Examining Phillis Wheatley
By Hollis RobbinsDecember 19, 2022
NARRATOR: The room had a high ceiling and the oval table gleamed. The faces of the men she faced were not smiling. At the head sat Governor Thomas Hutchinson, at his right John Hancock, at his left Andrew Oliver, Lt. Governor, and around the table scholars and distinguished men — John Mather, John Moorhead, James Pitts. And a small black girl faced them as the governor said:
GOVERNOR: Who christened you, girl?
PHILLIS: The Reverend Samuel Sewall, Sir.
GOVERNOR: Name the Gospels.
PHILLIS: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. […]
MATHER: Speak for me the first line of Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” […]
PHILLIS: “First follow Nature and your judgment frame by her just standard, which is still the same.”
MATHER: Translate this, girl: Delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi —
PHILLIS: “The monarch’s folly makes the people regret,” sir. […]
NARRATOR: And when the testing was done, John Hancock, at the Governor’s right, took hold of his pen and wrote:
HANCOCK: We whose names are under-written do assure the world that the poems specified were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro girl, who was but a few years since brought an uncultivated barbarian from Africa.
THIS SCENE WAS imagined by Shirley Graham (who would marry W. E. B. Du Bois two years later) for a CBS radio play, The Story of Phillis Wheatley, which was broadcast on January 25, 1949. In Graham’s telling, the examination is the idea of Mary Wheatley, the daughter of Phillis’s mistress, to prove to skeptics that the “young Negro girl” was indeed the author of a collection of poems that the family hoped could be published. “Suppose I got some of Boston’s finest men,” Mary asks, “maybe even the governor, and they asked you questions to make sure that you had written those poems. Would you do it, Phillis?”
All oral examination scenes have built-in drama. Is the person being tested prepared? Will there be hostile or trick questions? Do the examiners want the subject to fail or is the whole thing just theater? For Graham, Phillis Wheatley’s public examination is the climax of the play, taking up two full pages of questions and answers, as elaborated in the book version, The Story of Phillis Wheatley: Poetess of the American Revolution, published the same year. Graham’s version of a public examination was so compelling that the magazine Negro Digest published an excerpt in 1949. Wheatley’s success in winning over her examiners, in Graham’s imagining, not only facilitated the publication of her book of poems in London the following year but also ensured her introduction to London royalty — even receiving, from the Lord Mayor of London, a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Graham was not the first Black writer to conceive of a public examination of Wheatley as good theater. A decade and a half earlier, in 1932, for a bicentennial celebration to be held in Washington, DC, commemorating the birth of George Washington, writer, teacher, and activist Mary Church Terrell drafted a pageant on Wheatley’s life — and her famous 1776 correspondence with Washington — that featured a parade of notable Bostonians “authenticating” Wheatley’s poetry. What questions were asked, if any, is unclear, as the pageant-play underwent multiple revisions and was only performed once, in the Washington Auditorium of Armstrong Technical High School, on November 19, 1932.
The idea of a public examination emerges from the historical record and from Wheatley’s own book of poetry. On February 29, 1772, an advertisement in Boston’s The Censor (reprinted on March 14 and April 18) states that a “Collection of POEMS, wrote at several times, and upon various occasions, by PHILLIS, a Negro Girl, from the Strength of her own Genius, it being but a few Years since she came to this Town an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa” would soon be available, if enough subscribers would underwrite the cost of publishing. The advertisement further states:
The Poems having been seen and read by the best Judges, who think them well worthy of the Publick View; and upon critical examination, they find that the declared Author was capable of writing them.
The advertisement is clearly meant to signal that “the best Judges” had questioned her directly and, after this “critical examination,” had found the works of her pen “worthy.” The “Judges” might have found the poems alone “worthy,” but the point here is to link them to this unlikely poet, who has herself been directly questioned and found a “Genius.”
Readers of Wheatley’s subsequently published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), which is considered the first published volume of poetry by an African American poet, encounter a prefatory “letter of Attestation” that states:
AS it has been repeatedly suggested to the Publisher, by Persons, who have seen the Manuscript, that Numbers would be ready to suspect they were not really the Writings of PHILLIS, he has procured the following Attestation, from the most respectable Characters in Boston, that none might have the least Ground for disputing their Original.
WE whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by PHILLIS, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.
Again, the word “examination” appears. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary emphasizes, in its definition of the term, the sense of “interrogation.” The repeated use of terms like “judges,” “examined,” and “qualified” lend themselves to the idea that some sort of test took place.
