BOOK REVIEW: The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journey Through American Slavery and Independence by David Waldstreicher (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023)
The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley by David Waldstreicher details the short but extraordinary life of Phillis Wheatley, a poet of the American Revolution years. Kidnapped from West Africa as a child and forced to endure the transatlantic journey aboard the slave ship Phillis, the future poet (the author points out that sadly we may never know her first, true name) eventually landed in Boston with the merchant Wheatley family.
Under the tutelage of the Wheatleys, Phillis learned English, Greek, and Latin. The classical poets of the ancient world greatly influenced her work, providing her and her readers with a familiar framework to pin her ideas. She gained popularity by writing elegies for prominent preachers and members of Boston society, and later through works responding to current events such as the Boston Massacre. Waldstreicher analyzes several poems, arguing that Wheatley may have purposely used satirical wording to essentially hide her true ideas and views on slavery in plain sight. For example, a white audience may have read “On being brought from Africa to America” while patting themselves on the back without realizing the possibility of her writing satire.
‘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
Her work was forced to exist within a closed world of wealthy benefactors because there was no other choice. She had to use her own perceived novelty as an educated enslaved woman to change her standing in society. With the backing of wealthy benefactors, like the Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley traveled to London on what was essentially a book tour. Soon after, she was able to procure her manumission. Wheatley herself was not clear in her writing as to how her freedom was achieved, but Waldstreicher lays out three possible scenarios. The author also reminds the reader of the hypocrisy of the Wheatleys in that even in their tutelage and encouragement of Phillis, they would not free her. Instead, they encouraged her to sell subscriptions to her book to eventually purchase her manumission.
While I love the subject matter, I personally did not find the writing style as accessible, engaging, or narratively driven as author-historians like McCullough or Taylor. Waldstreicher, more often than not, veers off onto long, contextual tangents. Of course context is essential in explaining how a person moved through a certain time and place, however, there are large chunks of this book that seem to have little to do with Phillis herself. This may be because information and primary source material on an enslaved woman is sparse, despite her fame at the time, especially information or perspectives not skewed by the lens of racial biases of the time. Many Americans and English of the time may be unreliable narrators, misinterpreting Wheatley’s work as not being as subversive as she may have meant it to be.
Wheatley’s work became more outspokenly anti-slavery after her manumission, coinciding with the start of the Revolutionary War. Her letters with Mohegan preacher Samson Occom seem quite unfiltered compared to her coded work written for the “mainstream” white audience. As the author points out, Wheatley likely felt more comfortable in expressing her views with another person of color. The author also brings to light anonymous poems published in newspapers that may have been written by Wheatley that are perhaps the most glaringly anti-slavery. Soon after George Washington’s appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army, Wheatley wrote a letter and a poem to him at his encampment in Cambridge. While Wheatley essentially expressed her support, I can’t help but wonder what she thought of him being an enslaver. Although Washington responded in kind, a few years after the poet’s death writings by Thomas Jefferson would be published (which he had written during the start of the war) diminishing and demeaning Wheatley’s accomplishments.
Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 at the age of thirty-one, at that time having been married a few years with children (who also succumbed to illness). She lived the last years of her life mostly out of the public eye, by design or by circumstance, we may never know. After her death, her husband John Peters tried to publish her second manuscript, but was unable to do so because of lack of funding. Historians and literary professionals continue to examine, uncover, and explore the “palatable” persona she projected to her mostly white audience, as well as her true opinions cleverly hidden in verse or anonymous works.