- Phillis Wheatley and Her Scholarly World at Present by Vincent Carretta
Readers who see only a summary of recent literary historical scholarship in Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage will be missing the book’s full range of implication. To be sure, Carretta’s life of Wheatley creates an empirically rich portrait of the poet and her times—as did his biography of Olaudah Equiano. Unlike earlier work however, Carretta’s Wheatley goes beyond a carefully drawn tableau to give us not only a living person but also a sophisticated writer with a distinctive worldview, psychology, and literary sensibility. Carretta’s earlier scholarship shied away from making an aesthetic case for the writing of figures such as Otto-bah Cuguano and Equiano, although they deployed a full variety of literary conventions, which Carretta carefully details. The significance of this reticence is now clear. This new account of Wheatley shows that Carretta’s high bar for literary achievement only further legitimizes his present advocacy for her literary and cultural importance. Wheatley emerges from Carretta’s study as a writer whose place in Anglo-American literary tradition becomes clear. Reading Wheatley’s life story in the context of Carretta’s account of her life in the colonial and Revolutionary periods in particular shows the imaginative way in which she encountered and absorbed the possibilities of a freewheeling, often inclusive Age of Sensibility or preromanticism. Her poetry achieved a successful engagement with the formative philosophical and literary developments that mark the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Carretta sharpens the outlines, fills in the gaps, and makes connections in an already rich body of acquired knowledge. In doing so, he provides [End Page 493] important detail not only for Wheatley but also for other Anglo-American writers in the late-eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic basin. Other scholars have described the late-eighteenth-century New England provincial world—a world whose newly made wealth in commerce and advances in transportation had indeed given it the wherewithal to engage in a provincial imitation of regency styles. Charles Akers has compellingly shown how Wheatley embodied the sumptuary consumer habits of an upper-class merchant family able not only to afford servants but also to give them the leisure to pursue a literary life. Underlying their Maecenas-like role of patronage was the mimicry of British consumer-culture habits: habits induced by the fruit of increased trade, transportation, and rural cultivation. We know also that the late-eighteenth-century expansion of literacy was abetted by the presence of households in which older, literate women could tutor their daughters and maids. This too gives a distinctive plausibility to Wheatley’s acquisition of literacy under the tutelage of Mrs. Wheatley and her daughter. And finally, Wheatley’s life resonates in large part with that of Atlantic Creoles: those black figures who moved around the Atlantic basin absorbing cultivation and political sophistication as well as white patronage, which often yielded fame and wealth. This cosmopolitanism, as Carretta persuasively shows, inheres in her travel to England and her contact with important intellectuals throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world. Reformers and intellectuals in this network, such as Jonathan Edwards’s theological New Divinity disciple Samuel Hopkins, served not only as mentors but also as a means of communication between her and other blacks, as well as—as in the case of Equiano—an important network for the distribution and sale of her art. The more we know about the black New England past, the more Wheatley’s personal and literary activity seems not only a possibility but a historical inevitability. She would, one feels, have been invented had she not existed in the flesh.
It is to Carretta’s credit therefore that he also emphatically describes the artfulness with which her representation was shaped by herself and her mentors. Carretta’s scholarship finds this art in the postures displayed in the frontispiece of the 1773 publication of her book. To be sure, Wheatley fashioned a clear sense of an African identity, drawing on echoes...