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Cover for David Waldstreicher's book The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley with the book title and author name in bold black font against an orange background with a colorized version of Phillis Wheatley's portrait in the center.
The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence by David Waldstreicher

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Phillis Wheatley, born in West Africa, was kidnapped at the age of seven, sold into slavery, and forced to endure the long and dangerous trip from Africa to the American colonies. Arriving in Boston in 1761, she was named after the ship that took her there. Purchased as a servant to the prominent Wheatley family, Phillis was educated by Susanna Wheatley and her daughter. Within a few months of her arrival, she was reading and writing. A talented poet, Phillis Wheatley found support, fame, and admiration from those who read her works. Her writings challenged views on slavery and lamented the challenges the American Revolution added to its persistence. Wheatley would become the first woman of African descent to publish a book of poetry.

In The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence, historian David Waldstreicher takes the reader on a journey through Wheatley’s remarkable life. Through comparisons with Greek texts and verses from the Bible, Waldstreicher provides a new lens through which to examine Wheatley’s life and experience as an enslaved woman. Wheatley’s story is often told through the accounts of her enslavers, but Waldstreicher argues that Wheatley was very aware of her talents and was the driving force behind her eventual emancipation in 1773.

Read an excerpt about Wheatley’s An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend and Pious George Whitefield, which brought her notoriety and patronage.


After he arrived in Boston on August 14, 1770, the anniversary of the Stamp Act protests, Whitefield preached several times a day, first in the pulpits of Old South, where Wheatley worshipped, and Old North, where Lathrop now presided. He probably stayed at the Wheatleys’ house again as he proceeded to preach every day and ventured to neighboring towns despite his asthma attacks. Six weeks later, at the end of September, he collapsed, gasped, “I am going,” and died. A committee from Old South went to Newburyport to retrieve his body for a spectacular Boston funeral, but the minister in whose house he died refused to part with the body. They had a funeral service in Boston anyway, at which John Lathrop preached. Within days mourners published elegies in the newspapers. One called the preacher “Our Father and Friend.” Another called him America’s “only friend.”

Phillis Wheatley outdid her fellow mourners in a commemorative elegy she produced with the same speed she had shown in getting her Christopher Seider poem into print. With the backing of the Wheatleys, whose enthusiasm she ratified by composing this accomplished and lengthy work, the poem immediately made Phillis famous as the young enslaved girl who could out-elegize anyone in America. She parlayed the death of the great Whitefield into an event of her own, something that had never happened before: an equivalent to Samson Occom’s preaching.

The Wheatleys did not publish her elegy in a newspaper, or anonymously. Instead, they advertised a separate publication, with her name, in all four Boston papers (in one case just below an ad to see a “likely negro boy” of fourteen who wouldn’t drink rum). This time there was no question of appropriateness and less likelihood of a backlash from those who thought that black participation in public life would embarrass the patriot or the pious cause. Everyone understood that a young, African female slave could serve as the ultimate example of Whitefield’s message of salvation. The first broadside edition, put forth on October 11 for a mere “7 Coppers” with a bulk discount to “travelling traders, &c.,” became the most popular poem of many on Whitefield. It was reprinted at least nine times, including twice in a different London version, and then included in a pamphlet with a sermon by the Reverend Ebenezer Pemberton Jr., which announced her authorship and identity as “PHILLIS, a Servant girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston;—She has been but nine years in the Country, from AFRICA.” It was later reprinted in a separate eight-page deluxe edition with generous margins, by Ezekiel Russell.

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The black border of the broadside and the inclusion of Whitefield’s coffin announces that this event is not dissimilar to the Boston Massacre and funeral, which had been heralded with similar sensational effects. This is a “lavish,” custom-made woodcut, unusual for quick-profit prints like funeral elegies, which were usually rushed from the press as single sheets to be handed out at graveside or in church, like the funeral gloves and rings that evaded Puritans’ distaste for conspicuous consumption. It is equally unusual to single out the author in any way, much less as “a Negro Girl, in Boston.” Suddenly she was not only an author but an acknowledged one, at a time when most women who wrote for print did not sign their works. Phillis actually headlines her elegy, her name above the image of the corpse and the title of the poem in the pamphlet reprint. For an eighteenth-century author, this was a star billing. Subsequently, Isaiah Thomas’s pirated reprint needed only the title Phillis’s Poem on the Death of Mr. Whitefield. Editions followed in a New Hampshire newspaper bragged on her behalf that the poem “would have done honor to a Pope or Shakespeare.”

The printers saw the potential audience for whom Wheatley’s authorship would reinforce the evangelical message and (perhaps even less expected in some quarters) a patriot Whig message. Phillis seized the moment for something especially ambitious. Her “ELEGIAC POEM, on the DEATH of that celebrated Divine” combined the themes of piety, politics, and race she had been working through since her patriotic and national “America” poems. Yet each theme emerged more daringly explicit under the rhetorical umbrella of the departed evangelist.

She begins by hailing the “happy Saint” in heaven, his “immortal throne.” The contrast is to real-world kings: “To thee complaints of grievance are unknown.” The imperial controversy still plagued the British king, but Whitefield is something of an opposite now whose most famous attributes—his carefully modulated voice, the even more impressive throngs that heard it—inspire not filial adulation but friendly “emulation.” His “strains of eloquence refin’d / Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.” Wheatley is so in tune here with evangelical style that she isn’t worried about the implications of souls on fire.