Why does this matter? New discoveries about Phillis Wheatley — including Cornelia Dayton’s recent findings bringing to light the final four years of Wheatley’s life, after her marriage to the shopkeeper-tradesman John Peters and the birth and death of possibly three children — urge us to reexamine what we know and what we might assume about how Boston luminaries of her time saw her and her work. Dayton has uncovered public records that show John and Phillis Peters, between 1779 and 1784, caught up in legal wrangling over property and compensation owed for their management of a sizable estate in Middlesex, Essex County, Massachusetts. Peters lost his suits, debts mounted, and he was imprisoned; meanwhile, Wheatley’s manuscript of her second book of poetry was “borrowed” by someone and subsequently lost. She died in December 1784, her former supporters long dead or vanished. In the context of Peters’s many legal setbacks and the young couple’s seeming lack of community, the 1772 public examination seems more resonant than ever.
The specific events that led to the signed attestation are as yet unknown. With far less archival information available to Terrell and Graham than to scholars now, those writers most certainly took the idea for a dramatic group event from the prefatory letter itself, which says “She has been examined” rather than a phrasing such as “her poems have been examined.” For both activist women, the phrasing rightly placed Wheatley at center stage in a liberating public drama. None of us knows how Wheatley’s “examination” took place. But there clearly was one of some form or another, as the Boston Censor ad makes plain. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was unwittingly following in Graham’s footsteps when he too speculated about a public examination, most notably in his 2002 book The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. Gates’s trial was an explicitly fictive act underscoring the racism of a Black poet being forced to undergo a test to prove her own authorship before being allowed to publish her own book. For Gates, the imagined historical interrogation was an allegory for racist white authorial control of Black letters and Black authors within Enlightenment discourse. The image of gatekeeper judges dramatizes the burden on Black writers to write themselves into the human community rather than being welcomed.
The “astonishingly influential group of the colony’s citizens,” as Gates rightly describes them, whose names are listed in the prefatory letter, include Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, poet-clergyman Mather Byles (a correspondent of Alexander Pope’s who wrote verse on the anxieties of a provincial poet with cosmopolitan pretensions), poet Joseph Green, poet-clergyman Samuel Cooper, future governor James Bowdoin (also an occasional writer of verse), John Hancock, and Samuel Mather. What was the foundation of their interest? Why might they have taken the time to personally examine this young poet, Phillis Wheatley, as the letter indicates? Were Terrell and Graham simply recording a historical fact when they put the spotlight of a public examination on this extraordinary young woman poet? (In an early draft of her play, Graham even depicted a scene of public acclamation of Wheatley’s poetic ability: “Gentlemen: do we agree?” “Yes! Beyond question!”) Or was the letter simply, as Gates has argued, a manifestation of 18th-century racist attitudes about people of African descent, as expressed in the works of Hume, Kant, and Thomas Jefferson (who found nothing to praise in Wheatley’s poems even as he was skeptical that she wrote them)?
Whereas for Gates, the trope of a “trial” enabled a pun on the “trials and tribulations” that Wheatley faced during her lifetime (and after in Black negative critical assessments), for Terrell and Graham, the trial literally happened. Scholars have rightly questioned whether a group examination ever took place. Joanna Brooks brilliantly determined the attestation was signed on October 28, 1772, though without resolving the nature of an examination. Seemingly unaware of Graham’s or Terrell’s work, Brooks challenged Gates’s imagined conjecture, instead foregrounding Wheatley’s relationships with a community of white women who initially championed her sentimental verse but dropped her after the poet gained her freedom and married. Historian David Waldstreicher suggests that Wheatley was already, by 1772, asserting “political authority” in Boston, corresponding with notables such as Lord Dartmouth. Any drama of a trial, “making Wheatley into an abject graduate student, a humble apprentice in the republic of letters,” Waldstreicher claims, has “the strange effect of robbing her of her own story.” For these scholars, Wheatley emerges as a stronger figure without the scene of a public examination: she was fully in charge of her own public relations and did not need to stare down experts in order to exert her own power and authority. More recently, John Levi Barnard has argued that, whether or not there was “an actual ‘qualifying exam,’” the classical allusions in Wheatley’s poetry would have piqued the cosmopolitan interests of her examiners, and it may be that the public examination was more about displaying their own erudition than quizzing the young woman poet’s.
