July 1st, 2011 by AAS Volunteer Colin FitzGerald
With the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773) [AAS online catalog record], Phillis Wheatley became the first published African American poet. Because of her status as a house slave in Boston, Massachusetts, she achieved high literary recognition in the years following publication. Prominent political figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were even aware of her poetry in the succeeding decades. But what made Wheatley’s poetry particularly intriguing was the passion she exhibited for memorializing the dead. Perhaps this passion grew from her conversion to Christianity as a young slave learning to read from the Bible.
One example of Wheatley’s passion for memorializing the dead included the poem On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770. Since Whitefield was one of the primary preachers in the First Great Awakening, a time of heightened religious fervor during the 1730s and 1740s, Wheatley praised him as a “prophet.” She wrote:
Behold the prophet in his tow’ring flight!
He leaves the earth for heav’n’s unmeasur’d height,
And worlds unknown receive him from our sight.
With rhythmic lines such as these, it became clear that Wheatley possessed a special talent for poetic eulogy. Whitefield’s central message encouraged a self-driven religious experience, without regard to race, class, or gender, and Wheatley personally embraced it as such. In short, she understood Whitefield and the First Great Awakening as a kind of liberating theology which helped guide Christianized African-American slaves in their search for spiritual salvation.
AAS holds two Wheatley poems in the manuscript collections [AAS online record]. “To the University of Cambridge” is shown here (click on the image to enlarge), along with the attribution on the back.
Although Wheatley died in 1784, many of her poems continued to be edited, revised, and updated over the next fifty years. In fact, AAS’s collection of editions of Wheatley’s writing cover the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries [list of AAS online catalog records]. AAS specializes in preserving materials prior to 1876 and Wheatley’s writings certainly constitute an important part of the Society’s African-American resources.