- Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage
Vincent Carretta's Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage is by far the most comprehensive book about Wheatley's life and work. There are only a handful of scholarly texts on Wheatley, and few match the caliber of Carretta's full-length study of the famed eighteenth century African American poet, who rose to prominence with the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).
From the first few chapters it is clear that Carretta endeavors to give readers a more intimate knowledge of Wheatley's life in Boston and eventual transition from slave to prominent poet. Carretta provides little known facts about Wheatley's early years in Boston and the successful marketing campaign that made her an internationally known poet. While a lot of the existing scholarship on Wheatley seems based on speculation, Carretta has obviously conducted meticulous archival research, unearthing hundreds of significant documents (merchants logs, letters, interviews, book reviews, poems, bill of sale receipts, legal documents, and other materials) that give credibility to his account of Wheatley's life. Carretta deserves credit for his thorough scholarship, but at times the wealth of information in this book is overwhelming. Readers, for example, might be interested to learn that Phillis may not have made it to America if Timothy Fitch, the slave trader who purchased her, had secured a more desirable cargo of adult men and women. Carretta reports that Fitch was furious with his commander for having too many young children to sell at auction, especially young girls, who were unprofitable. While this information might be of value to some readers, they would probably be less concerned about other aspects of Fitch's business dealings, which Carretta insists on discussing at length.
One of Carretta's main objectives is to underscore Wheatley's genius— not just her poetic genius but her cunning, her ability to use her race and her assumed naiveté to her own advantage. Carretta paints Wheatley as an ambitious strategist who achieved amazing feats unimaginable for the typical [End Page 516] black, female slave. She dared to do things others wouldn't, from imagining herself as a preacher, turning her poetry into a full collection for publication, and writing to George Washington. Carretta also stresses the point that Wheatley was an important figure for her time; she was not just a minor poet who wrote a couple of noteworthy poems. Friends and acquaintances that regarded Wheatley as a respected poet commissioned many of her poems. Fellow poets like Jane Dunlap and the black poet Jupiter Hammon paid homage to Wheatley with their own poems—and even the French philosopher Voltaire was aware of her existence. To be clear, not everyone was impressed by Wheatley's poetry. As has been well documented, Thomas Jefferson and others undermined Wheatley's talent. In "Palinode to Phillis Wheatley" (1777), for example, published in London's Public Advertiser, an anonymous satirist mocks Wheatley: "Poetic Queen of parch'd WHIDAW [an area on the slave coast of Africa]! / With sable Beauties, void of Flaw." As Carretta notes, even though the satirist's comments about Wheatley were far from laudatory, his acknowledgment of Wheatley at all proves her relevance.
To give readers a sense of who and what influenced Wheatley's poetry, Carretta spends a great deal of time describing the political and social climate of Boston. Some of Wheatley's occasional poems respond to the current issues of the day, such as the Stamp Act and the growing agitation between loyalists and patriots. She also wrote many elegies and poems alluding to classical mythology and the Bible. Carretta highlights the usual poems discussed by scholars, such as "To the University of Cambridge," "On Being brought from Africa to America," "On Virtue," and "An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST, the late Reverend, and pious GEORGE WHITEFIELD." Along with these poems, Carretta reveals the discovery of a new poem, an untitled four...