Poetry, Biography, and the Unknowable: On Two New Books About Phillis Wheatley
By Hollis RobbinsJuly 30, 2023
The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence by David Waldstreicher
Phillis Wheatley Peters: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by Vincent Carretta
I have two treatments of Wheatley’s life in front of me: Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley Peters: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, a revised and updated edition of a 2011 volume that was the first full-length biography of Wheatley, and David Waldstreicher’s The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence, which draws on Carretta’s earlier book to paint a new and accessible picture of the young woman poet. Both Carretta’s and Waldstreicher’s volumes arrive by intention on the 250th anniversary of Wheatley’s still extraordinary poetic accomplishment.
Getting to know Wheatley via Carretta means being immersed in the material facts of life of one portion of the globe between the years 1750 and 1800: colonial America, the slave trade, shipping lanes and trade between Europe and the colonies, merchant and church life in Boston, what books were available, who read what, and what political revolutions were brewing. Carretta, on whose truly exhaustive research over the past several decades all Wheatley scholars have depended, brings the reader to Wheatley, to Wheatley’s era, describing in meticulous detail what material and spiritual life most likely was for her, what she read, whom she knew, why she may have chosen this church over that, what doctrinal differences divided Methodists from Congregationalists.
Getting to know Wheatley via Waldstreicher is far easier—his book brings Wheatley to the present and to present-day readers, presuming that she would think and speak as we think and speak. His book has already been a big hit. He offers a Phillis Wheatley ready for her TikTok close-up. “[B]iography and history demand that we ask what she felt and experienced,” he argues, offering the reader a compelling and “relatable” Wheatley. If you don’t know anything about Wheatley and aren’t interested in 18th-century minutiae, Waldstreicher is not a bad place to start.
If I had written this review a year ago, before ChatGPT, the stakes would have been far lower in reviewing and comparing these two treatments of Wheatley, exemplars of two theories of biography: bringing either the reader to the subject or the subject to the reader. I would have stated simply that Carretta’s volume, a revision of his already magisterial 2011 biography updated to include a decade’s worth of startling new details (including Cornelia Dayton’s discoveries involving Wheatley’s marriage to a litigious tradesman, John Peters, requiring an updated book title to reflect Phillis Wheatley Peters’s preferred name in the final years of her life), delivers the far richer understanding of the poet, a young woman of her time, not ours. As a scholar and a dean invested in the value of careful archival research and scrupulous historical accuracy, I prefer Carretta’s approach, particularly as every claim of every sentence carries relevant facts weighed in making conclusions.
Consider, for example, this treatment of Wheatley’s baptism:
She was baptized “18 August 1771 (At old South) Phillis servt of Mr Wheatly.” As was customary in records of slaves, Phillis had no surname. She had probably not been baptized earlier because Congregationalists were commonly baptized at the age of eighteen, the age her enslavers may have assumed she reached in the summer of 1771. Rev. Samuel Cooper (1725–83), minister of the Brattle Street Church, baptized Phillis at Old South because Old South had not yet called Rev. John Bacon (1738–1820) and Rev. John Hunt (1744–75) to serve as its joint pastors. Being baptized at Old South, rather than at New South, the Wheatley family church, may have been one of Phillis Wheatley’s earliest acts of independence, though she was still enslaved. Old South no doubt appealed to Phillis because it accepted the Half-Way Covenant, which permitted the baptism of children whose parents were not full members of the church. Old South probably also appealed to Phillis Wheatley because during the 1760s it was the Congregationalist church in Boston most sympathetic to [George] Whitefield’s Methodist mission.
At this point in his biography, Carretta has already provided detailed background on “Old Light” and “New Light” Congregationalists as well as Anglican and Calvinist Methodists, the career of Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening, and Whitefield’s influence on New England culture and Wheatley’s religious and writing community. If doctrinal differences were important to Wheatley, they should be explained to the reader.