What’s shocking is how little time she spends of Whitefield’s works, his popularity, or even the accessible style that must have interested her as a writer as well as a Christian, before returning to the politics. Whitefield’s sympathetic position in imperial politics becomes a reflection, an epitome, of his piety, made specific and personal by the image of the good reverend as friend. Whitefieldarian friendship extends across the Atlantic. It visits in person and in prayer, redeeming souls and, perhaps, even the imperial relationship in the wake of the Boston Massacre:

           When his AMERICANS were burden’d sore,
           When streets were crimson’d with their guiltless gore!
           Unrival’d friendship in his breast now strove:
           The fruit thereof was charity and love.
America—couldst thou do more
           Than leave thy native home, the
British shore,
           To cross the great Atlantic’s wat’ry road,
           To see
America’s distress’d abode?
           Thy prayers, great Saint, and thy incessant cries,
           Have pierc’d the bosom of thy native skies!

Wheatley’s Whitefield is nothing if not active. She shifts into a narrative mode, and we are asked to imagine that most social and friendly of preachers in his night prayers, where America remained as important as Christ, since the evangelist’s essential mission had been to bring young Americans to him:

           He pray’d that grace in every heart might dwell:
           He long’d to see
America excell;
           He charg’d its youth to let the grace divine
           Arise, and in their future actions shine;
           He offer’d
THAT he did himself receive,
           A greater gift not
GOD himself can give:
           He urg’d the need of
HIM to every one;
           It was no less than
GOD’s co-equal SON!

By the middle of this second, longer stanza, the elegy itself becomes a sermon. Wheatley ventriloquizes the master preacher. It isn’t the first time she deliberately blended her voice with a minister, but this time, with a preacher so many had heard and read, she reproduces his cadences and emphases, his Calvinistic brinkmanship, and his oft-criticized preaching to the preachers, even quoting him addressing “my dear AMERICANS” to ensure that we understand that they were one of Whitefield’s special concerns.

But not his only one. Wheatley’s Whitefield, like the actual Anglos of the early 1770s, can’t think of Americans without thinking of Africans:

           Take HIM ye wretched for your only good;
HIM ye starving souls to be your food.
           Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream:
           Ye Preachers, take him for your joyful theme:
HIM, “my dear AMERICANS,” he said,
           Be your complaints in his kind bosom laid:
HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
SAVIOUR, is his title due.

Wheatley expresses perfectly the egalitarian “impartial” potential of Whitefield’s awakening. Africans might choose, alike yet separately, to join in: “If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road, / You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.”

Would the grace make Africans “kings” of their own—or is kingship here a metaphor for the rule of the spirit, for becoming a full-fledged member of God’s kingdom? Would the equality be solely spiritual, in God’s eyes? It’s not clear, because for decades Whitefield and his followers hadn’t been clear, often disagreeing on precisely these matters. What Wheatley has done here, though, is to raise and to implicate, once again, the African question in the American question, using a religious as well as imperial perspective to do so. That the question remained open is revealed in the alternate version the Wheatleys sent to London to be published there, in which the imagined preacher’s final words shift, with only seeming clarity added, from “You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD” to “He’ll make you free, and Kings, and Priests to God.”

The matter of salvation remained uppermost, and Wheatley closed out the elegy with a decorous third stanza addressed directly to Whitefield’s patron, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, who had supported him as a clergyman in England while also sponsoring his American projects. This too is a direct address, and a flattering one to the “Great COUNTESS,” who is told that “we Americans revere thy name,” one of the most direct of explicit claims to American identity Wheatley had yet made (and right after she had distinguished “Americans” from “Africans”). She sympathizes and apologizes on behalf of New England that they won’t be sending the great man home, as before, “to brighten these distressful days.” In case Huntingdon failed to get the message—the hope that what the countess called her “conexion” would persist even after the traveling evangelist’s death—Wheatley wrote a letter enclosing a copy of the poem, on October 25, Huntingdon’s loss was of course the heaven-bound saint’s gain, though Wheatley manages to turn that into a compliment about the “filial imitation” the countess had shown to Whitefield and to the “Divine Benefactor” of all.

Who was Phillis to offer such a compliment? Could she “Apologize for my boldness” enough to declare once again, as she had in the poem, who most resembled the divine? The poem, in its direct address to Whitefield’s patron (as noted in the title of the first broadside versions), surely spoke for itself. And yet it didn’t—or, more could be said. There was a relationship, still to be pursued or underlined, between the aristocrat’s patronage of the great evangelist, the countess’s own powerful womanhood, and her interest in Americans, natives, and African converts. The point couldn’t be made strongly enough, even to Hastings, a woman whose enthusiasm for the very sort of “staged literacy events” that the Wheatleys performed would propel her, the next year, into the position of patron extraordinaire as the underwriter of the first published slave narratives.

African literacy meant conversion. Conversion implied spiritual equality. And that might leave more up for grabs. When Wheatley self-consciously apologized to the aristocratic female builder of a transatlantic benevolent “connection” that “the Tongues of the Learned are insufficient, much less the pen of an untutor’d African, to paint in lively characters, the excellencies” of the late George Whitefield, now a “Citizen of Zion!” she was speaking the language of a powerful Englishwoman. The countess had the wherewithal to build her own chapels outside the purview of the Church of England. She was so well known that her own letter responding to condolences would appear in Boston newspapers, which almost never published women’s writings by name. The poem was an obvious bid for friendship and patronage on Wheatley’s part, and it would turn out to be a successful one.

David Waldstreicher, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 116-121.

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