The small, sickly african girl who arrived in Boston on a seafaring vessel in 1761 had already been stripped of her family and her home. She missed her father, who suffered after having his young child “snatched,” she would later lament in writing. She longed for her mother, whose morning libations to the sun had imprinted on her an enduring memory. She was naked beneath her only physical covering, a “dirty carpet.” She owned nothing, not even herself.
A little over a decade later, this same girl, named Phillis Wheatley after the slave ship that had transported her (the Phillis) and the enslavers who had purchased her (Susanna and John Wheatley), was an author. Her widely read 1773 book of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was striking in its creativity and spoke up for Black humanity. In his erudite, enlightening new biography, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, the historian David Waldstreicher points out that the remarkable and unlikely story of this Revolutionary-era Black celebrity, who was both highlighted and castigated for her race, turns on such reversals and contradictions. Wheatley emerges in these pages as a literary marvel. Waldstreicher’s comprehensive account is a monument to her prowess.
Wheatley was a child prodigy. This is immediately and abundantly clear in Waldstreicher’s treatment and that of others, such as the soaring series of poems about Wheatley written by the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Age of Phillis. Jeffers’s deeply researched work of visionary verse begins with a tribute line by Langston Hughes: “This is a song for the genius child.” Phillis (and it is still painful to refer to her by that slave-ship name) had the kind of nimble mind that seems rare in any time period. Soon after she was brought to the Wheatleys’ fine house on King Street to work as a personal maid to Susanna (who had recently lost her 7-year-old daughter and was likely seeking some sort of replacement in the captive African girl), she showed an interest in the shape of letters and exhibited a hunger for learning. Susanna doted on the child, who was also her servant and property. Either Susanna; her eldest surviving daughter, Mary Wheatley; or both tutored Phillis in the lingua franca of the British empire.
Wheatley became a wordsmith of English—the language that had been used by her captors to catalog and register her, to record her sale on Boston’s shore, to exclude her from inheritance in the Wheatley estate after she had served the family for decades and brought them more glory than they ever would have achieved on their own. Through her mastery of language, her consciousness of political developments, and her astute sense of timing, Wheatley became, as Waldstreicher’s treatment shows, an informal poet laureate of the American Revolutionary age.