Compare Waldstreicher’s version of events:
The septuagenarian [Rev. Joseph] Sewall didn’t meet his maker until 1769, but he’d been quite ill in 1765. Known as an effective pastor who stressed family piety, at some point Sewall picked up the nickname “the weeping prophet.” Wheatley would have seen Sewall carried in a chair up to his pulpit, still holding forth in Old South after more than fifty years. While Sewall was clearly well-liked by the Wheatley family, John and Susanna were members of New South Church rather than the nearer Old South. Phillis would choose differently, joining the Old South Church formally at the usual age of eighteen, in 1771, after a two-year delay in the settlement of a replacement for Sewall had occurred. She would ratify that choice when she was baptized by the Reverend Samuel Cooper—a grandson of Samuel and nephew of Joseph Sewall—at Brattle Street Church, where he had been pastor since 1744. To praise Boston’s leading preachers but to make her own choices among them pushed the claims that a female slave could make on membership in the covenanted community.
Waldstreicher’s version offers no argument at all for Phillis’s choice of a different church than the Wheatley family. There are details offered, yes, but they seem whimsical and vague. Why “at some point” had Sewall picked up a nickname and why did this matter to Wheatley? We never learn.
By contrast, while certainly not fun, the painstaking research Carretta provides is crucial for understanding such details as Wheatley’s relationship with the people around her, including her neighbors and her longtime correspondent Obour Tanner; the place of Evangelical Methodism in the American colonies at the time; and the role of individuals like Countess Huntingdon, to whom Poems on Various Subjects is dedicated. When, nearly 70 pages in, Carretta’s readers finally get to Wheatley’s first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” (1767), about a schooner laden with whale oil that survived the most terrible gale in memory, sufficient details about the key players (Nathaniel Coffin was an Anglican Boston merchant and an enslaver of a young girl named Sappho while Hussey was one of several sons of a prominent and prosperous Nantucket Quaker merchant and owner of whaling vessels) have been offered to support Carretta’s claim that “Phillis was already commenting on transatlantic economic and political subjects by the time she was about fifteen years old.” As the opening lines show, Wheatley’s poetic voice is bold and questioning:
Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow?
To lend you Aid, did not his Winds combine?
To stop your passage with a churlish Line,
Did haughty Eolus with Contempt look down
With Aspect windy, and a study’d Frown?
Regard them not;—the Great Supreme, the Wise,
Intends for something hidden from our Eyes.
The path to this poem has been long, but we understand the import of the poet’s boldness and questioning, exhibited, for example, in her choice of church.
Waldstreicher opens his book with this very poem, to begin his argument that Wheatley’s poetic expressions must be a matter of what she personally experienced and felt. Since Wheatley was brought to America on a slave ship on a rough and dangerous journey, she must have felt a personal connection to the story of a rough and dangerous sea journey:
It isn’t hard to imagine why the survivor of a slave ship could identify with another terrifying voyage, with voyagers who wondered whether the punishing winds were themselves alive (“Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow / Against you?”) and whether the stormy emotions of gods would doom or deliver, save or destroy. But enslaved girls were not encouraged to speak of those voyages.
First of all, the entire historical record in fact demonstrates that young Phillis was encouraged by the Wheatley family to speak as well as to read and write. “The Wheatleys gave Phillis access to a dictionary and a place to write, and allowed her to mix socially with their politically, religiously, and socially prominent guests,” Carretta tells us.
Second, while it is not at all wrong to wonder whether the trauma of the poet’s Middle Passage sparked her drive to write so forcefully and so well, it is a question, not a certainty. Today, in 2023, making a connection between a traumatic experience and a work of art is so habitual that it’s nearly impossible to see that not all art works like this, and no poet or critic would assume such a connection in the 18th century. But Waldstreicher’s readers don’t really have a choice to agree or not with his conjectures and conclusions that “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” was more about Wheatley than about Hussey and Coffin. Waldstreicher does not mention that Coffin was an enslaver in talking about the poem. An endnote disputes Carretta’s claim, saying that “there were many Coffins and Husseys” in the area. But shouldn’t readers be told it is a possibility?
