- Infant MusePhillis Wheatley and the Revolutionary Rhetoric of Childhood
I believe no one would have published the poetry of Black Phillis Wheatley, that grown woman who stayed with her chosen Black man. … America has long been tolerant of Black children, compared to its reception of independent Black men and Black women.—June Jordan, “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley”
Phillis Wheatley’s mastery of popular belletristic conventions, her deployment of Christian evangelical rhetoric, and her manipulation of the colonist-as-slave analogy have all been cited as tactics that enabled her to adopt an intelligible and therefore consumable subjectivity. The strategies outlined above certainly contributed to Wheatley’s phenomenal transatlantic success. What has been less remarked is how all three maneuvers gained additional traction from their specific and direct engagement with Enlightenment conceptions of childhood articulated by John Locke, conceptions that constituted an essential component of the genre of occasional poetry, the ideology of the Great Awakening, and the rhetoric of Revolutionary patriots. Wheatley’s writing and marketing tapped into the eighteenth-century recognition of childhood as a status distinct from adulthood with its own unique set of weaknesses and strengths. The child figure of the early 1770s was simultaneously affiliated with varied and contradictory—yet primarily positive—characteristics, including malleability, obedience, and faith in authority. This constellation of attributes enabled Wheatley’s literary child persona to speak to her social superiors about family, religion, and politics while mitigating the threat associated with her wronged and enslaved African body.
The child characters in Wheatley’s poetry have been the focus of much more scholarly analysis than her child authorial persona. Analysis of child [End Page 663] characters is a prominent component of the emerging field of early American childhood studies, which encompasses literature written for children as well as representations of children in literature for adults.1 Anna Mae Duane (Suffering 144–45) and Caroline Levander (40) have both analyzed Wheatley’s verses referencing her kidnapping from Africa in early childhood to make nuanced arguments about the cultural work performed by child figures in the process of American nation building. However, it is mainly contemporary children’s literature that has situated Wheatley as a child author.2 Children’s books like Kathryn Lasky’s A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet (2003) and Kathryn Kilby Borland’s Phillis Wheatley: Young Revolutionary Poet (2005) concentrate their biographies on the fact that Wheatley was not only an enslaved poet but also a child poet. She composed her first extant poem at the age of eleven.3 She published her first poem at about the age of fourteen. She was about sixteen when she achieved international fame with her elegy for the Methodist minister George Whitefield. And she was about nineteen when she traveled to England to participate in and promote the publication of her collection of occasional verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). An examination of Wheatley’s self-presentation as a juvenile poet constitutes a third, rarely addressed dimension of early American studies: the child as producer of literature and voice of political critique.
Wheatley scholarship, particularly research concerned with recuperating the poet’s agency, has characterized her as an adult woman rather than a girl child. In her incisive article, Joanna Brooks debunks the assertion of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that in 1772 Wheatley underwent an oral examination conducted by eighteen elite white Bostonian men to prove her ability to author her poems. In proposing “an alternative narrative of the making of Wheatley, one that assigns her a commanding role in the early stages of her public career” (5), Brooks transforms Gates’s “young African girl” and “African adolescent” (qtd. in Brooks 1) into a “black woman” (7) and an “enslaved woman poet” (13).4 In another example of scholarly adultification, Betsy Erkkilä argues that the American Revolution furnished “women,” including Wheatley and Abigail Adams, with “the language and metaphors to ‘foment’ further rebellion in their struggle for citizenship, suffrage, and full human rights” (227). Neither Brooks nor Erkkilä considers Wheatley’s youth in relation to her rhetorical...