In the Obama era, Brooks’s and Waldstreicher’s narrative of literary self-fashioning undoubtedly had a certain appeal. But as Graham’s imagined scene suggests, the questions that might have been asked and answered in an examination matter to understanding Wheatley’s poetry — especially now, as she is increasingly and rightfully (if belatedly) being taught in American classrooms. In the 21st century, what high school teacher or college professor, introducing Wheatley, knows by heart the opening line of Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” (1711)? Who could translate a Latin phrase and know from which of Horace’s Epistles it comes? Who is familiar enough with Dryden’s translations of Virgil to catch the allusions in Wheatley’s works — phrases like “native clime,” “tyrannic sway,” or “shady groves”?
The first time I read Wheatley’s poem “An Hymn to the Morning,” the original version of which she apparently wrote while a London merchant, Thomas Wooldridge, stood watching, I heard the echoes of Dryden’s 1697 translation of The Aeneid, which she had probably just been reading. Wheatley’s famous use of the phrase “silken fetters” in “On Imagination” could be a reference to her own somewhat privileged servitude or it could be an echo of William Godwin, Samuel Richardson, or John Bell, all of whom used the phrase in their works. As a scholar of allusions and other literary borrowing, I know how uncommon this kind of reading has become but how important it was in 1772, especially to the Harvard-educated Boston elite who chafed at their marginalization from the London cultural center.
To fully appreciate Phillis Wheatley is to see the facility with which she handled the master’s tools and, faced with questions real or imagined, turned them shrewdly to her own purposes. Frederick Douglass would do this almost a century later with classical texts he memorized from The Columbian Orator. To fully appreciate the richness of African American literature requires reading what these authors were reading while they were writing, and rewriting, the American literary canon. Wheatley’s examiners seem to have decided that her erudition reflected well upon them.
It seems clear now from the final years of her life that, however much Wheatley’s examiners cared about her erudition, they did not care about her, especially when she married outside of educated circles. The contemporary African American poet Yusef Komunyakaa contemplates the posthumous fate of Wheatley and her white examiners in his 2001 poem “Lament & Praise Song”:
At this hour
among canonical roses
with seditious thorns,
I wonder if the tongues
of that tribunal of good men
quizzing her turned to dust
in pure Latin & Greek.
We are blessed if we can see her
on the streets of Cambridge,
in her heroic couplets,
rescued by our imagination.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers also ponders Wheatley’s examination in her 2020 poem “How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men of Boston to Publish Her Book of Poetry: Boston, October 28, 1772,” asking “Did it even happen that way?” before deciding:
even if there was no examination,
at some point, she smiled in white
men’s faces to gain her freedom.
If Wheatley smiled, it was a grim and knowledgeable smile.
For Shirley Graham, whose papers, including the radio play, were acquired by Radcliffe in 2001, the drama of Phillis Wheatley’s success in Boston provides the foundation for her return to New England and subsequent embrace of the revolution, dramatized by a poem to George Washington that was published by Thomas Paine and acknowledged in a 1776 letter from the general himself. By emphasizing figures such as Washington, Paine, and Hancock, Graham situates Wheatley in the bosom of freedom-loving Boston. Graham wrote the play four years after World War II and just after Truman’s decree desegregating the armed forces; for her, the drama of Wheatley’s public examination was a source of integrationist pride: this young Black woman belonged in the room, in conversation with governors and future presidents, as part of the nation’s talent pool. But as Robert Hayden’s 1978 poem “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley, London 1773” foresees, when a chimney sweep, “quite Black,” poses his own difficult question to the poet — “Does you, M’lady, sweep chimneys too?” — Wheatley’s erudition would not save her from the life that awaited her back in Boston.
Fast forward to the scene of Amanda Gorman reciting poetry at President Biden’s inauguration. The examination of Phillis Wheatley should remind us of the struggles involved in getting to that point, including the grim history of facing such unanswerable questions as “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” at voter registration offices across the Jim Crow South. Wheatley’s examination was the first of many such struggles. If she passed with flying colors, it may have been enough to open doors for publication, but it was not enough to secure her a future among the Boston literary elite, who turned their backs on her when she married a struggling shopkeeper and began a life of her own.
Hollis Robbins is dean of humanities at the University of Utah. Her most recent book is Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition (2020).
Featured image: Artist Unknown. “Peonies and abstract waves," mid 18th–early 19th century. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Helen Snyder. www.si.edu, CC0, Accessed December 16, 2022.
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