For Waldstreicher, bringing Wheatley to the present, to the modern reader, often paradoxically means talking about her poems in ways that would have been strange to Wheatley herself. As he describes, “She returns to the trope of threatening deities: another wind god, Aeolus, was angry, haughty, frowning. She backs off: she depersonalizes, in a classical idiom that to modern readers has seemed so off-putting, so scholastic, so white.” Waldstreicher seems to be suggesting that Wheatley is responding to being triggered by using unfamiliar “white” classical allusions to distance herself from her trauma. This makes no sense, of course: Wheatley knew her Greek mythology well. And here is a missed opportunity in Waldstreicher’s approach: in attempting to bring Wheatley and her work to the present-day reader probably unfamiliar with Greek myth, he does not explain that Aeolus and Boreas are wind gods with unequal power relations and the latter also a kidnapper of Athenian princesses, but rather dismisses the topic altogether to make the simpler claim that the African-born Wheatley is “storm-tossed,” like many classical victims and heroes. Wheatley’s poem is much richer than Waldstreicher seems to think it is.
Carretta’s treatment of the question of the poet’s first, terrible voyage is fact-based, even in its hypotheticals and speculations:
Phillis Wheatley does not mention her own Middle Passage in any of her known writings. Perhaps her experience was understandably so traumatic that she was never able or willing to reimagine it. Nearly one out of four of her fellow enslaved Africans died aboard the Phillis on their way to Boston in 1761. She was clearly lucky to have survived. The sight of so much death around her may help to account for her subsequent attention to death in so many of her earliest poems. From contemporaneous accounts of the Middle Passage by and about other enslaved Africans we can be quite sure that as a prepubescent girl she was allowed to roam the vessel much more freely than older enslaved Africans, who might pose a physical threat to the crew.
Again, had I written this review a year ago, I also would have stated that Carretta’s book is the more important volume, considered as a work of academic research and evidence-based argument. Waldstreicher’s portrait of Phillis Wheatley owes a debt to Carretta as well as to other key Wheatley scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joanna Brooks, and Cornelia Dayton, whose names appear in footnotes but not in the body of Waldstreicher’s text. Yet I also would have grudgingly admitted that Waldstreicher’s book was of tremendous importance in welcoming new readers to Wheatley’s poetry and Wheatley’s story. As much as I may have personal resistance to a “relatable” Phillis Wheatley, why not celebrate if her story elicits new public interest? Waldstreicher’s Wheatley is emotionally compelling: always in control, poised to resist and dissent, fully aware of systems of oppression and her place within these systems.
But we have entered the AI era, with new and ongoing discussions of how artificial intelligence will affect all of us who write, who sift evidence, who weigh facts and assess the motivation of historical and literary figures, who can hold in our minds simultaneously multiple perspectives on and versions of events, comfortable with ambiguity and being certain only about the fact that we will never truly know what happened long ago and how to interpret historical material. I am concerned that Waldstreicher’s repurposing of other scholars’ facts to craft a new and perhaps too convincing psychological profile of Phillis Wheatley, as modern as she is familiar, seems a frightening forerunner of what ChatGPT and other AI platforms will soon deliver.
We have seen what ChatGPT can do: write a birthday poem in the manner of Emily Dickinson, write a rap for Napoleon lamenting Waterloo, write a play about the Iroquois hunting dinosaurs on the moon. Everything is everywhere all at once in the AI era. Chatbots hallucinate, making up facts and legal cases and works of scholarship that don’t exist. When I ask GPT-4 “what might modern readers assume Phillis Wheatley was thinking when she wrote ‘On Messrs. Huffey and Coffin’ in 1767,” it answers thus:
As an AI, I can’t ascertain what today’s readers might believe about Phillis Wheatley’s thoughts, as they will have different interpretations based on their own perspectives and understanding of her work and life. However, I can suggest that modern readers may consider several aspects when interpreting Wheatley’s early poem.
