The First Book Published by an African-American
Phillis Wheatley. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious
and Moral.... London: Printed for A. Bell..., 1773.
First edition. Twelvemo. 124, [3, Contents], [1, ads] pages.
Engraved frontispiece portrait of the author and title page both
missing. Rebound in modern full red morocco, boards ruled in gilt
with gilt floral cornerpieces, and previous owner's gilt initials
in center on front board, spine ruled, tooled and lettered in gilt,
gilt turn-ins. The first two leaves are mounted on both sides to
wax paper, several pages with tears near gutters, pages 46-48, and
93 roughly opened, upper margins of pages 52, 54, 63, 64, 67-70,
75-78 repaired with wax paper, contemporary previous owner's
signature on page 113. A good copy of one of the most important
books by an African-American, now preserved in a fine modern
Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784) was born in Africa. When she was about eight, she was brought as a slave to Boston, where she was purchased by John Wheatley, a prosperous tailor, to be the personal servant of his wife. Her masters encouraged her interest in books, and John Wheatley writes: "Without any assistance from School Education ... she in sixteen Months Time from her arrival, attained the English Language ... to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings ..." (from the letter of Wheatley to the publisher, printed here as introductory material). She also read extensively in Greek and Roman history, Greek mythology, and in the contemporary English poets. Her work strongly reveals the influence of Gray and Pope. Because her health was failing, her master's son took her to England in 1773, where her popularity was immediate and great. This, her first bound volume of poetry, was published while she was abroad. Most of her poems are elegies, and most reveal her intense religious faith. Unfortunately, little is written about herself or her circumstances in America. Though it is generally agreed that there was little originality in her work, her poems are polished, sophisticated, and similar in style to many turned out in both England and America at the time. She eventually married a "Free Negro." Always frail, she lost two of the three children she bore and died in poverty at little more than thirty years of age. (See D.A.B.; Loggins, The Negro Author, pp. 16-29). "Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman poet in America, was kidnapped from Senegal, West Africa and sold to the Boston merchant John Wheatley in 1761. Phillis was educated by members of her master's family. Wonderfully gifted, she quickly mastered English, then Greek and Latin. She began writing poetry at the age of thirteen and continued to write poem after poem, dedicating to famous people of her day. Wheatley's rise was rapid and she was received in the best drawing rooms of London and Boston. "Wheatley wrote at a time when women suffered great discouragement for expressing political and literary thoughts. She made a brief visit to England in 1773 during which her Poems... were printed. A second London edition appeared in the same year. Wheatley has been called African America's peerless and was the first African American to publish a book of any nature. The first edition of Wheatley's Poems... are considered one of the most important books relating to African-American literature and one of the most celebrated relating to a black author." (Charles L. Blockson, A Commented Bibliography of One Hundred and One Influential Books By and About People of African Descent (1556-1982). A Collector's Choice). "Phillis Wheatley, later Peters, 1753?-1784, slave and poet. Born in Africa, she was shipped to Boston, Mass. in 1761, aged about seven, and bought for Susannah W. (wife of a rich tailor), who with her teenage daughter took the unusual step of educating her. Writing poems by 1765, publishing one in a newspaper in 1767, she was noticed in society as a curiosity. Proposals for publishing a volume by subscription at Boston in 1772 failed: next year her respiratory complaints caused the W.'s to send her on a visit to London; there her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, appeared in 1773, certified by prominent citizens the unaided work of a 'Negro servant'. She was both lionized as an untaught genius, and savaged in the Public Advertiser as part of 'a Flood of female Literature'; she kept all her life a copy of Paradise Lost given her by the Lord Mayor of London. Her work is fluent, polished, not merely conventional. She expresses fervent Christian piety, celebrates liberty of various kinds, laments a large number of public and private deaths (many of children), and praises a black artist's work. She calls Africa 'land of errors', 'dark abodes', yet paints her father's 'excruciating sorrow' at her capture. Freed on her return, she married in 1778 another free black, John Peters. She published a few more poems, and made vain proposals for another volume, 1779, but sank into poverty (her husband jailed for debt), drudgery, illness, and the birth and death of three babies." (Virginia Blain et al., The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, pp. 1155-56).
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