Professor’s Phillis Wheatley Biography Shows the Poet as Strategic and Complex
David Waldstreicher is receiving glowing reviews for his new book, "The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley," the most deeply researched biography of the once-enslaved poet.
Ten years ago, Distinguished Professor David Waldstreicher (History, American Studies, Africana Studies) introduced an undergraduate class to the work of the poet Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was 13 years old in 1767 when she published her first poem, and became the first African and the third woman in the American colonies to publish a book of verse. (The Wheatley family freed Phillis in 1773, after her book’s publication.) Celebrated during her short life — she died when she was 31 — Wheatley has long been a source of both inspiration and controversy, admired for her accomplishments yet criticized for poems that seemed to express gratefulness for having been taken from Africa. Though she clearly condemned slavery elsewhere in her writing, she remains a complex figure, as the reaction by Waldstreicher’s students demonstrated. “The class was divided on whether she was really anti-slavery or not,” he says. “It made me realize that there was still a lot to be worked out in terms of how we how we see her.”
With the publication of his new book, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence, Waldstreicher shows how Wheatley used her poetry and prominence strategically, challenging the views of American colonists who asserted their right to freedom while enslaving Africans. The pushback against criticisms of Wheatley and her poetry began in the 1970s and was led by Black women critics and feminists, he notes; more recently, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers offered a poetic reimagining of Wheatley’s life in The Age of Phillis. However, Waldstreicher’s book is the most deeply researched biography of Wheatley. “I’m really trying to talk about how things evolved over time — what she did, what went on in her head, how much the immediate context as well as the general context mattered in terms of what poem she’s writing, and who she’s reacting to, and the results,” he says. The New York Times, in a recent feature on the book and Waldstreicher, described his willingness to put Wheatley “smack in the middle of the raging debate over the relationship between the American Revolution and slavery,” and praised his achievement in not only “tracing her life” but “also recreat[ing] the18th-century intellectual world Wheatley actually lived in.” The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley has also received rave reviews from Oprah, which called it a “rich and necessary book,” and The New York Times Book Review, which said the book is “at once historical biography at its best, literary analysis at its sharpest and a subversive indictment of current political discourse questioning the relevance of Black life in our country’s history.”
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Waldstreicher, who is the author of books on slavery, Benjamin Franklin, and politics and culture in early and 19th-century America, says his decision to write a biography of a young poet isn’t as much of a leap as it might seem. As an undergraduate, he was an English major and aspiring poet, and his post-graduate colleagues at Bennington College kept his interest in poetry alive. The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, he says, is “a turn back to some of my literary interests in a way that dovetails with my research specialties in history.”
Poetic and Political Choices
He first encountered Wheatley’s writings in his graduate school years, he says, but adds, “I can’t remember a time I didn’t know who she was, and thought it odd that other people didn’t. She seemed so important.” In recent years, critics and readers have seemed more aware of Wheatley and less inclined to view her as a “weird first” or to look down on her for “not being sufficiently radical,” he says. “People seem much more likely to believe that she was doing something interesting and even political.”
How does he answer those who see her poetry as excusing slavery and racism? “Generally, folks who have argued that she should have been just out there saying slavery is terrible, racism is terrible, and who have zeroed in on some of the critical things she says about Africa, have tended to underrate just how impossible it would have been for her to say certain kinds of things directly,” Waldstreicher says. “And they’ve not really paid attention to the arguments that she’s intervening in.” Her poetic and political choices are not only strategic but effective, he argues. Her famous poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” begins by saying it was fortunate that she was brought from Africa and therefore “saved,” yet ends by “mocking people who use race as an argument to justify slavery as well as to not convert Africans,” he says. In her poem “America,” Wheatley writes: “Sometimes by simile, a victory’s won.” Waldstreicher interprets this as a statement about the power of language to change minds and change the world.
A Continued Project
Waldstreicher’s favorite of Wheatley’s poems, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” demonstrates her savviness in addressing her audience. After praising Lord Dartmouth, the secretary for the colonies in the British cabinet at the time, she suggests that he will treat the colonists better than previous officials. Essentially, she is thanking him for policies that haven’t been announced as a way of bringing them into the realm of possibility. Also, by stating that she knows what it is like to be deprived of liberty, she pushes the argument to another level. “There’s a very self-reflexive quality, where she’s constantly calling attention to what she’s doing and how she’s doing it,” Waldstreicher says. “And she’s calling attention to her relationship with readers, as well as her relationship with the particular people she’s writing about.”
For all her perceived self-depreciation, Wheatley is her own frequent subject, Waldstreicher says. “She knows everybody is always asking the question of: What does it mean that she’s doing this? And how can she do this? And who taught her and how much of these ideas are hers?” he says. One way she fought against such suspicions was to write in different genres and for specific occasions. “Her ability to come up with something eloquent and on point, and yet with a striking originality in part because it might gesture at her status or vantage point, was disarming,” he says. “After years of this, she was able to leverage these opportunities to push the envelope: writing longer poems, more political poems, some of which were not at first or ever published under her name.”
Wheatley’s growth as an artist was a continued project, Waldstreicher says. She was at work on a second book manuscript containing poems that have never surfaced. “She kept improvising until her death, publishing two impressive poems in 1783-84,” Waldstreicher says. “We don’t know what might have been had she not died so young.”
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