- Life and death: The poem is about two men who narrowly escape death at sea. Considering Wheatley was enslaved and transported across the Atlantic as a child, an experience known as the Middle Passage which often resulted in high mortality rates, she may have had a personal understanding of the dangers of sea travel. Modern readers might surmise that she was contemplating the fine line between life and death in these verses.
- Rhetoric and persuasion: This poem, like many of Wheatley’s others, makes use of religious imagery and themes. Readers today might think she was using this familiar language to appeal to her mostly white, Christian audience, asserting her intelligence and capability in a society that often denied the humanity of enslaved people.
- Self-expression: Wheatley was among the first African-American poets, and her writing was a profound act of self-expression in a society that often suppressed the voices of people like her. Today’s readers might imagine she was thinking about her own experiences, emotions, and ideas as she penned her first poem, using the act of writing as a means of asserting her identity and individuality.
- Emotional resonance: Wheatley might have been thinking about the emotional impact of her words. Her poem speaks to a human experience—the fear and relief associated with a narrow escape from death—that transcends her particular place and time. Readers today might appreciate how Wheatley used her poetry to evoke shared feelings and experiences, helping to bridge the gap between her own lived reality and that of her readers.
Again, these are all speculations based on a reading of the text and an understanding of Wheatley’s life and historical context. The beauty of poetry lies in its openness to multiple interpretations and the individual connections readers can make with the text.
GPT-4 is very good at the kind of interpretation that makes readers feel certain they understand the poem. When you push a little harder and ask GPT-4 how might an 18th-century reader and 21st century reader differ in their reading of Wheatley’s poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” including their understanding references to actual people and allusions to Aeolus and Boreas, you still get a kind of certainty:
Sure, let’s focus on the poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” and consider the specific elements you mentioned.
- Understanding of Actual People: “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” was written about two men who survived a brush with death at sea. A contemporary reader in the 18th century may have been more aware of the actual incident or people involved, especially if they were part of Wheatley’s immediate Bostonian society. On the other hand, a 21st-century reader would not have this personal context unless they undertook specific historical research.
- Allusions to Aeolus and Boreas: Aeolus is a figure from Greek mythology who was known as the keeper of the winds, while Boreas was the god of the North Wind. An educated 18th-century reader, familiar with Greek mythology due to the period’s classical education, would immediately understand these allusions. They might see them as an indication of Wheatley’s impressive learnedness. A 21st-century reader, however, might not immediately recognize these allusions unless they are familiar with Greek mythology. When they do understand these references, they might focus on how Wheatley was leveraging the cultural capital of the Classics, part of the dominant (white, elite) culture, to express her own experiences and perspectives.
- Overall Interpretation: An 18th-century reader, living in a society that practiced slavery, might have been astonished at the intellectual capabilities of an enslaved African woman. They might have seen the poem as evidence of the “benevolence” of Wheatley’s enslavers in providing her with an education. A 21st-century reader, conversely, might focus on the power dynamics in the poem. They might interpret Wheatley’s skilled use of classical allusions and poetic form as a critique or subversion of the power structures that kept her enslaved. They might also consider the poem in the context of Wheatley’s life, as well as the broader African American literary tradition.
Thus, the perspectives of the 18th- and 21st-century readers can differ greatly due to their different historical, cultural, and social contexts.
They surely do.
Two hundred and fifty years after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, there is no easy way to know—or to feel that you know—its author, Phillis Wheatley, a young African woman, perhaps 19 years old, who had arrived a dozen years earlier in Boston, homeless, bedraggled, enslaved, on a slave ship from the coast of Africa, and framed the experience in a way we’re still fighting about.
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Is this poem what it says it is? GPT-4 tells us:
The poem is about her journey from Africa to America and her acceptance of Christianity, interpreting her enslavement and transport to America as an act of divine mercy because it introduced her to Christianity. This is a complex perspective that reflects the difficult circumstances of her life.
Or is it?
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).
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