between her African and Anglo-European past. The New England tradition of occasional poetry corresponded to West African poems of celebration and praise, an example of the ritual function of art in premodern societies. Mechal Sobel in The World We Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (1987) observed shared premodern tendencies among transplanted Englishmen and Africans in eighteenth-century Virginia. Whether or not Shields has shown African continuities or exoticisms (and the Age of Sensibility displayed a marked tendency toward African exoticism), he has demonstrated a close proximity between eighteenth-century African ethnic cultures and a new American culture replete with residual traditional elements.

This possible African cultural past suggests what Shields describes as Wheatley’s movement away from the radical monotheism of Western Protestant traditions. Shields points to the rarity of direct references to God as a supreme being in Wheatley’s verse. God is most often represented as one of His triune persons or other divine personages. Like other instances of Christian syncretism, Wheatley’s piety moves toward an implicitly more multicultural and more tolerant polytheism. In the process of “creating” such ad hoc African pasts, black Americans were often underway toward the production of their own national culture. Vincent Carretta has made a compelling argument that Olaudah Equiano possibly fabricated an African past from a patchwork...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 523-527
Launched on MUSE
2010-07-17
Open Access
No
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