Monday, May 12, 2008

Phyllis Wheatley

Poet, by Merle Richmond. In the "American Women of Achievement" series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. This biography series is written for middle grades and up. It's a clear, consise history of the life of one whom many consider the mother of African American literature. Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1754 and kidnapped by slavers in 1761. She arrived in Boston on the ship Phyllis and was purchased by the Wheatleys, a family of wealthy merchants. Susannah Wheatley wanted her to serve as a personal maid, but when when saw how intelligent Phyllis was in learning English quickly she taught her to read and write. She was encouraged to study literature, Greek and Latin with the children of the family. Her first poem was published at the age of 12. Susannah acted as her mentor and patron all her life, arranging for her poems to be published in a book in London in 1772. The only known likeness of her image was painted for an etching to be included in the front of the book.

Wheatley's published work is in the formal style of the day, focusing on patriotic, moral or religious themes. Poets were not expected to include personal experiences or feelings in their work. Richmond states, "Their job was to create dignified and formal expressions of universal experiences." Wheatley did it with profound skill and grace.

In 1774, after her book is well received in London and her continued slave status was criticized by British fans, the Wheatley family granted her freedom. She was 20 years old and had to begin to support herself. She worked hard to sell copies of her book and continued making speaking engagements while still living in the Wheatley family home. Susannah died in the same year. Phyllis began to speak out against slavery after Susannah died, with a letter published in the "Connecticut Gazette." In 1775 her first poem celebrating her African heritage was written, titled "Reply". It includes the lines,
"With native grace in spring's luxuriant reign,
Smiles the gay mead, and Eden blooms again,
The various bower, the tuneful flowing stream,
The soft retreats, the lovers' golden dream,
her soil spontaneous, yields exhaustless stores;
for Phoebus revels on her verdant shores."

When the American Revolution began she moved to Providence, RI, and was married in 1778. Her husband John Peters was disliked by some of her close friends and the remaining Wheatly family members, but was also spoken well of by some in the business world. He was a freeman who worked as a lawyer, businessman, grocer, barber, and "even a doctor." Richmond strives to present a fair picture of John Peters, citing tax records to show that the couple lived in an expensive house in a good neighborhood for at least part of their life together. Peter's financial situation seems to go up and down frequently and he may have been in debtor's prison when Phyllis died alone and in poverty in 1784. During her marriage she born three children, all of whom died in infancy, with the third one being buried next to her.

I enjoyed reading this biography and found it to show a complex woman living in an exciting time. Details of her life are enhanced by many graphics including black and white reproductions of painting of famous people such as George Washington and Ben Franklin (both on who she met and who spoke highly of her), posters and advertisements, maps, drawings of buildings and cities, and political cartoons. One draw back is that the whole book is in black and white. Today's young readers expect colorful illustrations and more graphics than text. There is a timeline and list of sources for further reading in the back.

You can read an excerpt or purchase the ebook here. Read more about Phyllis Wheatley at pbs.

The Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Picture Book of the Day.

No comments: